German Democratic Republic: East German youth since the fall of socialism

Ellis Garvey, is a member of the YCL’s Greater Manchester branch

Ellis Garvey writes about the glory and aftermath of the German Democratic Republic, arguing that Germany’s youth were better off under the triumphant wing of socialism

The Berlin Wall fell 32 years ago, this clarified that the policy of Gorbachev was to fully abandon its socialist allies abroad. The socialist system and power of the working class in Europe following this fall would usher in an era of brutal neoliberalism. The ideology that was once held back by the Berlin Wall was now unleashed to pillage Eastern and Central Europe of its riches. However, this was not always the case, the German Democratic Republic at one time had the highest living standards of all of the Socialist Bloc with a thriving economy and moving towards the automation of the economy which would have had unprecedent success in streamlining the plan and eliminating corruption. So, in what context did the neoliberal order rush through the Berlin Wall in a brutal counter revolution?

Emblem of the Socialist Unity Party

Following the conclusion of the Second World War, the main focus was the rebuilding of Germany, the Soviet Sector which occupied eastern Germany would come to assist socialist and democratic forces form the German Democratic Republic (DDR) as the established Federal Republic of Germany (BRD) refused to unite into a single neutral republic and stop it’s harsh persecution of the Communist Party. Following this Walter Ulbricht, Wilhelm Pieck and Otto Grotewohl would come into an agreement to form a single Marxist party to be known as the Socialist Unity Party (SED) and, with support of other parties and mass organisations to represent different cross-sections of German society, came together to form the DDR along the lines of Peoples Democracy. What would follow was a series of nationalisations and collectivisations which for the first time in German history put the power of the economy in the hands of the working class. And as a result of its economic planning and policies it would consistently have the highest standards of living in all of the socialist camp.

The SED would head a largescale denazification campaign which saw thorough purge of the education sector firing over 20,000 Nazi teachers as well as within the judiciary which saw the removal of every Nazi judge and legal official (including within the newly formed Volkspolizei). Compared with the poor lacklustre de-Nazification programme in the West saw the outlawing of the Victims of Nazi Persecution Association, the appointment of the ex-Nazi security mastermind Hans Globke to construct the West German security apparatus. In across Western Europe this continued as the western governments moved to rehabilitated ex-Nazis. This happened in multiple cases such as a Nazi officer to the head of NATO, the European Commission, and the future Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger. In the BRD there was a lack of effective removals and reformation of the education and the judiciary with 72% of the Constitutional Court Judges have has Nazi connections and 80% of the criminal division by 1962.

Wilhelm Pieck and Otto Grotewohl SED poster

There began divisions in the DDR immediately following the war as the Church had lost its once prestigious status (however was given its own political party with seats in the Volkskammer) as well as the influx of refugees from lost German territories and of course the displaced fascist officials. Much of the population had become divided and this spilled out in a 1953 anti-communist riot which seized several buildings and ‘freed’ prisoners, some of whom where Nazi War Criminals, and the ‘protestors’ would launch a series of book burnings and pogroms. Incitement on behalf of the US backed propaganda machines (such as the radios and provocateurs) to destabilise the situation was easy from its comfortable position in West Berlin. The Volksarmee and Soviet Troops moved to stop the escalation on the ground as well as attempt to introduce counter measures to prevent this from happening again. 

Hostilities between East and West increased as the Hallstein doctrine was adopted by the BDR (West Germany), from this point only hostile relations with its counterpart and the BDR would attempt to punish any and all countries that hold positive relations with the DDR. Pressure was put to bare and the BDR refused to recognise the new Castro Government in Cuba as well as put pressure over neutral countries to cut ties with the East Germany. 

By 1953 with the New Course adopted it ushered in a period saw of increased consumer goods and the increase in the wellbeing of the population. East Germany being mostly deindustrialised had to work hard to revitalise its only shipping port of Rostock and the former industries East German. 

Walter Ulbricht and Fidel Castro

The Khrushchev Thaw became widely accepted and supported in the DDR. This period saw anti-communist movements arise in Hungary and Poland prompting Soviet intervention in Hungary.  Despite this, in East Germany the situation was largely stable and united, the SED followed similar policies cautiously adopted to the German situation. Local laws against the Free Body Culture (FKK) movement were dropped in their entirety as a sign of support for this. Ulbricht in 1959 issued the Bitterfield Way campaign, artists and writers where then encouraged to visit factories and discuss with the workers how to bridge the gap of culture and generation, this would provide the eventual basis to officially adopt socialism following the 7th Congress of the SED.

The CIA was quick to utilise the front known as the Congress for Cultural Freedom (having been set up and based on West Berlin) as an attempt to coopt western left-leaning artists to promote a myth of ‘freedom of expression’ in the Eastern Bloc. Tactics included reaching out to artists in the eastern bloc and using contacts to spread anti-government messages and discontent at the policies of the SED tempting them to defect. Eventually not wanting to risk a repeat of 1953 and curb foreign interference the Berlin Wall was constructed which became a propaganda victory for the west in their anti-communist messages. Despite this there was still interactions between western artists in both music and cinema and the restrictions on western TV viewing went largely ignored if not accepted, and as one author recounts jokes could indeed be made at the expense of the powers that be. The DDR’s film industry, the DEFA, was able to tremble onto more delicate terrain and was again accepted with hundreds of films coming out of the DDR.

The removal of Khrushchev with Brezhnev prompted a slowdown of a policies. On the 11th Plenum of the SED, the following year of Khrushchev’s ousting in 1965, was initially to be on the questions of the economy until the question of culture took the centre stage. Erich Honecker, who was to be the future general Secretary of the SED, condemned the rise of what was considered improper and nihilistic content. After this session of the SED the DDR’s TV Programming noticeably dipped. Again, despite this Honecker’s eventual ascension to become the General Secretary of the SED he did not move to restrict art or culture, but for liberals his rhetoric years beforehand still caused much distain amongst the intelligentsia which the west utilised. 

Erich Honecker with Angela Davis, showing the support of internationalism in the DDR

Again, the CIA quickly jumped onto this situation. During this period began a born from within campaign by imperialism, this was seen as the minority of books which were critical of the DDR where heralded by western reviewers and given attention through tours and events whilst the vast majority of cultural exports went ignored. In the DDR division using the church (despite the secular policies) became a lot easier as the Christian Community already has an umbrella in the Volkskammer, the Christian Democrats, whose members on the ground had become harbouring much opposition. 

Rainer Eppelmann, whose family had been active supporters of the Nazi Party, in 1979 became a figurehead of the Christian ‘resistance’ with his ‘Blue Masses’ events which entailed music and activities but used as a method to spread anti-DDR messages, utilising the famous the slogan of Swords into Ploughshares. After the fall of the SED, Eppelmann was given the position of Minister of Defence seeing the disarmament and selling off of the military equipment to foreign buyers in right wing dictatorships. He gained his support with the far right being seen as a great figure of resistance against socialism exposing his far-right intentions and beliefs.

Because of the international situation and investment choices there was a period which saw the need to catch up with ongoing globalisation and computerisation during the 80s. The SED had started paying less attention to building socialist consciousness due to the expectation of support from the high living standards. Therefore, this period was different from the direct and involved politics of Ulbricht whom whilst reforming the constitution into a socialist one in 1967 promoted mass discussions and engagement with workers on the ground. Honecker was a lot more cautious to precede with decisions and as a result of this many people felt less involved in the actions of constructing socialism. All of these factors escalated in 1989, despite the policy successes of refurbished homes and utilities projects, the west found their chance to intensify infiltration.

Egon Krenz and Hans Modrow

The new Premier and General Secretary, Egon Krenz and later Hans Modrow as Premier, came to remove Erich Honecker but the situation was exploited by the west as the fall of the Berlin Wall would occur following a series of protests by the opposition. The DDR would no longer be assisted by the USSR under Gorbachev, the USSR which was responsible for its birth in the same way as West Germany was the responsibility of the US had abandoned it. Gorbachev’s ‘reform’ faction would turn their back on the socialist states in order to push through brutal marketisation and achieve a one sided ‘peace’ with the US known as the ‘Sinatra Doctrine’. The effect of this was devastating for socialism internationally and condemned the DDR to be absorbed fully by the west. With the fall of the Wall and the west was able to conduct its operations unrestricted and able to whip up more discontent with many adopting the rhetoric of the far right and ultranationalism.  No amount of reform between the fall of the wall and the upcoming elections could save the Party for Democratic Socialism (SED successor) especially with the CDU and the SPD receiving full and total support from its counterparts.

What was the result of this annexation that would take place?

Since unification, the new neoliberal government embarked on a campaign of mass privatisation and delegitimization of the DDR. Using its draconian ‘Anti-Constitutional Laws’ there was a mass persecution of officials who supported the DDR, even ones who supported the reform including several imprisonments and fines. Buildings that represented the DDR where demolished with the Palast Der Republik (Peoples Chamber building) being replaced by a symbol of the Prussian monarchism in Berlin (many of the new landlords would have vast amounts of wealth connected to their success during the Monarchist period). Supporters and critics of the BDR are also silenced and when it is useful, as during the 2021 demonstration for the death of Luxembourg and Liebknecht, the former mass youth wing of the DDR, the FDJ, was declared illegal by the authorities. Politicians of the successors to the SED, Die Linke and the KPD (1990), are also investigated and smeared in the media. 

Solidarity between the YCL and the rest of the World Federation of Democratic Youth with the Free German Youth (FDJ) is essential to stop the erasing of history, socialism and to help in building an opposition to the fascistic tendencies of the BRD. As a sign of internationalism through the investigation and study of the DDR, and dialogue we hope to strengthen the legacy of socialism in Germany. 

Flag of the FDJ

The FDJ provided us with this statement:

150 years ago, in March 1871, the first attempt of a dictatorship of the proletariat was established with the Paris Commune. The great lessons learnt from this event by the following generations led up to the Great Socialist October Revolution and the first community of socialist states. It also provides us with important conclusions for revolutions in the 21st century: No compromises with the ruling class! No refraining from the expropriation of the exploiters! No preservation of the bourgeois state apparatus! Only the true peoples’ democracy, the dictatorship of the proletariat, can secure the proletarian state!

Those lessons have been forgotten. They have been discredited by the class enemies in the communist parties’ own ranks.

The FDJ (Free German Youth) was founded in Paris in 1936, in Prague in 1938 and in Great Britain in 1939 with the stated goal of uniting the antifascist youth and is associated with the following:

It fights against the class enemy in the FRG (Federal Republic of Germany). It fought for the antifascist line of the GDR (German Democratic Republic). It fights for establishing socialism.

But it is also associated with the downfall of the GDR, the best German state yet, which never exploited or waged war on another people. The FDJ is also partly to blame for the fact that imperialism could achieve such an easy victory and that the GDR no longer exists.

Class war was abandoned on the territory of the GDR. It bowed to the revision of the teachings of the revolutionary working class movement without any notable resistance. It approved of the revisionist ideas of the 20th congress of the CPSU like ‘‘the peaceful transition to socialism‘‘ and the abandonment of class war, preferring a bourgeois compromise to the fight for socialism.

We, the youth of the FRG and the annexed GDR, are painfully aware of the results of those policies: The globe is once again dominated by imperialism. The imperialists could destroy the GDR, tarnish its achievements and annex it completely. This resulted in emboldened and more aggressive German imperialism and the waging of wars on other peoples. This state ruled by capitalist monopolies will once again do anything but refrain from brutal wars and fascist terror.

Equipped with the teachings of the revolutionary working class movement, it is now up to us, the revolutionary youth, to stand up to imperialism. We have learnt from the historic defeat of the working class movement and are again ready to fight for socialism!

We do not flinch from the attempts of the bourgeoisie to silence us, to ban us or our symbols! We do not fear this agenda of the class enemy.

Our enemies will only achieve victory, if we do not draw the right conclusions from our past attempts of socialism and their mistakes. If we proletarian internationalists truly draw those lessons and are really willing to put them into practice, then we will soon find out that they work. 

Our enemies say: ‘‘The fight is over.‘‘

We respond: ‘‘It has only just begun.‘‘

Our enemies say: ‘‘The truth is dead.‘‘

We respond: ‘‘We remember it still.‘‘

Our enemies say: ‘‘Even though the truth is still known, it can no longer be spread.‘‘

We respond: ‘‘We shall spread it nonetheless.‘‘ (Bertolt Brecht)

Poster provided to us by the FDJ to go along with their statement

Ellis Garvey

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