State and Society [en]
„The German Democratic Republic is a socialist state of workers and farmers. It is the political organization of the workers in the cities and in the countryside under the leadership of the working class and their Marxist-Leninist party.” With these words from Art.1 of the GDR Constitution, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (German: Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, SED) legitimized their claim to leadership and thus formed a dictatorship in the eastern part of the state. This socialist constitution was implemented in 1968 and revised in 1974, strengthening the existing constitutional reality of the power monopoly of the SED. Additionally, the GRD society was effectively still a class society run by Marxist-Leninist doctrine, though instead of consisting of the oppressors and oppressed, it was made up of formally equal workers and farmers.
However, the reality was very different: workers and farmers had no power in the state. Instead, power belonged exclusively to the SED and the leading forces of its subsidiary organizations. Nearly every East German citizen was a member of at least one of these mass organizations: during childhood in the Ernst Thälmann Pioneer Organisation, then as a teenager in the Free German Youth (German: Freie Deutsche Jugend, FDJ), during working life in the Free German Trade Union Federation (German: Freie Deutsche Gewerkschaftsbund, FDGB) or in the Society for German–Soviet Friendship (in German, Gesellschaft für Deutsch-Sowjetische Freundschaft, DSF). In addition, there were the so called bloc parties. These made it possible to preserve the democratic pretense, while ultimately giving certain social groups an advantage to integrate into the system, for example the Christian Democratic Union (German: Christlich-Demokratische Union Deutschlands, CDU) of East Germany or the Democratic Farmers' Party of Germany (German: Demokratische Bauernpartei Deutschlands, DBD).
All citizens in the GDR were in favor of the SED –collective thinking was placed at the center of society, the individual did not matter. Socialism was taught at a young age and the education system was aligned accordingly. Freedom of press did not exist. A democratic election was in any case impossible. The SED, the mass organizations as well as the bloc parties formed the “National Front”, which competed in all elections with a single list.
Opposition to the SED regime was forbidden. Even the formations of “platforms” within the ruling party led to massive persecution by the security apparatus: through the Ministry for State Security (German: Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, MfS), the SED established an instrument of power modeled on the Cheka (the political secret police from the early days of the Soviet Union), which acted as the "Schild und Schwert der Partei" (Shield and Sword of the Party) and permeated the whole society with a spy system. In the case of an individual coming to the attention of national security or falling out of favor with the party, the judicial system acted in the interest of those in power. Often, these sentences were intensified at the hand of party leaders. Constitutional values such as the independence of the court or lawyers as well as fundamental rights did not apply – even though they were formally stated in the constitution.
Militarism was omnipresent in the GDR society. To secure absolute power for the SED externally as well as internally, the National People’s Army (German: Nationale Volksarmee - NVA) was instigated in the 1950’s, and their “Dienst für den Frieden” (service for peace) was already glorified in nursery rhymes. Military service could also be absolved within the Volkspolizei (people’s police), the guard regiment of the MfS’ “Felix E. Dzerzhinsky” or the border troops. The latter predominantly guarded the border and were assigned the task of stopping citizens from fleeing, if needed with armed forces.
An alternative civilian service as such, did not exist, but merely the opportunity to work as an unarmed Bausoldat (construction soldier). This could, however, cause disadvantages in later career opportunities: for example it could lead you to be ineligible for a place at university. The impression of militarism on the entire society was also evident in the paramilitary groups such as the so called Kampfgruppen (battle groups), as well as the civil defense, which was also seen as part of the national defense. Furthermore, the military education started at an early age, specifically Wehrkundeunterricht (military education class) in ninth grade as well as activities of the Sport and Technology Association (German: Gesellschaft für Sport und Technik, GST) in eleventh grade.
Illuminating all facets of everyday life in the GDR is impossible. Instead, we want to encourage discussions on the topic, enhance textbook knowledge, as well as offer those interested quick access to the major topics.