Resistance and Opposition in the GDR

East German Military Parade

Peter Turnley /Corbis Historical/ Getty Images

Even though the authoritarian regime of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) lasted for 50 years, there had always been resistance and opposition. In fact, the history of socialist Germany started out with an act of resistance. In 1953, only four years after its creation, the Soviet Occupiers were forced to take back control over the country. In the Uprising of June 17th, thousands of workers and farmers put down their tools in protest of new regulations.

In some towns, they violently drove the municipal leaders from their offices and basically ended the local reign of the “Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands” (SED), the GDR’s single ruling party. But not for long. In the larger cities, such as Dresden, Leipzig, and East-Berlin, large strikes took place and workers assembled for protest marches. The Government of the GDR even took refuge to the Soviet Headquarters. Then, the Soviet Representatives had enough and sent in the military. The troops quickly suppressed the uprising by brutal force and restored the SED Order. And despite the dawn of the GDR was coined by this civil uprising and despite there always being some kind of opposition, it took more than 20 years, for the Eastern German Opposition to take a clearer form.

Years of Opposition

The year 1976 turned out to be a crucial one for the opposition in the GDR. A dramatic incident awoke a new wave of resistance. In protest against the atheist education of the country’s youth and their oppression by the SED, a priest took to drastic measures. He set himself on fire and later died of his injuries. His actions forced the protestant church in the GDR to re-evaluate its attitude towards the authoritarian state. The regime’s attempts to play down the priest’s acts triggered even more defiance in the population.

Another singular but influential event was the expatriation of the GDR-Songwriter Wolf Biermann. He was very famous and well-liked both German countries, but had been forbidden to perform due to his criticism of the SED and its policies. His lyrics kept being distributed in the underground and he became a central spokesperson for the opposition in the GDR. As he was allowed to play in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), the SED took the opportunity to revoke his citizenship. The regime thought that it had gotten rid of a problem, but it was deeply wrong. Numerous other artists voiced their protest in light of the expatriation of Wolf Biermann and were joined by a lot more people from all social classes. In the end, the affair led to an exodus of important artists, heavily damaging the GDR’s cultural life and reputation.

Another influential personality of the peaceful resistance was the author Robert Havemann. Being freed from death row by the Soviets in 1945, at first, he was a strong supporter and even a member of the socialist SED. But the longer he lived in the GDR, the more he felt the discrepancy between the SED’s real politics and his personal convictions. He believed, that everyone should have the right to his own educated opinion and proposed a “democratic socialism”. These views got him expelled from the party and his ongoing opposition brought him a string of intensifying punishments. He was one of the strongest critics of Biermann’s expatriation and on top of criticizing the SED’s version of socialism, he was an integral part of the independent peace movement in the GDR.

A Struggle for Freedom, Peace, and the Environment

As the Cold War heated up at the beginning of the 1980s, the peace movement grew in both German Republics. In the GDR, this meant not only fighting for peace but also opposing the government. From 1978 on, the regime aimed at completely imbue the society with militarism. Even kindergarten teachers were instructed to educate the children in vigilance and to prepare them for a possible war. The Eastern German peace movement, that now also incorporated the protestant church, joined forces with the environmental and anti-nuclear movement. The common enemy for all of these opposing forces was the SED and its oppressive regime. Sparked by singular events and people, the opposing resistance movement created an atmosphere that paved the way for the peaceful revolution of 1989.

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Schmitz, Michael. "Resistance and Opposition in the GDR." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Schmitz, Michael. (2020, August 27). Resistance and Opposition in the GDR. Retrieved from Schmitz, Michael. "Resistance and Opposition in the GDR." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).