The German Democratic Republic (GDR), also known as East Germany, was a socialist state that existed from 1949 until its unification with West Germany in 1990. The country was formed out of the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany after World War II and was governed by the Socialist Unity Party (SED).

The government took control of most industries, and private ownership was limited. The state provided social benefits such as free healthcare, education, and housing. However, the country was heavily dependent on the Soviet Union, and the government often prioritized political loyalty over economic efficiency.

The GDR's political system was based on a one-party system with the SED as the ruling party. The government was highly centralized, and the secret police, known as the Stasi, had extensive surveillance powers over citizens. Opposition to the government was often met with repression and censorship. During its existence, the GDR went through several stages of political and economic development. In the 1950s, the government emphasized industrialization and collectivization of agriculture. In the 1960s and 1970s, the country experienced a period of relative stability and economic growth. However, by the 1980s, the GDR was facing economic and political crises, and increasing numbers of citizens were emigrating to West Germany. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 marked the beginning of the end for the GDR. In 1990, free elections were held, and a coalition government was formed that favored unification with West Germany. The GDR officially ceased to exist on October 3, 1990, when it was absorbed into the Federal Republic of Germany.



  • The German Democratic Republic (GDR) was founded on October 7, 1949
  • The Socialist Unity Party (SED) set the course for eastern Germany
  • The Berlin Wall was built on August 13, 1961
  • The GDR lasted from 1949 to 1990



The German Democratic Republic (GDR) was founded on October 7, 1949, when the constitution of the GDR became law. The country evolved from the Soviet occupation zone, and the foundation can be seen as the answer to West Germany's foundation on May 23, 1949. Until October 1, 1959, the flag of the GDR didn't differ from the one of West Germany. On that day, a hammer, a compass, and a garland of corn were added. Giving its full support to the Government of the German Federal Republic, the U.S. refused to recognize the GDR until 1974 and stated that it was without any legal validity. Diplomatic relations with Russia started on October 15, 1949, and soon also other socialist nations acknowledged the GDR as a new country. These were Bulgaria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and China. East Germany was rapidly transformed into a centrally planned economy. This transformation process was characterized by dispossessions and replacements with Loyalists who were in favor of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) line. Also, many German farmers were stripped of their land due to land reform. Their fields were given to Loyalists and party members. Concerning the redistribution of land and property and the repression of dissidents, left politics cannot be distinguished from the far-right policies in place during National Socialism. The democracy in name only turned quickly into a one-party dictatorship. However, radical reforms as implemented by the GDR were desirable to people who sought social mobility, thus, changing their social status. The National Front and the SED party played the most influential role in shaping the new nation. The first one was formed in 1950 and impacted the social life of the GDR's citizens. The National Front observed all political activities and worked closely with the SED. The Ministry of State Security (Staatssicherheitsdienst) was founded on February 8, 1950, and had a ramified monitoring system to keep the citizens in line. Besides full-time state officials, many unofficial informers spied on their colleagues, neighbors, family, and friends. Any disloyalty against the GDR and its system was punished harshly. 


The rearmament was achieved through the police that served as military formations, namely the "Barracked People's Police" (Kasernierte Volkspolizei). They were later renamed "National People's Army" (Nationale Volksarmee).


Any resistance was depressed, such as in the case of June 17, 1953, where the Soviet military was called to prohibit demonstrations against the system. An important date in German history is August 13, 1961, when the Berlin wall construction started. The wall was promoted as a protective barrier against West Germany's fascism. Still, it was used to suppress the citizens more radically, and it brought much sorrow for German citizens in the following years because of the shoot-to-kill order for illegal border crossing. The Basic Treaty with West Germany in 1972  led to diplomatic recognitions by more states. The United States started its diplomatic relations with the GDR on September 4, 1974.


East Germany's system followed different rules, and those who didn't walk the line were considered traitors to their country. The youth and education were at the center of social policies as a factor of socialization that the government could control. The goal was to form adolescents into good Marxist-Leninist citizens. The youth ceremony or Jugendweihe marked the beginning of the citizen's life under the banner of Socialism. The oath of allegiance to the Soviet Union and the obligation to defend Socialism against any imperialistic attack served as a lifelong pledge.

The GDR lasted from 1949 to 1990. Whereas it had been possible to travel back and forth between east and west until summer 1961, things dramatically changed in the years that followed. Any illegal border crossing was only possible under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. Thus, rapidly reducing the numbers of East Germans who sought a new way of life. The inner German border and the Berlin Wall were the manifestation of the radical-left. The iron border represented a sorrowful time in German history, separating in an inhumane way families from each other.


CCO: Stacey, William E. Diagram of the architecture of the inner German border as of 1971. US Army Military  History Office, 1984.
CCO: Stacey, William E. Diagram of the architecture of the inner German border as of 1971. US Army Military History Office, 1984.

The Berlin Wall was a concrete barrier that divided the city of Berlin from 1961 to 1989. The wall was erected by the government of East Germany, the German Democratic Republic, in order to prevent its citizens from defecting to West Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany. The wall was a physical manifestation of the ideological divide between the communist East and the capitalist West during the Cold War. Its construction was prompted by a massive brain drain from East to West Germany in the early 1960s, which threatened the stability of the communist government. The wall was also meant to be a symbol of the strength and permanence of the socialist system.


The wall was initially constructed as a barbed wire fence, but it was soon replaced by a more imposing structure, which consisted of concrete slabs, watchtowers, and guard dogs. It was heavily guarded by soldiers and border police who had orders to shoot anyone who attempted to cross the barrier. The construction of the wall caused great suffering for many families who were separated by the wall, some of whom were never able to see each other again. There were many attempts to escape across the wall and the barrier became a symbol of the oppression and repression of communist regimes around the world. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the beginning of the end for communist rule in Eastern Europe and led to the reunification of Germany. Today, parts of the wall still stand as a reminder of the division that once existed in the city of Berlin.


Sources / Quellenangabe:


Malycha, Andreas. "Der Ausbau des neuen Systems (1949 - 1961)." Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung. 31 October 2011.


Malycha, Andreas. "Im Zeichen von Reform und Modernisierung (1961 - 1971.)" Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung. 31 October 2011.


Naumann, Günter. Deutsche Geschichte. Wiesbaden: marixverlag, 2018.