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Historical analysis of the German Democratic Republic has tended to adopt a top-down model of the transmission of authority. However, developments were more complicated than the standard state/society dichotomy that has dominated the debate among GDR historians. Drawing on a broad range of archival material from state and SED party sources as well as Stasi files and individual farm records along with some oral history interviews, this book provides a thorough investigation of the transformation of the rural sector from a range of perspectives. Focusing on the region of Bezirk Erfurt, the author examines on the one hand how East Germans responded to the end of private farming by resisting, manipulating but also participating in the new system of rural organization. However, he also shows how the regime sought via its representatives to implement its aims with a combination of compromise and material incentive as well as administrative pressure and other more draconian measures. The reader thus gains valuable insight into the processes by which the SED regime attained stability in the 1970s and yet was increasingly vulnerable to growing popular dissatisfaction and economic stagnation and decline in the 1980s, leading to its eventual collapse.

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Monographs in German History

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Volume 3

From Recovery to Catastrophe: Municipal Stabilization and Political Crisis in Weimar Germany

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Nazism in Central Germany: The Brownshirts in ‘Red’ Saxony

Christian W. Szejnmann

Volume 5

Citizens and Aliens: Foreigners and the Law in Britain and the German States, 1789–1870

Andreas Fahrmeir

Volume 6

Poems in Steel: National Socialism and the Politics of Inventing from Weimar to Bonn

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Volume 7

“Aryanisation” in Hamburg

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Volume 8

The Politics of Education: Teachers and School Reform in Weimar Germany

Marjorie Lamberti

Volume 9

The Ambivalent Alliance: Konrad Adenauer, the CDU/CSU, and the West, 1949–1966

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Volume 10

The Price of Exclusion: Ethnicity, National Identity, and the Decline of German Liberalism, 1898–1933

E. Kurlander

Volume 11

Recasting West German Elites: Higher Civil Servants, Business Leaders, and Physicians in Hesse between Nazism and Democracy, 1945–1955

Michael R. Hayse

Volume 12

The Creation of the Modern German Army: General Walther Reinhardt and the Weimar Republic, 1914–1930

William Mulligan

Volume 13

The Crisis of the German Left: The PDS, Stalinism and the Global Economy

Peter Thompson

Volume 14

“Conservative Revolutionaries”: Protestant and Catholic Churches in Germany After Radical Political Change in the 1990s

Barbara Thériault

Volume 15

Modernizing Bavaria: The Politics of Franz Josef Strauss and the CSU, 1949–1969

Mark Milosch

Volume 16

Sex,Thugs and Rock ‘N’ Roll. Teenage Rebels in Cold-War East Germany

Mark Fenemore

Volume 17

Cultures of Abortion in Weimar Germany

Cornelie Usborne

Volume 18

Selling the Economic Miracle: Economic Reconstruction and Politics In West Germany, 1949–1957

Mark E. Spicka

; Volume 19

Between Tradition and Modernity: Aby Warburg and Art in Hamburg’s Public Realm 1896–1918

Mark A. Russell

Volume 20

A Single Communal Faith? The German Right from Conservatism to National Socialism

Thomas Rohkrämer

Volume 21

Environmental Organizations in Modern Germany: Hardy Survivors in the Twentieth Century and Beyond

William T. Markham

Volume 22

Crime Stories: Criminalistic Fantasy and the Culture of Crisis in Weimar Germany

Todd Herzog

Volume 23

Liberal Imperialism in Germany Expansionism and Nationalism, 1848–1884

Matthew P. Fitzpatrick

Volume 24

Bringing Culture to the Masses Control, Compromise and Participation in the GDR

Esther von Richthofen

Volume 25

Banned in Berlin: Literary Censorship in Imperial Germany, 1871–1918

Gary D. Stark

Volume 26

After the ‘Socialist Spring’: Collectivisation and Economic Transformation in the GDR

George Last

Volume 27

Learning Democracy: Education Reform in West Germany, 1945–1965

Brian M. Puaca

Volume 28

Weimar Radicals: Nazis and Communists between Authenticity and Performance

Timothy S. Brown

Volume 29

The Political Economy of Germany under Chancellors Köhl and Schröder: Decline of the German Model?

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Volume 30

The Surplus Woman Unmarried in Imperial Germany, 1871–1918

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Collectivisation and Economic Transformation in the GDR

George Last


First published in 2009 by

Berghahn Books


© 2009, 2019 George Last

Open access edition published in 2019

All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages

for the purposes of criticism and review, no part of this book

may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or

mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information

storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented,

without written permission of the publisher.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Pursuits of happiness : well-being in anthropological perspective / edited by

Last, George.

After the “socialist spring” : collectivism and economic transformation in

the GDR / George Last. — 1st ed.

p. cm. — (Monographs in German history ; v. 26)

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-1-84545-552-1 (hardback : alk. paper)

ISBN 978-1-78920-108-6 (open access ebook)

1. Collectivization of agriculture—Germany (East)—History. 2. Germany

(East)—Economic conditions—20th century. 3. Agriculture and state—

Germany (East). I. Title.

HD1492.G2L37 2008



British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN 978-1-84545-552-1 (hardback)

ISBN 978-1-78920-108-6 (open access ebook)

An electronic version of this book is freely available thanks to the support of libraries working with Knowledge Unlatched. KU is a collaborative initiative designed to make high quality books Open Access for the public good. More information about the initiative and links to the Open Access version can be found at knowledgeunlatched.org

This work is published subject to a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial No Derivatives 4.0 International license. The terms of the license can be found at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/ . For uses beyond those covered in the license contact Berghahn Books.


List of Figures


List of Abbreviations

Glossary of Terms

Map of Settlement Pattern in Bezirk Erfurt


Bezirk Erfurt

Pre-1989 Studies of Agriculture and Rural Society in the GDR

The Historiography of Agriculture and Rural Society in the GDR since the Wende





1 Steps towards Full Collectivisation of Agriculture

The Campaign for Collectivisation

Popular Responses to Collectivisation

The Limits of Local Agitation

The Campaign Intensified

The ‘Socialist Spring’


2 The Aftermath of Collectivisation

The Conditions of Collectivised Agriculture

The Roots of Conflict in the LPG

The Insufficiency of the SED State’s Apparatus in Rural Communities

Flight to the West

The Strength of Popular Dissent

The Seeds of Consolidation in the LPG


3 Farming behind the Wall

The Limits of Dissent

Sources of Continued Instability

Confrontation and Control




4 Steps towards Reform

Changing the Context for Communication of Authority

Supplying Loyal Cadres

New Departures in the Administration of Agriculture

Hostility to Change: the Limits of Reform


5 Resistance, Compromise and ‘Cooperation’

The Early Development of Cooperation

Grounds for Continuing Hostility to Cooperation

Competing Interests and the Obstacles to Persuasion

The Ideological Deficit in the LPG

The DBD and Voices of Conservatism

Uncertainty and the Limits of Transformation

A Changing Context for SED Authority


6 Critical Transitions

Forced Evolution

The Crisis Precipitated

Crisis and Confusion in Agricultural Administration

Administrative Gridlock




7 From Ulbricht to Honecker

The Dynamic 1960s? The Limitations of Life in East German Agriculture

The Failure of Economic Reform


Reconstituting Cooperation

A New Structure for Agriculture – A New Context for SED Authority


8 Stabilisation and Stagnation

Consolidation and Conflict

Inadequate Industrialisation

The End of ‘Realistic Plans’

Problems of Scale

The Failures of Cooperation

Rural Development under Honecker


9 Economic Crisis and Popular Dissatisfaction – the Road to 1989

Popular Dissatisfaction: Pollution, Shortage and Neglect in Rural Society

Agricultural Reform

Managing Mis-industrialisation

Mis-industrialisation or Sabotage?

Financial Reform


Conclusion: The Practice and Problems of Agricultural Transformation in the GDR



List of Figures

2.1 Illegal Flights from the GDR by LPG members in Bezirk Erfurt, February 1960 to March 1961

4.1 Number of Type I and Type II LPGs vs. number of Type III LPGs in Bezirk Erfurt, 1960–74

5.1 Convergence of rising qualification levels and declining workforce in Bezirk Erfurt, 1960–78


First and foremost, I would like to thank Professor Mary Fulbrook, for her guidance and encouragement. I am grateful too to all those in the German Department at University College London, in particular Esther von Richthofen, Dr Mark Hewitson and Dr Jeanette Madarasz, whose academic advice and moral support were a great help. In Erfurt, I am indebted to Karin Badelt for the loan of her agricultural textbooks, her explanations of technical matters of agricultural policy and her help in contacting interview subjects. I am indebted too to the staff of the Thuringian State Archives in Weimar for their labours in seeking out and providing me with endless files. I would also like, in particular, to mention my father and my late mother for their love and constant encouragement over the years. Finally, I am grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for the financial support without which my research would not have been possible.

List of Abbreviations

ABV Abschnittsbevollmächtigter (Local Police Officer)

AIV Agrar-Industrie-Vereinigung (Agro-Industrial Union)

BArch Bundesarchiv (Federal Archive)

BDVP Bezirksbehörde der Deutschen Volkspolizei (Regional Authority of the German People’s Police)

BGL Betriebsgewerkschaftsleitung (Factory trade union leadership)

BHG Bäuerliche Handelsgenossenschaft (Farmers’ Trade Cooperative)

BLR Bezirkslandwirtschaftsrat (Regional Agricultural Council)

BPA Bezirksparteiarchiv (Regional Party Archive)

BPKK Beziksparteikontrollkomission (Regional Party Control Commission)

BPO Betriebsparteiorganisation (Factory/Farm Party Organisation)

CDU Christlich-Demokratische Union (Christian Democratic Union)

DBD Demokratische Bauernpartei Deutschlands (Democratic Farmers’ Party of Germany)

DBK Deutsches Bauernkongress (German Farmers’ Congress)

DDR Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic)

DFD Demokratischer Frauenbund Deutschlands (Democratic German Women’s Association)

DSF Gesellschaft für Deutsch–Sowjetische Freundschaft (Society for German–Soviet Friendship)

FDGB Freier Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (Free German Trade Union)

FDJ Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth)

GAP Gemeinsame Abteilung Pflanzenproduktion (Common Unit for Crop Production)

GDR German Democratic Republic

GO Grundorganisation (Basic Party Organisation)

IM Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (Unofficial staff recruited by the Stasi)

JEA Jahresendabrechnung (End of Year Accounts)

JEV Jahresendversammlung (End of Year Assembly)

JHV Jahreshauptversammlung (Main Annual Assembly)

KAP Kooperative Abteilung Pflanzenproduktion (Cooperative Unit for Crop Production)

KAS Kreisarchiv Sömmerda (District Archive Sömmerda)

KBK Kreisbauernkonferenz (District Farmer’s Conference)

KLR Kreislandwirtschaftsrat (District Agricultural Council)

KOG Kooperationsgemeinschaft (Cooperative Community)

KOR Kooperationsrat (Cooperative Council)

KOV Kooperationsverband (Cooperative Union)

KPKK Kreisparteikontrollkommission (District Party Control Commission)

KPdSU Kommunistische Partei der Sowjet Union (Communist Party of the Soviet Union)

LPG Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsgenossenschaft (Agricultural Collective)

LPG P LPG Pflanzenproduktion (Agricultural Collective for Crop Production)

LPG T LPG Tierproduktion (Agricultural Collective for Livestock Production)

MfS Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Ministry for State Security)

MTS Maschinen-Traktoren-Station (Machine and Tractor Station)

MV Mitgliederversammlung (Members’ Assembly)

Nazi Nationalsozialist (National-Socialist)

NES New Economic System

NÖS Neues Ökonomisches System (New Economic System)

NSDAP Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Worker’s Party)

NVA Nationale Volksarmee (Army of the GDR)

RdB Rat des Bezirks (State Regional Council)

RdG Rat der Gemeinde (State Commune/Village Council)

RdK Rat des Kreises (State District Council)

RLN (B) Rat für Landwirtschaft und Nahrungsgüterwirtschaft (Bezirk), (Regional Council for Agriculture and the Food Industry)

RLN (K) Rat für Landwirtschaft und Nahrungsgüterwirtschaft (Kreis), (District Council for Agriculture and the Food Industry)

SAPMO Stiftung der Parteien und Massenorganisationen (Foundation for Parties and Mass Organisations)

SED Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (Socialist Unity Party)

SPK Staatliche Planungskommission (State Planning Commission)

Stasi Staatssicherheitsdienst (State Security Service)

ThHStAW Thüringisches Hauptstaatsarchiv Weimar (Thuringian Main State Archive)

VEAB Verein der Erfassungs- und Aufkaufsbetriebe (Union of Produce Collection and Purchasing Companies)

VEB Volkseigener Betrieb (People’s Own Factory)

VEG Volkseigenes Gut (lit. People’s Own Estate i.e.: State-owned farm)

VdgB Verein der gegenseitigen Bauernhilfe (Farmer’s Mutual Aid Association)

VKSK Verein der Kleintiergärtner, Siedler und Kleintierzüchter (Association of Small Gardeners, Settlers and Small Animal Breeders)

VPKA Volkspolizeikreisamt (District Police Office)

Vw Volkswirtschaft (National Economy)

ZGE Zwischengenossenschaftliche Einrichtung (Intercollective Institution)

ZK Zentralkomitee (Central Committee)

Glossary of Terms

Betriebsegoismus Enterprise Egotism: Catch-all criticism attributed to farms and factories thought to be acting in their own rather than the common interest.

Bezirk Administrative Region: In 1952, the Länder which made up the territory of the GDR were divided into smaller administrative regions, mapping the state bureaucracy on to the party bureaucracy.

Bezirksleitung Regional SED Administration.

Bezirksparteiaktivtagung Assembly of select SED members with leading roles in particular fields in the region.

Bezirksvorstand The leading members of one of the bloc parties in the Bezirk, e.g. the DBD.

Delikat Chain of shops established to sell ‘luxury’ food items to the population.

Eingaben der Bevölkerung People’s Petitions: formal complaints made in written or verbal form to any state or party official or body. These were essential to the gauging of popular opinion and popular concerns.

Genossenschaftliche Demokratie Collective Democracy: the practice of including collective farm members in the running of an LPG through ballots in the members’ assemblies on specific issues, as well as election of members to the directing board and advising commissions of the LPG.

Großbauer Wealthy farmer: technically, any farmer owning more than 20 hectares of land, or operating a capitalistic enterprise.

Kleinbauer Small farmer: technically, any farmer owning less than 5 hectares of land.

Komplexeinsatz Integrated deployment: the use of several machines (often from several LPGs) in conjunction usually during the harvest.

Konsum Standard all-purpose shop, often the only retail outlet in small villages.

Kooperationsgemeinschaft Cooperative Community: The collective term for two or more LPGs contractually bound to cooperate with one another in some aspect of agricultural production.

Kooperationsrat Cooperative Council: A body compromised of delegates from each of the LPGs in the cooperative community, usually the LPG chairmen but also other leading members of the LPG, including brigade leaders or SED party secretaries. Meetings of the council were also attended by village mayors, although their opinions were not always welcomed by LPG chairmen. The primary purpose of the council was to arrange and agree upon the terms on which LPGs, and later LPG Ps and LPG Ts cooperated with one another.

Kooperationsverband Cooperative Union: A body with its own council of delegates, designed to coordinate the relationship between food industries and LPGs. Cooperative unions were established to organise the production of specific crops or food products involving a number of LPGs with other institutions (e.g. slaughterhouses) in the vertical chain of production over a wide territory, e.g. from the raising of calves through to their processing as sausage.

Kreisverband District authorities of one of the bloc parties e.g. DBD.

LPG-Aktiv LPG Committee: As a pre-cursor to the formation of an SED Party Organisation, these Aktivs were designed to bring SED and non-SED members together who were active in promoting and developing collective farming practices within an LPG.

Nebenerwerbsbauer Part-time farmer: a large number of part-time farmers were forced to abandon their land to an LPG and receive a share of the produce in return as part of the collectivisation. In the 1980s in particular, however, industrial workers were encouraged to take up farming on small allotments, which could not be easily fitted into the large field systems of gigantic LPGs, in order to boost production.

Neubauer New Farmer: A beneficiary of the postwar land reforms.

Offenstall An open stall shed: designed as a cheap and easily constructed shed for holding rapidly increasing numbers of livestock during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Poor planning and shoddy materials gained them a reputation for being counterproductive.

Ortsbauernführer Local Farmers’ Leader: Nazi-affiliated local agricultural functionary during the Third Reich.

Parteitag Party Congress.

Sozialistische Betriebswirtschaft Socialist Business Economics: system of accounting and incentive measures designed to improve the efficiency of financial planning under the terms of the New Economic System.

Umsiedler Refugees from the East settling in the GDR.

Vorstandssitzung Board meeting: LPGs were run by chairmen supported by boards of LPG members elected every two years. The board and chairmen were to meet ideally every week to discuss the business of the LPG, managing everything from matters of discipline (often drunkenness) in the workforce, to questions over the long-term development of the LPG. Preparing the resolutions which were put to the vote in the full members’ assemblies, they were a vital part of the functioning of ‘collective democracy’, qualifying the power concentrated in the hands of the chairman.

Wehrmacht The army of the National Socialist regime.

Map of Settlement Pattern in Bezirk Erfurt

Source: Rat des Bezirkes, Bezirksplankommission March 1976, ThHStAW, Bezirksparteiarchiv der SED Erfurt, Bezirksleitung der SED Erfurt IV/C/2/13-479, p. 303.*


It is commonly recognised that the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was a dictatorship. Under the auspices of the Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands or SED), whose dominant position in government was never legitimated by free democratic elections, judicial, executive and legislative powers were also never rigorously separated, compromising the rule of law and allowing the infringement of basic human and civil rights in the name of the party’s ideological goals. 1 The nature of the SED dictatorship, as it changed over the forty years of the GDR’s existence, remains nonetheless a matter of considerable debate among historians seeking to explain both the causes of the state’s longevity and its ultimate collapse. Using material largely unexamined since the collapse of the GDR, this book addresses the role of low-level political and economic functionaries in the organisation and management of the collective farms (Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsgenossenschaften or LPGs), and in the implementation and development of agricultural policy from the agitation campaigns of the ‘Socialist Spring’ in 1960 to the development of industrial-scale agriculture during the 1970s and 1980s in Bezirk Erfurt. 2 In so doing it aims to illuminate the changing practice of authority (Herrschaft ) at the grass roots and contribute to our understanding of the interrelated history of politics and society in the middle two decades of the GDR’s existence, as the SED regime gradually attained an unprecedented level of stability, yet found itself increasingly vulnerable to financial collapse.

The implementation of SED agricultural policy occurred via an administrative network that was by no means simply a well-oiled conduit of dictatorial authority but was itself evolving. At the grass roots the mere creation of the LPG and the establishment of a hierarchy of chairman and work brigade leaders on paper did not automatically create a channel for the consistent transmission of information and authority. Moreover, farmers themselves were no willing dupes, nor indeed merely victims of the imposition of state power. Particularly with regard to agriculture, where knowledge of the locality and the intimacy of the connection between the farmer and his land and livestock retained an economic value (above all under the constraints of the shortage economy), the practice of authority necessarily involved a – albeit unequal – dialogue. The aspirations and policies of those leading the dictatorship were necessarily reshaped to some extent in accordance with the interests and objections of LPG farmers on the ground. The context in which this process occurred was defined in large part by the shifting educational and political background of the LPGs’ leading functionaries and their relationship with their constituent farmers on the one hand and with the state and party hierarchy on the other.

During the course of the 1960s and 1970s, the SED leadership pursued the development of agriculture on an industrial scale and sought to make the process of agricultural production not only more successful but also more responsive to the demands of the economic system – more predictable and thus more plan-able. Against the background of technological development and economic fluctuation, the farming population themselves were necessarily incorporated into a new apparatus of agricultural administration, whose basic unit was the LPG. In the process their understanding of farming – not least of ownership and responsibility to the land – and their relationship with the state and to their fellow farmers underwent considerable, if gradual, redefinition. The contexts in which those working in agriculture pursued their careers and conceived of (and foresaw) their future in the GDR were very different in the late 1970s than they had been in the late 1950s or even the late 1960s.

The changed context of the late 1970s was the product of considerable conflict. Over the years the limits on the expression of divergent opinion among collective farmers and on local resistance to the implementation of SED agricultural policy were settled incrementally. It was also the product, however, of a (albeit limited) compromise, in which the aspirations of the SED leadership were necessarily mitigated by the process by which its authority was transmitted and received. The attempts of collective farmers to assert their own interests not only in spite of or in contradiction to, but also increasingly in conjunction with, those of the SED culminated by the late 1970s in the establishment and consolidation of essentially new structures of farm organisation and stable systems of agricultural administration. These new structures appeared to guarantee steadily improving incomes and working conditions as well as steady (and plan-able) improvements to productivity. A degree of internalisation or at least acceptance of the norms of the socialist system certainly took place in the 1960s and 1970s among the GDR’s farmers, driven to a large extent by the reduction in the size of the agricultural workforce and by a steady growth in the proportion of those with technical training in the forms and methods of socialist agriculture. This was matched by growing recognition of the limitations on rights to property, to participation in decision making and self-determination and to the articulation of complaint by the late 1970s.

Furthermore across the economy and society as a whole in the GDR in the 1970s, the end of radical social upheaval and economic austerity marked a high point for the stability of the SED regime. Internationally recognised in 1972 and a signatory to an international declaration on human rights in Helsinki in 1975, the GDR appeared outwardly to have achieved an unprecedented degree of harmony both domestically and internationally. The introduction of welfare and consumerist measures designed to bring about immediate improvements to living conditions, alongside continually improving wages, brought too an unprecedented degree of affluence to the population at large. For many, if not all, members of the collective farms levels of income, levels of educational attainment and working conditions also reached an unprecedented high. Improvement was by no means universal, however. Moreover, underlying this harmony were the beginnings of serious financial crisis.

The cost of welfare and consumerist policies (as well as a failed yet costly attempt to develop a high-tech electronics industry) in the GDR came at the price of an ever-increasing national debt, much of it to West German banks. This debt, compounded by the negative impact of increases in oil prices on the international markets and the reduction of some financial support from the Soviet Union, began during the 1980s seriously to undermine the GDR’s economic stability. This had serious consequences for agriculture in the GDR, which more than ever depended on the ability of the rest of the economy to supply it with machinery, fuel and chemical fertiliser. Under increasingly desperate economic conditions, the mistakes of overindustrialisation of agriculture and the vulnerability (when faced with shortage) of the structures established to coordinate agricultural production were exposed. Working conditions in farming became thus increasingly fraught with crises at the same time as rural communities in general were badly hit by shortages in the supply of consumer goods and a growing environmental crisis.

By the end of the 1980s, the effectiveness of the system of agricultural organisation was being seriously undermined by economic stagnation. As the GDR headed towards bankruptcy and the prospects of future stability in agriculture, as in other sectors of the economy, receded, so the ability of the SED leadership to satisfy the expectations which it had set itself and encouraged not only the population at large but also its constituent functionaries throughout the state and party network to adopt, seemed increasingly unattainable. If the basis on which the SED regime could achieve relative stability had been established in the 1970s, by the late 1980s this stability was increasingly fragile. The clear superiority of the West German economy and the failure of the SED to sustain the standards it had set itself, or even play the role it claimed of protecting the interests of the working class and the peasantry, left it with as little popular support in the countryside as it had in the towns of the GDR. Ever-growing problems of production and increasing differentiation in the quality of life and the standard of working conditions in rural communities had compromised the validity of the material and epistemic bases of the SED leadership’s claim to legitimacy. The East German population had been encouraged to expect consistent (planned!) improvement to living and working conditions across the economy and society. These expectations had been sorely disappointed.

Bezirk Erfurt

In order to maintain a focus on the grass-roots relations between the party, state and farming collectives, the scope of this study is limited to the villages of Bezirk Erfurt, the largest and westernmost of the three regions (Bezirke ) formed in 1952 to replace the former Land Thuringia in the southwest corner of the GDR. While being roughly average in size and number of inhabitants compared with the GDR’s other Bezirke, it has the added advantage of allowing the examination, from a regional perspective, of some of the broader issues faced by the GDR during its existence. Religiously, the population of the Bezirk, in containing a concentrated minority of Catholics in the northwestern Eichsfeld region alongside Protestants of both the Lutheran and Reformed Evangelical churches, reflected the mixture of Christians in the GDR as a whole. Its long border with the Federal Republic makes possible too examination of the regional impact of the erection of the Wall in August 1961. Five districts (Kreise ) in the Bezirk bordered West Germany: in the far north the district centred on the town of Nordhausen, in the northwest the Eichsfeld districts around Heiligenstadt and Worbis and to the southwest, Eisenach district. Lying between the Harz mountains to the north and the Thüringer Wald to the south, Bezirk Erfurt covered 7,349 km2 and comprised thirteen rural districts and two urban districts (Weimar and Erfurt) subdivided in 1970 into 803 settlements of which forty-nine were classed as towns. 3

Prior to the GDR’s existence, the state of Thuringia was largely cultivated by relatively small family farms, lacking almost any grand estates of the size that existed in the northeast of the country. At the end of the war 98 per cent of the farms were under 50 hectares in size, cultivating 84 per cent of the arable land. 4 As a result, the effects of the initial land reform – the expropriation of large landowners and the parcelling of property to be handed out to Neubauern (‘New Farmers’: largely industrial workers, refugees or formerly landless farm labourers) – was felt less severely here than for example in Mecklenburg and Brandenburg, where over 40 per cent of arable land was redistributed. 5 Only with the second stage of the land reforms, which were carried out as part of denazification measures against farmers with up to 100 hectares and which lasted until 1950, did the proportion of those affected increase significantly. With a steady influx of refugees and expelled Germans from the former eastern territories into Thuringia after the war (albeit in fewer numbers than in most of the rest of the GDR), a large proportion of rural communities were required to accommodate the newcomers. 6 As recent work on the fates of the so-called ‘Umsiedler ’ (refugees from the East) in the GDR has shown, a relatively small proportion of these newcomers were able to benefit from the land reforms and become so-called Neubauern. 7 Rather the vast majority of newcomers to rural communities found initial employment as agricultural labourers, replacing the foreign workers and prisoners of war who had been freed on the collapse of the Nazi regime, and making up for the absence of the generations of young men killed during the war. Many of those employed in this way had, however, no experience of farming nor saw their long-term future in agriculture, hoping either for a return to their homeland or at least employment in their former trades. Even those who had sought and received land as part of the land reforms found in many cases that it did not enable them to make a sufficient living – not least because the quality of the land and the livestock that they were allocated was seldom of the best. 8 Consequently, over the course of late 1940s and early 1950s, encouraged by the state, there was a steady exodus from rural communities and agricultural employment into urban settlements and industry. The proportion of newcomers among landless labourers, which had been nearly 50 per cent for the GDR as a whole in 1949 (though far lower in Thuringia), was thus greatly reduced by the time the collectivisation of agriculture was under way. 9 For the majority of farmers in Bezirk Erfurt, therefore, vigorous attempts to persuade them to collectivise in the 1950s represented the first major disruption to the organisation of farmland as a result of communist control since the war.

Of course conditions for farming in the Bezirk varied considerably. Purely in terms of the nature and quality of the land, the Bezirk may be divided into three basic sections. Firstly, there were the flat fertile arable lands of the Thuringian basin, which included parts of the districts of Weimar-Land, Bad Langensalza, Sömmerda, Erfurt-Land and Apolda. Farms in these areas tended to be the most successful with high yields of crops and correspondingly well-fed livestock. As a consequence those who farmed them could on the whole afford to remain full-time farmers; secondly, there were the highlands in the north of the Bezirk which included much of the districts of Worbis, Heiligenstadt and Nordhausen. These areas, in contrast, had a much smaller proportion of arable land, relying heavily on pasture land for livestock feed. Owing to the relative poverty of farming in this part of the country, there was a long tradition of migration by men looking for work in mining and industry as well as on farms and estates elsewhere, leaving large numbers of small-scale farms (most well under 5 hectares) in the hands of women and the elderly. Similarly, to the far south of the Bezirk, in the southernmost parts of Arnstadt, Eisenach and Gotha districts, the beginnings of the hilly Thuringian forests reduced agricultural production to a minimum. Much of the rest of these districts, however, constituted a third section, along with districts such as Mühlhausen and Sondershausen, in which relatively successful farmers each with between 10 and 20 hectares of land predominated. 10

The pattern of urban settlement and the development of industry within the different districts also varied considerably and inevitably made an impact on the nature of rural communities and agricultural activity. With the hardening division of Germany following the war, the prewar economic structure of what had become the Soviet zone could no longer be maintained. It was essential that the exploitation of native raw materials be stepped up and new heavy industry as well as manufacturing be developed in the GDR. As a consequence, during East Germany’s own (less flamboyant) economic miracle in the 1950s, a rapid expansion of industry and urban settlement took place which not only drew on the agricultural workforce (as I have mentioned with regard to Umsiedler) but on agricultural land as cities expanded and incorporated rural areas. Moreover, some rural communities began to lose their dominantly agricultural character, by their proximity to industrial centres and the high proportion of commuting members of the industrial workforce. With the further expansion of industry into previously exclusively rural areas and the growth of the commuting population, the combination of small-scale agriculture with industrial employment accounted for a not insignificant proportion of farming in some districts in the 1950s. In Bezirk Erfurt, in the vicinity of the many small towns in the Gotha and Eisenach districts in particular, there was a tradition of part-time farmers and smallholders who also worked in industry. The expansion of mining operations, particularly the potash mines in Nordhausen, had a similar impact on the surrounding rural communities that supplied much of the workforce.

While progress in industrialisation during the 1960s and 1970s alongside the mechanisation of agriculture did result in a reduction in the numbers living in small rural settlements in conjunction with the drop in the agricultural workforce, a considerable number of people in the Bezirk continued to commute from villages. 11 Thus although the agricultural and food production sectors dominated the economies of certain Kreise such as Bad Langensalza, Weimar-Land and Erfurt-Land, a large proportion of the inhabitants of these areas were employed in industrial centres, notably in Sömmerda and Erfurt. The largest factories in the Bezirk, such as the People’s Own Factory (Volkseigener Betrieb or VEB) ‘Office Machine Works Sömmerda’, VEB ‘Automotive Works Eisenach’ and VEB ‘Electric Works Erfurt’, operated largely in the manufacture of machinery and vehicles and from the 1970s electrical goods and technology. Elsewhere in the Bezirk textile and chemical industries were developed, such as the VEB ‘Chemicals Rudisleben’ near Arnstadt and the VEB ‘Cotton Weaving Leinefeld’ in Worbis district. 12 In 1971, of approximately 600,000 people in active employment in the Bezirk, 14.5 per cent worked in agriculture and 38 per cent worked in industry. The numbers of those in the Bezirk working in agriculture in the 1970s continued to drop – albeit more gradually than during the 1960s. By the beginning of the 1980s, the size of the agricultural workforce in the Bezirk, as in the rest of the GDR, did stabilise, however, as the minimum level of manpower required to sustain production was reached.

New recruits to the LPGs in Bezirk Erfurt in the 1970s joined farms much changed since full collectivisation in 1960, which were nevertheless by no means uniform in size, structure and organisation. By the 1980s a peculiarly socialist modernisation and (mis-)industrialisation of farming had taken place in the GDR. How this process occurred in the specific, yet not wholly unrepresentative, circumstances of the territory of Bezirk Erfurt and the impact it had on working and living conditions for the rural population forms the background to the shifting relations between state and society with which this study is concerned.

Pre-1989 Studies of Agriculture and Rural Society in the GDR

Given the declining status of farming within the economies of Europe’s industrialised countries and the proportionate growth of the urban population, the attention of historians of postwar Europe in general has shifted proportionately away from the development of rural society. 13 Nevertheless the significance and immediacy of the upheavals in rural society in the Soviet zone of occupation in Germany after the Second World War and then the GDR has made it something of an exception in this regard. The social development of the countryside as well as the politics of agriculture in the Soviet Zone and GDR were the subject of interest in the West from the beginnings of the land reform in 1945 and the first drive for collectivisation of agriculture in the early 1950s, provoked in part by the immediate plight of the steady flow of farmers and landowners fleeing the GDR as a result. Equally, the significance of the transformation of the countryside for the SED regime, both in terms of the ideological battle for the rural population and in terms of its goals of autarkic food production, saw a large number of historical and political works published in the GDR itself in clarification as well as justification of socialist agricultural policy. Literature has thus come from a number of different quarters in both East and West, with works by historians and journalists as well as social scientists alongside more technical literature on specific agricultural issues.

A range of different types of studies was produced in East Germany prior to the Wende on the subject of agriculture, village development and collective farm management. While much of the content is formulaic and ridden with ideological jargon, there was scope too for debates on the future direction of agriculture, particularly during the 1960s, amid a climate of innovation generated by the new economic policy and with the exact path of development for the farm collectives not yet fixed. The scale and complexity of agriculture and (would-be) autarkic food production in a planned economy raised numerous questions for debate among agricultural scholars as well as economists and theorists of socialist management. While the more accessible works on these subjects often did not necessarily reflect the real problems of the average farming collective, they and other more technical publications nonetheless highlight the potential for debate, albeit within certain bounds. 14

A number of works published in the late 1960s and 1970s in the GDR addressed the progress of village development, triumphantly highlighting the success of the policy of ‘Annäherung ’ (‘converging’) of living standards in villages and towns with examples of modern housing in rural areas and the availability of modern urban amenities in the countryside. 15 Alongside these largely superficial analyses, several sociological studies of aspects of rural society were carried out in the 1970s and 1980s, largely under the direction of Kurt Krambach. 16 While again couched in the rhetoric of progress, these nonetheless looked more closely at the specific issues facing rural society, such as the problem of the loss of young people to the towns, and often used interesting, if ideologically skewed, questionnaires to gauge the opinions of farmers on the latest developments of agricultural policy and the position of the farmer within the collective.

The development in the 1970s of the large industrial specialised production units in some advanced LPGs also prompted interest from journalists within the GDR. The reportage on life and work in the industrial milking station in Berlstedt, Kreis Weimar by Ursula Püschel, a cultural functionary and literary critic, is notable for the mixture of workers’ and managers’ perspectives on the problems and successes which she portrays. 17 More controversially, the recorded testimonies of workers and managers in the specialised fruit farms of the Havelland in Bezirk Potsdam, edited by Gabrielle Eckart in the 1980s, highlighted the everyday problems faced by a range of different people living and working in a rural area since the development of specialised industrial agricultural production. 18 Both these works were published in West Germany in the 1980s, filling a gap in West German conceptions of the state of East German agriculture.

The focus of most Western studies of East German agriculture and society before the Wende concentrated on the period of the land reforms after 1945 and the later process of collectivisation. 19 In the 1950s and 1960s, this was to some extent the natural result of the Cold War ideological division, with the emphasis on the ‘totalitarian’ control and repression exerted on the German population by the SED regime. With the thawing of relations between East and West from the early 1970s, a number of Western analysts began to examine the current state of development in the GDR with a more favourable predisposition. As a result, analytical works on the functioning of the LPGs and the development of specialisation and industrial-style production were published, which presented a more positive picture of agriculture than had hitherto been produced. 20 The direction of agricultural policy in the GDR towards larger-scale production units was contrasted favourably with the limited small-scale family farms that still predominated in West Germany. 21 Enthusiasm for the socialist model, however, was tempered by the 1980s as it failed to prove more efficient when compared with the continuing superiority of West German agricultural production levels. Furthermore, the social and environmental impact of the extreme extent of specialisation of agriculture in the GDR made for further points of criticism. 22 Although in many respects accurate, ultimately all Western analyses of the contemporary state of agriculture in the GDR were largely limited to the information provided by party-approved sources – making debates in West Germany on the success or not of the East German transformation of the countryside as much a matter of opinion as of evidence. 23

The Historiography of Agriculture and Rural Society in the GDR since the Wende

During the early 1990s political divisions continued to find a reflection in analyses of the effects of the Wende on rural society and the future of agricultural organisation in the new Germany. Competing evaluations of the morality as well as the practical validity of the collective farming model were made, as particularly East German commentators sought to reassert the positive impact on rural society of the development of the LPG and the relative success of agriculture in the GDR, compared with the rest of the economy, against criticism from West German academics and renewed interest in the land reforms and the forced collectivisation. 24 Since the collapse of the GDR and the reunification of Germany, historical as well as journalistic debate on agricultural policy and rural society in the GDR has, however, primarily focused again on the land reforms and the development of collectivisation in the 1950s and early 1960s. Amid ongoing disputes over land ownership and claims for compensation from both East and West Germans, much journalistic interest was provoked by the chance to re-examine the issues of expropriation and forced collectivisation as part of the process of coming to terms with the legacy of the SED dictatorship in the countryside. Against this background, historians too have focused on reexamining the earlier periods of agricultural development in the GDR. As the eminent German agricultural historian Ulrich Kluge wrote in 2001,

no phase of development in GDR agriculture has been so closely investigated as the initial years 1945/49 up to the conclusion of collectivisation in the early 1960s. Almost three decades are sinking into oblivion. Only the unextinguished claims for land and farm property from farmers who fled to the west under the pressure of political coercion made headlines after reunification, which agricultural studies then took up, presented and evaluated. 25

Taking the opportunity to use newly available archival sources, several historians have re-examined the structure and organisation of agriculture and the impact of agricultural policy on rural society in the postwar period and under the SED dictatorship up to the early 1960s. 26 Looking broadly at agricultural development and SED policy, particularly Arnd Bauerkämper has re-examined the processes of land reform and collectivisation in northern East Germany using archival sources to assess primarily the balance between the continuity of traditional social structures and the consequences of (forced) socialist modernity in rural society and farming. 27 Jens Schöne too has provided new insights into the development of the policy of collectivisation during the 1950s, 28 while new archival research by Theresia Bauer on the development of the German Farmers’ Party (Demokratische Bauernpartei Deutschlands or DBD) up to 1963 has illuminated the functions and attitudes of party members at the grass roots during the process of collectivisation. 29 Specifically with regard to Bezirk Erfurt a collection of excerpts from documents detailing the collectivisation process in each of the districts of the Bezirk has been compiled by Jürgen Gruhle, providing interesting source material for the activities of party and state functionaries at local and regional level in the administration of agriculture in the 1950s – if little actual analysis. 30

In comparison, analyses of agriculture and rural society post full collectivisation are relatively few in number. Specific aspects have received some examination by social historians. For example, Dagmar Langenhahn and Sabine Roβ have written on the patterns of qualification attainment and career advancement for women farmers in the 1970s and 1980s. 31 Thomas Lindenberger has written on the local police constables’ involvement in overseeing agricultural transformation in the 1950s and 1960s; Patrice Poutrus has written on the phenomenon of the ‘Goldbroiler ’ roast chicken, as part of a growing consumer culture in the 1970s and 1980s for which industrial-scale agricultural production was essential; and Christel Nehrig has addressed the changing position of the chairmen of state-owned farms up to 1970. 32 A number of studies of individual villages in the GDR have also dealt with the combination of influences of modernisation and invasive party policy on the peculiar traditions of the rural milieu after collectivisation. Daphne Berdahl’s anthropological study of a Catholic border village in the Eichsfeld, while focusing primarily on the experience of transition following the Wende, retells her subjects’ retrospective understanding of life between duty as Catholics and as GDR citizens in a highly sensitive region during the latter course of the GDR. 33 Barbara Schier’s study of the village of Merxleben between 1945 and 1990 reconstructs elements of everyday life in the village as well as analysing the socioeconomic effects of SED agricultural policy over this period in order to contrast the reality with the socialist ideal of ‘a village community of an historically new type’. Schier, on the basis of extensive interviews with villagers and LPG members, also provides analysis of the functioning of the LPG caught between its special status as a model collective and its own internal conflicts, particularly in the early years of its development. 34 Antonia Maria Humm’s study of the village of Niederzimmern (in comparison with a similar village in West Germany), between 1952 and 1969, demonstrates the complex relationship between some aspects of SED policy and the response to its implementation within the village and the LPG. She also provides some insights into the functioning of the local government in the village and other local socialist organisations, which go beyond much of the available literature on the subject of political institutions at and below district level. 35

With specific regard to the development of socialist agricultural policy and rural society since the end of the collectivisation campaign, there have, however, been few convincing in-depth studies that make satisfactory use of archival sources now available. 36 Many of the most interesting works on the subject of agriculture in the GDR in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s published since the Wende are the accounts by former LPG members and functionaries of the development of their LPG and their experiences as collective farmers. While one must be careful to see such accounts in the context of developments since the Wende, they need not be dismissed as valueless. 37 With regard to Thuringia, Manfred Kipping’s local history of farmers in Oberwiera between 1945 and 1990 provides some interesting insights into his experience as an LPG functionary amid the constrictions of SED policy on cooperation and specialisation. 38 Similarly, the history of agriculture in Worbis district by a former LPG chairman, Dr Heinrich Klose, provides an outline of local agricultural development as well as some impression of his own experiences as an LPG chairman. More broadly, a volume published for the Thuringian Interior Ministry gives a methodical overview of the development of agriculture in Thuringia after collectivisation, reaching conclusions as to the technical deficiencies of policy decisions made during the GDR – in particular the problems associated with the overexpansion of the farming units. The particular value of this book, however, is the transcribed interviews with former LPG functionaries that it contains. 39

There are thus some considerable gaps in the research done since the Wende on SED agricultural policy and the development of rural society in the GDR from the mid-1960s onwards, which this book is designed to fill. Articles by Christel Nehrig and in particular Dagmar Langenhahn in recent years have raised some of the questions which have yet to be thoroughly addressed with regard to the structure, formation and changing organisation of LPGs and the implementation of SED agricultural policy through the later 1960s and 1970s. Langenhahn, for example, most recently has written on the position of leading agricultural functionaries in the 1970s as they responded to the problems of cooperation between LPGs and the separation of crop and livestock production. More than anything, however, these articles highlight the need for greater research in precisely these areas. 40

The process of consolidation of LPGs, and the development of cooperation, industrialisation and specialisation in agriculture as they transformed the working conditions of farmers and affected the living conditions of rural communities are essential to a complete picture of the workings of the SED regime and the stability as well as the failure of the GDR. The day-to-day working of the collective farms – the experience of ‘collective democracy’ within the LPG, the reception of and reaction to SED agricultural policy by collective farmers and in particular the pivotal role of LPG functionaries in the dual transmission of authority and information – needs to be more definitively assessed as it varied over time. Investigation into the structures of authority in the administration of agriculture and rural communities via the bureaucracies of state and party and the significance of the presence or absence of strong SED groups in rural areas versus those of other bloc parties are essential to understanding a large proportion of the politics, economics and society of the GDR. In order to gain an effective view of the network of institutions and influences shaping agriculture and rural society, this book seeks to provide a limited regional study aiming thereby to go beyond the specific intricacies of a study of a single LPG or village, yet retaining a focus on the grass roots of state and society.


My sources come predominantly from the archives of a range of institutions concerned with rural affairs at different levels of the party and state hierarchies. My intention is both to gain a closer perspective on the functioning of the regime at the grass roots within one Bezirk and to develop an understanding of the process of policy implementation and information transfer within the various administrative hierarchies from the regions to the centre. Consequently the bulk of my sources come from the level of the Bezirk and Kreis administrations, which played a naturally key role in the transmission of information and the process of policy implementation between the centre and the regions. Nevertheless I have also examined the files of the various figures and institutions with an influence over the development of rural affairs at a national level, on the one hand, and on the other the documents of individual LPGs – primarily the minutes of board meetings and members’ assemblies – and of individual SED party organisations.

In accordance with my intention to gain a picture of the experience of ‘ordinary’ East Germans and the low-level functionaries operating primarily in the LPGs and other institutions at a local level, I have paid particular attention too to those sources that highlight local concerns. Thus alongside general mood and opinion reports compiled by the regional administration (Bezirksleitung ) of the SED, the regional leadership (Bezirksvorstand ) of the DBD and the State Regional Council (Rat des Bezirkes ), among others, I have used the files of district state and party administrations as well as samples of Eingaben der Bevölkerung (People’s Petitions) and reports on public village meetings. Where possible I have used police, Stasi and SED Party Control Commission reports as evidence not only of state and party discipline and law enforcement methods but also as sources describing local circumstances. With these as with the other archival sources I have sought where possible to balance statistical evidence with evidence of contemporary opinion among the rural population. In addition, I have carried out a number of interviews with former functionaries in LPGs as well as in the Kreis and Bezirk administrations of party and state which have aided my understanding of some finer points of state and party policy as well as farmers’ responses to the same.

Dealing with the documents of a vast bureaucracy, one has to be aware that even if one examines a huge quantity of documentary evidence, there is nonetheless considerable room for a distorted picture to be presented, in which minor concerns take on a greater significance in the surviving sources, or in which the concerns of the bureaucrats are unrepresentative of the concerns of those with whom they are dealing. Nonetheless, this in itself is revealing of the manner in which the bureaucracy functions and the relationship between the various operatives of the regime, those above and below them in the hierarchy and their relationship with the system and the society which they served. The documents of the system – in their falsehoods, vagueness or accuracy – provide in themselves valuable insight into the manner in which the administration functioned and the tensions within it. There is no doubt that there is a regularisation of the bureaucracy involved in running collectivised agriculture in the planned economy which is visible in the style as well as content of the sources. There are advantages and disadvantages to the historian in this respect. Documents of the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly in the LPGs and at the lowest levels of the party and state bureaucracy, are often more revealing as a result of their lack of ideological polish or formulaic content. By the same token, the increasing competence of the report writers in the 1970s and 1980s, in their selection of information and its presentation within a fixed ideological framework, compromises the value of the document as a source for the event or the issue under discussion. Nonetheless, the value of earlier reports as descriptions of actual events or circumstances may be compromised too by the sheer inconsistency of the picture presented and by gaps in the information provided. By contrast, later sources are often more comprehensive in the extent – if not the depth – of information they impart.

As to the reliability of the sources, it must be taken into account that there is considerable potential for the statistical information offered in certain documents to be inaccurate. The importance of presenting an image of progress to the world certainly was apparent in presentation of statistics to the international community. The accuracy of internal statistics and indeed reports requires some consideration, however, too. There was good reason to falsify, under- or overstate at various levels of the bureaucratic hierarchy, from the LPG right up to the State Planning Commission (Staatliche Planungskommission or SPK). Nonetheless, the administration of agriculture relied heavily on the collation of accurate statistical information: for the system to have functioned at all, there must have been some accuracy in the reporting. In most respects the statistical analyses of the problems in agriculture in the GDR (if not the actual figures) are borne out by alternative sources – such as the complaints of the farmers or villagers in Eingaben (petitions) or the mood reports of the police, Stasi as well as the SED and DBD party organisations.

With regard to the mood reports and analyses of popular opinion among farmers, there is considerable variation in the degree of scepticism which needs to be applied, depending on the time and reference points of the document. There are long lists in the files of statements of gushing support for the SED, for Walter Ulbricht as well as his successor as the leading figure in the SED regime, Erich Honecker, or for particular policies or achievements of the GDR or the Soviet Union. Many of these include quotes from farmers or LPG functionaries. I have tended to exclude such declarations of opinion as reliable sources of popular attitudes, not on the basis that no such opinions were ever expressed but on the basis that they present an artificially sanitised response to the SED regime. Many other analyses of opinions among farmers were also clearly sanitised to some extent. The coherence and complexity of arguments opposed to SED agricultural policy are often summarised in single phrases, or reduced to the catch-all notion of ‘Unklarheiten ’ (points of uncertainty/confusion). In this respect analyses referring to specific circumstances (Eingaben, party control commission/police/Stasi investigations, individual LPG documents/party organisation documents) are useful in giving examples of the possible broader individual/local concerns surrounding common complaints. Analyses by state functionaries, as well as the DBD and the SED, are consistently vague in many respects. Opinions among farmers, for example, are often attributed variously to gradations of ‘a few’, ‘some … and others’ or ‘many’ without the actual scale becoming entirely clear. I have found it expedient to reproduce these classifications myself, backing them where possible with statistical evidence. There was undoubtedly misreporting, intentional and unintentional, to go along with the vagueness and ideologically motivated distortion of information. Nonetheless, with due awareness of the possible flaws of individual documents, the quantity and quality of evidence available is capable of providing a reasonably comprehensive picture of the concerns of both farmers and functionaries.

Such was the wealth of as yet unexamined documentary evidence available that, owing to time constraints, I was unable to analyse as much as I would have wished the files of the complete range of agricultural institutions other than the LPGs. For the same reason, my analysis focuses too on the agricultural elements of rural society, rather than village life as a whole. These remain topics requiring further research.


The contribution of this study to the body of literature on the history of the GDR is twofold. On the one hand, it provides an insight into the process of agricultural development in the GDR during the 1960s and 1970s at the grass roots that has been largely absent from the historiography thus far. On the other, it offers a new perspective on the long-standing debates over the relationship between state and society in the GDR, seeking to highlight the long-term processes by which the SED regime attained stability in the 1970s but was increasingly vulnerable to economic decline in the 1980s.

Since the collapse of the GDR numerous attempts have been made to characterise the dictatorship and the relationship between state and society. In the immediate aftermath of the ‘velvet revolution’ of 1989, the concept of totalitarianism was resurrected by many observers and despite having been abandoned as a useful analytical concept for historians for much of the previous decade, began to be reapplied to the SED dictatorship. 41 The totalitarian concept appears to suit well attempts to explain how things fundamentally were, claiming to explain the complete context in which all lived experience took place. While few users of the totalitarian concept have not accepted that there were limits to the success of the regime’s total claims on society, these claims are seen nonetheless as the benchmark against which anything meaningful can be understood about the society. 42 However, while the totalitarian concept appears to explain all, in doing so it tends to leave much else unilluminated, making it a barrier against, rather than a tool for, understanding the way things ‘really’ were. Or rather, it explains some things better than others: since it is concerned primarily with the projects of rulers, it provides a top-down perspective on the ruled and the relationship between ruler and ruled, where other perspectives might give rise to a more differentiated picture.

Since the mid-1990s increasing numbers of historians of the GDR have found totalitarianism inadequate as a theoretical framework in which to position their research on the complex relationship between state and society. Certainly the SED regime had aspirations to total control over the population, seeking in theory to develop the socialist personality and infiltrate all aspects of society. However, recognition of these aspirations does not satisfactorily explain the variety and complexity of the relationships within and between the SED party hierarchy, the state and economic administrative apparatus and the citizens of the GDR over the forty years of its existence.

Alternative characterisations of the dictatorship have drawn upon arguably less rigidly prescriptive concepts, working outside the discourse of implied comparison with (Western) democratic rule. All too often, however, these have fundamentally replicated the top-down totalitarian perspective. 43 A significant strand of arguments has sought to point out the limits of the SED dictatorship. Among others, Ralph Jessen and Richard Bessel have argued that,

looking more closely it could prove to be the case, that many of the peculiarities of east German history between 1945 and 1989 may only be explained, once there is success in describing the complicated interaction between the total claim of the dictatorship and the conditions of the environment which acted upon it – in part created by but not always controlled by the dictatorship itself. 44

Not dissimilarly, Detlef Pollack has argued in opposition to the notion of an homogenous ‘shut down society’ 45 that the limits of the SED’s control were such that all attempts to homogenise society were bound to come up against barriers from within society which then shaped future policies (e.g. the hardiness of traditional structures and milieus, the formation of networks of informal relations, loss of belief in the value of progress, the counterproductive consequences of state repression). 46

Attempts have also been made, however, to characterise the interrelations of state and society within the GDR by focusing on the practice of authority within society. The ideas of Herrschaft als sozialer Praxis (‘authority as social praxis’) and linked to it the notion of Eigen-Sinn (literally ‘own sense or conception’) have been developed in the context of the GDR in order to escape the top-down perspective by emphasising the interrelations and mutual impact of authority on society and society upon authority at the grass roots. 47 The artificial distinctions of active ‘rulers’ and passive ‘ruled’, and hence the distinction between oppressive ‘state’ and oppressed ‘society’, are from this perspective complicated by the actual interdependence of dictatorial control and the individual motives and intentions, identities and self-conceptions of those on whom and through whom authority is exerted. Thomas Lindenberger’s use of the term ‘Eigen-Sinn’ has been to illustrate the potential for people in the GDR to use and negotiate with the structures of the regime for their own interests, adapting and changing but also building and sustaining them in the process within a limited local circumstance. 48

Building on these ideas, this study seeks to provide an historical analysis of the SED dictatorship, which qualifies the traditional top-down model of the functioning of authority in the dictatorship and a starkly dichotomous view of the state and society. In order to explain how the GDR functioned with regard to agriculture and rural society in practice, it is necessary to examine the internal complexity of the economic, political and administrative structures of the regime at the lower levels of the hierarchy. These structures as they operated at the grass roots over an extended period of time not only controlled and shaped the boundaries in which farmers lived and worked, but were shaped themselves by the integration and participation of people as farmers and agricultural functionaries into the system of rule. Using the example of Bezirk Erfurt I shall examine how East Germans responded to the end of private farming by resisting, manipulating but also participating in the new system of rural organisation. In addition, I shall attempt to show how LPG functionaries went about their work operating under as well as with a combination of compromise and material incentive, administrative pressure and physical force. Their relationship with and position within the communities of which they were part provides a new perspective on the interrelations of politics and society, of power, authority and changing agricultural practice in the GDR as it developed economically and technologically. Moreover, it offers some insight into the process by which SED authority, as produced and reproduced in the shifting social circumstances at the grass roots, stabilised in the rural communities in the GDR, yet at the same time became increasingly vulnerable to economic decline.


1. C. Ross, The East German Dictatorship , Basingstoke, 2002, p. 20: Ross also points out, however, that there are ‘well founded doubts about the analytical usefulness of the term’.

2. ‘Der sozialistische Frühling ’ or ‘the Socialist Spring’ was the rather euphemistic name given to the intensive agitation campaign carried out in March and April 1960 to ensure all remaining independent farmers agreed to become a member of a collective farm.

3. Staatliche Zentralverwaltung für Statistik, Bezirksstelle Erfurt, Statistisches Jahrbuch: Bezirk Erfurt , 1970, Vol. I, p. 3.

4. T. Bauer, Blockpartei und Agrarrevolution von Oben. Die DBD 1948–1963 , Munich, 2003, p. 33.

5. J.- C. Kaiser, ‘Klientelbildung und Formierung einer neuen politischen Kultur. Überlegungen zur Geschichte der Bodenreform in Thüringen’, in Junkerland in Bauernhand , ed. A. Bauerkämper, Stuttgart, 1996, pp. 119–31.

6. M. Schwartz, ‘Vetrieben in die Arbeiterschaft. “Umsiedler” als “Arbeiter” in der SBZ/DDR 1945–1952’ in Arbeiter in der SBZ/DDR , eds P. Hübner and K. Tenfelde, Essen, 1999, pp. 81–128, here p. 82.

7. M. Schwartz, Vertriebene und Umsiedlerpolitik , Munich, 2004, p. 1144.

8. Ibid., p. 1146.

9. Schwartz, ‘Vetrieben in die Arbeiterschaft’ p. 126.

10. For information on the structure of farming in Thuringia see: G. Breitschuh et al., Thüringer Landwirtschaft zwischen 2. Weltkrieg und Wiedervereinigung , Jena, 1999; more specifically for Bezirk Erfurt: F. Augusten, Die Organisation der Rinderzucht im Bezirk Erfurt von 1945 bis 1989 , Aachen, 1997.

11. B. Rauch, ‘Der Bezirk Erfurt’, in Die Ersten und die Zweiten Sekretäre der SED: Machtstrukturen und Herrschaftspraxis in den thüringischen Bezirken der DDR , eds H. Best and H. Mestrup, Weimar, 2003, pp. 31–39.

12. H. Mestrup, Die SED – Ideologischer Anspruch, Herrschaftspraxis und Konflikte in Bezirk Erfurt 1971–1989 , Weimar, 2000, pp. 104–27.

13. This suggestion has been made with regard to the work of sociologists and anthropologists: C. Giordano, ‘Die vergessenen Bauern. Agrarwissenschaften als Objekt sozialwissenschaftlicher Amnesie’, in Bauerngemeinschaften im Industriezeitalter. Zur Rekonstruktion ländlicher Lebensformen , eds C. Giordano and R. Hettlage, Berlin, 1989, pp. 9–27, here p. 9.

14. W. Schütze, Investitionsfinanzierung der LPG , Berlin, 1966; W. Polsfuss, ‘Die Aufgaben der Kreislandwirtschaftsräte und ihrer Produktionsleitungen bei der Planung des wissenschaftlich-technischen Fortschritts in der Landwirtschaft’, in Zum NÖS in der Landwirtschaft , eds G. Egler et al., Berlin, 1965, pp. 208–31; K. Heuer, Genossenschaftliche Demokratie als Führungsaufgabe. Rechtsfragen der Leitung der LPG und der Beziehungen zur Kooperationsgemeinschaft , Berlin, 1968.

15. H. Grünberg, Die sozialistische Wandlung des Dorfes , Berlin, 1970; H. Hanke, Kultur und Lebensweise im sozialistischen Dorf , Berlin, 1967.

16. K. Krambach et al. (Autorenkollektiv), Genossenschaftsbauer – Verantwortung – Bewusstsein , Berlin, 1973; K. Krambach et al. (Autorenkollektiv), Wie lebt man auf dem Dorf? Soziologische Aspekte der Entwicklung des Dorfes in der DDR , Berlin, 1985.

17. U. Püschel, Unterwegs in meinen Dörfern , Rostock, 1982.

18. G. Eckart, So sehe ick die Sache – Protokolle aus der DDR. Leben im Havelländischen Obstanbaugebiet , Cologne, 1984.

19. For examples at the two ends of the period of the GDR’s existence, see M. Kramer et al. (eds), Die Landwirtschaft in der sowjetischen Besatzungszone: die Entwicklung in den Jahren 1945–1955 , Bonn, 1957; C. Krebs, Der Weg zur industriemässigen Organisation der Agrarproduktion in der DDR – Die Agrarpolitik der SED 1945–1960 , Bonn, 1989.

20. K. Dreessen, Die Bedeutung der landwirtschaftlichen Produktionsgenossenschaften für die DDR , Tübingen, 1973; V. Bajaja, Organisation und Führung landwirtschaftlicher Grossunternehmen in der DDR , W. Berlin, 1978.

21. T. Hartmann, Die Kooperation in der sozialistischen Landwirtschaft der DDR , W. Berlin, 1971; H. Immler, Agrarpolitik in der DDR , Cologne, 1973; H.J. Thieme, Die sozialistische Agrarverfassung der DDR , Stuttgart, 1969.

22. K. Hohmann, ‘Die Industrialisierung der Landwirtschaft und ihre Auswirkungen auf die Umwelt in der DDR’, in Umweltschutz in beiden Teilen Deutschlands , eds M. Haendcke-Hoppe and K. Merkel, W. Berlin, 1986; see also for comment, U. Kluge, ‘Die “sozialistische Landwirtschaft” als Thema wissenschaftlicher Forschung’, in Zwischen Bodenreform und Kollektivierung. Vor- und Frühgeschichte der ‘sozialistischen Landwirtschaft’ in der SBZ/DDR vom Kriegsende bis in die fünfziger Jahre , eds U. Kluge, W. Halder and K. Schlenker, Stuttgart, 2001, p.16.

23. Kluge, ‘Die Hauptschwäche westdeutscher Analysen ergab sich aus dem Mangel an nachprüfbaren Daten aus der DDR-Statistik. Die Geheimniskrämerei von SED Staats- und Parteiführung bescherte der westdeutschen DDR-Forschung ein hohes Mass an Informationsunsicherheit’, in Kluge, Halder and Schlenker, p. 15.

24. For an explanation of the some of the conflicts see: T. Busse, Melken und Gemolken Werden. Die ostdeutsche Landwirtschaft nach der Wende , Berlin, 2001. For different sides of the argument see: H. Luft, ‘Von der LPG zur Agrargenossenschaft: Eine positive Entwicklung?’, in Die DDR war anders , eds S. Bollinger and F. Vilmar, Berlin, 2002, pp. 206–25; S. Kuntsche, ‘Die Umgestaltung der Eigentumsverhältnisse und der Produktionsstruktur in der Landwirtschaft’, in Ansichten zur Geschichte der DDR , Vol. 1, eds D. Keller et al., Bonn, 1993, pp. 191–211; A. Weber, ‘Usachen und Folgen abnehmender Effizienz in der DDR Landwirtschaft’, in Die Endzeit der DDR Wirtschaft , ed. E. Kurt, Opladen, 1989, pp. 221–69.

25. U. Kluge, ‘Rezension: Blockpartei und Agrarrevolution von Oben. Die DBD 1948–1963 ’, Zeitschrift für Agrargeschichte und Agrarsoziologie , 1(53), 2005, pp. 131–33, here p. 131: ‘Keine Entwicklungsphase der DDR-Landwirtschaft ist so genau untersucht worden wie die Anfangszeit 1945/49 bis zum Abschluss der Kollektivierung in den frühen sechziger Jahren. Fast drei Jahrzente versinken in Vergessenheit. Nur der nie erloschene Anspruch auf Boden und Hofeigentum von Bauern, die unter dem Druck politischer Zwangsmassnahmen in den Westen geflüchtet sind, machte nach der Wiedervereinigung 1990 Schlagzeilen, die die Agrarwissenschaft aufnahm, darstellte und beurteilte.’

26. For example the contributions in A. Bauerkämper (ed.), Junkerland in Bauernhand , Stuttgart, 1996, as well as J. Osmond, ‘Kontinuität und Konflikt in der Landwirtschaft der SBZ/DDR zur Zeit der Bodenreform und der Vergenossenschaftlichung, 1945–1961’, in Die Grenzen der Diktatur: Staat und Gesellschaft in der DDR , eds R. Bessel and R. Jessen, Göttingen, 1996, pp. 137–69, and A. Bauerkämper, ‘Die Neubauern in der SBZ/DDR 1945–1952. Bodenreform und politisch induzierter Wandel der ländlichen Gesellschaft’, in Die Grenzen der Diktatur: Staat und Gesellschaft in der DDR , eds R. Bessel and R. Jessen, Göttingen, 1996, pp. 108–36, and Christel Nehrig in numerous articles: C. Nehrig, ‘Industriearbeit im Dörflichen Milieu. Eine Studie zur Sozialgeschichte der Niederlausitzer Nebenerwerbsbauern 1945 bis 1965’, in Niederlausitzer Industriearbeiter 1935–1970. Studien zur Sozialgeschichte , ed. P. Hübner, Berlin, 1995, pp. 167–91; C. Nehrig, ‘Das Leben auf dem Lande: Die Genossenschaften’, in Leben in der DDR – Befremdlich Anders , ed. E. Badstübner, Berlin, 2000, pp. 195–218.

27. A. Bauerkämper, Ländliche Gesellschaft in der kommunistischen Diktatur: Zwangsmodernisierung und Tradition in Brandenburg 1945–1963 , Weimar, 2002.

28. J. Schöne, Frühling auf dem Lande? Die Kollektivierung der DDR Landwirtschaft , Berlin, 2005.

29. Bauer, Blockpartei .

30. J. Gruhle, Ohne Gott und Sonnenschein , Nauendorf, 2000.

31. D. Langenhahn and S. Roß, ‘Berfuskarrieren von Frauen’, in Sozialistische Eliten. Horizontale und Vertikale Differenzierungsmuster in der DDR , ed. S. Hornbostel, Opladen, 1999, pp. 147–62.

32. T. Lindenberger, ‘Der ABV als Landwirt’, in Herrschaft und Eigen-Sinn in der Diktatur. Studien zur Gesellschaftsgeschichte der DDR , ed. T. Lindenberger, Cologne, 1999, pp. 167–203; C. Nehrig, ’Das Leitungspersonal der VEG 1945–1970’, in Eliten im Sozialismus, Beiträge zur Sozialgeschichte der DDR , ed. P. Hübner, Cologne, 1999, pp. 309–24; P. Poutrus, Das Phänomen der Goldbroiler in der DDR , Cologne, 2002.

33. D. Berdahl, Where the World Ended , Berkeley, 1999.

34. B. Schier, Alltagsleben im ‘Sozialistischen Dorf’ , Münster, 2001.

35. A.-M. Humm, Auf dem Weg zum sozialistischen Dorf , Göttingen, 1999.

36. ‘Vorliegende Gesamtdarstellungen … vermögen inhaltlich und methodisch nicht zu überzeugen.’ These comments by Jens Schöne (citing D. Gabler, Entwicklungsetappen in der Geschichte der Landwirtschaft der DDR , Berlin, 1995), aptly describe the current historiographical situation; J. Schöne, ‘Landwirtschaft und Ländliche Gesellschaft in der DDR’, in Bilanz und Perspektiven der DDR-Forschung , eds R. Eppelmann, B. Faulenbach and U. Mählert, Paderborn, 2003, pp. 254–9, here p. 259.

37. C. Schneider, Was bleibt von uns? Bauernstimmen , Bautzen, 1991. Although stylised, the accounts here are nonetheless instructive on the tensions and concerns faced by LPG members during the transformation of GDR agriculture.

38. M. Kipping, Die Bauern in Oberwiera: Landwirtschaft im Sächsisch-Thüringischen 1945 bis 1990 , Beucha, 2000.

39. Breitschuh et al., Thüringer Landwirtschaft .

40. D. Langenhahn, ‘Machtbildung und forcierter Strukturwandel in der Landwirtschaft der DDR der 1970er Jahre’, in Zeitschrift für Agrargeschichte und Agrarsoziologie , 2, 2003, pp. 47–56; D. Langenhahn, ‘Auf dem Weg zur genossenschaftlichen Demokratie?’, in Der Schein der Stabilität. DDR Betriebsalltag in der Ara Honecker , eds R. Hürtgen and T. Reichel, Berlin, 2001, pp. 263–74; Nehrig, ‘Das Leben auf dem Lande’, pp. 195–218.

41. K. Schroeder, Geschichte und Transformation des SED-Staates , Berlin, 1994.

42. I-S Kowalczuk, Legitimation eines neuen Staates , Berlin, 1997, p. 345. As L.H. McFalls has written, ‘theories of communism’s evolution and revolutionary end have, in fact, merely elaborated on one or more of the three possible sources of change that the classic theories of totalitarianism identified: international competition, ideological and institutional erosion and corruption, or societal resistance.’ L.H. McFalls, Communism’s Collapse, Democracy’s Demise , London, 1995, p. 6.

43. For example Konrad Jarausch’s description of the GDR as a modern welfare dictatorship in K. Jarausch, ‘Care and Coercion: the GDR as Welfare Dictatorship’, in Dictatorship as Experience: Towards a Socio-Cultural History of the GDR , ed. K. Jarausch, Oxford, 1999, pp. 47–69.

44. R. Bessel and R. Jessen, ‘Einleitung: Die Grenzen der Diktatur’, in Die Grenzen der Diktatur: Staat und Gesellschaft in der DDR , eds R. Bessel and R. Jessen, Göttingen, 1996, pp. 7–23, here p. 9.

45. Sigrid Meuschel argued that the GDR was a ‘stillgelegte Gesellschaft’, suggesting that the totalitarian expansion of the state resulted in a dying away of society. S. Meuschel, Legitimation und Parteiherrschaft in der DDR, Zum Paradox von Stabilität und Revolution in der DDR , Frankfurt am Main, 1992; S. Meuschel, ‘Uberlegungen zu einer Herrschafts- und Gesellschaftsgeschichte der DDR’, Geschichte und Gesellschaft , 19, 1993, pp. 5–14.

46. D. Pollack, ‘Die Konstitutive Widersprüchlichkeit der DDR’, Geschichte und Gesellschaft , 24, 1998, pp. 110–31.

47. Both terms were originally used by Alf Lüdtke in other contexts: A. Lüdtke, ‘Einleitung: Herrschaft als soziale Praxis’, in Herrschaft als Soziale Praxis. Historische und sozial-anthropologische Studien , ed. A. Lüdtke, Göttingen, 1991, pp. 9–63; A. Lüdtke, Eigen-Sinn, Fabrikalltag, Arbeitererfahrungen und Politik vom Kaiserreich bis in den Faschismus. Ergebnisse , Hamburg, 1993. But they have since been used in the context of the GDR, most notably by Thomas Lindenberger: T. Lindenberger, ‘Der ABV als Landwirt’, in Herrschaft und Eigen-Sinn in der Diktatur. Studien zur Gesellschaftsgeschichte der DDR , ed. T. Lindenberger, Cologne, 1999, pp. 167–203; T. Lindenberger, ‘Herrschaft und Eigen-Sinn in der Diktatur. Das Alltagsleben der DDR und sein Platz in der Erinnerungskultur des vereinigten Deutschlands’, Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte , B40, 2000, pp. 5–12; T. Lindenberger, Volkspolizei: Herrschaftspraxis und öffentliche Ordnung im SED Staat, 1952–1968 , Cologne, 2003.

48. T. Lindenberger, ‘Die Diktatur der Grenzen. Zur Einleitung’, in Herrschaft und Eigen-Sinn in der Diktatur. Studien zur Gesellschaftsgeschichte der DDR , ed. T. Lindenberger, Cologne, 1999, pp. 13–44.





There was once the Kaiser’s empire, there was once Hitler’s empire and yet everything changed again. We just want to hold on and wait for what’s going on next year! 1

(One of the farmers’ arguments against joining the LPG when faced with an agitation brigade in the vicinity of Görmar, Kreis Mühlhausen in December 1959.)

There is no doubt that despite claiming the title of ‘the workers’ and peasants’ state’ in 1949, it was the former not the latter who were central to the identity of the GDR as both carriers of the revolution and models of the socialist personality. The extent and depth to which the SED had penetrated rural society was correspondingly limited. The advancement of collective farming during the 1950s was in large part the beginnings of an attempt to remedy this glaring deficiency. The completion of the collectivisation campaign in 1960, while being an administrative success, revealed, however, just how deficient the permanent structures of control and communication between the SED leadership and rural communities were and how little certainty there was in the countryside of a future under the SED.

During the 1950s, the campaign for collectivisation of agriculture sought to undertake the most radical transformation of the conditions of rural existence since the land reforms. It entailed a massive mobilisation of the regime’s apparatus for publicising its policies, persuading people of their value and suppressing hostility. In so doing it placed the effectiveness of the local, district and regional administration of agriculture and rural communities under close scrutiny, exposing the extent and limitations of this apparatus. At the same time, with the formation of the new LPGs, collectivisation forced farmers and local functionaries to accept new roles and responsibilities and in so doing began to change the basis on which the SED regime communicated with and transmitted its authority to farmers and rural communities at large. The manner of the campaign, which caused in the short term such fear, anger and hostility towards the SED, had long-term consequences, setting the parameters within which future policies were conceived, communicated and received in the next decade and beyond.

The Campaign for Collectivisation

The pace of the SED-directed transformation of society since the end of the war had been far slower in the countryside than it had been in the towns for a number of reasons. The central role of the church in village life, the complex networks of familial relations in the village, the lack of anonymity and the essential interdependency of the inhabitants of small communities were important factors in preserving the established social order. Moreover, the simple geographical isolation of many communities meant the ideological as well as purely organisational capacity for change in the villages was lacking.

By the early 1950s the self-confidence of the SED leadership under Walter Ulbricht had risen sufficiently that it was willing to place more pressure on the population in the implementation of the socialist transformation of society and increased norms of production. At the II SED Party Congress in 1952, the phase ‘the construction of socialism’ (Aufbau des Sozialismus ) was announced and the SED thus began the next step in its socioeconomic transformation of the countryside following the land reforms of the postwar period. Having parcelled out the larger estates in the late 1940s, the goal was now to re-establish large-scale production units through the amalgamation of farms into socialist collectives organised according to a uniform pattern. Where before organised cooperation between farmers had been quashed by the SED, material and practical support (and with it state interference) was now given to the ‘spontaneous’ formation of farming collectives in some selected villages and the SED leadership advanced a campaign for the formation of agricultural collectives more widely, despite the lack of suitable conditions for widespread large-scale collective production. 2

Although aspects of the Soviet model were adopted during the drive for collectivisation, this was by no means to be a simple Sovietisation of agriculture: the land brought into the collective remained legally, albeit with numerous restrictions, in the ownership of the farmer, while the range of types of collective farm organisation enabled farmers to maintain, if they chose, individual control of livestock and/or farm machinery. 3 In the LPG Type I only the use of the land was managed in common; in Type II (which relatively few farmers ever adopted) the land, tools and machinery were to be held collectively; and in Type III the livestock were also included. The majority of farmers, however, continued to resist collectivisation even as the state offered greater incentives to those who would join – through privileged access to machinery, seed and fertiliser, lifting of debts and extension of credit – and more severe sanctions to those who would not or could not: high taxes and the setting of impossibly high production quotas, which effectively meant jail terms and the confiscation of property as punishment for alleged sabotage. Under such duress a large proportion of Großbauern (wealthy farmers: defined as those owning 20 hectares of land or involved in capitalist enterprise) chose flight from the GDR or abandoned their farms during the course of 1952 and 1953, which in turn exacerbated deficiencies in the supply of food to the population. 4

In the towns, the ultimate results of the more hard-line policies of the Aufbau des Sozialismus and the increased production norms were the demonstrations of 17 June 1953. Despite great opposition to the beginnings of a campaign for collectivisation and punitively high production quotas along with false charges of economic sabotage for non-compliant farmers, participation in the uprisings remained limited in the countryside, though not for want of disgruntlement with the state’s policies. Notable exceptions in Bezirk Erfurt were demonstrations and open opposition to the SED led in part by village pastors in Bad Tennstedt, Kreis Langensalza and in Eckolstädt, Kreis Apolda, in the latter’s case ending only with the deployment of Soviet tanks. In Bezirk Erfurt, private farmers were involved too in demonstrations on 17 June in four (out of thirteen) district capitals during which some of those imprisoned during the ‘class struggle’ in the countryside were forcibly released. The most notable of these actions occurred in Mühlhausen, where 5,000–6,000 farmers who had been attending a farmers’ assembly in Oberdorla on 17 June marched through the town and occupied the court buildings, demanding the return of a free market and the release of imprisoned farmers. 5 The date 17 June, however, while gaining symbolic value – and it continued to be referred to by disgruntled farmers in the Bezirk in subsequent years 6 – was not directly experienced by the vast majority of the rural population. Rather, in subsequent months, as the SED implemented the ‘New Course’ designed to defuse the most serious causes of dissatisfaction among East Germans, farmers took the opportunity to reassert themselves and reverse measures forced upon them. Thus LPGs formed under duress disbanded and farmers withdrew to harvest independently during 1953. By the following year, however, pressure and material incentives were again being brought to bear on farmers and farm labourers to form and re-form collective farms.

For much of the 1950s an uneasy situation developed in rural communities. Many LPGs remained economically unstable, lacking both the quality of land and livestock and the degree of expertise, dedication and social cohesion among members to function efficiently. 7 Private farmers faced with punitive production quotas found themselves unable to continue in agriculture and, in some cases fearing draconian punishments, abandoned the GDR altogether. While it is clear that the majority of private farmers in the GDR managed to survive and in many cases even profit from the system of production quotas and ‘freie Spitzen ’ (‘free peaks’: i.e. excess production beyond the state quota for which the state was willing to pay a higher price), a basic antagonism remained between much of the rural population and the representatives of the SED regime, demonstrated repeatedly in minor acts of resistance. In June 1957 farmers in Kreis Apolda were reported to have called openly for the return of the free market and the abolition of quotas. 8 Minor acts of sabotage also took place to undermine existing collective farms. In early 1958 in an LPG in Kreis Mühlhausen, for example, several pigs were reported to have been stabbed. The strength of opposition to the LPG in the village also meant that those who joined could be seen as traitors and thus faced social isolation. Various incidents were reported in which LPG members were insulted and their children bullied. In a case in a village in Kreis Gotha, a woman was reportedly spat at while in the village shop for having become a member of the LPG. 9

Paradoxically, more serious for the regime than these episodes of ‘class conflict’ was the lack of any confrontations whatsoever with the ‘class enemy’ in some rural communities during the later 1950s. Village SED party secretaries, local mayors and police constables as well as representatives of the various mass organisations were widely and repeatedly criticised for the leniency of their approach to the class situation in the communities for which they were supposedly the responsible officials of the socialist state. There was widespread reluctance among such local functionaries to campaign against or denounce those farmers whose relative wealth and inherited status in the village marked them out – on paper at least – as the ‘class enemy’. At the same time, local functionaries were criticised for the lack of effort they put into promoting potentially controversial policies. Local mayors and village councillors, particularly where they were not themselves members of the SED, showed themselves to be less than enthusiastic in support of collectivisation for most of the 1950s.

Independent farmers formed a large part of the membership of the bloc parties in rural constituencies – particularly the farmers’ party (Demokratische Bauernpartei Deutschlands or DBD) but also the CDU (Christlich-Demokratische Union ) and in certain areas the liberal party (Liberal-Demokratische Partei Deutschlands or LDPD). Consequently there was considerable pressure on local officials from within their own local party groups at the very least to avoid confronting unpopular issues such as collectivisation. Even if they did not make any arguments against collective farming in principle, mayors and village councillors expressed strong reservations against its implementation in practice in the particular circumstances of their locality. Similarly the chairmen of the local boards of the state-run Farmers’ Mutual Aid Union (Verein der gegenseitigen Bauernhilfe or VdgB) were known to drag their feet when called upon to persuade farmers of the benefits of the LPG. Rather they tended to sympathise with the unwillingness of particularly smaller farmers and Neubauern to give up individual use of the farms that they had so laboriously established since the end of the war. 10 Even the tractor drivers of the Machine and Tractor Stations (Maschinen-Traktoren-Stationen or MTS) were not necessarily reliable. Manned in part by workers recruited from industry, the MTS were in theory to function as progressive proletarian bulwarks in the otherwise ideologically backward countryside, casting their influence over several surrounding villages. It was clear, however, that in a number of cases the MTS workers – showing a lack of ‘class consciousness’ – enjoyed better relations with independent farmers than with the chairmen of the LPG. 11

The continuing importance of the church as an alternative source of authority in the village was part of the problem as far as the SED leadership was concerned. That clergy were occasionally seen to be active in warning against the LPG was considered a serious obstacle to persuading all those in the rural community to consider collective farming seriously. 12 Belief in the prospect of reunification with West Germany in the none too distant future gave people the confidence to retain openly their links with the church despite the atheism of the SED regime. There remained, too, a strong commitment to the local pastor as a central and long-standing figure of rural life – one who had in many cases played a vital role in representing the interests of the community during the end of the war and the hardships and injustices of the Soviet occupation and early years of SED rule. 13 Thus, in the villages, adherence to the church and respect for the opinions of the pastor – whether Catholic, Lutheran or Reformed Protestant – remained strong during the 1950s, even as the state began to win battles over religious education and the state youth confirmation ceremony (Jugendweihe ). 14 Meanwhile, local representatives of the state were not always sufficiently motivated by zeal for the socialist cause to condemn the continuing willingness of villagers to work on the local church board and support even a controversial local pastor. Investigations into rural policing in a number of districts in the Bezirk at the end of 1957 found that strong connections with one or other of the Christian churches had impaired the effectiveness of village police officers and SED party organisations. 15

During the 1950s the pressure on farmers to commit themselves to joining or forming an LPG was by no means applied comprehensively in the GDR, or even in Bezirk Erfurt, with a consistent degree of urgency or with a consistent set of methods and arguments. It is in the context of this inconsistency that the behaviour and actions of private and collective farmers and the various participants in the regime’s apparatus for agitation, when the drive for full collectivisation of agriculture began, need to be understood.

The confusion of the situation established in 1960 with the rapid completion, on paper, of full collectivisation was born out of the variety of attitudes among both farmers and agitators as to what should or would be created by collectivisation in practice, and what would be or should be preserved of the structures and practices of independent farming and private ownership. Collectivisation took place in an atmosphere of uncertainty with regard to the future organisation of agriculture, leaving a lasting element of unpredictability as to the status and future of the LPG.

In line with the ‘New Course’ introduced by the SED leadership in 1953, a set of administrative and economic incentives and pressures had replaced the crude threats of imprisonment and confiscation which had been used to force collectivisation prior to the popular unrest across the GDR in June of that year. Although from 1954 onwards the number of LPGs, the proportion of land farmed collectively and the number of LPG members in Bezirk Erfurt increased, this was a gradual process, driven less by the successful persuasion of independent farmers or landowners, than by the abandonment of land and the recruitment of industrial workers or landless labourers to the collective farms. It was not until 1958 that the rate of formation of new collectives increased significantly, with the participation of formerly independent farmers. The decision taken at the 33rd Session of the SED’s Central Committee (Zentralkomitee or ZK) in the autumn of the previous year to step up the campaign for collectivisation led to attempts at LPG recruitment aimed primarily at those private farmers who were politically organised in either a party or a mass organisation. 16 From the middle of 1958, at the V SED Party Congress, the focus of the campaign was expanded to encompass all private farmers, including those so-called ‘Großbauern’ who had previously been prevented from forming or joining LPGs. 17 Nevertheless during the course of that year the amount of land in the Bezirk farmed collectively reached only 17.7 per cent. 18 The vast majority of independent farmers felt themselves able to resist the LPG and the agitators for the time being, if not for ever.

Popular Responses to Collectivisation

Opposition to the formation of collective farms was based on a number of objections, not least unwillingness on the part of traditionally independent farmers to lose private control over their own finances. 19 The effectiveness of economic levers such as high delivery quotas to encourage collectivisation had been balanced out by the incentives for making as much production available as possible for purchase by the state. Successful farmers could certainly double their incomes through the sale of excess produce bought up by the state at higher prices. The prospect of such forms of additional income being restricted as a result of membership in a collective was a strong disincentive for joining. From a purely practical point of view the parlous state of many of the collectives in existence did little to persuade farmers of the value of collective farming either. Although the financial situation of the LPGs did gradually improve over the years, at the end of 1959 50 per cent of Type III LPGs in the Bezirk were nonetheless officially categorised as ‘financially weak’. 20 A minority of elite LPGs were able to pay high wages and easily exceed their plans. Others managed to get by with some success, taking advantage of the preferential treatment given to LPGs in terms of reduced quotas and access to machinery and fertiliser. The majority, however, lagged behind. All too often inefficiency, poor work organisation and a lack of commitment to the LPG from its members compounded natural obstacles to improved production levels. The lack of financial success in LPGs inevitably led in some cases to a sour atmosphere among the members. Certainly personal conflicts between members of an LPG put private farmers off joining collective farms. It was enough to live in close proximity to one another without having to work together as well. A report on the problems facing agitators operating in an MTS area in Kreis Mühlhausen in December 1959 described the situation in one village thus: ‘no one wants to join the existing LPG in Diedorf because there are always conflicts and people say: “we’re not getting involved in that mess”’. 21

A report by a Stasi informant on the LPG Type II in Wahlhausen, Kreis Heiligenstadt in November 1958 underlines the mutual antagonism felt between private farmers and the LPG. As a private farmer himself, he reported on the anger among farmers who were constantly being called upon to pick their fields again for more potatoes even though they had fulfilled their quotas. In contrast, he pointed out that the LPG had actually allowed potatoes to go to waste in its own fields. This and other incidences of shoddy practice or mismanagement of the LPG had hardened his attitude against the actual prospect of joining this collective. 22 In a further report the informant noted that a leading figure in the LPG had openly proposed that remaining private farmers should be treated more severely in order to make them enter the collective. 23 For many farmers, the LPG represented nothing so much as being forced into the hands of those who would destroy them.

In the late 1950s the prospect of joining one such LPG did not appeal to either the economic or the social interests of farmers. Rather the LPG was seen at best as a last resort for those unable any longer to run their farms profitably. 24 LPGs founded prior to the intensified agitation campaigns of 1960 were thus seldom formed by the most successful and experienced farmers. 25 Rather, the membership of the LPGs tended to consist of industrial workers, landless farm labourers and small farmers who lacked the wherewithal to run a large enterprise effectively. Some of the more severe cases came under the scrutiny of the District Party Control Commission of the SED (Kreisparteikontrollkommission or KPKK). For example, the KPKK carried out an investigation into the LPG Type III in Kindelbrück in 1958, which had