The Ruled

Weber’s theories explain the legitimation used by rulers, but only lightly touch upon the motivation to obey on the part of the ruled. Whilst Weberian theory asserts that the will to rule is more important, the compliance of the ruled is vital, if only to ensure self-belief on the part of the elites and reproduction of the system.

The SED gripped power by destroying the social space necessary for autonomous political action by terror and repression, which comes hand in hand with the mobilisation phase of communist development. Honecker’s GDR was post-mobilisation, and the terror was eased to allow the more complex society room to function. As political control decreases, society refills the gaps and has room for antipolitical retreatism or for limited political association.
Even so, this germination room was severely restricted by the SED. The dissatisfaction of the people was influenced by the socio-economic and political situation, but was made an effective movement by the space created for it by the church and given a legitimate voice by some vitally important factors.

If it is possible to identify a period when the Honecker regime achieved its goal of quiescence, then it was most likely a short period in the mid-1970s. This was, as we have seen, partly achieved by the success of Ostpolitik  and Helsinki and partly by the ‘unity of economic and social policy’. We have also seen how these events raised expectations of more economic satisfaction and more political liberalisation, which laid the foundations for the mass mobilisations of 1989.

It is no easy matter to put a date to when people first began to voice their feelings in larger, more organised ways. There were, of course spontaneous demonstrations of dissent in small sections of public life, such as at schools, in factories, of ‘dropping out’ and of the willingness to accept the stigma and sanction of being a Bausoldat, as opposed to a proper soldier.

The difference in the reception of the Kommunalwahlenresults of 1984 and those of 1989 are a telling example of the way in which people learned to voice scepticism of official election results. In 1984, the tone of letters was generally more inquisitive than confrontational:-

“Handelt es sich hierbei um einen Druckfehler in den Auflistungen  oder wurden Waehlerstimmen unsachgemaess weitergeleitet?”

["Is this a case of a printing error of the results or were  votes improperly processed?"]


It would take political organisation to achieve transition from isolated pockets of dissent, easily dismissed as isolated, to united action and forms of independent monitoring at the Kommunalwahlen , of May 1989.

These elections were to provide some disturbing statistical reading for the SED leadership. In comparison to the Kommunalwahlen of 1984, there was a 250% increase in abstentions in Neubrandenburg, a 350% increase in Schwerin and also 91.7% of members of the Catholic church administration abstained. The SED was losing a great deal of credibility for its self-professed role as sole representative of the people.

The poor performance of the GDR economy was most importantly borne by its people and its environment. The switch to lignite as the main source of energy, occasioned by the oil importation difficulties, had dramatic environmental consequences. Attention ineptly focused on the superior environmental performance of the West by the SED itself in articles and speeches condemning the West’s record on environmental matters, yet leaving its own devastation clear for all to see. The SED was aware of this trend:-

“… verglichen wird hier das bei Besuchsreise in der BRD und  Berlin (West) erlebte und durch die BRD-Medien propagierte  Lebensniveau, zumal dies oft in Widerspruch zum Imperialismusbild  steht, das wir vermitteln.”

["… comparisons are made between the standard of living  experienced during trips to the FRG and West Berlin and as shown  by the West German media, particularly when this contradicts the image of imperialism  that we present."]


Aside from a poor consumer economy, working conditions deteriorated due to the wasting away of the capital stock and the environmental damage. An East German worked on average 3? hours a week and 14 days a year more than his West German counterpart. To the annoyance of many workers, the state-controlled union, the FDGB compliantly accepted the state-determined wages, which effectively fell in 1989. There was a reduced supply of goods and whatever was left on the shelves frustrated the average citizen by carrying an inflated price-tag. The presence of “speciality shops”, which provided imported luxury items, exacerbated ill-feeling. So too did the crass comparisons made by the SED between life in the FRG and life in the DDR (see below). A 25-year-old lathe operator, caught trying to flee the GDR, offers the following description:-

“und wenn neue Artikel auf den Markt kommen, steigen sofort die  Preise. Viele Dinge bekommt man ohne Westgeld ueberhaupt nicht  oder muessen sie fuer teures Geld in den Exquisit- bzw.  Delikatgeschaeften einkaufen, die immer mehr ausgeweitet  werden. Davon wird jedoch in den Massenmedien der DDR nicht  berichtet, sondern nur von jeder Preiserhoehung im Westen.”

[" and when new goods appear on the market, prices rise  immediately. Many things are impossible to get without Western  money or are only available at high prices in Exquisit or Delikat  shops, that are spreading more and more. This is not reported in the GDR mass-media, only every price rise in the  West is reported."]

Yet if we accept that there were problems with supply and move on to look at the more favourable aspects of the East German economy, we find ourselves faced with another of Erich Honecker’s jewels in the crown, the provision of housing. In an interview, he claims that,

“230 000 Wohnungen jedes Jahr” are built and that ” Wir haben  in der DDR ein Wohnungsbauprogramm, das seinesgleichen sucht. Ihr  seht ja, wie gegenwaertig in Berlin (West) und in der  Bundesrepublik die Menschen auf die Strassen gehen, um die  Wohnungsnot zu beseitigen. Solche Demonstrationen haben wir nicht,  die haben sie drueben”

["230 000 homes are built each year" are built and that " We  have a housebuilding programme in the GDR without equal. You can  see how the people in West Berlin and the Federal Republic go onto  the streets to redress the housing shortage. We don't have such  demonstrations, they have them over there."]


The GDR has consistently built fewer new homes than any of its western or eastern neighbours. The goal-rationality of economic provision was obviously failing. The interview also trumpeted the assertion that the citizens of the GDR were better off than those in the FRG in other ways. By interviews such as this and the many others he had given in the past, he was politicising the economy, especially in comparison with the FRG. As economic failure was political failure and as the people of the GDR were consistently told a story by their media which was totally inconsistent with the true situation, there was not only an economic failure, but also a breach of trust.

Honecker also stressed the importance of social security, commenting that there is homelessness in West Germany. Allegedly, one of the great incentives to stay in the GDR was the promise of guaranteed employment. Unfortunately for the SED, this was not enough for some citizens:-

“Ich bin mit meinem Arbeitsverhaeltnis als Kellner in der DDR  nicht zufrieden. Mir ist durch das Westfernsehen bekannt,  dass man dort wesentich mehr verdient und materiell besser  leben kann als in der DDR ueber die Arbeitslosigkeit mache  ich mir keine Gedanken, ich werde schon Arbeit bekommen.”

["I am not happy with my work as a waiter in the GDR. I have  learned from Western TV that one can earn significantly more and  live materially better there than in the GDR I am not worried  about unemployment, I am sure to find work."]


But why were people willing to risk their lives on the Wall to go to a country that would, admittedly, accept them, but would not guarantee them a job. The standard of living was not the only motivation for many, although it was a very important, widely appreciable element in dissatisfaction. Until the mid 1980s, there was a grumbling acceptance of the status quo.

An open letter to the SED signed by leading intellectuals, criticises the environment, loan policy, and also the leading role of the party:-

“Mit der simplen Loesung “Alles fuer das Wohl des Volkes”  wird die Frage verbaut, wer denn nun ueber wessen Wohl  entscheidet und woher er weiss, was fuer den anderen gut  ist.”

["The simplistic solution, "everything for the good of the  People" raises the question, who decides about whose well-being  and how does he know what is good for the other."]


An article in a German-language Russian news magazine voiced what had most likely been felt for a long time by many people in the GDR:-

“Der Wunsch, in einem anderen Land zu leben, gilt nach wie vor  als Verrat und diese ueberzeugung beherrscht die Gesetzgeber  noch immer Nichts ausser staatlichen  Sicherheitserwaegungen kann den Wunsch eines Menschen, dort zu  leben, wo es ihm gefaellt, einschraenken.”

[" The desire to live in another country counts, as ever, as  betrayal and this conviction still dominates the lawmakers  Nothing but state security measures can restrict the wish of a  person to live where he wants."]


The Regime was laying the seeds of its own destruction in its policy of de-politicising its people if they failed to actively support the regime. This is because it simultaneously sought to politicise them against the West with its media. This was intended to lead to apathy or withdrawal for the regime’s policies on the one hand, but with kind of implicit support of the GDR by antagonism towards the West. The result was that cynicism took root because the living conditions were so obviously inferior to the claimed reality and because there was slowly increasing contact with the West with which to empirically verify the SED’s claims.

The Basic Treaty of December 1972 catalysed the situation when the FRG and GDR promised to normalise relations under the auspices of the United Nations. It was a great breakthrough for the GDR in that it was finally recognised by Bonn, opening the way for wider recognition by other Western states, and by its own people because the GDR was now a fait accompli. As the GDR was now recognised, the position of the SED inside the GDR was strengthened.

The problem was that Bonn did not concede a separate GDR citizenship, but considered all Germans to be guaranteed FRG citizenship. This was to have dramatic consequences since it proved to be very attractive for more East Germans than the SED could afford to lose, but the slow trickle to the West of the most undesirable elements in East German society served as a useful safety valve in the short term. In the long term, however, the two Germanys were too closely entwined for dissidents to be effectively hushed by exiling them to West Germany. Although many dissidents were popularised in the GDR by their exile, they were far less of a problem for the regime than if they had stayed and been active in the GDR.

The communications network between the West and East in the form of letters, family contact, increasing tourism and above all, mass media served dissidents such as Bahro and Biermann well. They were able to voice their feelings as never before in the western media. West Germans visited the GDR in ever increasing numbers, from 1,254,084 visits in 1970 to 3,123,941 in 1975. Personal contacts, and hence ways of objective comparison were growing rapidly.

It was not, however, so much the negative influence of the West on the GDR that was the main problem, but more the problematic identification with the GDR by many East German citizens. Both Germanys shared social traditions, language, history and families. People from the GDR still called themselves “Germans” and not “Citizens of the GDR”. The SED was also otherwise limited as to how it could manoeuvre by the existence of the FRG. It was becoming the GDR’s second largest trading partner and the GDR was becoming increasingly dependent on the FRG. The SED, dependent on the myth of anti-fascist, socialist, GDR ‘nationhood’ for its traditional legitimacy, was forced into remaining an alternative to the FRG and prevented from considering pragmatic reform.

West German television and radio could be well received throughout the GDR. A method for comparison was available, and as we have seen above, it did have its effects. Not only did the pictures of opulence beamed into the GDR from the TV station in West Berlin have a mouth-watering effect, the obvious openness of the West’s political life made an impact, as this unemployed woman remarks:-

“Da kann man ja sogar – das habe ich im Fernsehen der BRD in einer  Uebertragung einer Parlamentssitzung gesehen -  Regierungsvertreter beschimpfen, ohne dafuer Aerger zu  bekommen.”

["One can even criticise government representatives over there  - I saw it on a West German TV broadcast of a Parliamentary  session - without getting into trouble for it."]



Western news coverage of the stirrings in the GDR in mid 1989, the coverage of the flood of refugees through Hungary and the incidents at the West German embassy in Prague could not be suppressed by the government of the GDR. This was damaging for two reasons. It gave the people of the GDR some more resolve and belief in themselves by making clear to the individual that he or she was not isolated. The SED relied on a monopoly of information to make its own propaganda seem more believable, to isolate mass demonstrations within its country and make them seem like mere small-scale enterprises by fascist counter-revolutionaries, as the SED’s own files repeatedly cite:-

“Sie hatten Feuerwerkskoerper angebrannt, den faschistischen  Gruess getaetigt und faschistisches Gedankgut  geaeussert.

durch unbekannte Taeter mittels Farbspray ein Hakenkreuz  (50 x 55 cm) angesprueht war

Im Beisein mehrerer Personen auesserte er  faschistisches Gedankgut und fuehrte den Hitlergruess aus. [Neubrandenburg]

vor einer Kaufhalle tranken sie Alkohol und sangen  faschistische Lieder. [Rostock] “

["They set off fireworks, gave the fascist salute and voiced fascist ideas.

a swastika (50 x 55 cm) sprayed by unknown perpetrators with  spray-paint

In the presence of several people, he voiced fascist ideas  and gave the Hitler salute. [Neubrandenburg]

They drank alcohol and sang fascist songs outside a  department store. [Rostock]“]


Western media was able to show the people that those calling for democracy were not necessarily fascists or violent, but ordinary people with the courage to take to the streets. It was a mobilising factor of great importance. The media was a space for public discussion by proxy. GDR citizens could watch things being said that they themselves would like to have been able to say. The SED had almost no control over this space. They had no monopoly of information.

Nor did they have a monopoly on determining rights. Also important to this idea of space was the Helsinki Final Act, to which the SED agreed in 1975:-

” alle Voelker [haben] jederzeit das Recht, in voller  Freiheit, wann und wie sie es wuenschen, ihrem inneren und  ausseren politischen Status ohne aussere  Einmischung zu bestimmen und ihre politische, wirtschaftliche,  soziale und kulturelle Entwicklung nach eigenen Wuenschen zu  verfolgen.” (my italics)

["All people have the right at any time to determine  their inner and outer political status in total freedom, when and  how they like and to pursue their political, economic, social and  cultural development as they wish."]


The Act itself was published in Neues Deutschland and therefore enjoyed a wide circulation. Everyone in the GDR could now see that their rights were guaranteed by international agreement. It provided a measuring stick with which to judge how free one was.

The SED understood freedom in another way, as this interview with Professor Otto Reinhold, Central Committee member of the SED explained on West German television in April 1986:-

“Persoenliche Freiheit bedeutet fuer uns zunaechst  soziale Sicherheit als Grundlage der persoenlichen Freiheit.  Zur persoenlichen Freiheit gehoert die Moeglichkeit,  alle Talente und Faehigkeiten zu entwickeln und sie auch  praktisch in der Gesellschaft anzuwenden.”

["Personal freedom means to us primarily social security as a  basis for personal freedom. Personal freedom includes the  opportunity to develop all talents and capabilities and to use  them in society."]


But for all their re-definitions, the SED had nevertheless signed the Act and had introduced a criterion outside of its own scope for re-definition. Although human rights were enshrined in the GDR Constitution, this was always subordinate to the principles of ‘socialist democracy’, which put the state before its people. What was new about Helsinki was that human rights were unconditionally recognised and a kind of legal rationality was applied to the issue of human rights, something which flew in the face of the goal-rational justification of the SED’s vanguard role and could not be legislated away.

Arguably as important as the Western Media was the effect of the wave of liberalisation from the USSR, of openness (Glasnost). This was a much trickier problem for the SED to manage, since the GDR was essentially a creation of the USSR and had the precedent not only of being supported by the parent state against ‘counterrevolution’, as in 1953 and of co-operating with her against liberalisation in 1968 against Czechoslovakia; but the SED also relied on the USSR as the cradle of European communism to legitimate it. For decades, it was seen as right to aspire to the Soviet lifestyle; Datscha became an accepted East German word. People and functionaries alike had been bombarded with slogans, such as, “Von den Sowjetmenschen lernen hei?t siegen lernen!”, the daubing of which later became a form of ironic protest.

Honecker is circumspect in his interview after the Wende, where when asked whether or not he realised at the time that it was necessary to liberalise, he replies simply that “Wir setzten eine ganze Reihe von Kommissionen ein, um die weitere Entwicklung der sozialistischen Demokratie in der DDR zu gew?hrleisten.” The reactions of the SED against Glasnost tell a rather different story.

For unclear reasons, the SED moved from being a leading supporter of Soviet policy in Eastern Europe to being the leading dissident voice. The SED chose to insulate itself from the reform debate and to slowly disassociate itself from the USSR as a role model. “For me the Soviet Union earned great historical merit because it defeated Hitler and won the war… it is not, however, a model for us in terms of technology and progress,” said the editor of Junge Welt, the FDJ newspaper. If the SED was now goal-rational, what goal did it have?

The main uproar came in autumn 1988 with the banning of Sputnik, a digest of the Soviet press. This was done because Sputnik allegedly distorted history in an article claiming that the pre-war German communists under Ernst Th?lmann was partly responsible for Hitler’s successful seizure of power. This was sacrilegious in the eyes of Honecker and his colleagues, many of whom were persecuted by the Nazis in the war and were very proud of their antifascist credentials. The Sputnik article was chopping away at the foundations of the SED’s legitimacy. Neues Deutschlandran stories about Th?lmann very often and increased the frequency as a response to Sputnik’s article:-

“Das Blatt [Sputnik], sagen wir es offen, verunglimpft die  deutschen Kommunisten und ihre Verbuendeten, die von 1918 an,  ueber 1933, 1939 und 1941 hinaus fuer ein neues  Deutschland der Demokratie und des Sozialismus kaempften…

Solche Darstellungen stehen in Widerspruch zur Verfassung der  DDR… Sie stehen fuer uns, vor allem in Widerspruch zur  deutsch-sowjetischen Freundschaft… in Widerspruch zu unserer  Grundueberzeugung.”

["Let us be open. The magazine Sputnik disparages the  German Communists and their allies, who fought from 1918, through  1933, 1939 and 1941 for a new Germany of democracy...

Such accounts defy the Constitution of the GDR... They are  primarily in conflict with German-Soviet friendship... in conflict  with our basic conviction."]


Other Soviet media was banned, discussion of the Soviet reform process was forbidden. Krenz’s “Medienpolitik” ["Media Politics"] files are stuffed with clippings and even whole magazines that caused offence or were noteworthy. The Soviet Openness about the slaughter on Tianamen Square stood in direct contrast to the version of events depicted in Neues Deutschland and supported by the Politburo:-

“Das Polituero des ZK der SED protestiert gegen die  Protestaktion des Parteivorstandes der DKP zum Vorgehen der KP  Chinas gegen die Konterrevolution.”

["The Politbuero of the Central Committee of the SED  protests... against the protest of the party leadership of the DKP  concerning the action of the Communist Party of China against the  counter-revolution."]


Yet Neue Zeit, another Russian magazine in Germany had this to say about the events in Tianamen Square:-

“Die Ereignisse in China… innenpolitische Probleme… mit Panzern  geloest werden…”

“Der Staat hat das Blut seines Volkes vergossen.”


Sputnik went from being seen as a notoriously boring magazine subscribed to more as an act of duty, to a cutting-edge, exciting reformist magazine. This was ominous for the SED because people were effectively voting against them with their choice of reading material.

Aside from the space for discussion that was created as a result of the ideological fracturing of the Eastern European press, the charisma factor was important. “Gorbymania” ran riot. People cheered Gorbachev’s name in demonstrations, officially staged or otherwise, even snubbing Honecker on the occasion of his visit to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the foundation of the GDR in October 1989. Glasnost and Perestroika were buzzwords in subversive literature. Gorbachev was, despite the obvious economic troubles he had at home, the favoured choice of the East German people. People seemed to imagine that they had a choice – Honecker’s path of tight censorship and stiff centralised control, or Gorbachev’s ‘New Thinking’.

Putting the two men side by side, as occurred in Gorbachev’s visit to Berlin in October 1989 and televising the manner in which the public flocked to shake his hand, showed the East German population how uncharismatic and stiff the aged Honecker had become. Gorbachev was, in comparison, the John F. Kennedy of the Eastern Bloc. On his walkabout he said, “If you want democracy, take it and it will be yours.” Not only was he implying that the SED’s claims to democracy in the GDR were untrue, but could also be interpreted as a call to oppose the SED. Alongside news of Soviet troop withdrawals announced throughout the past two years, speeches by Gorbachev since 1988 allowing the Eastern European states to ‘go their own way’ and inaction over Poland and Hungary, this showed Gorbachev as the youthful, reformist and above all, charismatic leader of the USSR. In a sense, he was acting as a magnet for charisma, taking the spotlight away from Honecker and the gerontocratic party elite he represented.

But there were also smaller incidents on the world stage that had important knock-on effects for the SED’s legitimacy. The Polish Revolution of 1980 showed that Communist systems could be changed, that the USSR was no longer intervening in the affairs of other Eastern European states, even before Gorbachev’s time. It therefore set two important precedents of non-permanence and non-intervention.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 gave rise to peace movements within the GDR, which became the first organised and sustained opposition movement there. This movement tackled the self-professed goal of the GDR, peace, rather than the more sensitive human rights issue. But this was a new type of social movement. It was devoid of prominent intellectual leadership and drew its membership and leadership from the emerging counterculture of the 1980s, the ethos being that there was nothing left to lose. This group was much harder to co-opt than the more prominent intellectuals had previously been.

In May 1989, Hungary began dismantling its fortified frontier with Austria and announced that the border would be fully open within a year. Alongside this, the Hungarian Government began to consider neutrality and other sorts of reform such as a market economy and a multi-party system. Encouragingly for the opposition, there was no intervention by the USSR in answer to this. Hungary became an even more popular holiday destination for East German tourists. Shanty towns developed along the Austrian border during the summer holidays with numbers approaching 200,000. In the first eight months of 1989, 80,000 people left the GDR, including 500 doctors from East Berlin, bringing the medical system into chaos.

The news of this was efficiently relayed back to those still in the GDR by Western media, bringing encouragement to demonstrators remaining; and either as a result or just coincidentally, the frequency and scale of protests dramatically increased. The SED was faced with masses of demonstrators calling “Wir wollen raus!” (The ‘exit’ groups) and later, “Wir bleiben hier!” (the ‘voice’ groups). It was faced with freshly motivated demonstrators who either wished to leave or have a nation in their own image. But Hungary also weakened the SED in another way. The valve on the GDR pressure cooker popped clean off. Instead of controlled skimming of dissent, there was massive voting with feet.

Having long before recognised the effect of foreign influences, the SED used the solution of Abgrenzung. Although there was a trend towards relaxation of the border by the SED, inside the GDR, there was a tightening up. There was more focus on correct “class origins” by the regime when considering applications for a wide range of posts. This had the effect of worsening the “drop-out” situation, where those who were unable to function as they wished within the system, dropped out of it and into dissidence or even into the church, regardless of spiritual convictions, where their freedom of expression was greater.

In March 1978, the SED and the Protestant church signed an agreement signalling the beginning of a more harmonious relationship between church and state. Whilst the SED saw the agreement as being a commitment on the part of the church to strengthen socialism, many Church members saw it as a way of strengthening the church’s role in socialism. The SED saw the agreement as binding the church leadership to compliance with the state, many members in the less hierarchical church apparatus welcomed the recognition of the state and used this as a room to manoeuvre.

In the mid 1980s, the church not only worked with excluded minorities, but also began organising events such as blues concerts, peace workshops and art festivals. These were seen as attractive alternatives to what the SED had to offer and attracted many thousands of dissatisfied young people. Not only was the SED losing its self-proclaimed position as speaker for all elements in society; but it also ‘networked’ thousands of like-minded individuals – the dissatisfied of the GDR.

An important upshot of the relative freedom enjoyed by the church was the publication of church newspapers to propagate the ideas of the opposition groups. There are frequent complaints in SED files that church pamphlets bearing the stamp, “Nur f?r innerkirchlichen Gebrauch” are being publicly circulated. In an undated internal SED report, the following revealing and honest remarks are made:-

“Die Kirchenpresse in der DDR

Die Kirchenzeitungen trotz ihres becheidenen Umfang und ihrem  relativ niedrigen Anteil an der Gesamtproduktion innerhalb der  Pressenlandschaft der DDR eine hervorgehobe Rolle spielen. Das  Konzept groesserer Offenheit, wie es gegenwaertig in  der Sowjetunion praktiziert wird und in der russischen Bezeichnung  “Glasnost” auch bei DDR-Lesern Erwartungen weckt, ist in unserem  Lande erst in Ansaetzen verwirklicht.

bei den gegenwaertig vorhandenen Vervielfaeltigungs-  und Druckkapazitaeten der Kirchen und Religionsgemeinschaften  wuerde die Arbeit der Abteilungen Kultur quasi lahm gelegt.…”

["The Church Press in the GDR

despite their modest circulation and their relatively low  share of total production of the GDR press, the church newspapers  play a great role. The concept of greater openness, as practised  in the Soviet Union and also arouses expectations in GDR readers  with the term "Glasnost", is only just taking place in our  country.

the work of the Culture Ministry is being crippled by the  copying and printing facilities currently available to the  Churches and religious groups."]


However, the church was also acutely aware of its responsibilities to the SED. The church often restricted groups it thought would bring trouble on itself. But this was, reflecting the relative freedom of different ministers to act in different ways, not always the case; and where there is a person who was restricted or reported on by the church, there is another who fully appreciates the church’s freedom and support.

The church never organised mass demonstrations, nor encouraged them. It never gave assistance in order to encourage protest against the SED. It functioned only as an umbrella for the growth of political awareness. It protected but also restricted, and as the protests outside gained momentum in 1989, the political groups left the protection and restriction of the church. The church still played a very important role in focusing and concentrating masses of people with the “Friedensgebete” ["Peace Prayers"], where most of the congregation was not there to pray, but to hear political news and comment. Protest actions invariably followed these services, which had become meeting points, rather than religious events.


Although dissidence was a problem for the SED throughout the Honecker era, the manner in which the Berlin Wall functioned allowed it to selectively skim off the troublemakers from society by exiling them. Another form of rejecting the SED was to leave, by applying for an exit permit, or to stay and make your case. These two types were known as the ‘exit’ and ‘voice’ groups respectively. As the ‘voice’ activists wanted to stay behind and reform the system, bringing their grievances into the public sphere, they saw the ‘exit’ groups as apolitical and selfish. Opposition groups represented a broad spectrum of environmental, peace and human rights initiatives, as well as presenting different ideas for reform or replacement of the status quo. What brought them onto the streets was not so much a common manifesto, but a common enemy.

The influence the many opposition groups had was brought to bear on different parts of society. Firstly, there was the direct appeal to the SED itself, either by co-ordinated letter-writing (as we have allegedly seen earlier), or by direct written appeal by collected groups (as we have also seen earlier). Unfortunately, these appeals were generally not answered seriously, although the SED did fear the mobilising power of even these small incidents, as the suspicions of a hidden organisation behind the Bausoldaten vote-protests in 1984 have already demonstrated.

People identified with the small protest groups, but generally after it was seen as safe and worthwhile to do so. After the opening of the Hungarian border in May 1989 and the great increase in people fleeing the GDR, people began to have an awareness of the existence of these groups:-

“Irgendwie tauchte in den Westmedien immer mal der Begriff Neues  Forum auf, aber niemand wusste so richtig, was das nun ist.”

["Somehow, the name Neues Forum repeatedly appeared in the  Western media, but no-one knew exactly what that was."]


If the organisations were not solely responsible for the initiation of demonstrations after the peace services at the churches, they provided a “brain” to the masses of people. Their cries of “Keine Gewalt!” were, if not always successful, a clear sign to watching the police that the demonstration was supposed to be just that, and not a riot. This was a major factor in avoiding the intervention of the security forces and bloodshed, as these forces were issued with the order not to intervene unless people or property were attacked by the demonstrators.

The opposition groups not only called for a boycott of the vote but also monitored the Kommunalwahlen in May 1989, in which the SED received about 85% of the vote, yet chose to inflate the results to 98.85%. There then followed a more concerted and widespread letter-writing campaign than in 1984, some of which was revealed in this report:-

“In etwa 150 Zuschriften (allein 47 aus Berlin und 40 aus Dresden)  mit z.T. mehreren, in Einzelfaellen ueber 100  Unterschriften, wurden Zweifel an der Richtigkeit der  veroeffentlichen Wahlergebnisse geaeussert.”

["In about 150 letters (47 from Berlin and 40 from Dresden  alone) with several voicing doubt about the correctness of the  published voting results, some carried over 100 signatures."]


In any case, the opposition groups wanted change (albeit in varying degrees), the people wanted change also. The Opposition groups working within the church helped engineer a transition back from passivity to a form of political consciousness, outside of the church, they helped co-ordinate the demonstrations and other mass expressions of dissatisfaction with the regime. This was all very well and good, but with a huge army and party apparatus, the SED stood in the way of these groups. Ultimately, it was the Party that needed to concede that it had no right to govern. It had to lose its sense of legitimacy.

On to Chapter 4: The Party

The Ruled
The Party