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Popular Discontent and Political Activism in the GDR

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 September 2008


The German Democratic Republic was long noted for its apparent stability, efficiency and political quiescence, in contrast to the more turbulent domestic histories of neighbouring Poland and Czechoslovakia. In established narratives of East German history, the sole evidence of mass popular unrest before the autumn of 1989 was the June Uprising of 1953. After this, with a few isolated exceptions, East Germans simply kept their heads down. ‘Dissent’ was for the most part an activity associated with a few intellectuals–Harich, Havemann, Bahro–until the growth of oppositional movements associated with unofficial peace initiatives and environmentalist groups in the 1980s1. To all outward appearances, this sketch was correct. What now requires reconsideration, however, are the underlying reasons for these appearances, and the evaluation – indeed, the very characterisation – of patterns of popular political dissent in the GDR.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1993

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1 For analyses of the GDR written prior to its collapse and the opening of the archives, see for example Staritz, D.Geschichte der DDR 1949–85 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1985);Google ScholarWeber,, H.Die DDR 1945–1986 (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1988);Google ScholarGlaessner, G.-J.Die andere Deutsche Republik (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1989).CrossRefGoogle Scholar See also my Germany 1918–1990: The Divided Nation (London: Fontana, 1991), part two.

2 See, for example, the now classic exposition in Gaus, Günter, Wo Deutschland liegt (Munich: dtv, 1986)Google Scholar.

3 For a detailed account of 1953, see Baring, A.Uprising in East Germany (New York: Cornell University Press, 1972).Google Scholar A great deal of attention is paid to it in Western accounts. See, for example, Turner, H. A.The Two Germanies since 1945 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).Google Scholar

4 See Fricke, Karl Wilhelm, Opposition und Widerstand in der DDR (thereafter Fricke, Opposition) (Cologne: Verlag Wissenschaft und Politik, 1984), 101–4Google Scholar, for the patchy evidence previously available, from which only very rough guesses about the extent of industrial unrest could be surmised.

5 Cf. Archiv der Gewerkschaftsbewegung Berlin. FDGB Bundesvorstand (thereafter FDGB), File no. 5414, report of 8 Aug. 1968 on an explosion on 11 July 1968 at a PVC production factory of the VE Electro chemicals combine in Bitterfeld, which left 32 dead and 238 injured within the factory (of whom eight died later), and two dead, with many more injured, outside, as well as having long-term health risks (heart and circulatory problems) after inhaling the gases released. The Produktionsdirektor himself blamed the explosion on the emphasis on ever higher productivity at the expense of safety measures.

6 See for example FDGB: File no. 15/1470/6447, letter of 28 Dec. 1961; File number 3023, reports of 25 Sept. 1964, 20 May 1965, 7 July 1966, 9 Aug. 1967, 29 Nov. 1967, 26 June 1969 (in which the cook who was responsible for the poor food which occasioned the strike was eventually dismissed, after trying to mislead the investigation by producing an atypically good meal); 29 July 1969, 7 Aug. 1969 (food produced too early had gone off in the heat by the time the late shift were able to take a meal break), 16 April 1970, 27 Oct. 1975, and others.

7 See for example FDGB, file no. 15/1470/6447, report of 13 Dec. 1960: 45 workers in the Töpferei section at the VEB Steinzeugwerk Krauschwitz downed tools at 8.30 am; while most of these returned to work by 11 am, ten got so drunk that they were unable to return all day. Cf. also report of 23 Nov. 1961 on problems of work discipline, excuses for failing to show up for work or to leave early, and excessive drinking.

8 FDGB, File no. 15/1470/6447, report of 11 Nov. 1961.

9 See, for example, FDGB, File no. 2672 (1956), Information Nummer 7, 1–2.

10 FDGB 15/1470/6447, report of 7 July 1966, p. 5. This and all subsequent translations of original German quotations are by the author.

11 ibid., Report of 9 Aug. 1967, 3.

12 FDGB, File no. 2677, Report of 4 Aug. 1961, 16.

13 FDGB, File no. 15/1470/6447, Report of 17 Jan. 1961.

14 See, for example, FDGB, 2672, Information Nummer 8, passim.

15 FDGB, 2672, Information Nummer 10, 5.

16 This was, of course, an ironic mirror-image of the officially propagated view that West Germany, far from marking a clean break with the past, as the GDR allegedly did, was rather the natural homeland of former Nazis and represented the ‘capitalist-imperialist’ successor to the preceding ‘fascist’ Nazi state.

17 Institut für die Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung, Zentrales Parteiarchiv (the archive of the former Central Committee of the ruling Socialist Unity Party, thereafter IfGA, ZPA), IV 2/5/968, Report of 25 Jan. 1956, 5.

18 FDGB, File no. 2677, Report of 4 Aug. 1961, 16.

19 FDGB, File no. 3023, Report of 1 Feb. 1967.

20 FDGB, File no. 3023, Report of 17 June 1969, 2.,

21 ibid., Report of 13 July 1970, 1.

22 IfGA, ZPA, IV 2/5/968, Report of 9 Jan. 1956, 4.

23 FDGB, File no. 2672, Information Nummer 4, 20 Jan. 1956, 5.

24 FDGB, File no. 2677, Report of 14 March 1961, 5.

25 FDGB, File no. 3023, Report of 20 Jan. 1969, 2.

26 FDGB, File no. 3023, Report of 12 Aug. 1970, 2.

27 FDGB, 3023, Report of 16 Dec. 1970, 3.

28 FDGB, File no. 2672, Information Nummer 7, 4.

29 FDGB, 3023, Report of 26 April 1967.

30 FDGB, File no. 3023, Report of 20 June 1967.

31 Fricke, Opposition, 149.

32 Rüddenklau, Wolfgang, Störenfried. DDR-opposition 1986–89 (thereafter Rüddenklau, Störenfried) (Berlin: BasisDruck, 1992), 16.Google Scholar

33 Wolle, Stefan, ‘Die DDR-Bevölkerung und der Prager Frühling’, Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte. Beilage zur Wochenzeitung Das Parlament, Vol. 36, 28 Aug. 1992, 35–45Google Scholar, esp. 41–3.

34 ibid., 45.

35 FDGB, File no. 5414 (Präsidiums- und Sekretariats-beschlüsse des Bundesvorstandes der FDGB betr. Besondere Vorkommnisse 1960–1985), ‘FDGB Bundesvorstand. Beschluss des Sekretariats vom 16.9.68. Nr. S 640/68’, relating to an analysis of the situation dated 6 Sept. 1968.

36 ibid.. 5.

37 ibid.., 6.

38 ibid.., 7.

39 ibid., 4.

40 ibid.. 12.

41 ibid.. 5.

42 ibid.. 9.

43 ibid.. 7.

44 ibid., 6.

45 ibid.. 12.

46 ibid.. 6.

47 ibid.. 2, 3, 8.

48 ibid.. 8.

49 Ibid., 12.

50 ibid., 12.

51 See generally the detailed reporting in ibid., 4–13.

52 ibid.. 9.

53 FDGB, File no. 2684, Information Nummer 13, dated 30 Aug. 1968, 3.

54 See FDGB, 2684, Information Nummer 17 (5 Sept. 1968), p. 5, and Information Nummer 18 (6 Sept. 1968).

55 Interestingly, this backfired somewhat from the point of view of the authorities. One report notes bitterly that ‘until now 80% of East German citizens had never heard of [Biermann], but now he has become a hero’. FDGB, File no. 3023, ‘Information über weitere Meinungen von Gewerkschafts-mitgleidern zur Aberkennung der Staatsbürgerschaft von Biermann’, 2 Dec. 1976, p. 6. A report two weeks later reveals that protests were not restricted to the well-known open letter of intellectuals: there were petitions and collections of signatures (by ‘youngsters’), open letters on ‘wall newspapers’, the making and circulation of tape-recordings of Biermann's concerts in the West, and other indications of protest. FDGB, 3023, ‘Information über die ideologische Situation in den gewerkschaftlichen Grundor-ganisationen zur Aberkennung der DDR-Staatsbürgerschaft Biermanns’, 17 Dec. 1976, pp. 5–6.

56 This is a subject which will require further investigation. Preliminary indications are given, for example, by Schabowski, Günter, Das Politbüro (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1990), 37.Google Scholar

57 For English-language works on the peace movement, see John Sandford, The Sword and the Ploughshare: Autonomous Peace Initiatives in East Germany (London: Merlin Press for END, 1983), and Sandford, John, ‘The Peace Movement and the Church in the Honecker Years’, in Glaessner, G.-J. and Wallace, I.(eds), The German Revolution of 1989 (Oxford: Berg, 1992).Google Scholar On opposition under Honecker generally until 1985, see Woods, Roger, Opposition in the GDR under Honecker, 1971–85 (London: Macmillan, 1986).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

58 Rüddenklau, Störenfried, 28.

59 I have discussed this notion in my article ‘A German Dictatorship: Power Structures and Political Culture in the GDR’, German Life and Letters, Vol. 45, no. 4 (1992), 376–92.

60 See, for example, Ehring, Klaus and Dallwitz, Martin (eds.), Schwerter zu Pflugscharen: Friedens-bewegung in der DDR (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1982).Google Scholar

61 See, for example, Kroh, Ferdinand (ed.), ‘Freiheit ist immer Freiheit…’ Die Andersdenkenden in der DDR (Frankfurt: Ullstein, 1988).Google Scholar

62 See esp. Rüddenklau, Störenfried, for a participant's version of the history of environmentalist groups in the GDR. There were considerable tensions between many activists, and the definitive history of these groups has yet to be reconstructed.

63 Some groups might have fallen apart had it not been for Stasi membership. Many survived despite the presence of people subsequently revealed to have worked for the Stasi and who might have suffered a degree of personal ambivalence about their role. Other groups, however, were clearly broken up zersetzt by the activities of Stasi infiltrators. Stasi research is a burgeoning field arousing considerable fascination in Germany today. Among the many recent publications see, for example, Wilhelm, Fricke Karl, MfS Intern (Cologne: Verlag Wissenschaft und Politik, 1991)Google Scholar; Gauck, Joachim, Stasi-Akten, Die. Das unheimliche Erbe der DDR (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1991)Google Scholar; Mitter, Arnim and Wolle, Stefan (eds), Ich liebe euch doch alle! Befehle und Lageberichte des MfS, Januar November 1989 (Berlin: BasisDruck, 1990)Google Scholar; von Sass, Ulrich and von Suchodoletz, Harriet (eds), ‘Feindlich-negative’. Zur politisch-operativen Arbeit einer Stasi-Zentrale (Berlin: Evangelische Verlags-Anstalt, 1990)Google Scholar; Schell, Manfred and Kalinka, Werner, Stasi und kein Ende: Die Personen und Fakten (Frankfurt: Ullstein, 1991).Google Scholar

64 The death of Havemann in 1982 clearly implied an at least symbolic loss. That there were tensions among dissenters is revealed by the comment of one environmental activist, Wolfgang Rüddenklau, who suggests that Eppelmann was unable to take on Havemann's mantel of leadership because he failed to win widespread support ‘on account of his infinite vanity and his authoritarian leadership style’, Störenfried, 32. This point also may be the subject of future dispute.

65 Clearly this point needs more exposition and discussion than can be undertaken here. It is examined at length in my book on the GDR (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

66 Of course the beginning of the end was only that the beginning of the end. With the opening of the borders, the masses reappeared on the political scene, in the shape of a mass exodus to the West, to ensure that the notion of a reformed GDR would remain an unattainable mirage. Thus popular opposition to the GDR, which had failed to shake its foundations for four decades, was, in altered circumstances, able ultimately to deal the final death blow.