East German weapons in the fight against fascist Portugal

How the DDR came to provide military support for the Mozambican liberation struggle

Mascha Neumann

25 April 2024

Today, the German Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic (GDR) is remem­be­red by many progres­sive forces around the world as a pioneer in support for the natio­nal libe­ra­tion move­ments of the 20th century. The GDR’s anti-impe­ria­list soli­da­rity ranged from educa­tion program­mes, medi­cal care, indus­trial and agri­cul­tu­ral deve­lo­p­ment, civi­lian aid, finan­cial support, the prin­ting of agita­tion mate­rial, and mili­tary trai­ning and equip­ment. In retro­s­pect, this mili­tary support seems like a logi­cal exten­sion of inter­na­tio­nal soli­da­rity. Howe­ver, at the begin­ning of the 1960s, it was quite contro­ver­sial in the GDR whether the deli­very of East German weapons and ammu­ni­tion to orga­ni­sa­ti­ons such as the Frente de Liber­ta­ção de Moçam­bi­que (FRELIMO) was appropriate.

In prin­ci­ple, the use of weapons in the fight against colo­nial rule was conside­red legi­ti­mate in the socia­list camp. Howe­ver, the former diplo­mat Helmut Matthes1 descri­bes the GDR’s rela­ti­onship to armed struggle as ambi­va­lent. From the outset, “poli­ti­cal and diplo­ma­tic means were regarded as decisive”.2 In the nuclear age, espe­ci­ally after the so-called Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the states allied with the Soviet Union were concer­ned that the confron­ta­tion with the impe­ria­list states could esca­late into mutual anni­hi­la­tion. Against this back­ground, the concept of peaceful coexis­tence (“the peaceful coexis­tence and co-opera­tion between states of diffe­rent social orders in the era of tran­si­tion from capi­ta­lism to socia­lism”) became a guiding prin­ci­ple of Soviet foreign policy, while other socia­list states such as the People’s Repu­blic of China and Cuba took a much more offen­sive approach to the ques­tion of armed anti-impe­ria­list struggle.3

A closer look at the deve­lo­p­ment of the GDR’s posi­tion towards the armed struggle in southern Africa reve­als an initial hesi­tancy that can be attri­bu­ted to seve­ral factors: Could another nuclear crisis unfold across Africa after Cuba? Had legal and diplo­ma­tic efforts really been exhaus­ted? Should East German weapons be expor­ted for conflicts abroad, even if they might come up against West German weapons? Was it possi­ble to ensure that the guns ended up in the right hands? Could the GDR indus­try keep up with the demand of the libe­ra­tion strug­gles in both East Asia and Africa? In view of inten­si­fy­ing hosti­li­ties in southern Africa in the mid-1960s and the escala­tion of the Sino-Soviet split, the poli­ti­cal leader­ship in Berlin deci­ded in early 1967 to commit itself to provi­ding mili­tary support to the libe­ra­tion move­ments in Africa. Thus, the GDR began to spend milli­ons of marks on mili­tary aid and trai­ning program­mes for figh­ters from natio­nal libe­ra­tion move­ments and former colo­nies.4 Contrary to the narra­tive propa­ga­ted by the West German press (“Honecker’s Africa Corps”), the decis­ion to supply “non-civi­lian goods” was only taken after careful consideration.

The socialist camp and the fight against the Portuguese colonial regime

The initial reluc­tance in the GDR with regard to the plans of the Mozam­bican libe­ra­tion front FRELIMO, which wanted to emulate the libe­ra­tion move­ments in Angola (1961) and Guinea-Bissau (1963, then still “Portu­guese Guinea”) and take up the armed struggle against the colo­nial power Portu­gal, illus­tra­tes the ambi­va­lence mentio­ned by Matthes. After a visit by two FRELIMO repre­sen­ta­ti­ves to the GDR in 1963, the subse­quent report of the Minis­try of Foreign Affairs (MfAA) stated that the libe­ra­tion front curr­ently saw no other way of achie­ving inde­pen­dence for Mozam­bi­que. Although this was met with a certain degree of under­stan­ding, it was criti­cised at the same time:

“FRELIMO pays too little atten­tion to the ques­ti­ons of the simul­ta­neous utili­sa­tion of legal possi­bi­li­ties of the struggle in order to create an even broa­der natio­nal front against Portu­guese colo­nia­lism (e.g., attempts to create a legal oppo­si­tion, cont­acts with other parties and with the so-called assi­mi­la­dos5 in the admi­nis­tra­tion, parti­ci­pa­tion as indi­vi­dual candi­da­tes in elec­tions, etc.).“6

A “Chinese influence” was suspec­ted behind this “one-sided orien­ta­tion towards the armed struggle” — not least due to the recent visit of one of the FRELIMO repre­sen­ta­ti­ves (Marce­lino dos Santos, who later became Vice Presi­dent of the Libe­ra­tion Front) to the People’s Repu­blic of China, where he was said to have been perso­nally recei­ved by Mao.7 The quote also indi­ca­tes that the decis­ion to join the armed struggle was conside­red prema­ture and that it was conside­red more promi­sing to first secure the support of other Mozam­bican actors.

FRELIMO mili­tants during a trai­ning exercise.

The fact that the Soviet Union finally deci­ded to support FRELIMO mili­ta­rily in 1964 despite its own reser­va­tions (initi­ally by offe­ring to train 40 figh­ters in the USSR) is said to have been seen by its chair­man, Eduardo Mond­lane, as an attempt to deter China from inter­fe­ring too much in Mozam­bi­que.8 The Soviet decis­ion will not have been insi­gni­fi­cant for their allies either. When FRELIMO increased its efforts to obtain mili­tary support from the socia­list states after the start of hosti­li­ties in Septem­ber 1964, it was quite successful: Bulga­ria and the ČSSR, among others, agreed to supply weapons in the spring and summer of 1965.9 Weapons had also been reques­ted from the GDR since 1965 at the latest, and FRELIMO was not alone: the Movi­mento Popu­lar de Liber­ta­ção de Angola (MPLA) from Angola and the ZAPU from Rhode­sia10, which borders Mozam­bi­que, had also repea­tedly made such requests.11 Howe­ver, the GDR was not yet able to agree to arms deli­veries at this time.

The fact that the Soviet Union finally deci­ded to support FRELIMO mili­ta­rily in 1964 despite its own reser­va­tions (initi­ally by offe­ring to train 40 figh­ters in the USSR) is said to have been seen by its chair­man, Eduardo Mond­lane, as an attempt to deter China from inter­fe­ring too much in Mozam­bi­que.8 The Soviet decis­ion will not have been insi­gni­fi­cant for their allies either. When FRELIMO increased its efforts to obtain mili­tary support from the socia­list states after the start of hosti­li­ties in Septem­ber 1964, it was quite successful: Bulga­ria and the ČSSR, among others, agreed to supply weapons in the spring and summer of 1965.9 Weapons had also been reques­ted from the GDR since 1965 at the latest, and FRELIMO was not alone: the Movi­mento Popu­lar de Liber­ta­ção de Angola (MPLA) from Angola and the ZAPU from Rhode­sia10, which borders Mozam­bi­que, had also repea­tedly made such requests.11 Howe­ver, the GDR was not yet able to agree to arms deli­veries at this time.

West Germany’s military and political support for fascist Portugal

Howe­ver, in the case of the GDR, the ques­tion of arms deli­veries, espe­ci­ally for the Portu­guese colo­nies, was also much more sensi­tive than for the other socia­list count­ries: after all, weapons from both German states would be invol­ved in direct confron­ta­tion there. At the begin­ning of the 1960s, the Portu­guese leader­ship turned to its NATO allies for help. The govern­ment under dicta­tor Sala­zar clai­med to be threa­tened by a commu­nist upri­sing supported by the Soviet Union in its so-called “over­seas provin­ces“12. As a result, a number of states supported fascist Portu­gal with loans, figh­ter planes, warships, ammu­ni­tion, and chemi­cal defo­li­ants, among other things.13 Up to this point, the USA had been Portugal’s biggest finan­cial and mili­tary supporter, partly in order to secure its stra­te­gi­cally important mili­tary bases in the Azores and Cape Verde.

Although the loans gran­ted were inten­ded for use in Portu­gal, this freed up funds else­where that could be used for the admi­nis­tra­tion of the colo­nies and ulti­m­ately also for the colo­nial wars.14 Follo­wing the adop­tion of the “Decla­ra­tion on the Gran­ting of Inde­pen­dence to Colo­nial Count­ries and Peop­les” by the UN Gene­ral Assem­bly in Decem­ber 196015 on the initia­tive of the Soviet Union16 and in view of the worsening situa­tion in the Portu­guese colo­nies, the USA under its new Presi­dent John F. Kennedy signi­fi­cantly rest­ric­ted the supply of arms to Portu­gal. The Fede­ral Repu­blic of Germany (West Germany), which as a non-member did not have to justify itself to the UN, subse­quently repla­ced the USA as the main supplier of mili­tary equip­ment.17

At the begin­ning of their armed struggle, FRELIMO figh­ters often used weapons looted from the Portu­guese forces. In this picture is the G3 rifle, which was produ­ced by the West German arms manu­fac­tu­rer Heck­ler & Koch.

The Fede­ral Repu­blic made a signi­fi­cant contri­bu­tion to the Portu­guese colo­nial wars on a mili­tary, econo­mic, and poli­ti­cal level.18 In the 1960s, large quan­ti­ties of surplus Bundes­wehr mate­rial went to Portu­gal, inclu­ding mainly weapons and mili­tary aircraft. In addi­tion, the Portu­guese mili­tary was supplied with new products by West German indus­try until the 1970s, inclu­ding warships and all-terrain vehic­les, which were also used in the colo­nies.19 In 1965, a so-called “end-use clause” was nego­tia­ted to exclude trans­fer and thus use in the colo­nial wars. Howe­ver, it was known that weapons and other mili­tary mate­rial and equip­ment supplied by the Fede­ral Repu­blic were still being used there.20 Portugal’s repres­sion of the libe­ra­tion move­ment in Mozam­bi­que became incre­asingly brutal, culmi­na­ting in the massacre of Wiri­yamu in 1973, in which 400 villa­gers were gunned down by the Portu­guese army and secu­rity services.21


The turning point for the GDR and the beginning of the “delivery of non-civilian goods”

Another indi­ca­tion that there was great fear of an escala­tion was the hand­ling of a draft propo­sal by GDR Foreign Minis­ter Otto Winzer from the spring of 1965, which advo­ca­ted for a defi­ni­tive decis­ion to support libe­ra­tion strug­gles with mili­tary mate­rial. The reason provi­ded was expli­citly the repea­ted requests from various libe­ra­tion move­ments, some of which the GDR’s Soli­da­rity Commit­tee was alre­ady support­ing with civi­lian and even para­mi­li­tary goods — inclu­ding the Ango­lan MPLA and the Mozam­bican FRELIMO. This docu­ment was clas­si­fied as so confi­den­tial that it was not initi­ally discus­sed with any other govern­ment agency. Since it was ulti­m­ately not submit­ted to the Polit­buro of the Socia­list Unity Party of Germany (SED) for appr­oval, it is reasonable to assume that at least one of the three minis­ters (inclu­ding the Minis­ter of Natio­nal Defence, Heinz Hoff­mann, the head of the Minis­try of State Secu­rity, Erich Mielke, and the Minis­ter of the Inte­rior, Fried­rich Dickel) to whom the draft was submit­ted in advance, applied the brakes.22

Howe­ver, the issue was not off the table. After Erich Honecker had spoken out against the arming of such groups in Novem­ber 1966 (in his func­tion as Central Commit­tee Secre­tary for Secu­rity Affairs at the time)23, the Polit­buro finally reached a defi­ni­tive decis­ion on 10 Janu­ary 1967 and appro­ved the possi­bi­lity of “supp­ly­ing non-civi­lian goods to natio­nal libe­ra­tion move­ments in Africa”.24 Accor­ding to Matthes, the basis for this policy shift was the inten­si­fi­ca­tion of poli­ti­cal cont­acts at inter­na­tio­nal events during the 1960s and the visits of high-ranking repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of the libe­ra­tion move­ments to the GDR.25 It stands to reason that more frequent encoun­ters enab­led better fami­lia­ri­sa­tion and thus contri­bu­ted to the decis­ion. For exam­ple, FRELIMO Presi­dent Mond­lane had visi­ted East Berlin in person for the second time just six weeks before the decis­ion. Whether the Soviet Union had also urged the SED to recon­sider its previous hesi­ta­tion and follow their exam­ple has not yet been clari­fied, as there are no meaningful sources on this.26

What certainly also contri­bu­ted to this decis­ion was the inten­si­fi­ca­tion of fight­ing by many libe­ra­tion move­ments in southern Africa in the mid-1960s. By 1966 (at the latest), mili­tary acti­vi­ties had become a defi­ning factor in the libe­ra­tion struggle. It is also inte­res­t­ing to note that a Cuban mili­tary dele­ga­tion visi­ted the GDR at the end of 1966, whose influence on the decis­ion in favour of arms deli­veries cannot be ruled out, although it cannot be clearly proven. Howe­ver, since the talks dealt with topics rela­ting to the armed libe­ra­tion struggle and, among other things, speci­fi­cally with the ques­tion of whether the GDR could provide weapons and mili­tary trai­ning, this is another proba­ble influence in favour of the decis­ion.27

Over­co­ming illi­ter­acy was one of FRELIMO’s central goals. Here, figh­ters use a break to learn to read and write.

This decis­ion was then imme­dia­tely follo­wed by the first concrete deli­veries. FRELIMO was prio­ri­ti­sed and recei­ved the largest number of weapons and ammu­ni­tion. The reasons for the MfAA’s draft decis­ion stated that the libe­ra­tion move­ments in ques­tion were the most important, most successful, and most progres­sive forces in the respec­tive colo­nies and that the mili­tary aid was in line with the foreign policy prin­ci­ple of support­ing natio­nal libe­ra­tion.28 In this way, the GDR had not only joined its socia­list allies (and China) in its stance on armed struggle, but also follo­wed other count­ries on the Afri­can conti­nent that could look back on a successful libe­ra­tion struggle. Alge­ria, for exam­ple, which had been inde­pen­dent since 1962, had gained exten­sive combat expe­ri­ence in its war of libe­ra­tion against France and, at the request of the FRELIMO leader­ship, had provi­ded mili­tary trai­ning and equip­ment for its first 250 figh­ters.29

Active diplomacy of the liberation movements — the example of FRELIMO

Since 1967, arms deli­veries from the GDR to FRELIMO have taken place almost every year.30 Their volume, like the over­all support, increased signi­fi­cantly in the early 1970s. This can be explai­ned in part by the uncer­tainty that had previously prevai­led, trig­ge­red by Mondlane’s assas­si­na­tion in 196931 and the subse­quent power strug­gles within the libe­ra­tion front. Support in other areas was main­tai­ned during this diffi­cult period and even increased in some areas.32 Howe­ver, supp­ly­ing weapons on a large scale to an orga­niza­tion in the midst of an ideo­lo­gi­cal reori­en­ta­tion would have repre­sen­ted a risk. During his leader­ship of FRELIMO, Mond­lane had incre­asingly moved towards the socia­list states and even­tually turned his back on the West defi­ni­tively.33 Yet follo­wing his assas­si­na­tion, it was unclear who would succeed him in the ideo­lo­gi­cally very hete­ro­ge­neous Libe­ra­tion Front. In May 1970, FRELIMO’s central commit­tee finally appoin­ted army chief Samora Machel as the new presi­dent. This meant that the wing around Marce­lino dos Santos, who had long been regarded as socia­list and subse­quently became vice presi­dent, had finally prevai­led.34

In the run-up to the first offi­cial recep­tion of a FRELIMO dele­ga­tion by the GDR govern­ment (not by the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee as had previously occur­red), which took place in April 1972, the Central Commit­tee of the SED plan­ned the deli­very of a large consign­ment of infan­try weapons and corre­spon­ding ammu­ni­tion without any concrete requests from FRELIMO, in order to be able to respond imme­dia­tely to possi­ble enqui­ries during the visit.35 This rather unusual approach was due to the fact that there were acute fears of the Libe­ra­tion Front moving closer to China. A dele­ga­tion led by Machel in his new role as FRELIMO presi­dent had visi­ted China, North Korea and Viet­nam in autumn 1971, which was appar­ently percei­ved as so worry­ing that the GDR Consu­late Gene­ral in Tanz­a­nia subse­quently invi­ted him to a “meeting”. There, Machel said he very plea­sed with his trip, during which China had empha­sised its willing­ness to provide exten­sive mate­rial support and further arms deli­veries. He prai­sed the way in which the dele­ga­tion had been recei­ved in all three Asian count­ries. For him, this clearly repre­sen­ted a criter­ion for the atti­tude towards the libe­ra­tion move­ment and he drew compa­ri­sons with other socia­list states, which came off badly. He noted that the “SU, as the first and stron­gest socia­list coun­try […] appar­ently showed little inte­rest in the FRELIMO problems”.36

Samora Machel with inha­bi­tants of a village that had been destroyed by Portu­guese colo­nial troops.

Accor­ding to the consulate’s report, Machel also descri­bed the support from the GDR as being in need of impro­ve­ment. Although the FRELIMO presi­dent showed under­stan­ding for the econo­mic diffi­cul­ties of the socia­list count­ries, he nevert­hel­ess openly criti­cised them. Nume­rous wishes had been formu­la­ted towards the GDR, but there was a lack of reali­sa­tion of the promi­ses made: verbal assu­ran­ces were of no use. It was much more important to achieve an impro­ve­ment in mate­rial aid from all socia­list count­ries. Machel’s clear words show that FRELIMO still did not want to be drawn into the Sino-Soviet conflict: Help was expli­citly accepted and also expec­ted from all socia­list states. At the same time, the dispute in the socia­list camp had the poten­tial to gain more support over­all. The sources cited here suggest that FRELIMO sought to encou­rage the Soviet-aligned states to “outbid” China’s pled­ges of support.

In the GDR, this criti­cism was taken to heart. During Machel’s visit in April 1972, it was explai­ned to him that the GDR’s opti­ons were sever­ely limi­ted due to its obli­ga­ti­ons towards Viet­nam. In this context, refe­rence was also made to the neces­sary coor­di­na­tion within the frame­work of the Warsaw Treaty and to the Pots­dam Agree­ment, which only permit­ted the produc­tion of weapons in the GDR to a limi­ted extent. Nevert­hel­ess, the govern­ment was prepared to conti­nue support­ing FRELIMO and to fulfil its wishes if these were commu­ni­ca­ted at an early stage. From then on, regu­lar lists of possi­ble deli­veries were drawn up, partly in response to speci­fic demands and partly in anti­ci­pa­tion of further requests.37

A soli­da­rity dona­tion from the DDR’s Afro-Asian Soli­da­rity Commit­tee for FRELIMO is loaded onto a plane. It was offi­ci­ally handed over to FRELIMO at the end of 1972.

Support in the “non-civi­lian” sector did not end even when Mozambique’s inde­pen­dence became fore­seeable as a result of nego­tia­ti­ons with Portu­gal follo­wing the Carna­tion Revo­lu­tion (1974). On the contrary, the GDR was convin­ced that the poli­ti­cal chan­ges in Portu­gal and the resul­ting new situa­tion in the Portu­guese colo­nies even requi­red “increased support for the anti-impe­ria­list struggle of these peop­les“38, which was reflec­ted not least in an addi­tio­nal consign­ment of a considera­ble amount of “non-civi­lian” mate­rial, which was deci­ded by the SED Polit­buro in Octo­ber 1974. During the second offi­cial FRELIMO dele­ga­tion visit to the GDR (Decem­ber 1974) and beyond, further exten­sive (partly para­mi­li­tary) deli­veries were reques­ted by Machel and autho­ri­sed in Berlin.39 It is obvious that FRELIMO’s posi­tion within Mozam­bi­que was to be streng­the­ned mili­ta­rily before its offi­cial “release” into inde­pen­dence in order to secure its power in the long term.


Portu­guese fascism was over­thrown in the Carna­tion Revo­lu­tion in April 1974. The follo­wing year, the last Portu­guese colo­nies in Africa secu­red their inde­pen­dence. The libe­ra­tion move­ments in Mozam­bi­que, Angola, and the other colo­nial terri­to­ries played a central role in over­thro­wing the fascist dicta­tor­ship. Through their fight­ing, they massi­vely overst­ret­ched the Portu­guese mili­tary and the state budget, thus crea­ting a revo­lu­tio­nary situa­tion in the metro­po­lis, which progres­sive offi­cers and poli­ti­cal orga­ni­sa­ti­ons were then able to successfully control.

Portu­gal, a foun­ding member of NATO, was supplied with arma­ments by its allies (inclu­ding West German rifles and warships) before and during the colo­nial wars. This gave the Sala­zar regime – which was not willing to cede its so-called “over­seas terri­to­ries” peacefully – a great initial mili­tary advan­tage over those campaig­ning for inde­pen­dence in the colo­nies. Subse­quently, the Part­ido Afri­cano para a Inde­pen­dên­cia da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC), the MPLA, and finally FRELIMO had no other way out of the oppres­sion than to declare armed war on the colo­niser, despite the unequal balance of power. The socia­list states reco­g­nised this fact and began to support the anti-colo­nial libe­ra­tion struggle with weapons and mili­tary trai­ning in the mid-1960s. This was not a straight­for­ward process; in the GDR in parti­cu­lar, there were a number of conside­ra­ti­ons that led to caution and restraint in mili­tary support until 1967 (and partly beyond). Over time, howe­ver, poli­ti­cal confi­dence grew and, thanks to closer rela­ti­ons with the libe­ra­tion move­ments, the supply of “non-civi­lian” assis­tance was secured.

The effects of the Sino-Soviet split were also clearly felt in the Portu­guese colo­nies. While the Mozam­bican libe­ra­tion front FRELIMO, for exam­ple, was able to exploit the rivalry to exert pres­sure on the socia­list states and demand more support from all sides, the split undoub­tedly under­mi­ned the unity of the anti-impe­ria­list struggle and even encou­ra­ged bloody clas­hes between diffe­rent libe­ra­tion move­ments within some count­ries, as was parti­cu­larly evident in Angola.

With regard to the Carna­tion Revo­lu­tion, it should not be unde­re­sti­ma­ted that East German weapons and non-mili­tary support for the libe­ra­tion strug­gles in Mozam­bi­que, Angola and Guinea-Bissau not only had an impact in Africa, but also influen­ced signi­fi­cant deve­lo­p­ments in Europe. Socia­list soli­da­rity thus made an important contri­bu­tion to the weak­e­ning of Portu­guese colo­nia­lism and the over­throw of Portu­guese fascism.