“The GDR — the better Germany?” — A LECTURE BY MATTHIAS KRAUSS

An easy ques­tion, though hard to answer

A lecture by Matthias Krauss, given at the confe­rence “The GDR in All-German History — Missed Oppor­tu­nity, Dead End, After­math,” an event orga­ni­zed by Helle Panke e.V. and the Rosa Luxem­burg Foun­da­tion in Berlin on Octo­ber 26, 2021. The author has slightly edited this version, and appro­ved it for publication. 

Ladies and gentle­men, of course I am sitting before you as a lucky man. For not only am I allo­wed to publicly expound here and in front of you, I can also do so on the best and simp­lest topic of the evening: Was the GDR the better Germany?


Nothing could be easier than answe­ring this ques­tion. Let’s look at the balance sheet of the 1988 Olym­pic Games in Seoul. The GDR had rele­ga­ted the USA to third place in the medal haul, and in the coun­try compa­ri­son it ranked second behind the Soviet Union. Thus, in compa­ri­son with the Olym­pic team of the Fede­ral Repu­blic, it was undoub­tedly the better Germany. What this meant is also appa­rent in compa­ri­son with the most recent Olym­pic Games in Tokyo: the all-German team was “far from it”. Since the end of the GDR, compe­ti­tive sports have gone downhill, as have popu­lar sports. The compul­sory subject of sport, which had been part of every direct course of study in the GDR, was abolished. Even 30 years after the “tran­si­tion,” the avai­la­bi­lity of and parti­ci­pa­tion in sports clubs and sports commu­ni­ties in eastern Germany are signi­fi­cantly lower than in the so-called former West German fede­ral states. In 1988, the German East was on the verge of beco­ming the stron­gest sports power in the entire universe, and is now the least athle­tic part of Germany.

Well, objec­tions are to be anti­ci­pa­ted — it was only doping, after all, that gave the GDR its sport­ing succes­ses (and not a wide­spread sport­ing move­ment and deve­lo­p­ment that eclip­ses anything we have seen since). But it is true, that it would be chil­dish to let sport alone be the criter­ion if we want to address the ques­tion of whether the GDR was the better Germany.

So is the answer to this ques­tion perhaps not so easy after all? The GDR did not only outshine the Fede­ral Repu­blic in compe­ti­tive sports. It also banned the beating of child­ren in school, whereas in Germany’s post-war demo­cracy, students were still allo­wed to be beaten for 30 years. In the ten years prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, one million more child­ren were born in East Germany than in the ten years after. In 1990, the East was the youn­gest part of Germany. And after­wards, at breakneck speed, it became the oldest part. Mental illness among school­child­ren has quadru­pled since the fall of commu­nism. Appar­ently, we have gone from a healthy society to a sick one. So was the GDR the better Germany?

A few weeks ago, the Bundes­tag deci­ded that, start­ing in 2026, all child­ren in Germany should have the right to free after-school care until they start 5th grade. What none of the parties had mentio­ned in this context was that all GDR child­ren had this right until 1990. A few days ago, an insti­tute at Leip­zig Univer­sity published a rese­arch result that was surpri­sing even for the scien­tists them­sel­ves: the proba­bi­lity of beco­ming a victim of neglect, violence or abuse was signi­fi­cantly higher in the demo­cra­tic Fede­ral Repu­blic than in the dicta­to­rial GDR. But was the GDR ther­e­fore the better Germany?

In 1990, more than 90 percent of women in the GDR between the ages of 25 and 60 had voca­tio­nal trai­ning, comple­ted a course of study at a tech­ni­cal college or gradua­ted from a univer­sity. At that time, this was true of no more than 35 percent of women in the FRG. The profes­si­ons of judge and teacher were women’s profes­si­ons in the GDR. Equal rights for women in marriage were estab­lished for GDR women from the very begin­ning, as was their self-deter­mi­na­tion over their own occu­pa­tion and the power to dispose of their income. West German women still had to wait deca­des for all this. So was the GDR the better Germany?

Among the grea­test crimes of the 20th century were the wars of the French and the Ameri­cans in Indochina/Vietnam. In the process, 3.5 million civi­li­ans lost their lives, inclu­ding half a million Viet­na­mese child­ren. The GDR was on the side of these child­ren, the Fede­ral Repu­blic was on the side of their murde­rers. So was the GDR in truth the better Germany?

The army of the GDR, the Natio­nal People’s Army, was the only German army since Char­le­ma­gne that did not start a war. The United Nati­ons ranked the GDR among the ten lowest crime states on earth. The proba­bi­lity of losing one’s life through murder or mans­laugh­ter was twice to three times higher in the demo­cra­tic Fede­ral Repu­blic than in the dicta­to­rial GDR. Again the ques­tion: Was the GDR the better Germany?

The GDR had enshri­ned a right to work and thus full employ­ment as an indi­vi­dual right of its citi­zens. It had — in contrast to today’s situa­tion — a compre­hen­sive labor code and about 5000 children’s holi­day camps for the child­ren of employees. Almost all of these camps were dissol­ved in the two years after the fall of the Wall. So was the GDR the better Germany after all?

The last party to take care of the cons­truc­tion of new social housing in my home­town of Pots­dam was the SED, i.e. the state party of the GDR. In the year of the collapse, i.e. 1989, almost 1000 new and afforda­ble apart­ments were handed over to their tenants in this city. Since then, new apart­ments have been built not for ordi­nary people, but for rich people. Nowhere in the new German states has this actually been diffe­rent. Is it neces­sary to call the GDR the better Germany for this reason?

Today, there are 600 lawy­ers working in Pots­dam alone, which is more than 100 more than were admit­ted to the bar in the entire GDR. So life in the GDR got along prac­ti­cally without this ulti­m­ately unpro­duc­tive huge mass of lawy­ers that we have to feed today. Compre­hen­si­bi­lity even for the layman charac­te­ri­zed their legis­la­tion. Arbi­tra­tion commis­si­ons and lower-level social commit­tees did their part to decri­mi­na­lize conflicts in GDR life. Given this back­ground, was the GDR perhaps the better Germany?

The GDR had provi­ded all full-time students with a stipend that allo­wed them to cover such basic needs as housing, food, travel home, and even going to the movies and pubs. It even ended up gran­ting 11th and 12th grade students a monthly sum equi­va­lent to appren­tice pay. Medi­ca­tion co-payments were unhe­ard of, and eyeglas­ses could be made at Social Security’s expense. Does this provide answers to the ques­tion of whether the GDR was the better Germany?

In the GDR, an unfet­te­red rela­ti­onship to the human body deve­lo­ped; even the distinc­tion between nudist and textile beaches disap­peared in the end, because ever­yone could do what they wanted in this regard ever­y­where. After the GDR, a society in which prudery and porno­gra­phy go through life arm in arm became wide­spread in East Germany. Was the GDR the better Germany from this point of view as well?

There will be diffe­rent answers to this important ques­tion. The teacher who was a civil servant 25 years ago proba­bly sees things differ­ently than the acade­mic scien­tist who was laid off after 1990 and never found employ­ment again. Because one can list comple­tely diffe­rent examp­les and draw up a comple­tely diffe­rent balance sheet, I leave it up to ever­yone to find his or her own perso­nal answer. Howe­ver, I will give one essen­tial answer: The GDR was first and fore­most the other Germany. It was the Other. And that is what makes it so special and the hatred of it so convin­cing.

The German Empire, the Weimar Repu­blic, the Nazi dicta­tor­ship and the Adenauer state — what did they have in common? The crucial thing. They were all vari­ants of bour­geois rule, they were — one as much as the other — capi­ta­list mone­tary rule. And the social struc­ture remained the same even during the tran­si­ti­ons — with minor partial shifts. The tradi­tio­nal and vested power elites (moneyed aris­to­cracy, nobi­lity, churches, civil service, judi­cial caste, foreign office, offi­cer corps) always persis­ted, always floa­ted on top and rene­wed them­sel­ves out of them­sel­ves. This was the case during the tran­si­tion from the Empire to the Repu­blic (with a few excep­ti­ons for the nobi­lity). The privi­le­ges of the afore­men­tio­ned elite castes were all confirmed by Adolf Hitler (if they were not Jews) and if they were willing to move toge­ther a little to let the new Nazi olig­ar­chy join them at the cribs. Thus “puri­fied”, the West German post-war demo­cracy took over these elites: Hitler’s gene­rals became Adenauer’s gene­rals, Hitler’s diplo­mats became Adenauer’s diplo­mats, Hitler’s judges became Adenauer’s judges, Hitler’s state secre­ta­ries became Adenauer’s state secre­ta­ries, Hitler’s teachers and univer­sity profes­sors became Adenauer’s teachers and univer­sity profes­sors. And the bishops of both major deno­mi­na­ti­ons also remained what they were, despite all their dismay­ing closen­ess to the Nazi state.

And the GDR did not provide this image. That is what makes it so unique. On its terri­tory, the tradi­tio­nal, blood­s­tained and guilt-ridden German power elites, who were twice such a terri­ble cala­mity for Germany, Europe and the world in the 20th century, had nothing to say for 45 years — apart from the churches, which undoub­tedly also exis­ted in the GDR. (They contin­ued to exist as corpo­rate bodies and also had influence, but they did not have a deter­mi­ning influence on the govern­ment there). This exclu­sion from power, which the tradi­tio­nal elites had to put up with on a third of the German terri­tory and that for almost half a century, is the actual fall from grace of this state. Hence today’s recko­ning by a reapp­rai­sal indus­try laced with milli­ons. That is why the hatred for the GDR is so genuine and so

 funda­men­tal. And so endless.