The Party

Weber’s preoccupation with the motivation of rulers is of critical importance; the staff carrying out the orders from above must believe that what they are doing is right or else they will withdraw support and leave the regime floundering.

When it took power in the late 1940s, the SED was faced with a population exposed to the teachings of Hitler. It was clear that there was both re-education and socio-economic re-organisation to be carried out. This corresponds to a mobilisation phase in the GDR’s history. The whole society is geared towards this goal and the Party sets itself as the instigator of this process. The Honecker era’s Einheit von Wirtschafts- und Sozialpolitik was the de jure cut-off point. Hereafter, Post-Mobilisation is applicable. The Party by and large makes its peace with society and relaxes terror and oppression.

What function did the SED then have? Officially it seemed that the SED liked to see itself as the leading arm of society, but in fact the scope of politics had now diminished. With nothing more to do than maintain the status quo, the ‘revolutionary’ SED became simply a form ruling caste without continuing with a revolution. Its function was clear, its purpose was not.

The Einheit von Wirtschafts- und Sozialpolitik, introduced at the 8th Party Conference in 1971, aroused great hope, especially due to the fact that it involved the first concrete measures addressing the needs of the people. This was the price the SED was willing to pay for increased motivation and efficiency.

The new economic measures gained wide support for the regime from the people and the SED arguably enjoyed its greatest real support during the mid 1970s as a result of this policy. Subsidised consumer products, rents, food and travel are even now nostalgically remembered by East Germans. The perceived standard of living rose making the majority comfortable even if they were not wealthy in comparison with those living in Western capitalist countries. It is this latter point that formed the crux of the Party’s economic legitimation difficulty. On the one hand, the SED was crudely, yet effectively buying the support of the people by diverting resources into consumption, but on the other, it was creating two major legitimation problems which would dog it throughout its remaining lifetime.

The SED was not only implicitly admitting that the people may have been right in their complaints about working and living standards, setting a precedent of Party response to society, but it also concentrated the minds of the people on their present-day needs, allowing them to judge the SED’s performance by their current state of living in the GDR. Honecker, by shifting the ideological emphasis away from the transcendent communist utopia, faced the danger “… dass sich in der Veralltaeglichung des sozialistischen Weltbildes der ideologische Kernbestand des Marxismus-Leninismus zerschliesst und seine handlungsorientierende, sinnstiftende Kraft verliert”. Winfried Thaa argues that the support won by the SED in the early 1970s by this policy was simply a materialist victory and not an ideological one.

Unfortunately for the SED, the comparisons were more often drawn with the standards of those living in the Federal Republic. The goal-rational legitimacy, the SED was switching to, allowed the technocratic staff in the party apparatus to compare and criticise economics and not politics, which whilst risky, was not as taboo as attacking Marxism-Leninsm head-on.

Yet the ideological position of the party was insisted on being important. An internal memorandum preparing the party faithful for the imminent Kommunalwahlen of May 1989 reveals the mentality of the upper echelons of the Party:-

“… Durch die sozialistische Demokratie verwirklicht unser Volk  seine schoepferische gesellschaftgestaltende Rolle.”

The obfuscation that inevitably comes with self-preservation in a goal-rational system makes it difficult to determine levels of inner-party conflict. Generally, if there were disagreements, they were put aside and one policy direction was accepted in pursuit of the higher goal to which they had all pledged themselves.

First and foremost, one was selected to work in the party on the basis of one’s loyalty and belief in Marxism-Leninism, and maintain the unity of the party. By the late 1970s however, a new generation of party functionaries had risen in the ranks, and although they were patient enough, the disparity between their ages and that of the members of the Politbuero was striking. Whilst things were going well for the GDR, these younger functionaries were prepared to wait, but as it became increasingly apparent how many economic, environmental and political problems the GDR was facing, frustration naturally grew. The younger elements discussed here were the products of the educational system of the GDR. Although they were biting their tongues now, events in the 1980s and the legacy of the 1970s mismanagement were to loosen them later.

Apart from occasional expulsions and resignations, the picture until the late 1980s was rather calm. There were, of course occasional names that surfaced here and there, such as Rudolph Bahro who left over the suppression of the Prague Spring and wrote his famous critique of the SED, Die Alternative ["The Alternative"], and others who later followed his example in the “Bund Demokratischer Kommunisten Deutschlands” ["Union of German Democratic Communists"]. According to Rolf Reissig, it was the failure by the SED to re-invent itself pragmatically after crises that left the structure of the SED to stagnate and be ineffective in dealing with the crisis of 1989. He cites many events between 1953 and 1989 which did not stimulate any fundamental re-invention and were dealt with in the same old manner, i.e. criticism of subjectivism, partial and insignificant reform. The effect of this was that more and more parts of society and hence of the representative parts within the party were penetrated even more deeply by stagnation and factional in-fighting, or at least potential for it.

So, until the time of Gorbachev and Glasnost, there was almost complete unity in the Party. The CPSU was seen by communists the world over as the highest authority on matters of ideology, and the comments about self-determination made by Gorbachev in February 1988 must have come as a surprise to the SED. Gradually, Gorbachev’s new thinking permeated westwards and although it was immediately dutifully supported by the SED, this was quickly reversed and papered over with claims of democracy at home. Honecker defends his position against the introduction of Perestroika and Glasnost in the following paranoid way: “Westliche Laender versuchen, sich unter der Flagge von Perestroika und Glasnost in die Angelegenheiten der DDR einzumischen.”

The new openness of Gorbachev’s thinking had important repercussions for the SED’s authority. For a regime that was trying to hide the evidence of economic mismanagement, openness was not a viable option, yet loyalty was still demanded of the functionaries by the party leadership. Gorbachev’s influence inspired the technocrats, and the later reformist events in Hungary and Poland were to demonstrate that the Soviet model, for good or bad, could be transferred to Eastern European socialist states. Between 1986 and 1989, the number of Gorbachev followers grew fast, especially among the younger members of the party. There was even a small number of SED members in human rights movements. The Party leadership tried to isolate the smaller pockets of reform-minded people and expel them. It also tried to improve the ‘quality control’ of those wishing to join, restricting the number of people entering the Party,

“… Im Vergleich zum Vorjahr wurden 6.051 Kandidaten weniger aufgenommen.

Im Jahre 1988 sind insgesamt 55.885 Mitglieder und Kandidaten aus  der Partei ausgeschieden.…”

["… Compared with last year, 6,051 fewer candidates were  accepted. In 1988, 55,885 party members have been ejected from the  party…."]


There were differences of opinion on events such as Tianamen Square, banning of Soviet media and discussion thereof by grass roots organisations. The expulsions were criticised in an open letter to the Party Leadership,

“Wie geschlossen ist die Partei, wie fragwuerdig ist ihre  Einheit, wenn sie nicht einmal in der Lage ist, sich mit diesen  Genossen auseinanderzusetzen und in der kritischen  Auseinandersetzung diese Widersprueche positiv auszutragen.”

[" How solid is the party, how questionable is its unity, when  it is not even in a position to argue with these comrades and  positively deal with these arguments."]

By these expulsions, the SED was losing its legitimacy as a united party working towards a better future. By expelling members without allowing discussion, it was acting against its self-professed image of being a democratic body. There was a great crisis of trust through the party ranks. As a result, Honecker became more and more guarded with the power of the Politbuero and began to give more and more power to his closer friends and colleagues, chiefly Guenther Mittag and Erich Mielke, circumventing those with the real responsibility and spending more and more time with them in their retreat at Wandlitz. Whilst Honecker convalesced from a gall-bladder operation, he gave control of the country to Mittag. His failure to observe protocol on the event of Gorbachev’s visit for the fortieth anniversary celebrations and allow Ministerpraesident Stoph to take part in the meetings with Gorbachev is commented on by Schabowski:-

“Das war eine auffallende Hervorhebung von Mittag, nachdem Mittag  schon statt Krenz die Krankheitsvertretung uebernommen hatte,  die zweite Bestaetigung dafuer, welche Rolle Honecker  fuer Mittag vorgesehen hatte.”

["That was a conspicuous singling out of Mittag, after Mittag  took over the administration {in the event of Honecker's illness}  instead of Krenz, the second confirmation of what role Honecker  had in mind for Mittag."]

The Stoph incident is instructive as it shows how Honecker was still working with a Stalinist method of excluding those who did not show full loyalty to the centrally chosen line. Faced with the problems around them, the Politbuero was unable to provide

strong leadership. Schabowski points out that the Politbuero was still concerning itself with the basics of East German life, such as provision of consumer goods and foodstuffs, but the decision-making about the demonstrations outside the Palace doors and the activities of the opposition organisations was left to the Stasi. Awards were granted, celebrations organised, and small, insignificant matters were discussed at length by the leadership when its party needed it most:-

“Abschluss einer Vereinbarung ueber die Zulassung von  Trainingsfluegen von Sporttauben aus Berlin (West) vom  Territorium der DDR nach Berlin (West)”

[Account of an agreement concerning the admission of West Berlin Racing Pigeon training flights from the territory of the GDR to Berlin (West).]

The rigging of elections of 7th May 1989 were an ignition for more active dissent within the ranks of the SED. The importance of democracy as a legitimating feature was of huge importance to the SED, and its principle of “Democratic Centralism”. The democratic credentials were stressed time and time again to the public, through Neues Deutschland, in Article 3 of the Constitution of the GDR and:-

“… Zeugnis unserer von den Buergern getragenen und im Leben  bewaehrten Sozialistischen Demokratie, bekraeftigen das  feste Vertrauensverhaeltnis von Partei, Staat und Volk.”

["… witness to our socialist democracy, carried by the citizens  and guarded with our lives, strengthen the firm trust between  Party, State and People."]

The authors of this were obviously fully aware of the implications to their power if this trust were broken. The army was therefore also reminded of the legitimate place of the SED with political work by the grass roots of the party, as memos such as “Zu politischen Aktivitaeten der Partei- und Kampfkollektive in Verwirklichung der 7. Tagung der ZK der SED” demonstrate.

Not only were there observers from opposition groups active at the elections, but so was a growing body of people inside the SED and responsible for the voting procedures who were being more vigilant about the election results. As early as May 1989, the grass roots began criticising the party leadership and expressing its disillusionment with the Party:-

Dr. Dorothea Strauss, Scheffelstrasse 22, Berlin, 1156 (lfd. Nr. 1227789)

Auf Grund der Tatsache, dass ich als Leiterin des  Agitationsstuetzpunktes am Wahltag ab 7.00 Uhr morgens den  Wahlverlauf unmittelbar verfolgen konnte… errechnete ich,  dass insgesamt 74% der Buerger fuer uns gestimmt  haben, 26% in verschiedener Form gegen die Wahl aufgetreten sind.  Rein objektiv gesehen sind auch echte 74% gut, geben eine  Unterstuetzung fuer unsere Politik. Am Montag morgen war  ich entsetzt, als ich die 98,95% im ND auf der Titelseite in  Grassformat erblickte… Sollte etwa im grossen Umfang die  Moeglichkeit zu ‘Unregelmaessigkeiten’ in der  Stimmenauswertung bestanden haben, d. h. eine Faelschung von  Ergebnissen vorgenommen worden sein? Solch eine Moeglichkeit  waere fuer mich unfassbar und haette sehr ernste  Konsequenzen, von denen ich am 8.5.1989 in unserer  GO-Mitgliederversammlung sprach.”

["Dr. Dorothea Strauss, Scheffelstrasse 22, Berlin,  1156 (No. 1227789)

As the leader of an Agitation group on the day of the vote from  7 am, I was able to perfectly follow the voting patterns… I  calculated that in total 74% of the citizens voted for us, and 26%  against the vote in different ways. Objectively seen, 74% is a  good result and supports our politics. I was disgusted on Monday  morning to see the 98.95% result on the front page of Neues  Deutschland… Could there have been a possibility of widespread  irregularities in the counting of votes, i.e. a forgery of  results? Such a possibility would be intolerable for me and would  have very severe consequences, which I mentioned at my GO-Members  meeting on 8.5.1989"]

How much this had to do with the actions of Krenz’s replacement of Honecker on 17th-18th October 1989, is unclear. It was probably a combination of frustration by those being excluded in the Politbuero, the desire by these people to return a sense of validity to the Politbuero’s authority among the grass roots of the party, and hold the line against concessions to the people with the impression that everything was going to improve now that Honecker was gone. In fact, it seemed to have a rather more radical effect. The people outside were not only encouraged by what was seen as a major upheaval and concession on the part of the SED, but the grass roots of the party was also getting more and more concerned with good government practice inside the upper echelons of the party.

There is evidence of the entire party bureaucracy collapsing in self-doubt after Honecker’s expulsion. Evidence of corruption, nepotism and other abuses of power that filtered out through the media after the fall of Honecker not only increased the pressure on party functionaries on the ground who were now obliged to explain their positions to an angry public. But this pressure was also felt all the way up the party ladder, right up to the Politbuero itself. A number of Politbuero members were seen as guilty of corruption. Bezirk leaders called for their resignations. In a myriad of letters, the resignation of the Grass Roots was reported, “… die gesamte Parteifuehrung wird infrage gestellt…” and large numbers were reported as leaving the party.

The ‘Chinese Option’

Most worrying for many in both the party and the population was the possible use of lethal force by the massive state security apparatus, especially in light of Krenz’s congratulatory statements about Chinese methods:-

“Und viele haben Angst, dass der Generalsekretaer auch in  Leipzig das befuerwortet, was er in Peking fuer richtig  gehalten hat.”

["And many are worried that the General Secretary will  recommend in Leipzig, what was considered right in Peking."]

Apart from some Stasi units pushing into crowds and arresting them, along with the provision of converted stables and warehouses nearby to hold the anticipated hordes of prisoners, there was no massive retaliation by the state. Soviet intervention was effectively ruled out by Gorbachev’s speeches and the precedent of non-intervention in Hungary. The fear of the party functionaries was now more what the Stasi and the NVA were going to do.

The crucial turning point on the issue of violence was the decision not to break up the demonstrations of October 9th in Leipzig. Egon Krenz was, if he can be believed, the man of the moment. In an interview about the evening, Krenz claims:-

“Und ich haette es mir nicht vorstellen koennen, dass  die DDR weiterexistiert, nachdem sie gegen ihre eigene  Bevoelkerung militaerische Gewalt einsetzt. Also, das ging  gegen meinen Verstand, das ging gegen mein Inneres.”

["And I could not possibly have imagined that the GDR would  continue to exist after it used military force against its own  people. This was against my convictions, this was against my  innermost self."]

Although this seems a curious turn-around after his comments on Tianamen Square, he claims that a letter sent to him by his friend Walter Friedrich urging him not to use force which persuaded him to call the relevant authorities and arrange for the violence to be prevented. But did Krenz really have a choice? Did he have a loyal army at his control that would gun down peaceful protesters in the name of Socialism? If we believe the Soviet participants in this interview, Wjatscheslaw Daschitchew and Valentin Fallin, the Soviet army was instrumental in preventing bloodshed. Since August 1989, all Soviet troops were ordered to remain in barracks and because the chains of command of Soviet and GDR forces were so intertwined, this prevented a deployment of GDR troops as well.

Krenz’s decision to stop the violence before it really started was probably more out of pragmatic grounds than out of some moralistic desire to prevent bloodshed. He wanted to prevent a split in his party, having paid special attention to the section in the Friedrich letter, “Das konnte zur Folge haben: Dienstverweigerung und Massenaustritte – Massenhafte Austritte aus der Partei.” But also using the army would have been a viable option only if its loyalty could be assured. This loyalty was in doubt after around August 1989 and was depicted more explicitly in a later Stasi memorandum:

” In verschiedenen Einheiten der Kampfgruppen kam es im Verlaufe  der Einsaetze… Vorkommnissen, Handlungen und Erscheinungen…

Das findet seinen Ausdruck vor allem in:

  • der Ablehnung des vorgesehenen Einsatzes durch einzelne  Kollektive und Kaempfer,
  • Austrittserklaerungen aus der SED und den Kampfgruppen  sowie
  • der Verweigerung von Befehlen.”

["In various units of the Combat Groups, there were events and  actions during missions…

These mainly took the form of:

  • Refusal to complete the planned missions by several collectives and soldiers,
  • Resignation from the SED and Combat Groups, and
  • Refusal to obey orders."]

The functionaries had lost all trust in the SED leadership, as had the troops on the ground. The elites could no longer claim the required legitimacy to initiate responses to events in the GDR. Weber is vindicated by this example. Power evaporates when the bureaucratic staff no longer believes in what it is told to do.

On to the Conclusion

The Ruled
The Party