The GDR, as the old East Germany was officially known, was a lot more than the totalitarian prop that gets paraded out during anniversaries to prove the supposed superiority of capitalism over socialism.
It was up against tough odds, right from the start—long before construction of the wall began in August 1961.
Up to a million demonstrators gathered at the Palace of the Republic, seat of the government, in East Berlin to demand democratic reform on Nov. 4, 1989, five days before the border with West Berlin was opened. The main banner reads: “Wer einmal luegt dem glaubt man nicht” (Who lies once cannot be trusted). The GDR government was introducing changes, but the country’s days were already numbered and the West began making moves to take over the GDR. | Dieter Endlicher / AP
Why the wall went up
One big problem for the GDR from its beginning in 1949, was that it occupied the much weaker and war-torn eastern third of Germany. Compared with the money that was pumped into the western part of Germany by the U.S. for rebuilding, the GDR started out with almost nothing.
An aerial view of the Potsdamer Platz in central Berlin, where the Soviet, British, and American sectors met in August 1949. Germany was still a destroyed nation even four years after World War II ended. This area had become the biggest black market center for currency trading after the U.S., British, and French occupation authorities had made the separation of Germany into two states a de facto reality by unifying the currency in their three zones. | Henry Burroughs / AP
Its quick elimination of former Nazis from positions of power and influence added another downside, of sorts. In many walks of life, Nazis at the end of the war were the folks who had experience running industries, schools, big businesses, and almost everything else. Those Nazis not arrested in the GDR fled, as fast as they could, to the west.
A third disadvantage was the forced economic and political blockade imposed upon the GDR by both the West German government based in Bonn and the U.S. It wasn’t a wall in those early days, but rather policies in the west that kept GDR citizens out of international conferences, scientific seminars, training sessions, and sports events. There was a de-facto wall denying GDR citizens the right to participate in international events and bring home knowledge and experience.
A fourth disadvantage was that high-quality products manufactured in the GDR were forbidden to use their famous brand names (like Zeiss optical and Meissen porcelain, for example) for international sales.
A fifth disadvantage was that the Bonn government actually strong-armed U.S. trade officials into denying the GDR “most favored nation” trade status under which customs payments are no higher than those paid by the “most favored nation.” The GDR was denied this status despite the fact that the U.S. had conferred that status upon other socialist countries, including Poland and Hungary. This move made it impossible for the GDR to compete with West Germany in the U.S. market, the most important market in the world in those formative years of the fledgling republic and even today.
A sixth disadvantage was a steady CIA effort to lure effective political leaders out of the GDR. Allen Dulles, the CIA leader who engineered the overthrow of democratically-elected governments in Iran, Guatemala, and the Congo and engineered attempts to overthrow the government of socialist Cuba, was hard at work in the GDR, too. Rather than assassination in the GDR, however, his agents attempted to bribe Otto Grotewohl, the leader of the Social Democrats who merged his party with the Communists in East Germany to form the Socialist Unity Party (SED). Not only did Grotowohl spurn those agents, he became the first prime minister of the GDR.
A seventh disadvantage was what the CIA continually did throughout the 1950s to lure skilled technicians, scientists, medical experts, and others out of the GDR. State Department documents now available reflect many of these efforts which, unlike the attempt with Grotewohl, were successful. These efforts, in particular, contributed to the economic gap between West Germany and the GDR. With the Marshall Plan and all the encouragement of West German economic growth, something the GDR could not possibly keep up with, the addition of this sabotage by the CIA dealt severe blows to the GDR economy in its formative years.
An eighth disadvantage to the GDR, as opposed to West Germany, was the negative effect on the GDR of the push for war underway in the United States. When the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba failed, President John F. Kennedy met with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. He put pressure on Kennedy to agree to an all-German peace treaty to ease the situation in Berlin which was full of U.S. and Soviet tanks, not separated from one another by any border wall, and pulling all troops, Soviet and U.S., out of the city. Khrushchev threatened that U.S. failure to agree to such a treaty would force the Soviet Union to conclude its own peace treaty with the GDR.
Before the wall went up, Berlin was a major flashpoint of the Cold War, with many expecting it would be the place war would start between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Here, a U.S. tank takes position at Friedrichstrasse at the sector border in Berlin, Germany on Aug. 23, 1961, with its barrel pointing towards East Berlin. | Peter Hillebrecht / AP
In the U.S., meanwhile. the war hawks were having a field day. President Kennedy was calling for billions more for the Pentagon and increasing the size of the armed forces by almost one million men. Fallout shelters had been built all over the U.S., with the basements of run-down apartment buildings all over U.S. cities being enlisted as such “shelters.” American school children had already been forced under their desks weekly to prepare for nuclear attack. In Berlin, everyone was nervous. A “now or never” fear was stoked by the media in Germany, and the number of people leaving the GDR, especially the experts and the technicians mentioned earlier, through the open border in Berlin increased. Many left simply because they felt it was “safer on the other side” or because they were afraid “anything” was about to happen.
An additional, ninth, problem for the GDR was the day-to-day sabotage of the economy that was happening on top of the brain drain already mentioned. One could change 10 West marks for 70 East marks in the West, openly and without fear of any consequences, and go back home to the East and clean out the shelves of the grocery stores, leaving little for GDR workers to purchase with their hard-earned East marks. The legal exchange rate was supposed to be one for one, but in the West you could often get seven or more. All the better to help destroy both the economy and morale in the East.
On top of all of these disadvantages and adverse factors faced by the GDR, Berlin had become the flashpoint by 1960 where one could easily imagine the breakout of a third world war. Again, with no closed border between East and West Berlin, Soviet and U.S. tanks were facing each other only inches apart on street corners. (Then too, don’t forget that capitalist West Berlin, filled to the brim with U.S. tanks and soldiers, was situated entirely inside the GDR with no border that would prevent tanks from the U.S. encroaching on the GDR or tanks from the Soviet Union encroaching on West Berlin.)
Being a practical politician and knowing full-well all the disadvantages faced by the GDR, Kennedy, who knew in advance that the wall was about to be built in the summer of 1961, at first remained quiet, avoiding any incendiary remarks.
He is reported widely to have said of the wall: “It’s not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”
That common sense, however, did not stop Kennedy from launching an enormous propaganda campaign to exploit the GDR’s closing of the border around West Berlin. It would be portrayed to the world not as the construction of a border and checkpoints around West Berlin but rather as the bottling up and containment of a whole people in the GDR yearning to be free.
The immediate effect of the wall after its construction, of course, was improved security for the GDR.
A secondary effect was the immediate, if only temporary, weakening of the right-wing war hawks in West Germany with the ex-Nazi-friendly Conrad Adenauer being replaced by Willy Brandt who advocated open and peaceful relations between the two Germanies.
A portrait of African-American singer Paul Robeson is carried by a group of young people during a parade in East Berlin. | Eddie Worth / AP
Those determined to defeat socialism in the east and export capitalism into it did not give up, however. For them, the new “ostpolitik” promised economic softening up of the “Stalinists” by other means—by opening relations with them and by dangling Coca-Cola and western clothing in front of the population.
The standard of living in the GDR rose rapidly after the wall was built around West Berlin and, ironically, cultural opportunities flourished. With artists, musicians, and movie makers less pre-occupied with the West and with some giving up their plans of going there, they turned their attention to developing cultural outlets in the GDR. Also cultural figures who had trouble finding jobs in the West were welcomed to come and perform in the GDR.
The art of the early years of the GDR (too often dominated by happy, smiling, and energetic workers engaging in production) began to be replaced with countless individual styles, cities and landscapes, modern art, events in Cuba, China, and elsewhere, portraits of African Americans and much more. (See p. 132 of Victor Grossman’s book A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, from Monthly Review Publishers.)
Dramatic films from all over the world were shown in theaters. The closing of the border around West Berlin at first opened up some cultural opportunities by reducing the fear that had previously existed of political problems coming in along with performers over open borders.
Why the wall had to fall
In the end, however, the GDR could not overcome the many disadvantages with which it was faced from the beginning, nor could it overcome the Western propaganda campaign around the Berlin Wall.
To defend its noble anti-fascist and socialist goals—many of its top leaders’ bodies still bore the numbers tattooed onto them in Nazi concentration camps—the GDR did indeed resort to very unpleasant things. A cement wall, censorship in the media, and often overly-intense surveillance of its own population—none of these served as glowing recommendations of socialism.
And to be fair, the challenges the country faced were not just ones imposed upon it from outside. Fearful, closed, and sometimes narrow minds worked together to create many internal problems.
From 1980 until 1989, I was the chair of the U.S. Committee for Friendship with the GDR. Our organization worked hard to bring cultural, educational, political, and working class people from the GDR to the U.S. and vice-versa. We believed that there should be peace and cooperation between nations with differing social systems.
While I admit that there were wrong and sometimes terrible choices made by leading figures in the GDR, I say today with as much certainty as ever that they never resorted to racism, national chauvinism, or regional hostility. Until the dying days of their republic, they supported good relations with every single country and nationality hurt by the Nazis and with every other country and nationality in the world.
It is important for people realize that, unlike our leaders here in the U.S., the leaders of the GDR were leading a country and a system that could flourish only in the context of world peace and cooperation among nations. They could not and did not profit from war.
They wrongly believed when the Berlin Wall went up it would keep out Deutsche Bank and the Krupps and the Siemens, and that it would protect their dream of a better future. History proved otherwise. After the wall came down, capitalism was exported right back into the GDR.
GDR border guards watch a bulldozer tear down parts of the Berlin Wall to make space for more border crossing points between East and West, Nov. 10, 1989. | Udo Weitz / AP
And in the West both the wall and socialism—the system it failed to protect—continue to be beaten up by the capitalist powers that be and their spokespersons in the media and academia.
Long after the wall fell, just two years ago, the real estate industry in West Berlin drove out of office a Housing Minister who supported homeless people squatting in vacant apartments on the pretext that he had been an agent of the Stasi, the GDR secret service, in East Berlin. The guy was only 12 when the wall fell. What kind of Stasi agent could he have been?
It didn’t matter. The hatred of the wall which came down 30 years ago was resurrected by the real estate industry to destroy a man whose only crime was protecting homeless people in the united “free” Berlin.
In the capital of the German Democratic Republic—in the Berlin that ended when the wall came down 30 years ago—there were no homeless people.
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