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German Democratic Republic

Berliners in 1945 were reeling from the orgy of pillage, rapine, and murder that had followed the Soviet occupation. Soviet soldiers careened through streets in lend-lease jeeps in search of violence, booty, and liquor. Other Soviet detachments, sent off in pursuit of "reparations," stripped whole industrial districts and sections of the countryside. Kidnappings and sudden, often inexplicable, arrests were regular occurrences.

Late in 1945 the Soviets reined in their marauding troops, but they continued to exhibit a mixture of arrogance and brutality that made them detested as conquerors and lived on to undermine the credibility of the collaborationist East German regime. In Berlin, as perhaps nowhere else in Germany, the initial violence of the Soviet occupation permanently shaped popular attitudes toward the occupation forces.

The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) came into existence on October 7, 1949, when the German Economic Commission formed a provisional government in the Soviet zone of occupied Germany. This move occurred in response to the action taken by the United States, Britain, and France, which in 1948 had agreed to unite their respective occupation zones into a West German republic. The division of Germany and the founding of an East German state signified several historical reversals. First, the postwar partition of Germany represented a return to the country's previous existence as a divided nation. As of 1945, Germans had been united in a single sovereign state for only the last seventy-four years. Second, for at least 1,000 years Germans had expanded eastward, conquering territories previously controlled by Slavs and the Baltic peoples.

As part of the settlement ending World War II, Germany lost territories to Poland and the Soviet Union that German rulers had controlled for centuries. The lines of economic, cultural, military, and political influence had historically run from Germany to Eastern Europe and Russia. However, after World War II the Soviet Union imposed on East Germany a brand of Marxism-Leninism developed on Russian soil, the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands--SED), patterned itself after the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), and East Germany adopted a governmental system modeled in most respects on that of the Soviet Union.

Historically, East Germany was the Soviet Union's most pliant and loyal ally in Eastern Europe. Lack of international recognition made East Germany dependent on the Soviet Union. Until the Four Power Agreement on Berlin and the signing of the Basic Treaty by the two Germanies in the early 1970s, the noncommunist world treated the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) as the "real Germany" and East Germany as nothing more than an artificial state lacking international legitimacy. For a time, this sentiment seemed to have been shared by the Soviet leadership as well.

In 1954 Viacheslav Molotov, the Soviet representative at the Four Power Foreign Ministers Conference in Berlin, proposed simultaneous elections in both Germanies leading to the creation of a unified German state. If such elections had been held, the SED would have lost power. The presence of West Germany also made the SED regime more dependent on the Soviet Union.

Before the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, 2.5 million East German citizens had walked across the border to live in West Germany. A common language, family ties, and access to West German media left the East Germans much less isolated from West European culture than were their counterparts in Eastern Europe. All these factors tended to impede SED efforts to win popular legitimacy for the Marxist-Leninist regime in East Germany. Without legitimacy, both in the eyes of most of the world and in the eyes of its own people, the SED could turn only to the Soviet Union and its allies for support. To ensure Soviet loyalty to the cause of the SED regime, East Germany had to act as Moscow's model ally.

In September 1989, communist Hungary opened its border to Austria and some 50,000 East Germans who were permitted to travel to their communist neighbors crossed to freedom. Later thousands seeking asylum in Prague and Warsaw rode trains to the West. The 40 year celebration of the East German regime brought Gorbachev to Berlin. Urging Honecker to accept reforms, Gorbachev warned, Life punishes those who come too late. Erich Honecker was initially replaced during the revolutionary period of October 1989 by Egon Krenz. Honecker's removal came eleven days after Gorbachev's visit to the GDR, and his decidedly cool attitude to Honecker. After Honecker resigned, the world became aware of East Germanys fragile and overextended economic state.

On November 4, an estimated 1 million demonstrated in East Berlin, unaware of the momentous changes to come. During the build up of demonstrations in the days preceding the fall of the wall the new communist leader, Egon Krenz, telephoned Gorbachev for advice on how to deal with the crisis. Gorbachev is said to have advised that the border between East and West Germany should be opened to provide an escape valve and stop any unrest that threatened to see the communists removed from power. Krenz was replaced on 8th November 1989 by the GDR's most prominent reform-minded official, the Dresden party boss, Hans Modrow. Before the Walls demise on November 9, Leipzig protesters numbered 500,000.

Throughout the Cold War, many Germans kept hope alive for national unification. President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker III endorsed Chancellor Helmut Kohls 1989 proposal seeking unity, despite resistance from Britain and France. U.S. and German diplomats worked collegially together on the Two Plus Four Agreement - Two Germanys and Four Allies, finally bringing an end to conflict that emerged in post-War Germany. On August 31, 1990, two Germanys signed a Unification Treaty and on October 1, 1990, the Allies suspended rights to Germany. On October 3, East and West Germany joined together. A new national holiday was born.

Die Wende or The Turning in German unity was more like a turning process than a single point in time. Things turned in 1989 with mass protests for human rights, escapes through Eastern Europe, the Wall tumbling and Berlin checkpoints opening. In 1990 the turn continued with democratic elections in East Germany, negotiated treaties to implement German unity and the joining of East German states with West Germany. For many, the term has come to symbolize German unity itself.

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