Tag Archives: East Germany

Flag of East Germany DDR

The foundation of the German Democratic Republic (DDR)

On the 7th October 1949 the German Democratic Republic, otherwise known as East Germany, was founded in the Soviet occupied zone of Germany.

The constitution that was adopted bore striking similarities to the Weimar Constitution of 1919, and was based largely on a draft written in 1946 that was intended for a united Germany. Consequently a new constitution was adopted in 1968 that more accurately reflected the socialist government of the country.

The establishment of the GDR made permanent the division of Germany that had been implemented in 1945. West Germany had already gained independence from the occupying powers earlier in 1949, and the creation of East Germany meant the same for the formerly Soviet-zone although the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany maintained close ties with the USSR and was therefore seen as a satellite state.

The position of head of state was originally taken by Wilhelm Pieck who was President until his death in 1960. However, in reality authority lay with the General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party who – in 1950 – was Walter Ulbricht. On the President’s death his position was dissolved and the office of President was replaced by the State Council. As the chairman position was commonly held by the General Secretary, this gave Ulbricht and his successors ultimate power in the GDR.

Following the Peaceful Revolution in 1989 and the fall of Berlin Wall, East Germany experienced the first truly democratic elections that dramatically reduced the power of the Socialist Unity Party and led to the reunification of Germany that took place on 3rd October 1990.

Tear down this wall!

‘Tear down this wall!’ – the story behind Reagan’s message to Gorbachev

On 12 June 1987, US President Ronald Reagan made a speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in which he called on the USSR’s leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to ‘Tear down this wall!’

Reagan was in Berlin to celebrate the city’s 750th anniversary, and was scheduled to make a speech in front of 20,000 people to mark the occasion. His presence in the city was not universally popular, however, and there are reports of up to 50,000 people taking to the streets the previous day in anti-Reagan protests.

Tensions were also running high in the American President’s administration. There was considerable disagreement over whether the phrase ‘tear down this wall’ should even be included in the speech. The National Security Council and the State Department were particularly concerned that such a direct challenge to the Soviet Union would increase tensions between the two countries, and could damage the positive relationship that Reagan had begun to forge with Gorbachev. The President’s deputy chief of staff, Kenneth Duberstein, later reported that Reagan said he would include the phrase because ‘it’s the right thing to do.’

The President began his speech at 2pm, protected by two panes of bulletproof glass that were erected to shield him from potential East German snipers. TASS, the Soviet press agency, remarked that the speech was ‘openly provocative…war-mongering.’

Despite the highly emotive atmosphere in front of the Brandenburg Gate on the day, Time magazine later claimed that the speech received ‘relatively little coverage from the media.’ Even John Kornblum, a senior US diplomat who was based in Berlin at the time, stated on the twentieth anniversary of the speech that it ‘wasn’t really elevated to its current status until 1989, after the wall came down.’

Hungary / East German Refugees

When Hungary opened the Austrian border to East German refugees

On the 10th September 1989, the Hungarian government announced the opening of the border with Austria to allow thousands of East Germans to leave the Communist Bloc. Met with incredible anger from the East German government, Hungary’s decision was a major step on the road to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Hungary had been inundated with East Germans since the government began removing the border fence in May that year. Inspired by the Hungarian government’s moves towards a more democratic political system, East Germans had travelled to Hungary as tourists but then sought refuge in the West German embassy. A ‘friendship picnic’ held on the Austrian-Hungarian border on the 19th August had already seen East Germans using the border as a way to escape and, before long, thousands of East Germans refugees were living in Hungary.

Unwilling to “become a country of refugee camps”, Hungarian Foreign Ministrer Gyula Horn made the announcement that the East Germans would be permitted to enter Austria. As well as allowing the refugees to cross the border, the announcement led to an exodus of an estimated 70,000 more East Germans who made their way to Hungary.

The first of what were to become weekly ‘Monday demonstrations’ had started in the East German city of Leipzig earlier that week, and the Hungarian announcement encouraged others to begin protesting in favour of democracy. Within a month up to 70,000 people a week were making their way to the Leipzig protest, and by the end of October over 300,000 were taking part. The Berlin Wall fell on the 9th November.

Opening of the Berlin Wall

9th November 1989: when the DDR opened the Berlin Wall

In the evening of the 9th November 1989, the East German government opened the Berlin Wall after central committee spokesman Guenter Schabowski mistakenly announced that GDR citizens could cross into West Berlin with immediate effect.

Surprised border guards, who had been given no information about the new rules, were overwhelmed by the appearance of thousands of East Germans who wanted to cross. Although the border remained closed for around three hours, by 11pm the checkpoint at Bornholmer Strasse had been opened. Others followed soon after.

Communist Hungary had opened its Austrian border in September, which had encouraged East Germans to push for reform in their own country. Eventually, the weekly ‘Monday protests’ that attracted hundreds of thousands of people forced the government to prepare the new travel policy.

Although the new policy had been agreed by the Politburo on the afternoon of the 9th November, their intention was to implement the policy the next day so that border guards could be briefed and crossings managed in a controlled manner. However, Schabowski had not been at the Politburo meeting and so was only able to base his announcement on notes from a piece of paper handed to him shortly before the press conference. This explains his mistake over the timing of its introduction.

The announcement led huge crowds to begin gathering at the checkpoints, with thousands pouring through the border after the guards finally relented. Ironically, West Berliners still had to have a visa in order to cross to the East. Therefore, for a few weeks after the Wall was opened, East Berliners actually had greater freedom of movement than Westerners.

Reunification of East and West Germany

The reunification of East and West Germany

On the 3rd October 1990, Germany was reunified when the territory of the communist German Democratic Republic joined with the Federal Republic of Germany to create a single, united Germany.

Cracks had begun to show in East Germany’s communist regime from the middle of 1989, which eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November that year. This encouraged the ongoing Peaceful Revolution in the East, which succeeded in bringing about free elections in March the following year.

The West German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, had already called for greater cooperation between West and East in November 1989. The election of the new East German parliament – known as the Volkskammer – in March 1990 ensured that both sides now had governments that had their eye on reunification. The GDR’s economy had already begun to collapse as the structures of communist control were removed, so the replacement of the East German mark with West Germany’s Deutsche Mark as the official currency of East Germany in June ensured a secure economic framework for political union.

By the end of August the Volkskammer had passed a resolution in favour of reunification, with the German Reunification Treaty signed at the end of August. This was approved by large majorities in the legislative chambers of each country on the 20th September, and at midnight on the 3rd October the black, red and gold flag of West Germany was raised above the Brandenburg Gate which until the fall of the Berlin Wall had been inaccessible to both sides.

Known as The Day of German Unity, the 3rd October is now a public holiday in Germany.