The German Democratic Republic, or GDR, also simply known as East Germany, was founded as a second German state on October 7, 1949, four years after the end of World War II. The Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), or more commonly known as West Germany, or BDR, was founded just four months prior. A little history is in order here.
The partitioning of Germany was a reflection of the claims laid down by the victorious Allied forces in 1945. On one side, there were the US, France and the UK; on the other, the international Socialist Soviet Union. They had joined forces to defeat National Socialist Germany, but went their separate ways after that, leaving Eastern Europe to Soviet mercy, something Four-Star General George S. Patton wanted to prevent, but conveniently died in an car accident, from which all walked away, except Patton, not long there after.
The arrangement splitting post-war Germany was unusual, particularly the more so with Berlin. The former Drittes Reich’s capital, was eventually separated into two pieces. East and West Berlin. But Berlin was located in the center of what became East Germany. In essence, West Berlin was an island of freedom surrounded by Communist East Germany‘s landmass. West Germans living in West Berlin either flew out, or rode across East Germany in order to reach the West. Travel documents, passports and restrictions applied to drive or ride a train, across the GDR.
The most clearly recognizable characteristics of Eastern European Socialist states were a centralized government, planned economies, no religious freedom, no freedom of the press, no freedom of movement, no dissent, equally shared economic misery (except for the ruling elites). Poland, Hungary, Romania and East Germany were just some of the countries forced to live under those rules until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989-1990. Ideologically, they saw themselves as people's democracies, but were in fact, brutal dictatorships. Noteworthy is the fact, that Communist regimes always refer to themselves as Democracies.
The East Germans fed up with lack of basic necessities and individual freedom, escaped to the West by the thousands, but typical of socialist regimes, the Communist built a wall, not to keep the West out, but to keep the East in. We knew it as the Berlin Wall. In contrast, Cuba is an island, surrounded by the breeding grounds of just about every man-eating shark known, from Great Whites to Tiger Sharks. And still they flee to the water on whatever floats.
In 1945, the Soviet occupying forces turned a former commercial kitchen compound into an internment camp, and eventually handed it over to the STASI, the GDR‘s internal security apparatus, the most effectively repressive in the world—the STASI was to build an equally effective apparatus in Cuba, known as the G2 for Fidel after the Bay of Pigs. The cellar was converted into a detention center. There, victims were tormented by sleep deprivation, beatings, being forced to stand for hours, subjected to cold, water torture, and gang rape, among other inhuman devices. Food, clothing, and hygiene standards, were basically nonexistent. Some estimates put the dead at over 1,000.
As it’s typical of communist countries, many tried to escape, which was nearly impossible unless you crossed into West Berlin. Well over 100,000 citizens of the GDR tried to escape across the inner-German border between 1961 and 1988. More than 600 of them were shot and killed by GDR border guards or died in other ways during their escape attempt. They drowned, suffered fatal accidents, or killed themselves when they were caught for fear of the consequences.
Although there was no official order of “shoot to kill” given to border guards, for troops deployed on the border, commendations and bonuses for guards who had shot and killed escaping fugitives, ideological indoctrination of young draftees and soldiers, and laws that criminalized escape attempts, all tended to transform the permission to use weapons into a kind of obligation to use them. Let’s continue on with economics.
Fast forward to the early 1980s, and like most other Socialist countries, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was caught in an economic death trap. To the surprise of many Western and Eastern observers, the expected bankruptcy, was avoided, albeit temporarily. How? The Federal Republic of West Germany.
The East German road into debt was a direct result of the inefficiencies of the communist economic system and somewhat related to the increasing share of modernization imports from the West, in the GDR’s foreign trade policies. However, the strategy of import-led modernization, did not work and debt levels increased from the late 1960s. In 1971, after a quarrelsome power struggle over his policy toward West Germany and economic reforms, Walter Ulbricht was ousted from power. The politburo of the SED elected Erich Honecker as its new First Secretary. The new leadership abolished the economic reforms of the 1960s, but the problematic tendencies of the East German economy continued to worsen.
The Bundesrepublik Deutschland or BDR, helped the GDR get out of its “debt crisis” by providing billion Deutschmark (DM) loans. Indeed, the two loans contrived by Bavarian Prime Minister Franz Josef Strauß, in 1983 and 1984, contributed a lot to the financial survival of the East German regime—not least because they successfully restored its creditworthiness.
The Eighth Party Congress of the SED, dopted the so-called “Main Task,” a socialist welfare policy concept that was labeled “Unity of Economic and Social Policy.” This concept was expensive, since it included subsidized consumable prices, a housing program and imports of modest consumer goods. As a result, the East German economy was never able to cover the costs. Then came the unavoidable collapse, and the Wall fell. They simply ran out of money. There was no money to pay government. Then, the Soviet Union itself collapsed, under the weight of its own inefficiencies and economic malfeasance. And here we are today.
The Berlin Wall and similar things have become such powerful icons, that they will remain present as living memories for some time to come. Pointing to the experience with the legacy of that other form of leftist socialism, Nazism, it is predicted that the GDR will not truly become a closed chapter in German history until 70 or 80 years from now. Looking back to the era of Nazism that preceded the separation of Germany, that dark chapter of history is only now slowly coming to an end as "the last witnesses are no longer alive." Using that metric, the chapter on the GDR won't be closed until 2070 at the earliest.