May 30th

On this day in 1949, the East German Constitution is approved.

Following WWII, Germany had been divided, with the west being controlled by France, Great Britain and the USA, and the USSR taking control of the east which came to be known as the German Democratic Republic, with it’s capital of East Berlin, with the famous ‘Berlin Wall’ yet to be raised.

2000px-Berlin_Blockade-map.svg.pngA Map of a divided Germany.

The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was founded in 1949 and was absorbed into the Federal Republic of Germany on 3 October 1990. Its original constitution was promulgated on 7 October 1949. It was heavily based on the “Weimarer Reichsverfassung”, (Weimar Constitution) such that the GDR would be a federal and democratic republic. Because the original version did not accurately reflect the actual political climate of the GDR, it was decided in 1968 to replace the old constitution with a new version.

The first constitution of the GDR was proclaimed on 7 October 1949, based largely on a draft prepared by the Socialist Unity Party (SED) in September 1946. The 1949 constitution was intended for a united Germany and may have been written before the Soviet Union had irrevocably decided to establish a separate socialist republic in its zone of occupation. The constitution both resembled and differed from Western parliamentary democracies in various respects. With regard to state organization, the 1949 constitution resembled, at least superficially, the Basic Law (Grundgesetz) of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). As in other parliamentary-democratic systems, provision was also made for two legislative assemblies, the States Chamber (Länderkammer) and the People’s Chamber (Volkskammer), and the election of a prime minister (Ministerpräsident) by the party with the largest mandate in the People’s Chamber. The president of the GDR, like his Western counterpart, had a very limited role and was removable by a joint two-thirds majority vote in both houses.

Lawmaking was essentially the job of the Volkskammer rather than the Länderkammer, but the latter could propose draft laws to the former. The legislative process also exhibited important differences from the West German model; the East German upper house, the Länderkammer, for example, which represented the interests of the individual states, occupied a much weaker position than its West German counterpart. The Volkskammer was constitutionally defined as the highest organ of state power. Article 51 stated that the members of the Volkskammer were to be elected in universal, equal, and secret elections based on the relative majority principle. Another important difference concerned the role of political parties in the government. According to Article 92, parties with at least 40 seats in the Volkskammer, which then had a total of 400 members, had the right to representation in the government. This policy was consistent with the SED’s Marxist Alliance Policy, which stipulated that in order to achieve its aims, the party of the working class must initially work with and through other parties. It also ensured that if the SED was ever demoted to a minority position, its continued influence in the government would be safeguarded if it maintained a minimum of 40 seats. A set of basic human rights, including the right to strike (Article 14) and to emigrate (Article 10) retained features of a liberal Rechtsstaat and formally guaranteed that sovereignty would remain vested in the people.

The 1949 constitution was a compromise; it could have served either as a basis for building a socialist (and eventually Communist) society or as the basis for a democratic all-German republic. Critics have pointed out that the absence of a genuinely independent constitutional judiciary (since it and all other governmental organs were subordinated to the Volkshammer) rendered the document virtually meaningless, however. As time progressed, the authorities ignored most of its formal provisions and permitted the emergence of a centralised political order similar to that of other Communist countries, in which the state bodies did little more than rubber-stamp decisions already made by the SED and its Politburo.

Several important amendments were made at the initiative of the SED in the eighteen years in which the constitution was in force. An amendment of August 1950 eliminated state parliaments and called for the election of parliamentary deputies through the creation of a joint platform and lists organised by the National Front, the SED-dominated umbrella organisation of all political parties and mass organisations. A 1952 decision replaced the five states (Länder) with fifteen administrative districts (Bezirke) that were tied more directly to the central government. (The United States, Britain, and France never recognised East Berlin as a Bezirk of the GDR.) This step effectively neutered the Länderkammer, and formed the basis for its formal dissolution by constitutional amendment in December 1958. A series of amendments known as the Law Toward the Completion of the Constitution were passed by the People’s Chamber in March 1954, when the country was formally granted sovereignty by the Soviet Union. These amendments delineated the features of the country’s new sovereignty and a formal military structure, which prepared the ground for the obligatory military service clause of 1955. Finally, upon the death of President Wilhelm Pieck on 7 September 1960, a constitutional amendment of 12 September 1960 replaced the office of President with the Council of State (Staatsrat der DDR); Walter Ulbricht became its first chairman. The same constitutional amendment also acknowledged the role of the recently formed National Defense Council of the GDR (Nationale Verteidigungsrat der DDR) in GDR defense policy.

270px-DDR-Verfassungsentwurf-1949.pngThe Constitution of the German Democratic Republic

It came to be an Eastern Bloc state for the USSR during the Cold War from 1949-1990, administered the region of Germany that was occupied by Soviet forces at the end of World War II—the Soviet Occupation Zone of the Potsdam Agreement, bounded on the east by the Oder–Neisse line. The Soviet zone surrounded West Berlin, but did not include it; as a result, West Berlin remained outside the jurisdiction of the GDR. The German Democratic Republic was established in the Soviet Zone, while the Federal Republic was established in the three western zones. East Germany, which lies culturally in Central Germany, was a satellite state of the Soviet Union.

Soviet forces, however, remained in the country throughout the Cold War. Until 1989, the GDR was governed by the Socialist Unity Party (SED), though other parties nominally participated in its alliance organisation, the National Front of Democratic Germany.

The economy was centrally planned, and increasingly state-owned. Prices of basic goods and services were set by central government planners, rather than rising and falling through supply and demand. Although the GDR had to pay substantial war reparations to the USSR, it became the most successful economy in the Eastern Bloc. Nonetheless it did not match the economic growth of West Germany. Emigration to the West was a significant problem—as many of the emigrants were well-educated young people, it further weakened the state economically. The government fortified its western borders and, in 1961, built the Berlin Wall. Many people attempting to flee were killed by border guards or booby traps, such as landmines.

In 1989, numerous social and political forces in the GDR and abroad led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the establishment of a government committed to liberalization. The following year open elections were held, and international negotiations led to the signing of the Final Settlement treaty on the status and borders of Germany. The GDR was dissolved and Germany was unified on 3 October 1990, becoming a fully sovereign state again.

east-german-citizens-climb-the-berlin-wall-at-the-brandenburg-gate-as-they-celebrate-the-opening-of-the-east-german-border-november-10-1989-reutersfileAn image of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989

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