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Год:
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Constructing Socialism at the Grass-Roots

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Constructing Socialism at
the Grass-Roots
The Transformation of East Germany,
1945-65
Corey Ross

Lecturer in Modern History
University of Birmingham

*

© Corey Ross 2000
Softcover reprint of the hardcover 1st edition 2000 978-0-333-78980-3
All rights reserved. No reproduction, copy or transmission of
this publication may be made without written permission.
No paragraph of this publication may be reproduced, copied or
transmitted save with written permission or in accordance with
the provisions of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988,
or under the terms of any licence permitting limited copying
issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency, 90 Tottenham Court
Road, London W1 P OLP.
Any person who does any unauthorised act in relation to this
publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil
claims for damages.
The author has asserted his right to be identified as the author of this
work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
Published by PALGRAVE
Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire RG21 6XS and
175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010
Companies and representatives throughout the world
PALGRAVE is the new global academic imprint of
St. Martin's Press LLC Scholarly and Reference Division and
Palgrave Publishers Ltd (formerly Macmillan Press Ltd).

Outside North America

ISBN 978-1-349-41860-2
DOI 10.1057/9781403919724

ISBN 978-1-4039-1972-4 (eBook)

In North America

ISBN 978-0-312-23041-8

This book is printed on paper suitable for recycling and
made from fully managed and sustained forest sources.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 99-049746

Contents
List of Tables and Figures

vii

List of Abbreviations

viii

Preface
1

Introduction
East Germans and the history of the GDR
Subjects of enquiry, methods, aims
The argument and its structure
Sources, geographic scope

Part 1
2

3

xi
1
1
4
8
10

Laying the Foundati; ons, 1945–52

The Land Reform and its Effects
Confiscation, redistribution and the village milieu
From hope to disappointment: new farmers and new
functionaries
The new village elite and the path to collectivization:
the ‘Großbauern’

17
18

Recasting the Factories after the War
The problem of productivity and the effects of Order 234
Workers and the Hennecke movement
From the shop councils to the FDGB

33
34
42
45

Part 2

24
30

The Rush to Construct Socialism, 1952–53

4

The Origins and Effects of 17 June in the Factories

53

5

The ‘Unforced’ Collectivization
Farmers and functionaries
‘New Course’, old problems

60
60
66

6

Mobilizing East German Youth
‘What about peace and bread?’ Military recruitment
and the contradictions of the armed forces
The FDJ and the ‘Junge Gemeinden’

71

‘Republikflucht’: Fleeing the Construction of Socialism

83

7

v

72
78

vi

Contents

Part 3

From Setback to New Offensives, 1953–61

8

The Factories from 17 June to the Socialist Brigades
Management, union and party
‘Erziehung’, protest and indifference on the shopfloor

9

The Villages from Stalemate to Collectivization
The ‘coercive economy’: material discontent and
political opinion in the countryside
The coercive state: forced collectivization, 1958–60
‘From paper into practice’: continuity and change
in the ‘socialist village’

105

Youth and the Threats to Socialism
Coercion, aversion and evasion: recruiting for the NVA
Divided loyalties: motives for enlisting and the
problem of local functionaries
‘Negative influences’: the churches and the West

125
126

The Problems and Possibilities of the Open Border
Official discourse and unofficial realities
The myriad reasons and motives for flight
Popular responses and the uses of the open border

143
143
148
153

10

11

Part 4

91
91
95

105
110
120

130
136

East Germans, the Wall and the Prospects
of the 1960s

12

The Grass-Roots Effects of the Berlin Wall
Popular opinion and the sealing of the border
Undermining the Produktionsaufgebot on the shopfloor
The Wall and the villages
Youth from crackdown to conscription

161
161
165
172
174

13

Integration, Scepticism and Pragmatism: Patterns of
Popular Opinion and Social Change in the Mid-1960s
183
The NES in the factories
185
The ‘socialist village’ from collectivization to rationalization 188
Youth and generational change in the 1960s
193
Retrospective and outlook onto ‘real existing socialism’ 197

14

Conclusions

202

Notes

212

Sources and Bibliography

248

Index

258

List of Tables and Figures
Tables
8.1 Percentage of tarif wages as part of overall wages, 1952
and 1958

99

Figures
9.1
10.1
11.1
11.2

Emigration from the agricultural sector
Emigration out of the GDR, males aged 18–24/25
Emigration out of the GDR, applications for
Notaufnahmeverfahren
Emigration out of the GDR, doctors and dentists

vii

117
128
152
157

List of Abbreviations
APuZG

Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte: Beilage zur
Wochenzeitung Das Parlament
BGL
Betriebsgewerkschaftsleitung (Factory Union Leadership)
BL
Bezirksleitung (Regional Leadership)
BPO
Betriebsparteiorganisation (Factory Party Organization)
BV
Bundesvorstand (Federal Executive)
CDU
Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (Christian
Democratic Union of Germany)
DA
Deutschland Archiv: Zeitschrift für das vereinigte
Deutschland
DBD
Demokratische Bauernpartei Deutschlands (German
Democratic Farmer’s Party)
DfD
Dienst für Deutschland (Service for Germany)
DFD
Demokratische Frauenbund Deutschlands (German
Democratic Women’s League)
DVP
Deutsche Volkspolizei (People’s Police)
DWK
Deutsche Wirtschaftskommission (German Economic
Commission)
FDGB
Freier Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (League of Free
German Trade Unions)
FDJ
Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth)
GDR
German Democratic Republic
GG
Geschichte und Gesellschaft. Zeitschrift für Historische
Sozialwissenschaft
GPO
Grundparteiorganisation (Basic Party Organization)
GST
Gesellschaft für Sport und Technik (Society for Sport
and Technology)
HJ
Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth)
HO
Handelsorganisation (Trade Organization)
HVDVP Hauptverwaltung der Deutschen Volkspolizei (People’s
Police Central Administration)
JHK
Jahrbuch für historische Kommunismusforschung
KL
Kreisleitung (District Leadership)
KPD
Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (German
Communist Party)
KVP
Kasernierte Volkspolizei (Garrisoned People’s Police)
viii

List of Abbreviations

LDPD
LPG
MAS
MdI
MfS
MLF
MO
MTS
ND
NES
NSDAP
NVA
SAG
SBZ
SED
SMAD
SPD
SPK
TAN
VdgB
VEAB
VEB
VEG
WPO
ZfG
ZK

ix

Liberal-Demokratische Partei Deutschlands
(Liberal-Democratic Party of Germany)
Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsgenossenschaft
(Agricultural Co-operative)
Maschinen-Ausleih Station (Machine Lending Station)
Ministerium des Innern (Interior Ministry)
Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Ministry for State
Security)
Ministerium für Land- und Forstwirtschaft (Ministry for
Agriculture and Forestry)
Mass Organization
Maschinen-Traktoren Station (Machine and Tractor
Station)
Neues Deutschland
New Economic System
Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (Nazi
Party)
Nationale Volksarmee (National People’s Army)
Sowjetische Aktiengesellschaft (Soviet Joint-Stock
Company)
Sowjetische Besatzungszone (Soviet Occupation Zone)
Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (Socialist
Unity Party)
Soviet Military Administration of Germany
Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands
(Social Democratic Party of Germany)
Staatliche Plankommission (State Planning Commission)
Technically-determined norm
Vereinigung der gegenseitigen Bauernhilfe (Association
for Mutual Farmers’ Assistance)
Volkseigener Erfassungs- und Aufkaufsbetrieb (People’s
Own Registration and Purchasing Enterprise)
Volkseigener Betrieb (People’s Own Enterprise)
Volkseigenes Gut (People’s Own Estate)
Wohnparteiorganisation (Residential Party Organization)
Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaft
Zentralkomitee (Central Committee of the SED)

This page intentionally left blank

Preface
This book is the product of a fascination with the history of East
Germany that started with my first visit there with friends in Halle
in 1991. Of course by that time there was no longer a separate
‘East Germany’. But all the same, in those first couple of years after the collapse of the GDR, the history of the communist regime
still cast an almost palpable shadow over eastern Germany: the slower
pace of life (deriving in part from mass layoffs), the markedly different
experiences and political views from what one normally encounters in the West, the neighbourhoods and villages that looked all
but untouched since the end of the war, also the rapid transformation of values, orientations, patterns of work and leisure that were
currently taking place underneath the often deceivingly sleepy surface.
Although these various remnants of forty years of state socialism
were what initially caught my interest, what particularly struck me
was how the whole set of fundamental changes taking place in
eastern Germany in the early 1990s were in many ways both a
result as well as reflection of another set of fundamental changes
that had taken place a few decades earlier under communist authority – changes that also must have been similarly fraught with
difficulties, disorientation and inauspicious legacies from the past.
Appearing some ten years after the disappearance of the GDR,
this book is about some of these earlier changes. It seeks to explore
what the socialist transformation of East Germany looked like in
the villages, towns and factories, and to connect this story with
some of the broader debates about the history of the GDR. Although
it is intended as a piece of academic research, evolving as it has
from a PhD thesis at the University of London, I nonetheless hope
it will be useful for anyone interested in the history of the GDR.
Towards this end I have tried my best to include background information wherever necessary, as well as numerous examples that give
the story it tells a human face.
I am grateful to many people and organizations that helped me
in researching and writing this book. Without the generous financial support of the Berlin Programme of the Social Science Research
Council and the German Academic Exchange Service, this project
never could have come to fruition. My PhD supervisor, Mary Fulbrook,
xi

xii

Preface

has been a constant source of insight and encouragement, giving
generously of her time despite her many commitments. Sebastian
Simsch and Judd Stitziel also deserve special thanks for their comments on earlier versions of the text and for the many profitable
conversations I have enjoyed with them. I am likewise grateful to
the many archivists at the Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massenorganisationen der ehemaligen DDR, the Bundesarchiv Berlin-Lichterfelde,
the Brandenburgisches Landeshauptarchiv, the Landesarchiv Berlin and
the Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv who patiently entertained my questions and opened up to me the vast world of paper produced in
the GDR. My thanks also to colleagues in Liverpool and Birmingham for providing such a congenial environment in which to work,
and perhaps more importantly for giving me (so far, at least . . .) a
rather light administrative load. As helpful as all of this has been,
none of it, of course, makes any of these people or organizations
responsible in any way for the contents of this book.
As always, my greatest debts of gratitude are emotional, and go
to my wife, Deborah Smail, for agreeing to shuttle between the UK
and Germany for a number of years, and to my parents, who have
supported me in every way from beginning to end.
Birmingham

COREY R OSS

1
Introduction

East Germans and the history of the GDR
The East German Socialist Unity Party (SED) had a remarkably
ambitious social and political agenda. This included not only revolutionary changes in the macro-structures of society – in patterns of
ownership, wealth distribution, social hierarchy and political
organization – but also, in accordance with Marxist-Leninist theory,
revolutionary changes at the grass-roots, even in the very people
themselves, their attitudes and values. The Soviets and German
communists wasted little time in working towards these goals after
the end of the Second World War. Former elites in industry and
agriculture, especially those with Nazi ties, were rapidly dispossessed,
the state administration and economy were within only a couple
of years brought into line with SED and Soviet goals, and there
was a massive ‘re-education’ and propaganda campaign to try to
convince Germans that the future lay with socialism. The two decades after the defeat of the Third Reich was a period of extraordinarily
rapid social change in eastern Germany, during which the SED attempted within a generation to realize the basic elements of its
social-political programme, forcing East German social structures
into a new and in many ways ill-fitting mould, coaxing and coercing East Germans themselves into accepting the roles the SED had
assigned to them and at the same time trying to ‘win them over’
and turn them into ‘socialist personalities’. How ‘ordinary’ 1 East
Germans reacted to this ambitious attempt of social engineering
and how it was implemented at the grass-roots level are the central
questions of this study.
Despite the huge popular and scholarly interest in the history of
the Soviet Occupation Zone (SBZ) and German Democratic Republic (GDR) since 1989, these questions have as yet received relatively
1

2

Constructing Socialism at the Grass-Roots

little attention. For a number of reasons, there has been a tendency in the wake of the regime’s collapse to concentrate on the
history of the regime per se, on processes of political decision-making,
dictatorial control and the organs of coercion that helped sustain
party rule. First of all, there has been an understandable curiosity
finally to cast a glance ‘behind the scenes’ of the East German dictatorship on the basis of the radically improved availability of sources
and to fill in the many ‘blank spots’ so long hidden by their
inaccessability. More importantly, the fact that the regime collapsed
so unexpectedly and so rapidly once the Soviet props were pulled
out almost inevitably led to a re-emphasis on repression and control in order to explain its longevity. Certainly the political-moral
mood in Germany since 1989 has tended to represent the history
of the GDR in terms of the unchecked power of Ulbricht, Honecker
and especially the Stasi vis-à-vis the East German populace – an
interpretation that not only serves to legitimate the democratic and
capitalist order of its erstwhile western rival, but which also makes
it easier for at least some East Germans to remember the years before 1989 as a passive history of victimization and to avoid the
unpleasant question of what part they played in constructing and
sustaining the East German dictatorship.
To be sure, there are good reasons for emphasizing repression,
control and the unchecked power of this dictatorship. In the pursuit of its social and political agenda, the SED’s self-styled exclusive
understanding of the course of history did not allow for significant
digressions from the official line, whether based on older traditions,
a different ideology or on the contradictions and wayward effects
of its own policies. The claims it made on East German society and
individuals were therefore unlimited and absolute: a new society, a
new morality, a ‘new man’. These claims and their consequences
have been described in numerous variants of the theory of totalitarianism, which has witnessed a remarkable renaissance in academic
debate since the dramatic events of 1989. The essence of the modern ‘totalitarian’ regime, so the classic argument runs, lies precisely
in its claims to absolute, universal validity, in its undivided control of communication, production, legislation and its enforcement,
whatever residual ‘islands of separateness’ there may have been.2
Scholars have recently used this basic model in different ways to
view the history of the GDR, some stressing structural features such
as the SED’s ‘unlimited and exclusive access to power’, and others
more socio-psychological aspects such as the mobilization of the

Introduction

3

masses through a mixture of indoctrination and control.3 Although
most of this literature has limited itself to describing the formal
structures of political power, Sigrid Meuschel has offered a more
sociological and systems-theoretical concept which stresses the lack
of socio-structural autonomy in the GDR. 4 The end result of the
claims of the total state was, in this view, a far-reaching ‘shutdown’ (Stillegung) and functional ‘non-differentiation’ (Entdifferenzierung)
of social institutions and a de facto fusion of politics, economics,
law, art, even leisure as the state extended and consolidated its
control over these various spheres of what is commonly called ‘society’
in western liberal polities. Common to all these views is the tendency to deal only with the formal system of power and thus the
adoption of a ‘top-down’ perspective. What got decided at the ‘top’
was quickly put into practice on the ground by a mixture of supervision and seduction, indoctrination and repression, and was forced
on to a populace too scared or fragmented to do much about it.
Hence the focus on the regime per se, its structures, organs of repression and the leaders who controlled it as the dramatis personae
in the history of the GDR.5
This study examines the socialist transformation of East Germany
from the opposite direction. It is about the popular reception and
implementation of policy instead of its formulation. It is about
how political intervention ‘from above’ into the structures of East
German society was converted and realized at the grass-roots. Above
all it is about how ordinary East Germans responded to the various
politically-induced intrusions into their lives during the construction of East German socialism, and about how their responses in
turn affected the actual outcome of what was decided in the halls
of power. As the following chapters show, when one looks more
closely at what was happening ‘on the ground’ in the GDR during
its formative years, there emerges a rather more complicated picture than the ‘top-down’ scenarios just mentioned. The monolithic
image of the East German regime – generally considered the most
stable and efficient in the entire Soviet bloc – is rapidly displaced
by one of unreliable local functionaries, petty corruption, informal
‘arrangements’ and internal contradictions. The common contradictory image of the East Germans themselves – on the one hand
of a wholly disaffected population held in check only through force
and on the other of quiescent, obedient subjects complicit in their
own domination – also gives way to a more complex picture of
ordinary people trying to utilize various regime policies to their

4

Constructing Socialism at the Grass-Roots

own advantage, not so much resisting or complying (to use the
conventional dichotomy) as extracting what they could from the
circumstances.
The upheavals of autumn 1989 have to some degree enhanced
the status of human agency, however constrained by continuing
pressures, as a factor in the history of state socialism, or more precisely in the history of its demise. This study seeks to explore some
of the possibilities and consequences, as well as the very real limits, of human actions and decisions during the construction of state
socialism in the GDR, long before the collective political actions of
1989 that helped bring it down. This is by no means to deny the
crucial effects of societal pressures in what was, after all, a very
restrictive and dictatorial system. As Jürgen Kocka has suggested:
‘What will matter is to explore the changing interrelations between
dictatorial authority and the manifold ways in which people dealt
with it – from supportive cooperation to apathy and retreat into
the private sphere all the way to resistance and opposition’.6 It is
precisely this interplay between regime policies and popular responses,
this overlap between political and social history, which this study
deals with. How were political decisions made at ‘the top’ realized
on the ground? What was the popular response to the constant
political interventions of the SED into the lives of East Germans,
how did this affect their concrete realization, and (how) did this
differ in different groups or on different issues? Simply put, what
happened at the grass-roots when the regime tried to mobilize and
control ordinary East Germans for the ‘construction of socialism’?7

Subjects of enquiry, methods, aims
These questions are of course very broad, and various aspects have
been dealt with in studies on topics ranging from industrial relations to the land reform.8 Yet the question of grass-roots responses
to central SED policies has not actually been a central focus of
study. The bulk of work to date on popular responses and opinions
towards the regime has focused almost exclusively on major political flashpoints – 17 June 1953, autumn 1956, the Prague Spring of
1968 – whereby the emphasis inevitably, and somewhat one-sidedly,
is placed on discontent and conflict.9 A number of studies have
also taken popular opposition as their subject, which has had the
highly beneficial effect of drawing attention to the fact that ‘dissent’ in the GDR was not merely confined to a few critical intellectuals

Introduction

5

already well known in the West before 1989, but which has also
tended to paint a somewhat one-sided and static picture of popular political behaviour in the GDR, obscuring both the scope and
effects of indifference and apathy as well as the very important
modes of interaction between rulers and ruled.10
This study does not focus exclusively on major political flashpoints
(although they do feature in it) and intentionally does not take
opposition and dissent as a starting point, but rather focuses on
precisely this interplay and overlap. In so doing, however, it does
not make the attempt to achieve a ‘thick’ description of how authority was exerted and reproduced on an everyday basis. To attempt
this with any degree of empirical detail would involve an examination of a number of issues too extensive to be covered here.11 While
this study is thus in some ways narrower in focus than these ‘everydayhistorical’ approaches, it is at the same time broader in seeking to
pull together, compare and contrast some of the ways in which
East Germans perceived, dealt with, conformed to and/or opposed
the regime’s attempts to mobilize and control them for its cause,
and what effects these had for the face of East German socialism.
In other words, it is not about how SED authority was maintained
and reproduced on an everyday basis, but rather about what happened at the grass-roots when the leadership tried to force major
changes by exerting it.
It does this by focusing on a selected number of points where
the personal lives and interests (broadly defined) of ordinary East
Germans intersected most closely and were confronted most immediately by the total claims of the SED. The bulk of the study
deals with what I view as the three principle thrusts of the ‘construction of socialism’ in East Germany during the first two decades
after the war: (1) increasing industrial productivity, especially in
raw materials and heavy industry; (2) dispossessing old agrarian
elites and gaining state control of agriculture; and (3) mobilizing
and ‘educating’ the youth into their future role as socialist citizens. The effects of these policies on the lives of ‘ordinary’ East
Germans were manifold and profound. Increasing work-productivity
meant disciplining workers to produce more as well as a concentration of investment in heavy industry at the expense of consumption
and wages. Farmers were asked to expropriate the land of traditional rural elites and were later coaxed and coerced into
amalgamating their land into large collective farms. And, finally,
East German youths were asked to sever their ties with the churches,

6

Constructing Socialism at the Grass-Roots

to spend their free-time in socialist organizations and to perform
their ‘patriotic duty’ of protecting the GDR and its ‘socialist accomplishments’ from the perceived military threat of the West by
participating in paramilitary training and/or joining the armed
forces.12 The popular reaction towards these policies, the manner
and extent of their realization at the grass-roots level and the main
points of friction and conflict which they called forth form the
three main lines of enquiry that run throughout the book. These
are accompanied for the period before 1961 by a fourth: the problem of ‘Republikflucht’ (‘fleeing the republic’, or illegal emigration
to the West), that unique and most conspicuous popular response
to the transformation of East Germany which placed constraints
on the entire process of ‘constructing socialism’ until the sealing
of the border around West Berlin.
These are of course only some of the themes that could be addressed. A number of other aspects of the attempt to transform
East German society at the grass-roots – in particular the attempt
to create a ‘new intelligentsia’ to administer the schools, hospitals
and factories, as well as the social and political profile of local functionaries and officials, who they were and how this changed over
time – are dealt with only briefly throughout the text. Such a study
inevitably necessitates a certain selection of topics for emphasis.
The broad approach I have chosen is intended to be illustrative,
not definitive. Yet it nonetheless sheds some important new light
on developments in the SBZ/GDR even beyond the primary aim of
situating ‘ordinary’ East Germans in the socialist transformation of
East Germany.
First, and most importantly, there are a number of reasons why
the focus is on the grass-roots – that is, not on either ‘the regime’
or ‘the populace’, but somewhat on both. As I have already remarked, there has been a general tendency in the literature on the
history of the GDR to treat regime and populace separately, or at
the very least conceptually to keep the two clearly divided. While
this cleft is of course undeniable, much of the material presented
here suggests that an equally important cleft in the GDR was that
between leadership and grass-roots, or in other words between ‘centre’
and ‘periphery’. Unreliable factory managers, local officials and lowlevel functionaries were, if not exactly the rule throughout the entire
period covered, by no means exceptional. Often there was precious
little to distinguish them from ‘ordinary’ East Germans in terms of
their political opinions and loyalties, especially during the early

Introduction

7

years. Because these people represented ‘the regime’ at the grassroots, their reliability or otherwise was of central importance to
the attempt to create a new socialist society. Yet their role in conveying policies to the grass-roots has as yet received little attention.
In trying to understand the regime’s ability to control society and
push through its plans for a ‘new Germany’ at the grass-roots, this
kind of focus seems more useful than one that keeps ‘regime’ and
‘populace’ rigidly separate.
Second, this grass-roots emphasis also offers new perspectives on
the themes covered by the various chapters. The material in some
of these will be more familiar to students of GDR history than that
in others. The literature on industrial workers and shopfloor disputes in the GDR has grown especially rapidly in recent years. 13
Although I draw quite explicitly on this literature, this study places
particular emphasis on the interaction between workers, managers
and local functionaries in the factories and also attempts to go
beyond the prevailing emphasis on material interests and economic
disputes to discuss also various non-economic sources of friction
on the shopfloor. Processes of social transformation in the countryside have also attracted considerable scholarly attention, though
the rather heated debates in the wake of German unification about
the question of restitution for those who were dispossessed in the
land reform has led to a concentration of recent research on these
early years that has tended to eclipse the process of agricultural
collectivization that followed. 14 The few studies to date on agricultural collectivization have in any event tended to focus on the political
decisions that led up to it and Soviet influence on these decisions. 15
This book examines both of these developments in terms of how
they were received, refashioned and implemented in the villages,
and lays particular emphasis on the role of rural functionaries in
conveying official policies to the grass-roots. Similarly, although SED
policy towards youth has been the subject of considerable interest,
its transmission and effects on the ground have taken a back seat,
and certain issues like the recruitment and responses of would-be
rank-and-file soldiers have not yet been a subject of research at
all. 16 And as for the problem of Republikflucht, most recent research
has dealt with refugee and immigration policies in the Federal Republic – not surprising given the ongoing debates about this issue
in Germany.17 This book focuses instead on various aspects of Republikflucht within East Germany: from motives for flight to rifts between
local functionaries and central authorities over the treatment of

8

Constructing Socialism at the Grass-Roots

former refugees to the ways ordinary East Germans used the threat
of flight to extract concessions from state authorities.
Third, there has been a tendency in historical research on the
GDR to limit the focus of individual studies to rather small thematic topics or to brief spans of time. There are of course good
reasons for this, above all the huge amounts of documentation
produced by the East German bureaucracy which itself tends to
gravitate against broader studies. It also has to do with the general
reluctance to take on broader themes before the empirical basis is
more fully developed, as well as with the current aversion among
many social and cultural historians towards ‘megatheories’ and larger
structures of interpretation in principle. Fully aware of the problems of taking on as wide an array of themes and social groups as
is done here, I nonetheless think that the forest is gradually being
eclipsed by so many trees in GDR historiography, and that any
attempt, however provisional, to pull various histories together and
trace broad developments over a substantial stretch of time is a
worthwhile venture.
Finally, the book also attempts to draw some connections between the ongoing conceptual and theoretical discussion on the
GDR and the empirical basis available – two distinct discourses which
have tended to run parallel to each other since 1989 but whose
paths have rarely seemed to cross. By its very focus on the ‘periphery’ of the communist dictatorship, where the inevitable social
proximity of ‘ordinary’ East Germans and local representatives of
the regime often hindered the leadership’s attempts to control East
German society as it wished, it inherently questions the limits of
such notions as the ‘undifferentiated’ and ‘durchherrschte’ (or ‘ruled
through and through’) society of the GDR which have moulded
the parameters of debate thus far.

The argument and its structure
The basic argument is straightforward. The socialist transformation
of East Germany was an extremely difficult and conflict-ridden process
at the grass-roots, where the SED’s ambitious attempts to create a
‘new society’ and ‘new man’ were hindered, diluted and refracted
by a range of problems. Quite obviously, it could not carry out all
of its plans unchallenged, as if the society and people over which
it governed were a mere tabula rasa awaiting organization into a
new social system. ‘Ordinary’ East Germans had their own interests

Introduction

9

and concerns – most commonly referred to in recent years as ‘EigenSinn’, or a sense of one’s interests 18 – which sometimes overlapped
and often collided with the SED’s policies. Most people tried to
extract what they could from the circumstances of East German
socialism, which, depending on the particular situation, could mean
protest, opposition or conformity, but which for most of the populace most of the time did not mean positive support. Making use
of the circumstances was often made easier by the fact that the
policies that constituted the socialist transformation of East Germany were in many cases not completely converted at the grass-roots
in the first place, largely for three reasons: (1) the persistence of
older structures, mentalities, and social networks that survived the
supposed socialist ‘zero hour’ after the war and which proved remarkably resilient, (2) the inner contradictions of official policies
and between different elements of the regime, and (3) resulting
from both of these factors, the unreliability of many of its representatives at the local level. The general unwillingness of most
East Germans to assume the social roles the SED had assigned to
them, the resilience of local social networks and the inertia of traditional mentalities – together with the unreliability of many local
functionaries and the inner contradictions of official policies themselves – meant that the SED’s various political interventions into
East German society were significantly reshaped at the grass-roots,
often to become at least partially compatible with existing social
structures, popular wishes and attitudes. Yet it was arguably this
very reshaping and dilution that made the rapid socialist transformation of East Germany a viable project at all by allowing for a
certain degree of social autonomy at the grass-roots. From the more
heavy-handed 1950s to the less ideological 1960s there developed
a kind of tacit and pragmatic, if rather unenthusiastic, coexistence
between the party leadership which had learned to tolerate this
and a populace that increasingly came to take its authority for granted.
The organization of the book follows both a chronological as well
as thematic format. The separate sections develop the argument in
chronological stages, and each is subdivided into thematic chapters that cover the issues already mentioned. The first section surveys
the years up to 1952 during which the East German regime was
established, and focuses on the effects of the communists’ policies
of agricultural and industrial reform in the villages and on the
shopfloor. The second section focuses on the period from the summer of 1952 to summer 1953, a crucial year in the history of the

10

Constructing Socialism at the Grass-Roots

GDR which saw the first campaign for agricultural collectivization,
the first open attacks on the churches, the first large military recruitment push as well as the attempt to raise industrial productivity
by fiat which led to the tumultuous events of 17 June 1953. Section three covers the years between 1953 and 1961, from the fallout
after the debacle of 17 June to the construction of the Berlin Wall.
Despite slowly regaining the ground it had lost after the setback of
summer 1953, the party leadership nonetheless eventually saw itself forced to lock in its subjects after millions had decided to flee
the ‘construction of socialism’ in East Germany. As the last section
demonstrates, the sealing of the border was only a partial caesura
in the history of the GDR in terms of its effects at the grass-roots.
The changing patterns of social and political relations in the early
1960s were interwoven with tenacious threads of continuity, many
of which reached all the way back to the problems that characterized the understandably chaotic years immediately after the war.

Sources, geographic scope
The primary sources I have used are the internal correspondence
and information reports of the SED, mass organizations (especially
the trade union league, or FDGB) and East German state (‘People’s
Police’ and various ministries), all of which present a number of
methodological problems. The internal reports of the East German
party-state apparatus are politicized through and through, and by
no means can be taken to ‘speak for themselves’. The ideologized
language and conceptual categories in which they increasingly came
to be couched over the years present a curious mixture of German
bureaucratic euphemism and SED jargon in which such vague terms
as ‘ideological unclarities’ and ‘hostile arguments’ could denote either
insignificant digressions from the party line or seething beds of
discontent. The problems run in two different directions. The inflationary use of such terms as ‘enemy elements’ and ‘reactionary forces’
must be taken with a pinch of salt if one wants to avoid overemphasizing signs of conflict and dissent. At the same time, there was
also a certain tendency towards Schönfärberei – watering-down or
beautifying reports to one’s superiors. The party leadership thus
often only heard what lower-level functionaries wanted them to
hear. After all, what they reported reflected on their performance.
However, once one reads through the formulaic slogans and obvious political bias, these reports contain a wealth of information on

Introduction

11

popular opinion, the activities of local functionaries, as well as social
and economic conditions more generally. Despite the tendency
towards ‘beautification’, most reports seem to attempt to describe
the situation on the ground more or less soberly or even pessimistically after a customary paragraph or two on ‘positive’ developments.
Moreover, the voices of ‘ordinary’ East Germans frequently come
through loud and clear; expressions of dissent in particular are often conveyed quite fulsomely and in fascinating detail. So despite
their obvious shortcomings, these reports – in conjunction with
letters of complaint, petitions, oral history and survey information19
– are highly useful in evaluating popular responses to various regime policies.
Reports were produced at a number of levels in the party, mass
organizations and state apparatus, from the individual factory to
the local district (Kreis), regional (Bezirk) and central levels. It has
been suggested that, because of the problem of ‘beautification’ and
filtering at each level, reports from the lowest (usually Kreis) level
present the most accurate picture of ‘reality’ at any given time. 20
Although this may often be the case, and although I draw quite
extensively on SED district leadership (Kreisleitung) reports, I would
argue that this assertion is overstretched for two reasons. First, in
reading through reports at the different levels, it becomes clear that
most beautification that takes place begins at the source and often
does not change considerably on the way to the top unless edited
as part of a summary. There is therefore not so great a difference
between reports at the local and central levels as one might at first
think. Secondly, because the party leadership was arguably more
interested in receiving accurate information than local functionaries were in producing it, and was in any event fully aware of the
problems of report-beautification, it regularly deployed its own
Instrukteure (instructors, or plenipotentiaries) from the Central Committee to report directly on special problems or matters of interest.
These reports, written by true party professionals, are often the most
informative of all and serve as a foil to the regular reports from
lower levels.
Internal reports in any state bureaucracy, especially dictatorial
regimes, tend to focus on problems, difficulties and failures, and
the historian who uses them as sources runs the risk of overemphasizing these at the expense of what did work and what was
successful from the regime’s point of view. The same is of course
true of petitions and letters of complaint, which tend to give a

12

Constructing Socialism at the Grass-Roots

one-sided view. Because of this emphasis on problems and failures
in the internal communication of the regime, no news can to a
certain degree be regarded as good news. I have tried to keep these
dangers in mind while reading through stacks and stacks of files in
the East German archives. But in the process what struck me most
about these reports, petitions and letters of complaint is their sheer
and overwhelming profusion. Insofar as no news was good news,
the GDR had a lot of problems. While one cannot, of course, simply
extrapolate from the particular to the general – for instance, take a
complaint about corruption involving the land reform in a certain
village or a report on poor work-discipline in a certain factory and
claim that it was a general phenomenon – the huge volume of
such reports, together with the fact that not all such problems could
possibly be registered in the first place, conveys the very strong
impression that they were more the rule than the exception. Thus
the examples I use throughout the text are, unless otherwise noted,
illustrative of fairly common occurrences.
Before proceeding, a brief word on the geographical scope seems
necessary. Although this study is intended to address issues and
developments affecting the GDR as a whole, it is nonetheless
regionally based in order to achieve a higher degree of analytical
detail than would otherwise be possible. In order to examine sources
from the various levels of the regime’s information apparatus, it
concentrates on East Berlin and Brandenburg (after 1952, the four
administrative Bezirke East Berlin, Potsdam, Frankfurt/Oder and
Cottbus),21 though not exclusively and to varying degrees in the
different chapters. The regional focus is far more exclusive in the
chapters on the factories and villages than in the other two, primarily because of the sheer volume of material on these topics,
but also because the actual places themselves – the factories and
villages – play a more integral role to these chapters than to the
others. In other words, the regional focus here is not intended as
an analytical confinement, but rather as a means of examining how
directives from the centre were received at the grass-roots.
Of course no regionally-based study can claim to be wholly representative of the entire GDR. Despite being a truncated ‘half-nationstate’, East Germany still possessed a hearty measure of the regional
diversity so characteristic of Central Europe – from the vast expanses
of lakes and plains in Mecklenburg to the quaint half-timbered towns
of the Harz mountains to the industrial centres of Saxony. Clearly,
a local or regional study of any one area of the GDR would invari-

Introduction

13

ably run up against the problems of typicality and representativeness. But it is not at all certain that a study executed at the level
of the entire GDR would necessarily be preferable or even, for that
matter, more ‘representative’ of developments at the grass-roots given
the degree of abstraction this would entail. Moreover, although
regional variations undoubtedly existed, these were variations on a
common theme.
For a number of reasons, East Berlin and Brandenburg together
seemed a particularly promising region to focus on. Besides being
the region most immediately affected by the existence and eventual sealing off of West Berlin, its socio-economic structure was
quite diverse, presenting a fairly even balance between urban/industrial and rural/agricultural milieux.22 The region as a whole boasted
both long-established urban industrial centres with a commensurately
‘traditional’ working-class milieu (above all in East Berlin and the
industrial penumbra surrounding it) as well as a number of provincial industrial centres such as the steel and chemical plants in
Brandenburg/Havel and the extensive collieries of the Niederlausitz
region near Cottbus. It was also the site of some of the largest
industrialization projects of the 1950s and 1960s – most notably
the steel works at Stalinstadt/Eisenhüttenstadt and the petrochemical plants at Schwedt – that radically changed many rural areas
and that attracted hundreds of thousands of expellees from the
former eastern territories of the Reich into the world of the industrial worker with relatively high wages and the promise of housing.
Yet Brandenburg was still predominately rural and its economy
overwhelmingly agricultural at the end of the war. In 1950, approximately 33 per cent of Brandenburg’s population was still engaged
in agriculture. 23 Of the five initial federal states (Länder) of the GDR,
only Mecklenburg-Vorpommern had a more agrarian economy or
was more strongly characterized by the traditional Prussian – or
better, Junker – pattern of large aristocratic landholdings
(Großgrundbesitz). In 1939, large estates with more than 100 hectares comprised merely 1.1 per cent of the total number of agricultural
enterprises in Brandenburg, but 31 per cent of the land. 24 In terms
of farming practices and patterns of ownership, the region itself
showed more variegation than the other federal states. Whereas
the northern and eastern areas of Brandenburg were dominated by
large-scale landholding, the southern area around Cottbus was characterized more by mid-sized (5–20 hectares) and large (20–100
hectares) peasant farms, accounting respectively for 25 per cent and

14

Constructing Socialism at the Grass-Roots

38 per cent of agricultural acreage in Brandenburg as a whole, as
well as widespread second-occupational farming in the villages near
the large collieries.
East Berlin and Brandenburg, like the other regions of the SBZ,
were not very attractive places to live at the end of the war. At the
time, few places in Germany were. The task facing the Soviets and
East German communists was immense: building up a disjointed
and war-torn economy, integrating hundreds of thousands of refugees, constructing a new apparatus of power and generating a
modicum of popular approval for their authority. Let us now turn
to what happened at the grass-roots when they tried to solve these
problems and build a new society in East Germany.

Part 1
Laying the Foundations,
1945–52

The problems facing the Soviets and German communists after the
war were myriad. At a very basic level there was widespread apprehension and dislike towards the Soviet occupation regime and the
communist-led German authorities that carried out its wishes.
After all, anti-communism and the idea of German cultural (not to
mention racial) superiority over the Slavic peoples were central to
Nazi teachings, and had numbered among the more integrative aspects
of Nazi ideology. More importantly, the destruction caused by the
war, above all the collapse of the zone’s infrastructure and the desperate shortages of basic necessities, tended to favour a localization,
not centralization, of organization and control. The unprecedented
confusion and uprooting of millions of people, the political collapse and economic chaos by and large escaped central control in
the immediate post-war years. Yet it was during these difficult years
that the groundwork was laid for subsequent developments in East
Germany, not only in terms of political decisions – the ‘Stalinization’
of the political system and mass organizations, the exchange of
elites, the restructuring of patterns of ownership and the general
economic divergence from the western occupation zones – but also
the many wayward and unintended effects that resulted on the
ground.
Apart from the process of denazifying the zone’s administration
and security apparatus and the merger of the workers’ parties, the
two other primary concerns for the Soviets and German communists were to reform and gain control over industry and agriculture,
issues that affected most of the population in some way. This section
15

16

Constructing Socialism at the Gross-Roots

surveys some of the changes this entailed and the problems encountered, first from the perspective of the villages and then from
the factories. As we will see, although this political intervention
into East German society in the years following the war undoubtedly brought about far-reaching structural changes, they were not
flawlessly realized at the grass-roots. The socialist ‘zero hour’ was
only a partial new-beginning, and the ability to effect radical changes
and exercise strict control at this level was by no means complete
– not in the villages, not in the towns and factories, and above all
not in people’s heads.

2
The Land Reform and its Effects

Though neither the Soviets nor German communists had any master plan for rural society in 1945, it was generally agreed that patterns
of land ownership in the countryside had to be reformed. Worked
out over the summer of 1945 and officially launched in September,
the land reform was the first major intervention by the Soviets
into the social structure of eastern Germany. Its aim was not just
to punish supporters of the Third Reich, but also to help integrate
the flood of refugees streaming in from the East, create a more
egalitarian structure of land ownership and thereby to gain a rural
clientele and expand the influence of the KPD in the countryside.
The land reform statutes mandated the expropriation of the Junker
landlords, viewed by the victorious Allies and the German bloc parties
alike as the major social bulwark of German militarism, as well as
Nazi war criminals and any other large landowners with Nazi ties.
The confiscated land was to be distributed above all to land-poor
peasants, landless farm labourers and refugees from the eastern territories – the so-called ‘new farmers’ – in plots of five to ten hectares,
depending on its quality. The land reform was thus a two-sided
process: first, to get rid of the traditional rural elites and their estates; and second, to establish a patchwork of small new farms in
their place. Although clearly communist-inspired, the transformation of the countryside was also supposed to have a popular and
spontaneous character as the expression of the will of the rural
populace. For both legitimatory and organizational purposes, it was
necessary to enlist the help of the rural farming populace itself in
carrying out both of these steps at the grass-roots. But farmers had
their own interests, agendas and ideas about the land reform which
only partially overlapped – and partially collided – with those of
17

18

Constructing Socialism at the Gross-Roots

the Soviets and German communists. This affected not only how
the land reform was carried out at the grass-roots, but also what it
accomplished. And as we will see, all of this was more easily said
than done in the political collapse and economic chaos of the postwar years.

Confiscation, redistribution and the village milieu
The attempt to transform the villages and farms of the East German
countryside faced a number of serious difficulties. Given the collapse
of the zone’s infrastructure, the logistical problems of maintaining
authority in the countryside in the chaos of the immediate postwar years were legion. Despite the massive social and demographic
upheavals during the closing stages of the war, the close-knit web
of rural social relations had not collapsed along with the Reich,
and if anything had gained in importance during the years of scarcity
as local solidarity had to take over where state services no longer
existed. Even the dissemination of information in the countryside
was relatively difficult; the rural populace was less likely to own a
radio or television, had less access to the cinema or theatre and
were also far more difficult to reach via visual propaganda (posters,
billboards, etc.) than city-dwellers. Other problems had to do with
the very character of rural society itself. The rural populace remained
the least educated and most religious segment of East German society. Farmers tended to be more closely bound to the church than
to any political party, and the old networks of kinship and social
relations in the villages were difficult to penetrate. The resilience
and impenetrability of what might be called the ‘village milieu’ had
proved an irritating hindrance to the Nazis’ attempts to mobilize
peasants, who by and large were uninterested in the Volksgemeinschaft
so long as it did not directly affect their religious sensibilities or
farming interests. By comparison, the Soviets and German communists were further handicapped by the fact that most farmers saw
the single greatest threat to these interests in the prospect of expropriation under a socialist regime – an apprehension which had
helped the Nazis in rural areas in the first place.
To be sure, many of the initial signs were promising from the
communists’ point of view. The land reform quickly led to a fundamental transformation of the structure of land ownership in the
Soviet Zone as a whole and in Brandenburg and Mecklenburg in
particular. According to official statistics, by November 1945 41 per

The Land Reform and its Effects

19

cent of all agricultural land in Brandenburg had been confiscated
and distributed to some 82 810 families, with smaller amounts going to a number of local communities and state enterprises. 1 During
the course of the autumn of 1945 the centuries-old dominance of
large estates in the Brandenburg countryside was largely replaced
by a new agrarian structure characterized by small- and mid-scale
enterprises. The Junker landlords who had dominated Germany east
of the Elbe for centuries indeed lost the social and economic basis
of their power – some even lost their lives at the hands of Soviet
soldiers, former Russian and Polish forced labourers or in miserable
detention camps on the Baltic. 2 But the official statistics on the
land reform tend to hide the many difficulties and distortions of
the process at the grass-roots, where older social relations and
mentalities remained largely intact despite the chaos and destruction during the closing stages of the war.
In many local communities, older habits of social deference proved
a persistent obstacle to the drive to dispossess the large landlords.
Although the land reform clearly corresponded to the needs and
wishes of most land recipients to secure an economic existence in
the scarcity and chaos immediately following the war, in many villages
the communists found it difficult to mobilize the landless farm
labourers and refugees to expropriate the local Junker suzerains. While
the re-distribution of land in some areas was indeed carried out in
a spirit of spontaneity and occasionally even accompanied by festivities, most often the would-be new farmers were rather reluctant
to take land from local elites whose authority had rarely been challenged up until then. According to a 1946 year-end report on the
land reform in Brandenburg ‘the new farmers only went about their
work hesistantly during their initial period of getting settled, and
did not show absolute trust that the political circumstances would
not change’.3 Little wonder, for there are numerous reports complaining of former estate owners frightening the new farmers from
taking control of their plots by telling them that the land reform
would be overturned later on. Local land commissions responsible
for the re-distribution of land and inventory were only very slowly
organized in the autumn of 1945, and many of the landowners
whom these commissions were charged to expropriate managed to
retain small portions of their property well into 1946. Moreover,
many of the refugees expelled from the eastern provinces of the
Reich hoped that they would quickly be able to return to their
homes and for this reason were hesitant about applying for land.

20

Constructing Socialism at the Gross-Roots

This reluctance to accept land expropriated from Junker estates
was not based solely on fear and uncertainty. The paternalistic orientation of many former farm labourers and small tenant farmers,
their persisting loyalties vis-à-vis their former landlords and the deeplyrooted orientation towards large estate farming prevalent especially
in northern and eastern areas also hindered the land reform. Many
new farmers were reluctant to break up the large estates given the
grim prospects of farming such small plots with little livestock,
equipment or, particularly among former farmhands and industrial
workers who had received land, little agricultural expertise. There
were numerous cases of former landowners managing to retain a
piece of land or drifting back to their estates in the course of the
winter of 1945–46 and hiring their former employees to the satisfaction of both parties. According to a January 1946 report from
the Brandenburg provincial administration, ‘in a number of cases
the distribution of confiscated estates to land-poor, landless farmers, farmhands and refugees exists only on paper . . . In some cases
the applicants for land are still treated like farmhands and still
work for wages or payment in kind . . . The commissions or authorities often refuse to distribute sown land in order to maintain
the unity of the large estates. They justify this failure with the
intention to continue working cooperatively or collectively’.4 Local
disregard or transformation of directives against amalgamating plots
or distributing amounts of land over 10 hectares was the only way
to sustain the new farms at all in some areas.5 In fact, in many
previous manorial villages the new farmers only gradually began
working their plots individually in the autumn of 1946, after numerous Soviet threats of sanctions for non-compliance.6 That these
were not merely isolated cases is indirectly evidenced by the Soviet
Order 6080 of August 1947 removing all former land owners at
least 50 kilometers from their previous estates. According to statistics from the Brandenburg Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, of
the total of 2080 families whose property had been expropriated
through the land reform, 798 still had to be expelled from their
estates in 1947 on the basis of Order 6080.7
The demolition of the old manor houses in 1947 – in the Soviets’ and German communists’ eyes the very embodiment of Junkertum
– and their replacement with new farming settlements faced many
of the same difficulties. Many locals, even ranking SED members,
thought they were of too great historical value to be pulled down
or thoroughly altered. But more problematic was the fact that the

The Land Reform and its Effects

21

new farmers themselves were less than enthusiastic about it. Most
were still afraid that if the political circumstances changed they
would be blamed by the owners of the houses and possibly punished; there were still reports of agitators sent across the border by
former estate owners threatening new farmers with revenge should
they tear down their houses. 8 Furthermore, many former refugees
still hoped to be able to return to their previous homes east of the
Oder/Neisse border and therefore showed little desire to take
permanent ownership of new buildings. As one report complains,
‘for these reasons the farmers can only be persuaded to change the
estate character of the houses with great difficulty or with coercion’.9 This presented not only a political problem, but also a material
one; without the construction material acquired from the demolition of the stately homes there was no chance of fulfilling the
construction plans for new houses and barns. Eventually, the demolition of some 2000 manorial buildings in Brandenburg in 1948
was carried out against the wishes of many new farmers and local
functionaries.
Even with the estate owners gone and their property confiscated,
however, the old networks of social relations in the villages presented a number of problems to the land reform, above all in lending
themselves to corruption in the distribution of land and inventory.
The Soviets and German authorities had early on recognized the
potential for local distortions of the land reform measures and introduced a number of controls against it. The local land commissions
(Gemeindebodenkommissionen) responsible for confiscating and distributing land were to be comprised solely of landless labourers
and farmers with less than five hectares of land, thus supposedly
ensuring their political reliability. Furthermore, the commissions’
expropriation plans had to be ratified by a district commission
(Kreiskommission), which was in turn controlled by a regional land
commission. Nonetheless, the sheer volume of complaints of petty
corruption in the archives strongly suggests that minor abuses were
more the rule than the exception.
For one thing, the loose definition of who was a Nazi and who
was not presented immense opportunities to settle old scores in
the villages, and a number of local land commissions confiscated
land from persons whom they rather arbitrarily designated as Nazis.10
Far more common, though, were cases where members of local land
commissions tried to enrich themselves, their relatives or their friends
over newcomers or rival families in the distribution of confiscated

22

Constructing Socialism at the Gross-Roots

property. One rather spectacular case of corruption was uncovered
in 1948 in the village of Kattlow in Kreis Cottbus, where the former
manager of the estate ‘Schönigsche Stiftung’, Herr Hendrisch, had
distributed the entire estate to members of his family, each of whom
received 10 hectares under the land reform statutes. The fact that
two of these family members had been members of the SS and
three of them still lived in the western zones was, curiously, no
hindrance to their receiving land or even to the cultivation of their
plots. As the report notes, the ‘new farmer’ Hendrisch was no new
farmer at all, but was actually running the estate much as he always
had in his former capacity as estate manager, hiring 25 to 30 seasonal workers from Cottbus for harvesting and sowing. As was often
the case, the entire situation was made possible by the fact that
Hendrisch had the ‘best support from the side of the authorities’,
namely the local council chairman Schuster, who spent his holidays at the estate and who vouched for Hendrisch as an active
anti-fascist, which had led to earlier complaints about him being
brushed aside. Schuster was also apparently instrumental in allocating 100 tons of lime (in desperately short supply at the time) to
Hendrisch, putatively for revitalizing the fish stock in the estate’s
lake, but which was actually used to renovate the villa.11
Though perhaps an extreme case, Kattlow was by no means the
only instance of corruption and collusion with local authorities.
There were literally thousands of instances of what one report called
the ‘peculiar application of the land reform ordinance’, usually in
the form of family members working the land of a relative who
actually lived elsewhere, several members of the same household
acquiring land with the tacit approval or indifference of local authorities, officials favouring themselves, their relatives or acquaintances
in the allotment of livestock and equipment, etc.12 Indeed, Kattlow
was not even the only case in Kreis Cottbus. There was a similar
incident in Laubsdorf, where the former manager of an estate, Herr
von Schoen, had managed to distribute 400 acres of land exclusively among his family. Nor was simple greed the only motive. In
yet another case in Kreis Cottbus the former refugee Seifert was
given two young cows, one good milk cow, a hog and some field
equipment by a suspiciously generous local agricultural official, Herr
Böttcher, who reportedly had ‘very close relations with the daughter
of this new farmer’ and was apparently trying to ingratiate himself
with the father of his sweetheart. As the report notes, the other
new farmers in the village had nothing against a new farmer being

The Land Reform and its Effects

23

helped, ‘but this case shows that acquaintances and friends are
privileged and enjoy certain advantages from the local council. This
is not taken to be the only case; rather, it is said that this department is one big swamp of corruption’. 13
Herr Seifert was fortunate, for in the majority of cases it was new
farmers, and especially former refugees and single women, who
suffered most from such nepotism and collusion. As outsiders to
the villages in which they lived they were often given the poorest
plots from the land-fund, and there were even a number of isolated cases of land commissions refusing to grant land to refugees
at all. 14 Even when refugees acquired decent plots of land, they
were generally dependent on the native farmers, who often resented
their presence in the villages and were of little help. The local VdgBs
(Vereinigungen der gegenseitigen Bauernhilfe, or Associations for Mutual Farmers’ Assistance) that were originally set up in 1945 to support
the new farmers by coordinating the use of equipment and storage
space were usually taken over by the more established farmers, especially the powerful big farmers, who often manipulated the VdgB
resources to their own advantage. According to the 1946 year-end
report of the German Administration for Agriculture and Forestry:
The relations between the old farmers and new farmers in the
Province Mark Brandenburg are generally characterized as not
good. The new farmers do not assert themselves enough because
of their labile economic situation, the old farmers exploit their
economic predominance to create for themselves a dominant position in the local executives of the VdgB. The old farmers have
recognized that the VdgB is an excellent instrument for realizing their own interests . . . Mutual assistance is often only given
from old farmer to old farmer. The new farmers reconcile themselves to this situation because they are dependent on the old
farmers for many of their daily requirements’.15
To be sure, the antagonism between natives and newcomers had
to do with more than material interests. Cultural, confessional and
even linguistic differences between Brandenburg villagers and refugees were also important factors behind the poor relations in many
villages. Refugees from the eastern territories were often looked down
on as quasi-racial-inferiors, and were frequently subjected to such
epithets as ‘Polacken’, ‘Spitzbubenbande’, ‘verlaustes Russenpack’, or
‘polnische Sau’ – insults that were all the more infuriating to people

24

Constructing Socialism at the Gross-Roots

expelled from their homes precisely because they were ‘German’.16
The relatively high percentage of Catholics among the refugees also
contributed to the cleft between newcomers and natives in the
predominately Lutheran Brandenburg countryside, a region where
the word ‘katolsch’ was a synonym for ‘bogus’ or ‘treacherous’. The
refugees were broadly viewed as intruders in the villages, their presence
regarded as desirable only at sowing and harvest time, when they
were a source of cheap labour. As refugees in Ostprignitz were told
by natives: ‘you ought to be plowed under in the autumn and only
dug up again in the spring’.17
Yet the social and cultural front between newcomers and natives
was only as impermeable as seemed profitable. New farmers were
also widely involved in petty corruption, though this, too, was usually
at the expense of other new farmers. To offer merely one example,
in the village of Gersdorf, Kreis Oberbarnim the VdgB chairman
Balitz, a former refugee and new farmer, saw to it that the VdgB
first and foremost assisted the old farmers in the village in return
for tacit approval from the native Bürgermeister Peter to work several acres of land illegally and sell the produce for profit. Another
former refugee in the village, Bruno Rostock (who spoke better Polish
than German, the report notes), had also managed to acquire land
illegally and apparently ran two or three farms through land-pooling.
According to the other new farmers in the village, Rostock was a
kind of ‘untouchable’ whose activities – which also included illegal
slaughtering – were covered up by the local authorities. As the
report concludes, ‘this village is dominated by a nepotism that pushes
more or less weak refugees and farmers against the wall and produces a level of dissatisfaction that results in constant letters of
complaint’.18

From hope to disappointment: the new farmers
Despite all of these hindrances, setbacks and distortions, the land
reform met, at least initially, with approval by the majority of farmers,
especially the new farmers who directly gained from it and the
many refugees for whom a plot of land meant nothing less than a
new home and a fresh start. It was hoped – indeed, assumed – that
the land reform would give the communists a popular basis in the
countryside. The results of elections to the regional parliaments,
district and local councils in September and October 1946 showed
considerable support for the SED (although recent evidence show-

The Land Reform and its Effects

25

ing that many older ‘native’ farmers also voted for the communists
suggests that the land reform was not the only factor,19 and it should
also be noted that the Soviets gave the SED certain advantages in
terms of campaign resources). In the communal elections it received
59.8 per cent of the vote, and in the regional elections 43.9 per
cent (compared to 47.5 per cent in the SBZ as a whole). As for
party membership, it was estimated that by 1946 the SED had some
2000 local groups, although it is clear that farmers remained
underrepresented in the party rank-and-file, constituting only 9.8
per cent of its membership. In winning the allegiance of farmers
the SED’s toughest opponent was the CDU. The Christian Democrats
were particularly strong in Brandenburg, especially in the eastern
regions where the DNVP (Deutsch-Nationale Volkspartei, or German
National People’s Party) and regional farmers’ parties had been
dominant in the 1920s and early 1930s. 20 In the regional elections
in 1946 it received 30.6 per cent of the Brandenburg vote compared to only 24.6 per cent in the SBZ as a whole. 21
But these election results, however interesting in their own right,
do not fully capture the political landscape in the villages of the
SBZ. For one thing, after the war the communists were confronted
with the daunting task of trying to ‘re-educate’ the many smalland mid-sized farmers who had been ardent Nazis. There were
numerous villages in which 95 per cent and even 100 per cent
of the farmers had been members of the NSDAP, among them
also land-poor and landless farmers applying for plots.22 Communist functionaries sent into the countryside from Berlin frequently
reported of the ‘downright catastrophic political situation among
the rural populace’, of ‘widespread reactionary and Nazi attitudes’
and of a general atmosphere of rejection and hostility.23 More importantly, whatever the short-term political credit the SED extracted
from the land reform, it was not long before the good feelings
about it dissipated.
The new farmers, around one quarter of them trying their hand
at farming for the first time, suffered particularly from the economic chaos and shortages in the countryside, above all from the
lack of farm labour. Most small and mid-level male farmers had
been drafted into the army and many were not able to return home
immediately after the cessation of fighting. In May 1946 there were
still only 100 men to 170 women in the Provinz Brandenburg as a
whole, and in the countryside the ratio was even lower. Of the
approximately 620 000 refugees who had reached Brandenburg by

26

Constructing Socialism at the Gross-Roots

the summer of 1946, most of whom were housed in rural areas,
only 20 per cent were men capable of physical work.24 Thus a high
proportion of farmers in Brandenburg, and especially new farmers,
were women, many of them without their menfolk or adequate
help on the farm.25 The Polish and Russian forced labourers who
had kept the farms going during the war had already left for home
in their thousands in the summer of 1945, many of them further
compounding the problems in the East German countryside by looting
villages and taking livestock on the way. 26 Because of the general
shortage of seed and fertilizer, even when the new farmers managed to get livestock they often had to sell the animals again because
they were not able to produce enough to feed them through the
winter.27 The rapid break-up of the large estates also meant that
many of the new farmers’ plots had no houses, barns or machinery. Circumstances were particularly bad in the eastern areas of
Brandenburg, where large swathes of countryside had been destroyed
during the Red Army’s drive for Berlin. While roughly 9 per cent
of the houses and flats registered in Brandenburg in 1939 had been
damaged and 20 per cent destroyed, in some eastern Kreise the scope
of destruction was well over 30 per cent, in Kreis Lebus even 44
per cent.28 What little accommodation that could be found for the
new farmers was often extremely rudimentary; some even resorted
to making huts out of clay and any other discarded material they
could find.29 Requests for aid sent by new farmers to the state administration and mass organizations portray the conditions in the
new settlements in the starkest of terms. One such request from a
new farmer in Altzechdorf, Kreis Lebus, speaks of a profound sense
of ‘despair’ (Mutlosigkeit), of children without milk living merely
on potatoes and salt and of women pulling farm machinery because no draft animals were available.30
Much of this could not be helped given the destruction and massive
population movements resulting from the war. But in a number of
ways Soviet actions only worsened the new farmers’ problems, and
in the process turned many formerly sympathetic refugees and farmhands against the occupation forces that had been so instrumental
in giving them land. The insistence on the break-up of the large
estates, against the arguments of many Soviet requisitions officers
and German communists, inevitably led to a decrease in agricultural productivity, which the Soviet reparations brigades in turn
only exacerbated by hauling off what little chemical fertilizer and
farm machinery that was left in the countryside. The forced requi-

The Land Reform and its Effects

27

sitioning of grain and animal products by the Soviets also embittered German farmers, who were occasionally forced to thresh wheat
when they should have been harvesting potatoes, to turn over valuable
bread grains in order to fulfil their feed grain quotas or in some
cases even to slaughter breeding cattle to fulfil meat quotas. 31 Delivery quotas often seemed to take little account of soil or weather
conditions such as the floods on the Oder in 1946 or the droughts
of 1947 and 1948, and, given the stiff penalties for failure to fulfil
them, were a source of profound bitterness and constant complaint.32
Corruption and abuses by local commandants were rife, and to make
matters even worse, the Soviet authorities were unable to keep their
own soldiers from regularly raiding chicken coops and curing-houses.33
The German authorities, for their part, were in little doubt about
the direct connection between Soviet requisitioning and the everincreasing numbers of new farmers abandoning their plots. In its
1946 year-end report, the German Administration for Agriculture
and Forestry complained that, ‘through the actions of the commandants of the Red Army, who have undertaken mass penalties
and incarcerations of new farmers without regard to the actual circumstances, a situation has emerged which places the very livelihood
of the new farmers in question . . . A portion of the flight from the
fields is due to the actions of the agencies of the Red Army in
charge of requisitioning’. But as the report goes on to note, the
German authorities were of little help to the new farmers, and by
and large failed to confront the Soviets on the issue: ‘It is noteworthy that the entire German administration from the provincial
administration down to the Bürgermeister puts up no resistance to
the harmful manner of enforcement of the orders of the occupation agencies, but rather carries out all of these orders to the letter
and without any objection whatsoever’.34
In some villages the local German authorities were themselves
part of the new farmers’ problems, and the fact that most positions in the state structure were filled by SED members hardly
gravitated in the party’s favour. The countless complaints among
the upper echelons of the SED of incompetence, corruption and
inappropriate behaviour on the part of local officials highlight how
tenuous was the control of the central authorities at the local level
during these early years. It was difficult to train new cadre, and in
the meantime the party had to make do with the material at hand
– the occasional respected village leader, the scoundrel feathering
his own nest and that of friends and relatives, and the hundreds of

28

Constructing Socialism at the Gross-Roots

‘little Stalins’ keen to exert their new authority. In Batzlow, Kreis
Bad Freienwalde, the SED Bürgermeister Böhm and his wife reportedly ruled the village as miniature ‘dictators’, alienating the other
villagers from the SED. According to a SED instructor’s report: ‘Because B. threatened to have the villagers “locked up” every time he
wanted to push something through, the complainants sought protection and found their way to the CDU, which wanted to help
them. This development was confirmed to me on 17 January by
the local councillor Herr Dr. Althoff of the CDU. He told me verbatim: “Herr Jahnke, believe me, it is thanks to the SED mayor Böhm
that the CDU has a local group here” ’.35 Overzealous officials were,
however, far less common than corrupt ones. Among the many
problematic villages was Löwenbruch, Kreis Teltow, where the SED
mayor Scheu, a new farmer, was neither immune to corruption nor
much of a socialist. According to a SED instructor’s report, Scheu
had apparently managed to procure for himself enough lime and
cement (again, both in desperately short supply) to repair his livestock stalls to a condition better than that of most houses in the
village. When asked by party instructors where he had acquired it
and why he had not allocated it for housing repairs, he merely
responded that he had ‘got the lime and cement himself’. Scheu
was also farming six acres which he had registered as Neuland (previously uncultivated land, for which there was no delivery quota)
that the other farmers in the village swore had been cultivated for
at least 30 years. To make matters worse for the SED in Löwenbruch,
the local party chairman, Herr Gotsch, was even less respected than
the mayor. Gotsch was not only farming four acres of bogus ‘Neuland’
himself, but had also already been fined DM 300 for illegal distilling, had been the subject of a police search for stolen geese and
was currently suspected of illegal slaughtering. The result of such
behaviour on the part of SED functionaries was typical: nine of the
27 village party members left the party. As the report succinctly
notes, ‘The CDU has the majority in the village. When functionaries of this sort are active, the regrettable decline is understandable’.36
Although a particularly bad case, Löwenbruch was not a spectacular exception in terms of the immense personnel problems
the SED faced in building up its grass-roots organization in the
countryside during the years following the war. As late as 1949 the
SED Kreisvorstand in Oberbarnim complained that: ‘The greatest
weaknesses are presented by the insufficient ideological clarity of
the functionaries. This is the case in general in the entire party

The Land Reform and its Effects

29

organization . . . From time to time it is hardly possible to find functionaries who are in a position to perform the functions conferred
upon them’.37 While the problem in many villages consisted of finding
enough interested persons, in others it consisted rather of keeping
out political trimmers, drunks (generally referred to in the reports
as ‘morally depraved elements’) and other characters with questionable intentions. A report on the collapse of the local SED group
in Görlsdorf, Kreis Angermünde, illustrates just how difficult this
could be:
The local group in Görlsdorf, which from the beginning was a
rather small one because the overwhelming majority of the populace supports the CDU, had in fact essentially fallen apart. After
committing a number of thefts, the chairman of the local group
disappeared to the West and took all of the party files and catalogue cards with him. We next tried to set up the local group
again via the shop-group Landesgestüt Görlsdorf. This seemed
to be crowned with success at first, but as it transpired the chairman
of the shop-group was also involved in a corruption affair and
the shop-group has also fallen apart.
In the end it was decided that the nine remaining members in the
village be placed provisionally under the special supervision of the
Kreisvorstand. 38
Given this backdrop it is little wonder that the SED was widely
perceived as corrupt in the countryside, much as the NSDAP previously. Little wonder as well that by 1947 at the latest, many
new farmers felt forgotten and left in the lurch by the Soviet and
German communists who had promised them so much in 1945.
Returning from a trip to Kremmen, a SED functionary in Berlin
reported that
All [of the new farmers] make no bones about their dissatisfaction. They showed me their houses, and I must say that I can
understand their dissatisfaction . . . They pointed out that their
potatoes and turnips had frozen, but that the nearby distillery is
constantly making schnapps and that there must be potatoes
there. There isn’t enough feed for the livestock . . . All in all they
are very disappointed with the land reform, they had pictured it
much better to themselves. The discussions culminated in their
blaming the Russians for everything. 39

30

Constructing Socialism at the Gross-Roots

Yet the SED came in for its own share of the blame as well. As one
Brandenburg farmer put it in a letter to the Central Committee,
‘One can only be amazed that the new farmer can muster up the
energy to stick at it. But that is because from time to time a party
functionary appears in the villages and encourages him to do it.
Promises are made that remain only empty phrases, because for
the most part the new farmers’ situation does not improve. How
long will things go on like this? he asks himself’.40 By the time the
GDR was founded in 1949, thousands of new farmers in the SBZ
had already stopped asking themselves this question and left their
small, unviable plots untilled, many of them to engage in more
profitable black market activity. 41

The new village elite and the path to collectivization:
the Großbauern
The upshot of these various problems associated with the land reform was that, contrary to all intentions, it effectively benefitted
the old farmers, especially the powerful Großbauern, more than the
new farmers. The old farmers largely controlled the local VdgB
executives. In November 1948 there were 6179 established farmers
compared to only 4476 new farmers on the local executives in
Brandenburg. Moreover, the economic strength of the Großbauern
had escaped the land reform essentially unscathed, and to a certain extent was even augmented by the dissolution of the aristocratic
estates. Many possessed relatively large livestock herds and the
majority were well-equipped with outbuildings, tractors and other
agricultural machinery. Most therefore had little trouble producing
‘freie Spitzen’ in excess of their compulsory delivery quotas which
they could sell at higher market prices. Furthermore, because many
of the smaller farmers were still dependent on them for machinery
and storage space, Großbauern were able to achieve a considerable
addition to their incomes through lending out buildings and
equipment. While the small new farms created by the land reform
were struggling to make ends meet, and while thousands of refugees
from the former eastern territories were still living in miserable
conditions on makeshift settlements or in lice-ridden barns, most
Großbauern were able to secure a comfortable income and if anything were getting richer. Worst of all from the perspective of the
SED leadership, the unpopularity of Soviet requisitioning and the
many cases of corruption and misuse of office by local SED officials
were enhancing the big farmers’ political influence in the villages

The Land Reform and its Effects

31

by driving many formerly sympathetic farm labourers and refugees
into the arms of the Großbauer-dominated CDU or the church. The
introduction of the DBD (Demokratische Bauernpartei, or Democratic
Farmers’ Party) in the spring of 1948 did little to dilute the influence of either in the countryside, and even the carefully controlled
VdgB elections in the spring of 1949, accompanied by a massive
campaign against the Großbauern, only achieved a 12 per cent decrease in the number of positions they held on the local VdgB
councils in Brandenburg. 42
By this time it was clear that the land reform had crippled agricultural production and hampered the economic recovery in the
SBZ. Even many higher SED agricultural functionaries had begun
to think that it had been managed poorly.43 But rather than admitting their mistakes and policy shortcomings, the Soviets and SED
blamed others instead. The Großbauern were the obvious scapegoats,
and in 1948 and 1949 the ‘class struggle in the countryside’ was
extended beyond the large landholders to include them as well.
This campaign consisted of a number of measures designed to weaken
the political and economic power of the large farmers (who were
now redefined from anyone possessing more than 50 hectares to
anyone with more than 20 hectares of land) and to drive a wedge
between them and their poorer neighbours. Taxes and delivery quotas
were differentiated more stringently according to farm sizes in 1948
and 1949, Großbauern were forced to pay higher fees for equipment
and spare parts and were also only allowed to borrow equipment
at the MAS after all other classes of farmers had done so. 44 When
the compulsory delivery quotas for large farms were once again
increased in the early 1950s, the economic burden for many became unsustainable as debts mounted and net profits dropped. To
make matters worse, anyone not fulfilling his or her quota ran the
risk of being accused of ‘sabotage’ and arrested. 45
All of this contributed to a steadily increasing number of big
farmers simply giving up their farms, many of them leaving for
the West. From 1950 to 1952, a total of 5000 Großbauern in the
GDR abandoned their farms, which amounted to approximately 10
per cent of all agricultural enterprises between 20 and 100 hectares
in size. Thousands of small- and mid-sized farmers also fled the
burdens of increasing quotas. 46 This of course entailed a further
decrease in agricultural production, and in order to counter the
losses the state began in 1951 to confiscate abandoned farms and
hand them over to small farmers or to the state-run VEGs. This
process was given added impetus in March 1952 when the defini-

32

Constructing Socialism at the Gross-Roots

tion of ‘devastated’ farms was extended to include not only those
abandoned by their owners, but also those with exceptionally low
production levels. 47 Yet it was still difficult to maintain production
levels as the overall shortage of labour in agriculture did not allow
for efficient usage of the abandoned and confiscated land.48 And
despite the weakening of the economies of the Großbauern via punitive taxes and discrimination at the MAS, the fact remained that
without an all-out attack their influence would continue to be felt
in the villages.
It was in this context of a looming agrarian crisis that the SED
leadership announced the formation of collective farms, or ‘agricultural production cooperatives’ (Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsgenossenschaften, or LPGs) at the Second Party Conference in July
1952. The new LPGs were to fall under three separate categories
ranging from Type I, in which only land was tilled and equipment
used collectively, to Type III, in which everything including land
and machinery was used and owned collectively. Although a small
number of LPGs had already been established earlier that year, the
sudden move to agricultural collectivization caught many farmers
by surprise. Only seven months earlier, at the Third German Farmers’
Congress in December 1951, Grotewohl himself had stuck to the
position maintained by the SED since 1945, proclaiming that the
government still had no intention of collectivizing agriculture in
the GDR.49 Whether or not this assurance was given in good faith
at the time, in the summer of 1952 the government made its new
intentions known in no uncertain terms. A mass publicity campaign
was launched in support of the formation of LPGs and on 24 July
the Council of Ministers decreed a package of tax-breaks and lower
delivery quotas for anyone who joined them. The ‘construction of
socialism’ in the GDR meant collectivization for farmers.

3
Recasting the Factories after
the War

At the end of the war East Germany was a shambles. Food and fuel
were scarce, and much of its housing had been either destroyed or
seriously damaged by Allied bombing. A large proportion of its
infrastructure and industrial stock had also been destroyed, and
much of what was left was either worn out from around-the-clock
war production or being dismantled and hauled off to the Soviet
Union as reparations. It was clear from the outset that reviving
industrial production was a must for both the German and, perhaps more importantly, for the Soviet economy. However, the Soviets
and German authorities were finding it hard enough simply to feed,
clothe and house the civilian populace, and there were precious
few resources left over for investing in new industrial stock. Further
hampering economic recovery in the zone were the dire supply
problems resulting from the zonal division of Germany and the
policy of reparations in kind from running production. The expropriation of large factory owners and the creation of ‘Soviet Joint
Stock Companies’ (SAGs) and ‘People’s Own Enterprises’ (VEBs) may
have succeeded in revolutionizing patterns of industrial ownership
in the Soviet Zone, destroying the economic foundations of bourgeois power and securing production for key Soviet needs, but it
did little to improve the health of the economy. Productivity gains
would initially have to come from the workers themselves.
Towards this end, the solutions devised by the Soviets and German communists all ran in the same basic direction. The self-defensive
inclinations of the industrial workforce under capitalism had to be
overcome through the introduction of a new culture of work and
new structures of authority in the factories, most of them imported
from the Soviet Union. This had both ideological as well as economic
33

34

Constructing Socialism at the Grass-Roots

aspects. It was not merely a matter of creating new material incentives geared towards enhancing productivity and work-discipline.
There was also the broader attempt to secure the political loyalty
of the industrial workforce, to transform them into ‘socialist personalities’ and mobilize them via various forms of ‘socio-political
activity’ (gesellschaftspolitische Tätigkeit). To be sure, the idea of building
a socialist future was attractive to many Germans after the horrors
of the war, the experiences of mass unemployment during the Weimar
years and the heavy-handed labour relations under the Nazis. But
under the circumstances of acute material deprivation, it was asking a lot of industrial workers’ ‘class consciousness’ to work harder
in the here and now for an occupying power that removed the
country’s wealth and for an uncertain future that still existed only
in the promises of communist political leaders. And combined with
the unorthodox opinions and self-interested behaviour of many local
functionaries and factory managers, workers’ aversion towards both
the ever-increasing regimentation of work as well as the constant
efforts to mobilize them resisted and refracted the SED’s attempts
to transform and gain control of the industrial shopfloor.

The problem of productivity and the effects of Order 234
Though the goal of winning the hearts and minds of industrial
workers was never entirely disregarded, given the state of the zone
after the war purely material considerations were the most pressing
at first. Despite the widespread destruction in eastern Germany, it
was generally assumed that the SBZ had certain advantages over
other areas of Soviet-occupied Europe. Not only was it a highly
industrialized region, it also possessed a highly skilled workforce
blessed by the traditional ‘German’ virtues of diligence and discipline, an image widespread in the Soviet Union itself. Whatever
the truth or otherwise of this picture for the period before 1945,
the orientation and behaviour of German workers was a far cry
from this ideal under the impact of post-war deprivation and the
Soviet plundering of German industry. In the years following the
war, discipline was lax and productivity well under half its prewar
level. This had less to do with any conscious opposition to Soviet
occupation or labour policies than with more basic problems, foremost among them sheer hunger. The average daily caloric intake
of manual labourers hovered at around 65 per cent of the recommended daily requirement during the first two years after the

Recasting the Factories after the War 35

war, increasing only gradually in the two years that followed.1 This
not only sapped workers of much of their strength, it also led to
high rates of absenteeism through illness. To make matters worse,
the lack of goods available for purchase rendered monetary wages
rather ineffective as a means of raising productivity or labour discipline. Under the circumstances, it was often far more profitable for
workers to spend several hours trading on the black-market or several days roaming the countryside for food than to go to work, let
alone to be more productive. A group of East Berlin workers explained to a SED functionary ‘that they have no desire to work
under the current circumstances. If they go foraging (hamstern) merely
once a month they have more than if they worked the entire month’.2
Getting workers to be more productive was thus only part of the
problem. As the economic impact of dismantling, reparations and
the land reform sent workers’ morale spiralling during the excessively harsh winter of 1946–47, rates of absenteeism soared out of
control, even surpassing 20 per cent in such basic industries as
coal, machine building and metallurgy. Soviet data from the summer of 1947 reported absentee rates of 24 per cent in factories working
for reparations, 14 per cent in the SAGs and 19 per cent in factories producing for domestic consumption.3 During the initial years
after the war much of the problem was to get workers to show up
at all. But even when they did show up, the deleterious effects of
hunger and the lack of a wage incentive (coupled, of course, with
factory damage and shortages in supply) meant that worker productivity was still some 50–70 per cent below the pre-war level. By
1947 at the latest the initial Soviet image of the legendary German
work ethic had all but completely dissolved. Up until then they
had been too busy with the land reform, the expropriation of industry and the SED merger to do much about it, but all of this
began to change with the downturn in East–West relations. By 1947
it looked as if the SBZ might remain in the Soviet orbit for some
time to come and that some form of economic integration into the
‘socialist camp’ therefore seemed necessary.
Basically, the answer to the productivity and indiscipline impasse
was to transfer Soviet-style labour relations to the factories of the
SBZ. The main tool used to accomplish this was SMAD Order 234
on ‘Further Measures for Increasing Work-Productivity and for the
Further Improvement of the Material Situation of Workers and
Angestellte’, commonly referred to as the Aufbaubefehl (construction
order). The purpose of the order and the reasoning behind it were

36

Constructing Socialism at the Grass-Roots

clear in its preamble: ‘The increase of work-productivity and the
conscious unfolding of the independent initiative of the workers
for the economic upswing in the SBZ presently comprises the main
link in the economic system and the key to solving all other economic problems’.4 It called for a range of social measures to address
the most immediate needs of workers, such as improved housing,
better wages for women, factory clinics and industrial safety. But
the principle aim of Order 234 was to get workers to produce more,
and towards this end it established a set of incentives to improve
productivity in key enterprises (especially coal, steel and machine
building) such as differential wages, promises of clothing, shoes and
a hot lunch above and beyond one’s rations, accompanied by various sanctions aimed to punish unexcused absenteeism and so-called
‘slackers’ such as the withdrawal of ration cards or deployment for
rubble-clearing at bomb sites.5 Soviet-style ‘socialist competitions’
were also to be employed as a means of raising production, and
those workers who performed best were to be honoured as ‘activists’ and also receive monetary awards. Most important of all, it
called for the reintroduction of piecework-wages and other forms
of productivity-enhancing remuneration throughout industry.
It was one thing to decide to raise factory discipline, but it was
quite another to put these new measures into practice. The actual
implementation of Order 234 ran into a host of problems right
from the start, including such technical problems as confusion over
who was responsible for administering the measures, managers drowning in a ‘flood’ of uncoordinated questionnaires, inability to assess
progress at the centre, etc.6 But the greater problem, and one which
promised further difficulties in the future, was the icy reception
that met it on the shopfloor.
The idea of raising work discipline and productivity in the current material circumstances of the SBZ understandably found little
resonance among the bulk of workers with far more immediate
concerns. Reports clearly showed that raising work-productivity was
the last thing on most workers’ minds at the time: ‘The discussion
[at employee assemblies] revolved first and foremost around the
question of provision with potatoes, which was undoubtedly one
of the primary concerns of the workers. The provision of workclothing, durable shoes as well as the necessary material for repairs,
bicycles and tires for them . . . these were the main features of the
discussions. The attendence rates at the assemblies can be estimated

Recasting the Factories after the War

37

at 40 to 50 per cent at best, only a few could report attendence
rates of 60 to 70 per cent’.7 Although FDGB chairman Herbert Warnke
himself addressed the employee meeting at the Rüdersdorfer
Kalkwerke, still only around 40 per cent of the workers showed up,
and even among them ‘one sensed at first a kind of passive resistance (passiven Widerstand)’.8
Another hindrance to the ‘positive’ reception of Order 234 in
the factories was the unique culture of work that had developed in
the factories after the war. The widespread hunger and deprivation
– the same things that made increasing industrial production so
imperative – had produced a kind of ‘Notgemeinschaft’, a heightened sense of solidarity and mutual assistance on the shopfloor.
This ‘Gleichmacherei’, as frustrated economic officials called it, was
not so much a romantic holdover of self-defensive egalitarianism
under capitalism as it was a logical response to the challenges of
survival after the war. The idea of individual workers being singled
out of the ranks for extra pay, food and other benefits offended
this cooperative ethic.
What is more, although the older independent workers’ organizations were precluded from organizing after the war, the Betriebsräte,
or shop councils, that supervised production in many factories across
the GDR proved a significant hindrance to raising work-productivity. 9 Up until 1947 they were grudgingly tolerated by the Soviet
authorities so long as they were useful in helping to expropriate
ex-Nazis and keep production running. But it was simply not realistic to expect shop councils comprised overwhelmingly of Social
Democratic and Communist workers to implement differential pay
rates and other means of increasing labour discipline that they had
opposed for decades. Getting rid of piecework, punch clocks and
other instruments of work acceleration from the capitalist past was
in fact one of the first things many had done after the war.10 Whereas
80 per cent of German workers had been on piecework wages before 1945, by 1947 the number had decreased to merely 25 per
cent.11 Reversing this trend fuelled feelings of exploitation, no longer
at the hands of capitalist entrepreneurs, but at the hands of the
Soviet authorities. Despite the official SED argument that piecework
and wage differentials were not the same in a ‘democratic economy’
as in a capitalist system ‘because the piecework system can no longer
be used as a means of exploiting the workforce and because the
increase in production that is its aim will be used for the benefit of

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Constructing Socialism at the Grass-Roots

all’, workers remained sceptical. Demands such as ‘Let’s eat first,
then we’ll produce’ were common; even the old working-class slogan
‘Akkord ist Mord’, or ‘piecework is murder’ was resurrected.12
Viewed in purely economic terms, the Soviet insistence on raising productivity was quite correct, and might have been more
convincing under different circumstances. But it was introduced into
a broader political context that prompted widespread resentment
and gravitated a