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East Germany - Socialist Unity Party (SED)

East Germany was a one-party state. Although four other parties existed, they had been co-opted by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands--SED). These four parties -- the Christian Democratic Union, the Liberal Democratic Party of Germany, the Democratic Peasants' Party of Germany, and the National Democratic Party of Germany -- had the appearance of power without actually sharing it with the SED. In fact, these four parties acted as "transmission belts" for SED decisions and policies to social strata such as the intelligentsia and the peasantry.

The operative principle of SED decision making was the Leninist precept of "democratic centralism." According to this principle, free discussion of policy alternatives by all SED members concerned with a given decision was followed by a vote; then the minority submits to the position of the majority. In fact, the SED was a monolithic party in which the lines of decision making ran from top to bottom. In East Germany, as in the Soviet Union and the other Marxist-Leninist regimes in Eastern Europe, the communist party was the real locus of power. Erich Honecker, who took over as first secretary of the SED from Walter Ulbricht in 1971 (the title changed to general secretary in 1976), was the most powerful political figure in East Germany by virtue of his party position.

The top governmental position, that of the chairman of the Council of Ministers, had long been occupied by Willi Stoph, who held a position subordinate to that of Honecker in the SED Politburo. Other leading governmental figures -- such as Horst Sindermann, the president of the People's Chamber, and Erich Mielke, the minister of state security -- were also members of the Politburo. According to the operative rules of democratic centralism, at any given level government officials carry out decisions made by the party. Stated simply, the government implemented and administered policies decided by the SED.

Throughout its tenure, the Honecker regime attempted to form a distinct East German political culture. This undertaking involved the inculcation of values, attitudes, and casts of mind that strengthen the citizenry's sense of the regime's legitimacy and authority. Since the early 1970s, for example, the Honecker regime pursued a policy of Abgrenzung (demarcation) to stress differences in political values, history, and culture between the two Germanies. Another important component of political culture was tradition, which justifies the existence of a given polity and gives it a sense of rootedness. Hence, the SED has portrayed itself as the culmination of the German revolutionary tradition, as represented by theoreticians and activists such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Karl Liebknecht.

In an effort to locate its rule within the broader course of German history, the SED depicted itself as the heir to the positive achievements of historical figures such as Martin Luther, Carl von Clausewitz, and Otto von Bismarck. These personages have no connection with Germany's revolutionary past (in fact, Bismarck made every effort to suppress the Social Democratic Party of Germany), and the regime previously linked them to the discredited ideology of German nationalism. During Honecker's tenure as SED party chief, official East German political culture evolved to incorporate a significant element of the German national heritage.

For most of its existence, East Germany was a model socialist state in the sense that it experienced little public dissent. The spontaneous uprising in 1953 against communist rule in East Germany confined itself to the most important industrial centers and did not grip the country in the way that rebellions or reform movements in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, or Poland were able to do. From 1953 to the early 1980s, the SED used both rewards and punishments to keep the East German citizenry politically passive. Because food and rent were subsidized by the government, consumer prices remained low. Thus, East German workers had no economic impetus to follow their Polish counterparts and organize an independent labor union to press for economic reform.

The party also penetrated into most aspects of daily life in East Germany. With no areas of social life free of party domination, it was difficult for East Germans interested in independent political action to join together, create a program, and attempt to further their common political ends. To repress manifestations of open dissent, forces of the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of State Security combined to form a powerful and pervasive police apparatus. The ultimate guarantors of SED rule in East Germany, however, were the National People's Army (Nationale Volksarmee - NVA) and the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany (GSFG). The NVA united the border guards and ground, air, air defense, and naval forces into a total strength of 175,000. The NVA was a competent, well-trained force. The GSFG numbered over 380,000, which ensured the political quiescence of East German society as well as East Germany's continued membership in the Warsaw Pact.

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Page last modified: 06-10-2014 18:47:31 ZULU