THE GERMAN WORKERS’ MOVEMENT AND THE STRUGGLE FOR A NEUTRAL, DEMOCRATIC GERMANY

21 April 2022

Matthew Read

“Day of Unity”: 1st of May demons­tra­tion in Berlin, 1946

The following arti­cle was inspi­red by respon­ses to the first publi­ca­tion in the IFDDR’s series “Studies on the DDR”. Risen from the Ruins sket­ched out the origins and trajec­tory of the German Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic and high­ligh­ted  central features of its socia­list society. To deepen that analy­sis, we have recently under­ta­ken a more thorough inves­ti­ga­tion into the circum­s­tan­ces that led to the divi­sion of Germany and the deve­lo­p­ment of socia­list stra­te­gies during this decisive period. Our findings are presen­ted in the following arti­cle along­side open ques­ti­ons that will require both further rese­arch and collec­tive analy­sis in order to draw out concrete lessons. The IFDDR thus welco­mes any contri­bu­ti­ons to a construc­tive discus­sion and debate on these issues, whether in the comments below or by email: kontakt@ifddr.org

The Socia­list Unity Party (SED), which led the German Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic from 1949 to 1989, was foun­ded in April 1946, just over three-quar­ters of a century ago. The estab­lis­hed narra­tive today tells of a group of Moscow-control­led commu­nists retur­ning to Berlin in 1945 to snuff out the social demo­crats, peel off a sepa­ra­tist state and erect a Soviet-style regime in “East Germany”.

 

The evidence, howe­ver, reve­als quite a diffe­rent story: following the libe­ra­tion from fascism in May 1945, German socia­lists and commu­nists set out to estab­lish a neutral, parlia­men­tary repu­blic in which an alli­ance of anti­fa­scist parties – a diverse Popu­lar Front – would shape the future of the coun­try. It was the aspi­ra­tion of many members of the German workers’ move­ment that the united working class would, within this new parlia­men­tary frame­work, be free to win over the people to the socia­list cause. This stra­tegy of a gradual and rela­tively peace­ful path to socia­lism was deve­lo­ped for the speci­fic condi­ti­ons present in post-war Germany.

 

Yet the nation’s histo­ri­cal deve­lo­p­ment was famously charac­te­ri­sed by a sharp divi­sion between the capi­ta­list West and the socia­list East. In outlining the events that led to this divi­sion and high­ligh­t­ing aspects that are often omit­ted in prevai­ling accounts today, this arti­cle seeks to examine the deve­lo­p­ment of socia­list stra­te­gies within their histo­ri­cal context and draw out lessons concer­ning the gene­ral contra­dic­tions latent in socie­tal transformations.

 

The main period in focus here (1945–1952) also marks the forma­tive years of Trans­at­lan­ti­cism and the crea­tion of the so-called “secu­rity archi­tec­ture” that has conti­nued to shape rela­ti­ons in Europe long after the end of the Cold War. Reco­gnis­ing the origins and purpose of this archi­tec­ture is vital for under­stan­ding deve­lo­p­ments in Europe today.

The fatal division of the German working class

The post-war stra­te­gies of German socia­lists and commu­nists were largely a reac­tion to the split in the workers’ move­ment at the begin­ning of the 20th century. By 1912, the Social Demo­cra­tic Party of Germany (SPD) had estab­lis­hed itself as the stron­gest working-class party in Europe, secu­ring over a third of the vote and beco­m­ing the largest faction in the German parlia­ment. Inter­nal divi­si­ons had, howe­ver, already begun to frac­ture the party, most famously between refor­mist and revo­lu­tio­nary tenden­cies. With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the party ruptu­red along these pre-exis­ting lines of divi­sion. Right-wing social demo­crats endor­sed Kaiser Wilhelm’s call for a cross-class truce (“I no longer see poli­ti­cal parties; I only see Germans!”) and voted for credits to fund the war. Anti-war members of the SPD denoun­ced the party’s leaders­hip and went on to form their own orga­ni­sa­ti­ons in the years that follo­wed. There were attempts to unite both refor­mist and revo­lu­tio­nary anti-war tenden­cies under the banner of the Inde­pen­dent Social Demo­cra­tic Party of Germany (USPD), but they proved inef­fec­tive at halting the war.

 

By 1918 it was clear that the war effort was running out of steam. After spora­dic strikes throughout that year, a wide-spread revolt broke out amongst German soldi­ers and workers in Novem­ber. In the power vacuum that follo­wed the abdi­ca­tion of the Kaiser, revo­lu­tio­na­ries within the USPD broke away to form the Commu­nist Party of Germany (KPD) and sought to secure power for the soldi­ers’ and workers’ coun­cils that had emer­ged. Right-wing Social Demo­crat leaders moved to prevent a social revo­lu­tion of the kind seen in Russia a year prior. Fried­rich Ebert, the leader of the SPD, assu­red the mili­ta­rist Junker class (the landed aristo­cracy) that his party would merely erect a new repu­bli­can façade to the old social order.[1] In return, the Junkers would commit the troops under their command – the so-called Frei­korps – to Ebert’s government so that the commu­nist upri­sings throughout Germany could be quel­led. Thousands of revo­lu­tio­na­ries, inclu­ding Karl Lieb­knecht and Rosa Luxem­burg, were killed in the subse­quent months.

 

The SPD ther­eby secu­red its posi­tion within the new German state (the “Weimar Repu­blic”) and the split in the workers’ move­ment had been cemen­ted. The KPD reco­ve­red from the wave of repres­sion and conti­nued to agitate for prole­ta­rian revo­lu­tion. In Decem­ber 1920, 400,000 members of the USPD merged with KPD, where­af­ter the USPD faded from the poli­ti­cal scene. The SPD main­tai­ned its alli­ance with the proper­tied clas­ses and repeatedly mobi­li­zed the forces of the state to quash a series of revo­lu­tio­nary upri­sings throughout the 1920s.

 

With the crash of the capi­ta­list world economy in the early 1930s and incre­a­sing unrest among the unem­ployed and pauperi­zed workers, the proper­tied clas­ses began to consi­der more extreme forms of rule to secure their rate of profit and shore up the exis­ting econo­mic order. Coal and steel magna­tes such as Emil Kirdorf, Fritz Thys­sen and Albert Vögler began subsi­di­sing the reac­tion­ary forces gathe­ring around Hitler.[2] Fascism repu­dia­ted the idea of class struggle and instead upheld monistic ideals: “Eine Volks­ge­mein­schaft ohne Klas­sen”[3] (one people without clas­ses). Rich or poor, all “true” Germans were said to be part of a harmo­nious whole. Corpo­ra­ti­ons such as I.G. Farben and Krupp, along­side bankers and insurance compa­nies, soon joined this ultra-natio­na­list band­wa­gon, pouring signi­fi­cant sums into the coffers of Hitler’s party.

 

The deep divi­sion in the workers’ move­ment proved fatal in the struggle against the rising fascist tide. The SPD equa­ted commu­nists with the fascists and refu­sed to work with the KPD at every step. They instead main­tai­ned their alli­ance with the conser­va­tive forces that would even­tually hand power to Hitler in 1933.[4] For its part, the KPD strug­gled to produce a clear analy­sis of fascism, viewing social demo­cracy as a form of “social fascism”. The commu­nists even­tually under­took initia­ti­ves to unite the working class in a “prole­ta­rian unity front” against Nazism, but it was too late. In Novem­ber 1932, on the eve of the fascist seizure of power, the two workers’ parties secu­red 13 million votes, but they were split: the SPD obtai­ned 7.2 million and the KPD 5.98 million. The Nazis recei­ved 11.7 million votes.

Elec­tion posters. Left: SPD (1932). Right: KPD (1928), the sign reads “Through coali­tion towards socialism”

Hois­ted into power by the mono­po­lists in 1933, the fascists summa­rily deci­ma­ted the workers’ move­ment. Trade unions were shat­te­red, workers’ asso­cia­ti­ons outla­wed, and most SPD and KPD func­tio­n­a­ries either fled the coun­try or were impr­i­soned in concen­tra­tion camps. Mini­mum wages, over­time pay, and work­place safety laws were there­af­ter abolis­hed. Sections of the form­erly orga­ni­zed working class conti­nued to resist fascist rule from within Germany, but they remai­ned scat­te­red and cut off from their comra­des abroad.

The development of a new strategy: an antifascist-democratic German republic

In Janu­ary 1935, commu­nist and workers’ parties conve­ned in Moscow for the 7th World Congress of the Commu­nist Inter­na­tio­nal (Comin­tern). Reflec­ting on the fail­ure to prevent the rise of fascism, the dele­ga­tes conclu­ded that the tactic of the “prole­ta­rian unity front” had been inade­quate and a new approach revol­ving around an “anti­fa­scist popu­lar front” was formu­la­ted. The new tactic sought to mobi­lize the broa­dest layers of society – even amongst the bour­geoi­sie – to resist fascism and the threat of war. The workers’ front was to operate as the nucleus of the broa­der, class-plura­list popu­lar front. The tactic was subse­quently employed in several coun­tries, most nota­bly in Spain and France.

 

Following the Comin­tern congress, exiled KPD leaders held two confe­ren­ces in which a popu­lar front tactic was deve­lo­ped and applied to the natio­nal condi­ti­ons in Germany. At the 1935 “Brussels Confe­rence”[5], the KPD criti­ci­zed its previous rela­ti­ons with the SPD and its atti­tude towards bour­geois demo­cracy in the face of fascism. “One-sided, secta­rian and outda­ted” views or orien­ta­ti­ons were to be correc­ted.[6] “All parts of the working class and its orga­ni­sa­ti­ons, the peas­an­try, the intel­li­gent­sia, the small busi­ness owners, and all other oppon­ents of the Hitler regime – right into the bour­geoi­sie” had to be united in the anti­fa­scist struggle. The immediate objec­tive was the over­throwal of the Hitler regime and the estab­lish­ment of a “free, anti­fa­scist German state”.

 

The following KPD confe­rence was held in France[7] in 1939. Here, the popu­lar front tactic was deve­lo­ped into a broa­der stra­tegy for a post-fascist Germany. In a reso­lu­tion titled “The path to the over­throwal of Hitler and the struggle for the new, demo­cra­tic repu­blic” the party declared:

 

“The new demo­cra­tic repu­blic, howe­ver, in contrast to the Weimar Repu­blic, will root out fascism, deprive it of its mate­rial basis through the expro­pria­tion of fascist trust capi­tal and, again in contrast to the Weimar Repu­blic, create staunch defen­ders of demo­cra­tic free­doms and rights among person­nel in the army, police and civil service. In the new demo­cra­tic repu­blic, in contrast to Weimar, the upper bour­geoi­sie will not be able to direct its econo­mic and poli­ti­cal attacks against the people under the guise of a coali­tion with a workers’ party, but instead the united working class, toge­ther with the peas­ants, the middle class and the intel­li­gent­sia in the Popu­lar Front, will deter­mine the fate of the coun­try.”[8]

 

Thus, the popu­lar front tactic was expan­ded into a stra­tegy not only for over­thro­wing the Hitler regime, but also for carry­ing out a rigo­rous “anti­fa­scist-demo­cra­tic trans­for­ma­tion” and construc­ting a funda­ment­ally new state in Germany. This new repu­blic would complete what the Novem­ber Revo­lu­tion from 1918/19 had failed to, namely a thorough bour­geois revo­lu­tion. Yet it was to be led not by the bour­geoi­sie but by the united working class in a Popu­lar Front with the other anti­fa­scist forces in society.

 

Accord­ing to the reso­lu­tion, the new stra­tegy was not an “aban­don­ment by the working class of the struggle for socia­lism,” but rather the acknow­led­ge­ment that fascist rule in Nazi Germany – where anti-commu­nism was a state doctrine – would drasti­cally set back the socia­list cause. Only a gradual tran­si­tion towards socia­lism would be possi­ble under these condi­ti­ons: “With a Germany led by the Popu­lar Front, the socia­list and commu­nist workers and orga­ni­sa­ti­ons will have full free­dom to win the majo­rity of the people to the socia­list goal.” The anti­fa­scist-demo­cra­tic repu­blic would thus “pave the way to socialism”.

This stra­tegy was also in line with the geopo­li­ti­cal inte­rests of the Soviet government, who sought above all else to neutra­lise the German impe­ria­lism that had insti­ga­ted two world wars within the first half of the 20th century.[9] Germany was not only a large central Euro­pean state straddling the border between East and West, but it was also one of the most indus­tria­li­sed coun­tries in the world with a nume­ri­cally strong working class and excep­tio­nal labour produc­ti­vity. A power­ful workers’ move­ment opera­ting freely within a parlia­men­tary frame­work could act as a safe­guard against a recon­ci­lia­tion between the German bour­geoi­sie and the West on an anti-commu­nist basis.[10] Thus, when nego­tia­ting the future of Germany with its allies in the anti-Hitler coali­tion, the Soviet government set out to secure condi­ti­ons as favoura­ble as possi­ble for the estab­lish­ment of a neutral, parlia­men­tary Germany.

A reunited working class and a disempowered bourgeoisie

Following the uncon­di­tio­nally surren­der of the Wehr­macht to the anti-Hitler coali­tion on 8 May 1945, Germany was divi­ded into occup­a­tion zones as laid out at the Yalta Confe­rence in Febru­ary 1945. The Allies were agreed that Germany must be preven­ted from star­ting anot­her war, but there was no consen­sus about how this was to be achie­ved. The UK had pushed for the parti­tion of Germany since 1941 and the US since 1943.[11] The Soviets, in contrast, had refrai­ned from any commit­ment to such a parti­tion. A neutral, demi­li­ta­ri­sed Germany aligned with neit­her East nor West remai­ned the Soviet’s prefer­red solu­tion, yet their main concern during the war years was main­tai­ning cohe­sion in the anti-Hitler coalition.

 

At a subse­quent confe­rence in Pots­dam in August 1945, Allied leaders signed an agree­ment stating that Germany would initi­ally be gover­ned by four mili­tary admi­nis­tra­ti­ons but “regar­ded as a single econo­mic entity”. The Pots­dam Agree­ment also stipu­la­ted the basic poli­ti­cal guide­li­nes to be carried out by the US, British, French, and Soviets in their zones. These were the “four Ds”: denazi­fi­ca­tion to remove all fascists from rele­vant posi­ti­ons and punish war crimi­nals; demi­li­ta­ri­sa­tion to comple­tely disarm and destroy the German arms indus­try; demo­cra­tiz­a­tion to rest­ruc­ture public life; and decen­tra­li­sa­tion to crush “the exis­ting exces­sive concen­tra­tion of econo­mic power, embo­died espe­cially in the form of cartels, syndi­ca­tes, trusts and other mono­poly asso­cia­ti­ons”. The “four Ds” meant nothing less than the uproo­ting of German impe­ria­lism and the crea­tion of a demi­li­ta­ri­sed, de-mono­po­li­sed Germany.

The four occup­a­tion zones in Germany following the Second World War

On 10 June 1945, the Soviet Mili­tary Admi­nis­tra­tion autho­ri­zed the estab­lish­ment of demo­cra­tic poli­ti­cal parties in the Soviet Occu­p­ied Zone (SOZ). Anti­fa­scists remer­ged from exile, under­ground networks, and concen­tra­tion camps to orga­nise the first parties: the KPD, SPD, Chris­tian Demo­crats (CDU) and Libe­ral Demo­crats (LDPD). In accordance with the stra­tegy deve­lo­ped in exile, the KPD publis­hed an appeal on 11 June 1945:

 

“Toge­ther with the dest­ruc­tion of the Hitler regime it is necessary to complete the demo­cra­ti­sa­tion of Germany, the bour­geois-demo­cra­tic trans­for­ma­tion which had begun in 1848. It is necessary to comple­tely elimi­nate the feudal remnants and to destroy the reac­tion­ary Prus­sian mili­ta­rism with all its econo­mic and poli­ti­cal offshoots.

 

We are of the opinion that impo­sing the Soviet system on Germany would be wrong because this does not corre­spond to the present condi­ti­ons of deve­lo­p­ment in Germany.

 

On the contrary, we are of the opinion that the decisive inte­rests of the German people in the present situa­tion dictate a diffe­rent path for Germany, namely, the path of estab­li­shing an anti­fa­scist, demo­cra­tic regime, a parlia­men­tary-demo­cra­tic repu­blic with all demo­cra­tic rights and free­doms for the people.”

With the dest­ruc­tion of the Third Reich, KPD leaders reco­gni­zed that the German bour­geoi­sie was poli­ti­cally and mili­ta­rily disem­powe­red. In other words, for the first time in Germany’s modern history, the capi­ta­list class was unable to use the forces of the state to suppress the prole­ta­rian-socia­list move­ment. The “four Ds”, moreo­ver, would cement this fact and prevent the upper bour­geoi­sie from regai­ning control by exten­ded demo­cracy into the econo­mic sphere. Accord­ing to leading KPD func­tion­ary and theo­re­ti­cian Anton Acker­mann, these circum­s­tan­ces could open a peace­ful parlia­men­tary path to socia­lism in Germany:

 

“It is our misfor­tune that the Hitler regime was not over­tur­ned by a revo­lu­tio­nary, anti-fascist-demo­cra­tic uphea­val from within. But, accord­ing to the decisi­ons of the Pots­dam Confe­rence, the reac­tion­ary Prus­sian-German mili­ta­rism is to be liqui­da­ted down to the last vestige. … The German people are assu­red the possi­bi­lity of buil­ding a new demo­cra­tic Germany. Conse­quently, the ques­tion of the way forward resol­ves itself into the following further ques­tion: If the new demo­cra­tic state deve­lops as a new instru­ment of violence in the hands of the reac­tion­ary forces, then the peace­ful tran­si­tion to socia­list trans­for­ma­tion is impos­si­ble. If, howe­ver, the anti­fa­scist-demo­cra­tic repu­blic deve­lops as a state of all labou­ring masses under the leaders­hip of the working class, then the peace­ful road to socia­lism is quite possi­ble, inso­far as the use of violence against the (inci­dent­ally perfectly legal, perfectly lawful) claim of the working class to power is exclu­ded.”[12]

As such, the new anti­fa­scist-demo­cra­tic repu­blic would possess a diffe­rent class character:

 

“It would be chil­dish, of course, to speak as if this demo­cracy with multi­ple parties, with a consti­tu­tion, as if this demo­cra­tic repu­blic would be anything like a repu­blic of the old, bour­geois-capi­ta­list type. No, this is a kind of demo­cracy, a demo­cra­tic repu­blic, as Lenin envi­sa­ged it in 1905, as a state which is also a class state, but a class state in the hands of the workers and peas­ants.”[13]

As the KPD leaders­hip unders­tood it, this was the parti­cu­lar histo­ri­cal junc­tion at which Germany’s progres­sive forces stood in the immediate after­math of the war. For this parlia­men­tary-demo­cra­tic path to socia­lism to be success­ful, the orga­nised working class needed to reunite:

 

“Only the unifi­ca­tion of the KPD and the SPD, and with it the growth of the socia­list forces to a million active comra­des, can guaran­tee that it is not the reac­tion­ary upper bour­geoi­sie but the working class and the labou­ring people who deter­mine the course of further development.…

 

If, before the victory of the workers over the bour­geoi­sie, Germany succeeds in estab­li­shing the poli­ti­cal and orga­ni­sa­tio­nal unity of the workers’ move­ment on the basis of consis­tent Marxism, this circum­s­tance will also shape the further poli­ti­cal deve­lo­p­ment in a substan­ti­ally diffe­rent way than after the victory of the Octo­ber Revo­lu­tion in Russia, which saw the victory of the Bols­he­vik party and the defeat and even­tual crus­hing of the Mens­he­viks (which had become a coun­ter-revo­lu­tio­nary party). In this case, a pecu­lia­rity of the German deve­lo­p­ment may be that a stron­ger (and conse­quently shar­per) inter­nal struggle need not break out in the working class and the labou­ring people after their class victory over the bour­geoi­sie. Such a fact should also result in a rapid unfol­ding of consis­tent socia­list demo­cracy.”[14]

Exiled social demo­crats such as Max Fech­ner had already advo­ca­ted for the crea­tion of “a united organ of the German working class” in the final days of the war.[15] An Execu­tive Commit­tee of the SPD was elec­ted in Berlin on 11 June 1945. Its foun­ding decla­ra­tion called for the “orga­ni­sa­tio­nal unity of the German working class” and the Commit­tee there­af­ter opted to join a four-party coali­tion in the SOZ with the KPD, CDU and LDPD to form to “the anti­fa­scist-demo­cra­tic bloc” in August 1945.

 

In April 1946, the SPD and KPD merged to form the Socia­list Unity Party (SED) in the SOZ. This unifi­ca­tion took place after months of conten­tious deba­tes in which deca­des of intra-class diffe­ren­ces were thras­hed out. There was dissen­sion within both parties – the mutual aver­sion from the Weimar years had not disap­peared. Yet, after 12 years of fascist rule, there was broad support amongst both parties’ bases for recti­fy­ing past mista­kes and closing the ranks of the working class.[16] The social demo­crats remai­ned parti­cu­larly split over the unifi­ca­tion ques­tion, but the KPD’s thesis of a parlia­men­tary-demo­cra­tic path to socia­lism helped to bridge the divide for many left-wing members.

1st of May demons­tra­tion in Berlin, one week after the foun­ding of the SED in 1946

The SED’s foun­ding texts make it clear that, far from aiming to erect a “commu­nist dicta­tor­s­hip” or peel away an East German sepa­ra­tist state, the party sought to work “with all its energy against sectio­n­a­list tenden­cies for the econo­mic, cultu­ral and poli­ti­cal unity of Germany”. The “struggle for socia­lism” was to take place within a parlia­men­tary-demo­cra­tic repu­blic from where the SED would have the free­dom to win over the people. Yet, if the capi­ta­list class within Germany attemp­ted to prevent or reverse the anti­fa­scist-demo­cra­tic trans­for­ma­tion, the orga­nised working class would not hesi­tate to engage in open class struggle once again:

 

“The funda­men­tal prere­qui­site for the estab­lish­ment of the socia­list social order is the conquest of poli­ti­cal power by the working class. In doing so, it allies itself with the rest of the working people. The Socia­list Unity Party of Germany is figh­t­ing for this new state on the soil of the demo­cra­tic repu­blic. The distinc­tive situa­tion in Germany at present, which has arisen with the break-up of the reac­tion­ary state appa­ra­tus of violence and the buil­ding of a demo­cra­tic state on a new econo­mic basis, inclu­des the possi­bi­lity of preven­ting the reac­tion­ary forces from stan­ding in the way of the final libe­ra­tion of the working class by the means of violence and civil war. The Socia­list Unity Party of Germany stri­ves for the demo­cra­tic road to socia­lism; but it will resort to revo­lu­tio­nary means if the capi­ta­list class leaves the soil of demo­cracy.”[17]

In the “Mani­festo to the German People”[18], publis­hed that same month, the SED expli­ci­tly welco­med private petty-capi­ta­list actors and proc­lai­med “No one-party system”. Yet for the parlia­men­tary-demo­cra­tic path to succeed, it was necessary to carry out the “four Ds” and prevent mono­poly capi­tal from regai­ning control of the state. The Soviet Mili­tary Admi­nis­tra­tion (SMAD), toge­ther with the anti­fa­scist-demo­cra­tic bloc, thus carried out an exten­sive land reform to dismantle large Junker esta­tes and redis­tri­bute land to more than half a million land­less peas­ants. A broad indus­try reform was initia­ted to divest “war crimi­nals and those inte­res­ted in war” of econo­mic power. Mono­po­listic enter­pri­ses were expro­pria­ted and trans­fer­red into “people’s property”. The natio­na­li­sed indus­trial sector was to operate along­side smal­ler private capi­ta­list enter­pri­ses.[19] Unrepen­tant members of the former Nazi party were remo­ved from all areas of society inclu­ding the state, police, medi­cine, law, and culture. Compre­hen­sive social insurance and health care systems were estab­lis­hed along­side workers’ and peas­ants’ colle­ges to dismantle class barri­ers. The tenu­red civil service caste was abolis­hed, and social pola­ri­sa­tion largely elimi­na­ted. These measu­res lent the anti­fa­scist-demo­cra­tic bloc broad support amongst the working masses in these years.[20]

 

The Pots­dam Agree­ment was thus rigo­rous and swiftly imple­men­ted in the SOZ – the mate­rial basis of German impe­ria­lism had been eradi­ca­ted by the end of 1946.

Restoration in the West

The deve­lo­p­ment in the Western occup­a­tion zones took a very diffe­rent path. As in the SOZ, there was a broad consen­sus amongst diverse groups and parties in Western Germany that the capi­ta­list econo­mic order had lost its credi­bi­lity. Over a decade of fascist rule and the dest­ruc­tion left by the war had made this evident. Calls for the socia­li­sa­tion of key indus­tries and elimi­na­tion of mono­poly capi­tal could be heard from not only the commu­nists, social demo­crats, and trade unions – even the conser­va­tive CDU party disavo­wed capi­ta­lism in their 1947 “Ahle­ner” programme and propa­ga­ted “Chris­tian socia­lism”. Yet despite these convic­tions, Western mili­tary admi­nis­tra­ti­ons soon began obst­ruc­ting popu­lar socia­li­sa­tion and land reform initia­ti­ves that had been allo­wed for (and in fact prescri­bed) in the Pots­dam Agree­ment.[21] Attempts to estab­lish a united cross-indus­try trade union were also hinde­red by the autho­ri­ties. Only decen­tra­li­sed trade unions would be allo­wed in the Western zones.[22] Efforts to merge the SPD and KPD were simi­larly hampe­red, as meetings and demons­tra­ti­ons promo­ting the merger were banned. Right-wing forces within the SPD were assis­ted by the British admi­nis­tra­tion in erec­ting a sepa­rate west German party organ to exclude pro-merger voices and rival the SPD Execu­tive Commit­tee in Berlin. The state governments in the Western zones that had been led by Popu­lar Fronts (cross-party coali­ti­ons ranging from the CDU to the KPD) also succum­bed to the growing Red Scare by the end of 1947.[23]

State elec­tion poster in the British zone (1947) – “Two-thirds of voters in Hessen voted for socia­li­sa­tion [of key indus­tries]. Be like them, vote SPD.” The socia­li­sa­tion policy was never imple­men­ted in the West German state of Hessen.

These deve­lo­p­ments reveal that the KPD’s post-war assess­ment of Germany had been correct in one sense: broad sections of the German popu­la­tion were indeed calling for an anti­fa­scist and anti-mono­po­listic trans­for­ma­tion of the coun­try. Yet what their assess­ment had unde­re­sti­ma­ted was the haste and cohe­sion with which the capi­ta­list powers would move to prohi­bit popu­lar initia­ti­ves and disre­gard the Pots­dam Agree­ment. By stif­ling the workers’ move­ment (both the trade union move­ment and the SPD-KPD merger), the Western admi­nis­tra­ti­ons also ensu­red that these initia­ti­ves remai­ned uncoor­di­na­ted and diffuse. The mono­po­listic indus­tries and Junker esta­tes were ther­eby left unal­te­red in the Western zones, and this under­mi­ned the very basis of the anti­fa­scist, demo­cra­tic stra­tegy. The working class remai­ned divi­ded and weak, while the upper bour­geoi­sie retai­ned their grip on the economy.

 

In hind­sight, it is clear that key play­ers within the Western powers never had any serious inten­ti­ons of coope­ra­ting with the Soviets: The US and UK had assu­med until the end of 1944 that their forces alone would occupy Germany after Nazi capi­tu­la­tion.[24] Yet, with the rapid advance of the Red Army through eastern Europe, Western leaders began secretly explo­ring ways of “contai­ning” Soviet influ­ence. Two of the now known examp­les were “Opera­tion Sunrise” (Febru­ary-May 1945) and “Opera­tion Unthin­ka­ble” (May 1945), where Western intel­li­gence services had explo­red the possi­bi­lity of unit­ing with Wehr­macht divi­si­ons to hinder the Soviet advance.[25]

These opera­ti­ons were ulti­mately deemed too risky and Western leaders conce­ded that Soviet influ­ence would extend inside Germany.[26] They there­af­ter adop­ted a stra­tegy of “contain­ment”. As top US diplo­mat George Kennan wrote in an inter­nal docu­ment in the summer of 1945, “Better a parti­tio­ned Germany, of which at least the western part acts as a buffer for the forces of tota­li­ta­ria­nism, than a united Germany which lets these forces again reach the North Sea.”[27] A West German sepa­ra­tist state was thus to act as a bulwark against the socia­list advance and it was pres­um­a­bly for this reason that Western leaders refu­sed the Soviet propo­sal from 30 July 1945 for the forma­tion of a unitary German central admi­nis­tra­tion with quasi-govern­men­tal func­tions to work along­side the Allies’ mili­tary administrations.

 

This contain­ment stra­tegy could not risk an anti-mono­po­listic, parlia­men­tary repu­blic unfol­ding in Germany, for this would likely pave the way for socia­list deve­lo­p­ment. As Erich Köhler, the first Presi­dent of the West German parlia­ment, later said, “We reject the unity of Germany if this allows the socia­list forces to rule over the whole coun­try.” Thus, regard­less of the population’s wishes, the Western mili­tary admi­nis­tra­ti­ons set out to reimpose mono­poly rela­ti­ons so that bour­geois rule could be resto­red. In March 1946, a month before the SED was foun­ded in the SOZ, Chur­chill deli­ve­red his “Iron Curtain” speech in which he contras­ted “the liber­ties enjoyed by indi­vi­dual citi­zens throughout the British Empire” with “tota­li­ta­rian control” in Eastern Europe and warned that “commu­nist fifth columns” in the West consti­tu­ted a “peril to Chris­tian civilisation”.

 

When chal­len­ged about their unwil­ling­ness to imple­ment the “four Ds”, Western offi­cials argued that the Pots­dam Agree­ment merely repre­sen­ted a confe­rence commu­ni­qué rather than a legally binding treaty. Thus, although they had agreed that “during the period of occup­a­tion, Germany is to be regar­ded as a single econo­mic entity”, the UK and US fused their zones into an “inte­gra­ted econo­mic area” (the “Bizone”) in Janu­ary 1947, crea­ting proto-state organs in Western Germany. The French zone was added in April 1948 to create the “Trizone”.

 

The conser­va­tive parties in Western Germany began purging their ranks of anti-mono­po­list voices. Taking advan­tage of the disor­ga­nised and divi­ded workers’ move­ment in their zones, these parties set out to estab­lish the West German sepa­ra­tist state envi­sa­ged by the US, UK, and France. The figu­rehead of this endea­vour, Konrad Adenauer echoed Kennan when he said, “Better half of Germany whole than the whole of Germany half.”[28] Fascists and members of the capi­ta­list class began leaving the SOZ in these years, reali­sing that more lucra­tive prospects and leni­ent laws awai­ted them in the West. Indeed, many former Nazi cadres found high-ranking posi­ti­ons in the emer­ging West German state.

In March 1947, the US announ­ced the “Truman doctrine”, which made their “contain­ment” stra­tegy the offi­cial policy of the West. The “Marshall Plan” was deve­lo­ped as the econo­mic arm of this doctrine. Presen­ted in June 1947, the Plan envi­sio­ned massive US invest­ment in Western Europe. It would not only provide an outlet for excess US capi­tal following the country’s tran­si­tion from wartime to peace­time produc­tion but would also bind the people of Western Europe to the US econo­mi­c­ally, poli­ti­cally, and ideo­lo­gi­cally.[29] An econo­mic boom in the Trizone could also help to reha­bi­li­tate the free market in the eyes of many West Germans. At the same time, Western admi­nis­tra­ti­ons sought to incre­ase pres­sure on the rava­ged Soviet economy by redu­cing trade and cutting the SOZ off from the coal, iron, and steel produ­ced in the heavily indus­tria­li­sed Ruhr area in Western Germany. The US had also suspen­ded repa­ra­tion payments from their zone to the Soviets in May 1946, again in breach of the Pots­dam Agree­ment. The SOZ had to hence­forth bear this burden alone.

 

To faci­li­tate the Marshall Plan and its stream of US capi­tal into Germany, the Western powers secretly plan­ned to over­haul econo­mic tran­sac­tions in the Trizone. In June 1948, they intro­du­ced a new currency (the “deut­sche Mark”) that was tied to the US-Dollar. This currency reform initi­ally shocked the economy as it swept away price controls but left wages frozen. Months of social unrest follo­wed. In Octo­ber, striking workers in Stutt­gart took to the streets to demand the natio­na­li­sa­tion of primary indus­tries and the intro­duc­tion of a plan­ned economy. In response, the US mili­tary deployed tanks and tear­gas. A month later, on 12 Novem­ber 1948, a massive gene­ral strike invol­ving some 9 million workers (72% of the work­force) para­ly­sed the US and British zones, again calling for the socia­li­sa­tion of large indus­tries.[30] Trizone autho­ri­ties were able to alle­viate the situa­tion by offe­ring conces­si­ons such as flexi­ble price control measu­res and parity finan­cing of health insurance.

“For the unity of Germany” & “An econo­mic policy for those who work and their fami­lies”: Protests against high prices in Munich after the 1948 currency reform (August 1948)

Through this currency reform, an exclu­sive west German econo­mic sphere had been crea­ted in the Trizone. During the same period, the foreign minis­ters of the Western powers had also draf­ted offi­cial plans for the estab­lish­ment of a West German sepa­ra­tist state. The orders were passed along to Trizone offi­cials on 1 July 1948.[31]

 

In Septem­ber of that year, France, the UK, and the Bene­lux states also ente­red the Brussels Treaty Orga­ni­sa­tion, a mili­tary alli­ance aimed against the Soviet Union. The North Atlan­tic Treaty Orga­ni­sa­tion (NATO) was estab­lis­hed seven months later.

A turning point for the SED

The SED and Soviet autho­ri­ties were thus confron­ted with a dilemma. The hope for a mass nati­on­wide move­ment to estab­lish a neutral, demo­cra­tic Germany was quickly disin­te­gra­ting in face of heavy-handed Western mili­tary admi­nis­tra­ti­ons. Despite inten­sive campai­gning, the unifi­ca­tion of the workers’ move­ment had been thwar­ted in the west and popu­lar anti-mono­po­listic initia­ti­ves had been quas­hed. The bour­geoi­sie in the Trizone was once again gaining the upper hand. At the same time, the SOZ had to keep pace with econo­mic deve­lo­p­ment in Western Germany – borders remai­ned open and too great a dispa­rity would lead to econo­mic collapse. With repa­ra­ti­ons to pay and a histo­ri­cally less indus­tria­li­zed terri­tory than Western Germany, the SOZ faced an immense task.

 

The end of 1947 and first half of 1948 marked a turning point. In response to the dete­rio­ra­ting inter­na­tio­nal situa­tion, the Commu­nist Party of the Soviet Union estab­lis­hed the Comin­form in Octo­ber 1947 as an unof­fi­cial Euro­pean succes­sor to the Comin­tern, which had been dissol­ved in 1943 to main­tain cohe­sion in the anti-Hitler coali­tion. Grea­ter poli­ti­cal unity amongst Euro­pean commu­nist parties was to be the answer to the Truman Doctrine. The SED, while not a member of the Comin­form, took the cue and began reori­en­ting itself around Leni­nist orga­ni­sa­tio­nal princi­ples in 1948 – it was to become a “Party of a New Type” model­led after the Bols­he­viks. Empha­sis was placed on ideo­lo­gi­cal clarity (cadre schoo­ling) and party disci­pline. As part of this “Bols­he­vi­sa­tion” process, resistant or apathe­tic members were expel­led from the party and the parity principle in leaders­hip between SPD and KPD was drop­ped. The SED was ther­eby to become more effi­ci­ent and better equip­ped for the inten­si­fy­ing inter­na­tio­nal class struggle.[32]

 

In June 1948, a two-year econo­mic plan (1949–1950) was also drawn up to acce­le­rate econo­mic reco­very and build up a heavy indus­trial base in eastern Germany. This was made a neces­sity after the Western powers halted exports from the indus­trial heart­land of Germany (the Ruhr area). Yet the plan promp­ted the first serious poli­ti­cal dispute within the anti­fa­scist-demo­cra­tic bloc. The LDPD and CDU knew that a concen­tra­tion of invest­ments in heavy indus­try would reduce invest­ments in the consu­mer indus­tries, where their poli­ti­cal base (the petty bour­geoi­sie) resi­ded. After intense debate, the SED prevai­led with the two-year plan and the party’s ascen­dancy in the SOZ was cemen­ted.[33]

“Deve­lop the SED into a Party of a New Type!” – An SED Confe­rence in Janu­ary 1949

In March 1947, before a sepa­rate econo­mic sphere had been estab­lis­hed in the Western zones, the SED theo­re­ti­cian Acker­mann had asses­sed the situa­tion in Germany:

 

“If we had the same or at least simi­lar condi­ti­ons in the whole of Germany as in the Soviet occup­a­tion zone, we could reco­gnise with a calm and good consci­ence: The demo­cra­tic road to socia­lism is also assu­red for Germany. Unfor­tu­n­a­tely, howe­ver, we do not have the same condi­ti­ons in all of Germany. Unfor­tu­n­a­tely, even in larger parts of Germany the econo­mic power of capi­ta­list reac­tion has not been elimi­na­ted, and this is ulti­mately the decisive factor for every Marxist. There is no demo­cra­tic land reform, no indus­trial reform, and so on. … How this struggle for the unity of Germany and for the reor­ga­ni­sa­tion of Germany will end, no one can predict with certainty today.”

Yet by the end of 1948, the resto­ra­tion of mono­poly capi­tal in the Trizone was unde­nia­ble. By Septem­ber 1948, after his party had been “bols­he­vi­zed”, Acker­mann distanced hims­elf from the ques­tion of “a parti­cu­lar German path to socia­lism”, citing dete­rio­ra­ting natio­nal and inter­na­tio­nal conditions:

 

“The situa­tion has not stood still since the end of 1945, begin­ning of 1946. We have had new deve­lo­p­ments in the Eastern zone. We are faced with comple­tely new facts in the Western zones, with the fact that they chose a path leading back­wards there, that a reac­tion­ary state appa­ra­tus is being set up anew under the domi­na­tion of foreign impe­ria­list powers, threa­tening every genui­nely demo­cra­tic deve­lo­p­ment … The over­all inten­si­fi­ca­tion of the inter­na­tio­nal class struggle, the expe­ri­en­ces we have made, there­fore allow us to consi­der this ques­tion [of a parti­cu­lar German path to socia­lism] much more acutely than was the case only a short time ago.”[34]

As a conse­quence of capi­ta­list resto­ra­tion in the West, it would not be long before the German bour­geoi­sie would regain poli­ti­cal and mili­tary control there. Indeed, in May 1949, the Trizone offi­cially became a West German sepa­ra­tist state, the Federal Repu­blic of Germany (FRG).[35] The new government clai­med to be the succes­sor of the German Reich and the only legi­ti­mate repre­sen­ta­tive of the German people. The path to a neutral, united Germany had been all but sealed off.[36] The SOZ reac­ted in Octo­ber that year with the estab­lish­ment of the German Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic (GDR) as a basis for workers’ and peas­ants’ power. Socia­lism, howe­ver, remai­ned off the immediate agenda.

 

The estab­lish­ment of the GDR was there­fore the result of an early stra­te­gic defeat for the SED and the Soviets. The Popu­lar Front had simply not been viable in the Western zones, where the capi­ta­list class – prop­ped up by their allies in the North Atlan­tic states – had success­fully preven­ted an anti­fa­scist-demo­cra­tic trans­for­ma­tion. Mono­po­list power had once again been conso­li­da­ted in a bour­geois-parlia­men­tary state, the FRG. The foun­ding of the GDR was the necessary answer to this defeat. The alter­na­tive would have meant total capi­tu­la­tion, rever­sing all progress made in the SOZ since 1945 and allowing the new Western-aligned German impe­ria­lism to extend all the way to the Polish border. The GDR could at least preserve the gains of the anti­fa­scist-demo­cra­tic trans­for­ma­tion in the SOZ and, as the SED and Soviets conti­nued to empha­sise, it would provide a base for the forces conti­nuing the struggle for a united, neutral Germany. Whether or not this struggle had a realistic chance of success, it is likely that the socia­list forces wanted to prevent reac­tion­ary forces from co-opting the “natio­nal move­ment” for their own purpo­ses. The workers’ move­ment thus had to remain the cham­pion of “natio­nal inte­rests”.[37]

 

By the end of the 1940s, the inter­na­tio­nal class conflict showed no signs of abating. Marxist-Leni­nist forces were gaining ground on several fronts, parti­cu­larly in Asia. The US subse­quently began embar­king on “roll­back” missi­ons that went beyond mere “contain­ment”. Covert and overt Western inter­ven­ti­ons were carried out in coun­tries such as Alba­nia (Opera­tion Valu­able, 1949) and Korea (1950) in an attempt to reab­sorb these terri­to­ries into the capi­ta­list orbit.

 

In Europe, the remi­li­ta­riz­a­tion of West Germany – a further viola­tion of the Pots­dam Agree­ment – soon became a watch­word amongst FRG and North Atlan­tic leaders. In Octo­ber 1950, West Germany was autho­ri­zed to estab­lish a provi­sio­nal defense minis­try, and NATO discus­sed plans to incor­po­rate the FRG into the alli­ance. A broad move­ment against remi­li­ta­ri­sa­tion spread throughout West Germany, even amongst bour­geois circles.[38] The rank and file of the trade unions under­pin­ned this resis­tance and, in 1951/52, a popu­lar consul­ta­tion initia­tive on the issue recei­ved some 9 million votes against remi­li­ta­ri­sa­tion, despite being banned.[39] The FRG coun­ter­ac­ted such initia­ti­ves with its newly estab­lis­hed intel­li­gence services (the “Bundes­amt für Verfas­sungs­schutz”). New laws targe­ting those “endan­ge­ring the state” were used to shut down dissent. A ban on the KPD was initia­ted in 1951 and carried out in 1956. The FRG was ther­eby able to form a specia­li­sed armed police service (the “Bundes­grenz­schutz”) in March 1951 as a forerun­ner to the future Bundes­wehr force.

Anti-rear­ma­ment protest in Nurem­berg, 1950 – “Butter rather than canons, higher wages rather than divisions”

Elements within the SED and parti­cu­larly the Soviet leaders­hip appeared reluc­tant to accept the situa­tion for what it was. It is diffi­cult to discern whether this was due to false hopes in the progres­sive forces in West Germany or to the afore­men­tio­ned stra­te­gic neces­sity of retai­ning leaders­hip of the natio­nal move­ment. Stalin repeatedly attemp­ted to resus­ci­tate the prospect of a united, non-aligned Germany. The last effort, the famous “Stalin Note” from 10 March 1952, propo­sed a unitary Germany that would retain its own natio­nal armed forces for defence, but would abstain from coali­ti­ons or mili­tary alli­an­ces direc­ted against any state from the anti-Hitler coali­tion. The note was swiftly rejec­ted by Western leaders.[40]

 

Following this rejec­tion, SED leaders travel­led to Moscow in April 1952 to deli­be­rate with Soviet offi­cials. The Soviets conce­ded that the estab­lish­ment of an East German defence force was now a neces­sity. Yet this rear­ma­ment would put addi­tio­nal pres­sure on the GDR’s already strai­ned economy.[41]

 

The dilemma thus remai­ned the same: while the prospects for a united, neutral Germany had essen­ti­ally disap­peared by 1949, Soviet leaders­hip remai­ned adamant that the struggle had to conti­nue. At the same time, this endea­vour could not come at the cost of the GDR’s econo­mic reco­very. A collapse of the new state would make the situa­tion far worse than it already was.

 

The economy of the GDR had hitherto embo­died contra­dic­tory elements. While a signi­fi­cant portion of the country’s indus­trial sector had already been natio­na­li­zed and, since 1948, incre­a­singly inte­gra­ted into centra­li­sed plan­ning, agri­cul­ture remai­ned splin­te­red by small and medium holdings following the SOZ’s land reform in 1945–46. To expand the country’s produc­tive capa­bi­li­ties, it would be necessary to trans­form these holdings into large-scale agri­cul­tu­ral opera­ti­ons. This would ulti­mately require a decision on the rela­ti­ons of produc­tion in the GDR: would agri­cul­ture deve­lop along capi­ta­list lines into esta­tes concen­tra­ted in the hands of a few private indi­vi­du­als or along socia­list lines into produc­tion coope­ra­ti­ves owned and mana­ged by the peas­ants them­sel­ves?[42] In April 1952, the Soviet leaders­hip accord­in­gly appro­ved a tran­si­tion to coope­ra­tive struc­tures in agriculture.

 

Three months later, at its Second Party Congress in July 1952, the SED decla­red that the GDR would “proceed to the construc­tion of socia­lism”.[43] The central aspect of the decla­ra­tion was the gradual forma­tion of agri­cul­tu­ral coope­ra­ti­ves (LPGs) in the coun­try­side.[44] The indus­trial sector, which had already been opera­ting under provi­sio­nal econo­mic plan­ning for several years, was now to be further centra­li­zed. Small and medium private enter­pri­ses conti­nued, howe­ver, to play a key role in the DDR’s economy for the next two deca­des. The estab­lish­ment of a united, neutral Germany remai­ned the long-term stra­te­gic objec­tive of the SED until 1971, when the “natio­nal ques­tion” was deemed closed at the 8th Party Congress.

An artificially divided nation

The concept of an anti­fa­scist-demo­cra­tic trans­for­ma­tion had been first deve­lo­ped in the late 1930s, when the popu­lar front tactic was expan­ded into a broa­der stra­tegy for a post-fascist Germany. With the uncon­di­tio­nal surren­der of the Wehr­macht in May 1945, the German bour­geoi­sie had indeed been poli­ti­cally and mili­ta­rily inca­pa­ci­ta­ted, as the KPD had fore­seen. The issue was, howe­ver, that it was not a domestic popu­lar front, but the armies of the allied powers that libe­ra­ted the coun­try from fascism. Two-thirds of Germany were thereu­pon occu­p­ied by the mili­ta­ries of capi­ta­list powers and the fate of the anti­fa­scist-demo­cra­tic trans­for­ma­tion ulti­mately rested in their hands. Thus, while it is unde­nia­ble that there were widespread anti-mono­po­list convic­tions throughout Germany in the immediate post-war period, the capi­ta­list powers were able to snuff out all attempts to orga­nise and imple­ment popu­lar socia­li­sa­tion demands.

 

It was then possi­ble to reani­mate German impe­ria­lism in the FRG in order to “roll­back” or at least “contain” the socia­list advance. West Germany was there­af­ter tightly bound into the North Atlan­tic project, where it would operate as the forward­most outposts for US hege­mony in Europe, much like South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan in Asia.

 

This early defeat for the SED raises the ques­tion of whether the anti­fa­scist-demo­cra­tic trans­for­ma­tion was still a viable stra­tegy following the end of the war. Was not the idea of a neutral, unitary state emer­ging out of the occu­p­ied zones an illu­sion? Indeed, as soon as the threat of fascism had been contai­ned in early 1945, the capi­ta­list powers resu­med the anti-commu­nist offen­sive they had been leading since 1917. The Allied alli­ance (1941–45) proved to be nothing more than a brief inter­lude in the inter-systemic confron­ta­tion between impe­ria­lism and socialism.

 

The post-war situa­tion was undoub­tedly complex, but it seems clear that by 1947 or 1948 at the latest, the prospects for a neutral, demo­cra­tic Germany had disap­peared enti­rely. The leaders of the SED and parti­cu­larly the Soviet Union were slow to accept this fact. They remai­ned on the back foot throughout the late 1940s, reac­ting to deve­lo­p­ments in Germany rather than deter­mi­ning them. It is worth consi­de­ring here whether the disso­lu­tion of the Comin­tern in 1943 had left the workers’ move­ment disori­en­ted in post-war Europe. Would an earlier stra­te­gic reori­en­ta­tion not have impro­ved the GDR’s star­ting condi­ti­ons for the coming Cold War? Repa­ra­tion payments, howe­ver justi­fied from the Soviet’s natio­nal stand­point, set East Germany’s war-torn produc­tive capa­bi­li­ties far behind those of the West.

 

It is also ques­tion­able whether the popu­lar front stra­tegy offe­red a viable path to socia­lism in the long run. In the SOZ itself, where a genuine popu­lar front had success­fully taken shape in the anti­fa­scist-demo­cra­tic bloc, it was not long before the inte­rests within this broad alli­ance began to diverge. Once decisi­ons had to be made regar­ding the country’s econo­mic trajec­tory (e.g., the two-year plan of 1948), bour­geois elements within the alli­ance put up resis­tance and the SED began to force the issue. The Front conti­nued to operate throughout the GDR’s 40-year exis­tence, and the aligned parties mana­ged to influ­ence key poli­cies in the deca­des that follo­wed, but the domi­nance of the SED was undis­pu­ta­ble after 1948.

 

While these initial stra­te­gies remain open to debate, the socia­list forces in East Germany were ulti­mately able to reori­ent them­sel­ves and – under the protec­tion of the Soviet Union – preserve and conso­li­date their anti­fa­scist-demo­cra­tic trans­for­ma­tion by construc­ting a workers’ and peas­ants’ state. The GDR’s foun­ding circum­s­tan­ces were, howe­ver, far from opti­mal. The envi­sio­ned gradual progres­sion towards socia­lism proved unten­able and a rela­tively swift tran­si­tion to socia­lism was thus set in motion just seven years after the libe­ra­tion from fascism. Rather than embo­dy­ing a neutral buffer zone, Germany was now situa­ted on the front line of an inter­na­tio­nal class conflict. The German people had, further­more, been arti­fi­cially divi­ded and a burning “natio­nal ques­tion” was opened in many minds. Socia­lism in the GDR thus embo­died stark contra­dic­tions that the SED and its allies would struggle to navi­gate in the deca­des that followed.

[1] This was the so-called “Ebert–Groener pact”

[2] See: William L. Shirer (1960) Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Fawcett Crest.

[3] See: Otto Grote­wohl (1945), Woher, wohin?

[4] See Reich Presi­den­tial Elec­tion 1932, where the SPD suppor­ted Hinden­burg, who named Hitler chan­cellor less than a year late.

[5] The confe­rence was in fact held in Moscow but used a misno­mer to throw off the Gestapo.

[6] See: Autoren­kol­lek­tiv (1978), Geschichte der SED, Dietz Verlag.

[7] The “Bern Confe­rence” – anot­her misnomer

[8] See: Klaus Mamm­ach (1974), Die Berner Konfe­renz, Dietz Verlag.

[9] This objec­tive is clear in Soviet commu­ni­ca­tion with the Allied governments from 1941 onwards. See: Wilfried Loth (1994), Stalins unge­lieb­tes Kind and Herbert Graf (2011), Inter­es­sen und Intri­gen: Wer spal­tete Deutschland?

[10] This was the stra­tegy as inter­pre­ted by Kurt Goss­wei­ler (1998), Benja­min Baum­gar­ten und die “Stalin-Note”

[11] Since Churchill’s tele­gram to Stalin on 22 Novem­ber 1941, the UK consist­ently advo­ca­ted for isola­ting Prus­sia from the rest of Germany. The US follo­wed suit, as is evident in the the plans propo­sed by the US Secretary of State Cordell Hull at the Moscow Confe­rence in 1943.

[12] Anton Acker­mann (Febru­ary 1946), Gibt es einen beson­de­ren deut­schen Weg zum Sozia­lis­mus? in Der deut­sche Weg zum Sozia­lis­mus, Das Neue Berlin (2005). While Ackermann’s posi­tion is often presen­ted today as a break with the Soviet line, it is clear that Stalin appro­ved of this approach. SED leader Walter Ulbricht met with Stalin just several days before Ackermann’s arti­cle was publis­hed in Febru­ary 1946 and both agreed on a demo­cra­tic path to socia­lism that would avoid estab­li­shing any dicta­tor­s­hip. See Graf (2011).

[13] Anton Acker­mann (March 1947), Unser Weg zum Sozia­lis­mus in Der deut­sche Weg zum Sozia­lis­mus, Das Neue Berlin (2005).

[14] Anton Acker­mann (Febru­ary 1946)

[15] Cited in Graf (2011).

[16] Atti­tu­des varied in diffe­rent regi­ons across Germany. In Thurin­gia, for example, there was gene­ral consen­sus amongst SPD and KPD members for a unifi­ca­tion. In Berlin, howe­ver, the SPD went through a bitter inter­nal struggle. Yet even here, signi­fi­cant sections of the party were in favour of an alli­ance with the KPD. While modern histo­rio­gra­phies focus almost enti­rely on the coer­cive measu­res employed by certain SMAD offi­cials during this period to write the union off as a “forced merger”, such inci­dents do not refute the fact that there was widespread support for a unity party. This point has been made by histo­ri­ans such as Jörg Roes­ler (2010), Geschichte der DDR and Herbert Graf (2011).

[17] See: Grund­sätze und Ziele der SED from 21 April 1946

[18] See: Mani­fest an das deut­sche Volk, Neues Deutsch­land from 23 April 1946

[19] By 1948, the SOZ’s gross output was compo­sed of 39% from the publicly owned sector, 39% from private small and medium-sized enter­pri­ses, and 22% from Soviet joint stock compa­nies. See: Roes­ler (2010).

[20] Ibid.

[21]Early moves by parties within the Western zones to create legal stipu­la­ti­ons to socia­lise key indus­tries or reform land rela­ti­ons were rejec­ted by the respec­tive mili­tary admi­nis­tra­ti­ons. In Hessen, for example, where the SPD and KPD held a majo­rity in the state government, a consti­tu­tion was draf­ted in which Arti­cle 41 stipu­la­ted the socia­li­sa­tion of key indus­tries and the public admi­nis­tra­tion of banks. Although this Arti­cle in no way viola­ted the princi­ples of the Pots­dam Agree­ment, the US mili­tary admi­nis­tra­tion wanted it remo­ved from the consti­tu­tion. A public refe­ren­dum on Arti­cle 41 in Decem­ber 1946 showed 72% of voters to be in favour. US Gene­ral Lucius Clay nevertheless prohi­bi­ted its imple­men­ta­tion. A plan­ned land reform was simi­larly preven­ted in the US zone. In the British zone, a limi­ted land reform was initia­ted in 1947 after many delays, but it left exis­ting agri­cul­tu­ral struc­tures largely unal­te­red. See: Georg Fülberth (1983), Leit­fa­den durch die Geschichte der Bundes­re­pu­blik, Pahl-Rugen­stein Verlag.

[22]See Herbert Graf (2011)

[23]For example, the state governments of Nord­rhein-West­fa­len (1946–48) and Rhein­land-Pfalz (1946–48)

[24]Wins­ton Chur­chill recoun­ted this assump­tion in his series The Second World War, cited in Graf (2011).

[25]“Opera­tion Sunrise” was initia­ted in Febru­ary 1945, when the US and UK began secret nego­tia­ti­ons with high-ranking SS gene­rals in Switz­er­land. The nego­tia­ti­ons took place with the bles­sings of Himm­ler and Hitler in

the villa of German indus­tria­list Edmund Stin­nes. The Swiss intel­li­gence services and the private atta­ché of Pope Pius XII played media­tory roles. The discus­sion focu­sed on whether the Wehr­macht could form “a common front with the Allies against the advance of the Soviet Union in Europe”. When the Soviets learnt of these meetings, they deman­ded a seat at the table, but were prohi­bi­ted by the US. This event shook Soviet trust in the anti-Hitler coali­tion. The Soviet government, who had hitherto trea­ted US and UK plans to frag­ment Germany with quite reser­va­tions, now openly rejec­ted partition.

“Opera­tion Unthin­ka­ble” was orde­red by Chur­chill after German capi­tu­la­tion in May 1945. The opera­tion explo­red the possi­bi­lity of a surprise attack against Red Army troops in Germany “to impose upon Russia the will of the United States and the British Empire.” Wehr­macht battali­ons were to be remo­bi­li­sed and rear­med for this purpose. See: Herbert Graf (2011), Inter­es­sen und Intri­gen: Wer spal­tete Deutschland?

[26]Chur­chill tele­gram­med to US Presi­dent Truman on 4 June 1945: “I view with profound misgi­vings the retreat of the Ameri­can Army to our line of occup­a­tion in the Central Sector [of Germany], thus brin­ging Soviet power into the heart of Western Europe and the descent of an iron curtain between us and ever­ything to the eastward.”

[27]George Kennan (1982), Memoi­ren eines Diplo­ma­ten cited in Herbert Graf (2011)

[28]Adenauer had dismis­sed the idea of a unified Germany as early as Octo­ber 1945. See Graf (2011)

[29]See: Wilfried Loth (1994), Stalins unge­lieb­tes Kind and See: Georg Fülberth (1983)

[30]This was the largest gene­ral strike since the Kapp Putsch in 1920. It has, howe­ver, been largely eradi­ca­ted from collec­tive memory in Germany. See: Nelli Tügel Inter­view with Uwe Fuhr­mann in Neues Deutsch­land 09.11.2018 and Jörg Roes­ler in der Frei­tag 07.11.2003.

[31]These orders were part of the “Frank­furt Docu­ments” draf­ted at the London Six-Power Confe­rence in early 1948.

[32]See: See: Autoren­kol­lek­tiv (1978), Geschichte der SED, Dietz Verlag.

[33]See: Roes­ler (2010)

[34]Anton Acker­mann (Septem­ber 1948), in Der deut­sche Weg zum Sozia­lis­mus. Ackermann’s self-criti­cism also follo­wed the Yugoslav–Soviet split. Tito had previously profes­sed the idea of a Yugo­s­la­vian path to socialism.

[35]George Kennan, an archi­tect of the Truman Doctrine, admit­ted 50 years later that during nego­tia­ti­ons with the Soviets the West stood on “demands that we knew the Russi­ans would not and could not accept—demands based upon our plans for the setting up of a west German government in which they would have no place”. While Kennan claims to have lobbied for further nego­tia­ti­ons with the Soviets, he reve­als that “formi­da­ble” forces were “arrayed against” him within the State Depart­ment and parti­cu­larly in the French and British governments who were “terri­fied at the thought that there might be a unified Germany not under Western, and predo­mi­nantly Ameri­can, control.” Inci­dent­ally, Kennan also iden­ti­fies Konrad Adenauer as one of the driving forces for a sepa­ra­tist West German state: “Adenauer, who, power­ful and impres­sive figure that he was, viewed the Germans east of the Elbe, I suspect, as having been (the phrase was, I believe, Sigmund Freud’s) ‘bapti­zed late and very badly,’ and had no enthu­si­asm for taking them into the future Germany at all.” See: Kennan (1998), A Letter on Germany

[36]West German Chan­cellor Konrad Adenauer consist­ently deman­ded that the first step to any reuni­fi­ca­tion process would have to be “free elec­tions”. Adenauer bet that the signi­fi­cantly larger West German popu­la­tion – now bene­fit­ting from the massive invest­ment program­mes of the Marshall Plan – would leave DDR voters outn­um­be­red. This, Adenauer belie­ved, would allow all of Germany to be inte­gra­ted into the Western bloc. The SED leaders­hip deman­ded that the first step to reuni­fi­ca­tion must be a bila­te­ral confe­rence between two German governments to nego­tiate the basic socio-econo­mic princi­ples of a reuni­fied state. In other words, the issues at the heart of the Pots­dam Agree­ment – the class charac­ter of the post-war German state – would have to be sett­led before elec­tions could take place. See: Georg Fülberth (1983)

[37]This is an explana­tion offe­red by Goss­wei­ler (1998)

[38]Adenauer’s own inte­rior minis­ter resi­gned in 1950, arguing that remi­li­ta­ri­sa­tion made the reuni­fi­ca­tion of Germany impos­si­ble. Jour­na­lists such as Paul Sethe of the “Frank­fur­ter Allge­mei­nen Zeitung” lost their posi­ti­ons after calling for genuine nego­tia­ti­ons with the Soviets.

[39]See: Georg Fülberth (1983)

[40]The inten­tion behind this note has been greatly dispu­ted. In the West, many accounts initi­ally descri­bed it as a bluff. After 1990, some Western histo­ri­ans such as Loth (1994) argued that the note was genuine, describ­ing it as Stalin’s despe­rate last hope that was ulti­mately under­mi­ned by the SED in July 1952 when “the construc­tion of socia­lism” was announ­ced. Goss­wei­ler (1998) draws on meeting notes taken by Wilhelm Pieck to argue that the Soviet and SED leaders­hip were actually in agree­ment throughout these months that the Western leaders would not seriously enter­tain the idea of reuni­fi­ca­tion. Accord­ing to Goss­wei­ler, the March note thus served to test the power constel­la­tion in the FRG and to force the West to show their true colours.

[41]The “Barra­cked Peop­le’s Police” was estab­lis­hed in July 1952 and the DDR’s defence expen­dit­ure accord­in­gly quadru­pled by mid-1953. The resul­ting finan­cial cutbacks were a signi­fi­cant factor contri­bu­ting to the 17 June protests in 1953. See Roes­ler (2010)

[42]See: Kurt Goss­wei­ler (1998)

[43]This announ­ce­ment had been appro­ved by the Soviet leaders­hip and did not take place behind Stalin’s back as some accounts claim – see Loth (1994). 

[44]There were three types of LPGs in the DDR with vary­ing degrees of collec­ti­viz­a­tion. In contrast to Soviet coope­ra­ti­ves (kolk­hozy), farm­land in the LPGs remai­ned the private property of the indi­vi­dual farmers.

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