Was The GDR A Totalitarian State?

To answer this question we must first state what totalitarianism entails. Totalitarianism is a political system by which a state, normally led by a single party or organisation, accepts no limit to its authority and seeks total control over every aspect of private and public life. To discuss the nature of the GDR’s political system I will use the Totalitarian model of Carl Freidrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski to characterise the regime. Firstly I will state that the implementation of a single state ideology of socialism in the GDR demonstrates how it dictated political life within the regime. Furthermore I shall discuss how the collectivisation and centralisation of the economic and mass communications systems demonstrate the SED’s totalitarian control over the state. In addition I will examine the role of the Stasi secret police in upholding the regimes authority not only in the public sphere but in the private lives of its citizens through terror and surveillance. In contrast the second half of my argument will analyse the limitations of the GDR’s totalitarianism through the state’s inability to achieve total control over the airwaves, undermining its totalitarian authority and propaganda. I will then examine the retention of power by the Church and its role in undermining the totalitarian regime. Finally I will contend that through a period of modernisation in the post Stalinist era the regime opened itself to capitalism. This capitalist convergence with socialism promoted liberalisation of thought through privatisation of industry in the GDR effectively transforming the GDR from the totalitarian state in the Stalinist era, to one of consultative authoritarianism.

Firstly I shall examine the totalitarian implementation of a state ideology and its fundamental role in shaping the GDR’s power structure of government and society. The presence of an ideology with utopian connotations aimed to create a better society is one of the fundamental characteristics of totalitarianism according to Friedrich and Brzezinski’s theoretical model [1] . The SED established a Marxist-Leninist ideological constitution in the GDR that aimed to progress into communism and the creation of a classless society. Acceptance of the regimes ideology required the people to relinquish their personal freedom as the party sought to penetrate the core of people’s lives and beliefs. Although a classless society was sought, the GDR established a hierarchical power structure centralised around the Communist Party. While the GDR advocated democratic centralism and the separation of Legislative, Executive and Judicative powers in the creation of the Staatsrat, Ministerrat and Volkskammer, signs of a polycratic state, this was not the reality [2] . The SED was firmly established as the single party and the system was designed to strengthen the single party state providing minimal power to its subsidiaries. This also impacted upon society as power became the means of class division as those most loyal to the ideology received job opportunities and quickly advanced up the social strata. The Marxist-Leninist ideology required its citizens to actively participate and promote the ideology in order to succeed, relinquishing their freedom in the process, allowing the state further access to and control of their private and public life. Having achieved total control over the political sphere, the regime looked towards the centralisation of the economy and mass communication which I shall go on to discuss in my next paragraph.

Secondly, collectivisation and centralisation of the economic system and the means of mass communication will be evaluated to demonstrate the totalitarian nature of the GDR. The SED sought to achieve collectivism in the GDR though democratic centralism, “promoting space for discussion and unity of action” [3] , however the state assumed monopolistic control over the economy and therefore indirect control over the people. Through centralisation of the state, the party nationalised and confiscated private land and industry. In doing so economic life in the GDR was under the direct control of the state and therefore the livelihoods of the population were in the hands of the party. Party membership was a key requirement in order to work within the GDR let alone progress within society. Indoctrination of the central planning of the economy was enforced on the youth of the GDR, through schooling and the Free German Youth (FGY). The FGY promoted socialist ideology and indoctrination linked to future job prospects. In addition 95% of all journalists were made party members as the SED looked to monopolise the GDR’s media and communications systems controlling the freedom of opinion [4] . News articles and radio broadcasts within the GDR were heavily censored in order to maintain public order and compliance, while also concealing state failures such as escapees to the West. However 80% of the East German population had access to Western media broadcasts which I will go on to discuss in my later paragraphs. By establishing control over the flow of information the GDR focused indoctrination of the youth at school, promoting the state ideology and ensuring compliance through the Free German Youth creating party loyalists from an early age. Through these means of economic and mass media control the totalitarian nature of the GDR as classified by Friedrich and Brzezinski , is evident as the SED utilised these monopolies to manipulate the lives of its citizens [5] . This forcing of conscription towards the party line leads me on to my third argument, discussing the role of terror, censorship and indoctrination in enforcing the totalitarian interpretation of the GDR

Thirdly I will examine the operation of the Stasi secret police demonstrating how through a combination of Stasi terror and the presence of a surveillance society, the GDR was subjected to a totalitarian regime. As Friedrich and Brzezinski state a totalitarian state must have the presence of a secret police in order to enforce the regime and typical of a totalitarian state, and the GDR had one of the largest [6] . The Stasi numbered around 100,000 officers and was expanded through an increasing number of Inoffizieller Mitarbeiters in the post Stalinist era [7] . The Stasi motto was ‘the sword and shield of the regime’ as it effectively protected the regime legitimacy by enforcing the ideology and ensured its security by exposing dissenters and seeking out opposition [8] . They sought to penetrate the socio-cultural sphere of the GDR creating nationwide tyranny and went as far as to attempt to infiltrate the private lives of its citizens to achieve total party control. Through a policy of intense surveillance the GDR aimed to punish all infringements and discrepancies of the populous. The Stasi became the state’s most important means of control as it created an atmosphere of oppression matched with terror enabling the state and party to manipulate the fear within its populous to achieve its goals. The June uprising of 1953 highlighted the importance of the Stasi in maintaining increased state control over the lives of the people [9] . This argument strengthens the theory of Friedrich and Brzezinski, as the secret police was indeed a vital organ of the regime in maintaining its security and promoting its ideological progression through intimidation and repression of individual thought.

Next I will counter argue the totalitarian interpretation of the GDR, citing the states inability to assume monopolistic control over media. The SED failed to halt the broadcast and consumption of Western media throughout the German Democratic Republic. Although 95% of all journalists in the GDR were party members and the East German media was under controlled state censorship, the SED was unable to block Western broadcasts from West Germany. East Germans tuned into Western radio and television shows having unlimited access to their capitalist counter parts propaganda, increasingly so after the Berlin Wall was erected. The GDR’s claims to be the superior Germany rested upon its ability to control its citizens access to the outside world, however it was aware that 80% of East German had access to Western broadcasts and that a majority did tune in [10] . In 1984 it was reported that 80% of the youth within the GDR listened to Western radio or watched Western television [11] . Although access to this illegal material was banned by the state, they were helpless to enforce the law upon the people. This widespread uncontrollable access to external mass communication challenged the totalitarian status of the GDR; as it witnessed its population violate state law unanimously. Not only did open access to Western media challenge the mass communication control of the regime but it also served to undermine socialist ideology as they failed the propaganda battle against the superior lifestyles experienced in the capitalist West. This completely contradicts Carl Friedrich’s classifications of mass media control and is a strong argument against classifying the GDR as totalitarian.

I will now argue that the GDR cannot be a totalitarian state as it accepted a limitation upon its authority by allowing the existence of the Church operation outside of state control. For a Socialist Atheist totalitarian state it is surprising that the Church was allowed to remain in existence throughout the GDR’s being, retaining power of presence and property. Although the state in the early years of the GDR attempted to collaborate with the Churches up until the 1970’s, with over 500 party members within the Clergy, the Churches began to force their own agenda in the second half of the 1980’s [12] . The Church therefore acted separate from the party control of the GDR and therefore became a beacon of freedom to many ecological, pacifist and ethical niche groups within East Germany, challenging the totalitarian notion of the GDR [13] . The Church acted as an escape from and mediator to the state eventually becoming a springboard for dissenters and activists. During the 1980’s the Soviet Bloc faced increased pressure through liberation events in Poland and economic difficulties allowing the Church to take a larger social role within the GDR enabling members to voice concerns over human rights and civil society as it had been unable to do before [14] . The first challenge to the GDR came from dissidents within the Protestant Church over the communist post-fascist narrative opposing the misuse of power and the infliction of a second dictatorship in the form of the GDR. Instead of being silenced by the state the Church was allowed to advocate human rights and the instatement of democracy [15] . The Church stood as a secondary political power source within the GDR from the 1980’s defying the totalitarian interpretation of the GDR in the second half of its existence.

Finally, I will demonstrate how the GDR’s attempts to modernise East Germany to showcase its superiority to the West opened the state up to external influence. I will argue that the convergence of communism and capitalism in order to modernise East Germany, developed the GDR from totalitarian system to one of consultative authoritarianism in the post Stalinist era. Unsatisfied with inferior Eastern Bloc production levels and an increasing East West economic divide, the SED implemented the New Economic System of Planning and Leadership (NA-SPL) in 1963 [16] . These reforms were advocated by the USSR based on the soviet economist Yevsei G. Liberman’s policy of ‘material interest’. NA-SPL allowed for the decentralisation of the GDR economy allowing industry increased independence to operate on a profit based system [17] . Communist officials hoped that East Germany would become more competitive than their Western counterparts by merging the socialist ethos with the enterprise of capitalism. They believed it possible to increase productivity and profits beyond that of the West whilst maintaining a strong socialist ideology. Although achieving noticeable economic accomplishments in the East German economy, with a 7% increase in productivity in 1964 and a 6% increase in 1965 boosting national income by 5% in both years, the GDR’s ideological framework had had taken a fundamental blow [18] . By incorporating capitalist methods the GDR placed economic and social matters above that of its ideological structure. This signalled the changing nature of the GDR from totalitarianism to a consultative authoritarian approach as an emphasis upon a smooth running state through privatisation and relaxed total state control [19] . Through the SED’s introduction of capitalist reform they had begun the first stage of ideological erosion within East Germany, as the GDR marched towards a new increasingly liberal and business led society. However the GDR attempted a more centralised second phase of economic reform in 1965 retaking most of the power it had dispersed, nevertheless the transformation was already in motion [20] . It was evident that the Stalinist phase of totalitarianism in the GDR, was receding as leadership took an increasingly business led consultative authoritarian stance. The days of Stalinist totalitarianism in the GDR was rapidly becoming an East German relic. These post-Stalinist reforms of capitalist convergence challenge the static totalitarian model, as the GDR opened itself to privatisation it distanced itself from its socialist totalitarian roots becoming increasingly liberalised. The 1963 reforms are a strong argument against classifying the GDR as a totalitarian state as the regime clearly had begun to develop away from totalitarianism in the post Stalinist ear of the GDR.

In conclusion it is evident that the GDR did indeed possess many of the characteristics of the totalitarian model during its Stalinist phase, however developed to an authoritarian state in the post Stalinist era. Through collectivisation and ideological control the SED was able to gain commanding control of the apparatus of the state and therefore its people after the initial divide of Germany. By methods of economic central planning and forced ideological participation the state was able to manipulate and control the lives of its citizens. Enforcement through a secret police in the form of the Stasi also contributed to the totalitarian nature of the regime as they enforced ideological participation and created a surveillance society through terror and unofficial informants. However the nature of the GDR was a dynamic and complex one that cannot be explained by the static models of totalitarianism. As the years progressed after Stalin’s death the GDR’s totalitarian nature declined. The post Stalinist era was one of increasing liberalisation as Stasi terror declined in the face of economic and societal reforms in the 1960s. With an increasing emphasis on individualism and a decrease in suppression the old power structures such as the Church increased in boldness and acted against the state. The GDR became increasingly socially and economically concerned allowing for the progression from a totalitarian state to one of consultative authoritarianism [21] . The GDR sought a smoother business led business apparatus that allowed more personal freedom. In addition without complete mass media control the GDR was helpless to ensure total control of its citizen’s hearts and minds as western broadcasts undermined GDR censorship and in turn undermined the propaganda and ideological strength of the GDR. Therefore it is difficult to state that the GDR was a totalitarian state for the entirety of its existence. During the Stalinist years the GDR faced a strict totalitarian regime with centralised planning and Stasi terror, however this receded and the GDR was liberalised in the wake of Stalin’s death as the Eastern Bloc attempted to modernise to gain international competitiveness.