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East Germany - Reform in the 1980s

The East German leadership differed with the Soviet Union on the need to emulate the economic and political reform program of CPSU general secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Soviet reforms under Gorbachev envisaged the institutionalization of measures to encourage efficiency and innovation in the Soviet planned economy; the introduction of greater openness, reform of the party, and new electoral procedures in the political sphere; and the liberalization of the cultural sphere. The East German response was generally to maintain that reforms tailored to Soviet conditions were not necessarily applicable to East Germany.

The Honecker regime argued that for years East Germany had been introducing measures to facilitate technological innovation and economic modernization and that East German economic successes proved the viability and vigor of its economic system. If changes were required, the Honecker regime contended that solutions must correspond to local conditions. Politically, the SED leadership averred that problems such as corruption and immobilisme, which the party reforms advocated by Gorbachev sought to eliminate, did not exist in East Germany. In the realm of culture, the Honecker regime offered the dubious claim that it had already introduced many measures to ease state control of the arts.

East Germany's success as the Soviet Union's junior partner provided the foundation for its resistance to Soviet policies in foreign and domestic policy. East German economic performance, partially due to the special relationship it enjoyed with the Bonn government but primarily due to indigenous factors, increased East Germany's clout within the Soviet alliance. East Germany's status and power enabled it to pursue policies contrary to Soviet interests, if only to a limited degree. Hence, Soviet-East German friction demonstrated the emergence of East Germany's coming of age as an actor within the socialist interstate system. Like other small states of Eastern Europe, East Germany achieved a sufficient amount of legitimacy, international recognition, and economic power to be able to express occasional public disagreement with the Soviet Union.

From September 7 to September 11, 1987, First Secretary Erich Honecker paid an unprecedented visit to West Germany. Several factors accounted for this trip, which had been scheduled for 1984 but indefinitely postponed since that time. The prospect of a Soviet-American agreement on IRBMs in Europe had increased the chance for better inter-German relations. West Germany had facilitated the prospect of an accord when Chancellor Helmut Kohl pledged to scrap his country's seventy-two IRBMs, which carry American nuclear warheads. In addition, in 1987 the Soviet Union itself had been seeking better relations with West Germany.

Honecker had to obtain Soviet permission for the trip, and Soviet approval may be seen as an effort to reward West Germany for its missile stance and as an attempt to improve relations with that country. From the East German perspective, Honecker's trip marked another effort to obtain West German recognition of East Germany's independent statehood. The practical significance of Honecker's trip was rather limited. East Germany and West Germany signed agreements on scientific-technical cooperation, environmental protection and nuclear safety, and several measures to ease travel and communications between the two countries. Ultimately, the primary importance of Honecker's visit lay in its reaffirmation of the existence of two independent German states in the heart of Europe.

In the 1980s, an independent peace movement had succeeded in establishing itself in East Germany. Several factors explain the emergence and persistence of this form of political dissent. First, the movement revolved around peace and disarmament, issues to which the SED has publicly committed itself. The independent peace movement sought to compel the East German regime to abide by its own rhetoric; it did not question the fundamental political bases of the Marxist-Leninist regime, such as one-party rule, alliance with the Soviet Union, and a planned economy. Second, from its inception the independent peace movement was nonviolent. Third, the independent peace movement grew out of the Lutheran Church, an institution that was somewhat independent of the regime.

The church offered peace activists throughout the country channels of communication insulated from regime control, an institutional setting in which activists could come together and formulate a program, and a forum in which to air the program for a nationwide constituency. Having gained in strength, the peace movement proceeded to speak out against the militarization of East German society, environmental pollution, and the development of nuclear power in East Germany.

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Page last modified: 06-10-2014 18:47:32 ZULU