Was East Germany Ever Really a Country: Thoughts on the Problem of Sovereignty


Today in 1955, East Germany became a sovereign country. Officially sovereign according to the Soviet Union that is. At that time, the German Democratic Republic was still occupied by the Red Army, its capital city of East Berlin remained legally under the control of a council of the four Allied powers, and as a state it was only recognized by the USSR, fellow Eastern Bloc countries, and Yugoslavia. So was it a sovereign country or not?

Whether or not a country exists is a deceptively simple problem. When you look at the map of the world, at first glance it seems to be neatly divided into clear and distinct sovereign units. Yet, there are six United Nations member countries that are not recognized by at least one other UN member nation and at least ten other entities that claim to be sovereign countries that lack widespread recognition. Not to mention more than 150 border disputes

Although it was founded in 1949, only twenty years later in 1969 was East Germany first recognized by a non-socialist country and it did not gain universal diplomatic relations around the globe until 1975 after the signing of the Helsinki Accords. While the GDR, along with West Germany, was able to join the United Nations in 1973, it was not until the 2+4 Agreement, signed on September 12, 1990 that the Allies officially relinquished their rights over German territory. Before it actually came to force, on this day in 1990, the East German Volkskammer voted 299-80 in favour of the Unification Treaty with the Federal Republic of Germany. Before the GDR could attain full sovereignty, its representatives voted it out of existence.


East German flag flying at the UN in 1973

The strange history of East Germany and its almost perpetual quasi-sovereign status highlights just how important a wide variety of symbols and markers are in determining if we perceive a country to exist. As Frank Zappa so eloquently put it:

“You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline – it helps if you have some kind of football team, or some nuclear weapons, but in the very least you need a beer.”


No shortage of East German beers.

If we use the Zappa test, the German Democratic Republic was certainly a country – no nuclear weapons of their own, but plenty of domestically produced beer. The GDR was accepted as a full member of FIFA in 1952 so that covers the football team side of things. Deutsche Lufthansa was re-founded in East Germany in 1955 to provide civilian air travel. Intellectual property issues forced the GDR to abandon the name eventually and Interflug arose in its place in 1958. So at a minimum, at least Frank Zappa probably thought that East Germany was a real country.


But as we go through all of the various symbolic and institutional markers that demonstrate that a country really is a country, it gets harder to find a clear line past which East Germany can really be said to exist.

In terms of state symbols, the GDR had its own national anthem, Risen from the Ashes, beginning with the country’s founding in October 1949, but did not have its own flag until years later. For the first decade of its existence, East and West Germany shared an identical black, red, gold tricolour flag as the hammer and compass crest was added on in the GDR only in 1959.


The new GDR flag in public in 1959

But what about controlling borders and immigration – a central question of sovereignty as we have heard so much in ongoing debates about the refugee crisis and Brexit. East Germany certainly was unable to control its own borders in the 1950s when mass emigration nearly led to the collapse of the country. If sovereignty equals border and migration control, then the GDR was one of the most sovereign countries on the planet from the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 up until November 9, 1989.

Some trappings of sovereignty did not appear until the late 1960s: East Germany may have been recognized by FIFA, but following the lead of the UN, the International Olympic Committee refused to accept the division of Germany in immediate post-war era. The IOC was concerned that recognizing the division of Germany could exacerbate international tensions – a problem that FIFA has never really been worried about. East and West Germans actually competed for several years as a joint team with the Olympic rings on a black, red, gold as their flag. It was not until the Winter Games at Grenoble in 1968 that the East Germans competed independently for the first time.


Joint East-West German Olympic team

East Germany had its own money, but here too it was a slow evolution towards a national currency. Initially in the Soviet Zone of Occupation, old Reichsmarks with stickers affixed to them were used as the official currency. After that they introduced the Deutsche Mark der Deutschen Notenbank, which lasted from 1948 to 1964 when it was replaced by the Mark der Deutschen Notenbank. Only in 1968 was East German money labelled with a specific national marker becoming the Mark der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik.


Reichsbanknote from Soviet Occupied Germany updated with a 1948 sticker

Following the Soviet declaration of sovereignty in 1955, East Germany set out to rebuild the military, creating the National People’s Army (NVA).  The one time the NVA planned to deploy for combat it was, however, vetoed by the USSR. When Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviets feared that Germans troops in the streets of Prague would be a terrible PR move and the NVA was told to stand down at the border.

Since Berlin as a whole was technically under four-power occupation, the annexation of East Berlin into the GDR tool place slowly over the years even though it was the capital city. Citizens of East Berlin were only issued with GDR personal IDs beginning in 1953. It took the building of the Berlin Wall for East Berlin to become one of the Districts (Bezirke) of East Germany when before it was treated as an exceptional zone.

Many provisions of the Allied treaties regarding joint control over all of Berlin were, however, never challenged such as the free movement for uniformed Allied soldiers through the whole of the city. Also, a ban on German military commands within Berlin was also respected until the end. As a result, while the rest of the East German state apparatus was based in East Berlin, military command was placed just outside of city limits in Strausberg.

Politically, the GDR was dominated by the prerogatives of the Soviet Union, but the leaders of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) who ran East Germany had significant room to maneuver within clear boundaries. The construction of the Berlin Wall was at the initiative of Walter Ulbricht rather than Nikita Khrushchev, though when Ulbricht’s protégé Erich Honecker moved to take control a decade later, he did not make his move until he had approval from Moscow. In the 1980s, the SED pushed back against Soviet influence by rejecting Perestroika. As Ideology Minister Kurt Hager remarked, just because the neighbours were changing their wallpaper, there was no reason for the GDR to do likewise. In an ironic twist, Mikhail Gorbachev affirmed the East German freedom to make their own way in 1989, when he informed the SED that he would not allow occupying Red Army troops to support them in the case of a popular uprising.

Politik: 40 Jahre DDR in Ostberlin (Oktober 1989) - Erich HONECKER (re) und...

GDR 40th Anniversary Celebrations in 1989. Gorbachev warned Honecker: “History punishes those who come too late”

For many in the West, reunification represented the end of a strange aberration rather than the merging of two countries. West Germany had always claimed sovereignty over the land of the GDR and over all Germans outside of its formal borders. East Germans always had automatic access to citizenship in the Federal Republic making emigration muc more appealing. Even after formal recognition in 1972, the two Germanies did not actually have embassies and ambassadors in each others countries, but rather a “Permanent Representative.” When reunification came in 1990, it was not a merger of two sovereign states, but legally it was the absorption of East Germany into the Federal Republic. Even today, the media will make reference to “the new federal provinces” in reference to the former East. While a new constitution for the “Berlin Republic” was planned that could merge the traditions of both countries, once reunification actually occurred, it came to naught. When the joint post-war history of the two Germanies is portrayed by public institutions, the only clips of the GDR are the 1953 Uprising, the building of the Berlin Wall and the mass protests leading to 1989. The message is clear: the only events of consequence in East Germany were those leading to its dissolution.

So was East Germany ever really a sovereign country? I think that its history shows that the problem of sovereignty is not one of yes or no, but degrees of control and recognition. The German Democratic Republic existed as a state between 1949 and 1989 even if their products were only labelled “Made in the GDR” rather than “Made in Germany” starting in 1970. The reality of a country’s existence could transcend the refusal of others to recognize it just as the ephemera of sovereignty did not challenge the deep integration of East Germany into the economic and military alliances of the Eastern Bloc under Soviet direction. As the aftermath of the UK referendum to exit the EU has also made clear, sovereignty is an elusive thing when the abstract concept makes contact with the messiness of our increasingly interconnected world.

Updated 26.09.2016 – second last paragraph added for further context. h/t @cszabla

5 thoughts on “Was East Germany Ever Really a Country: Thoughts on the Problem of Sovereignty

  1. In parallel to the question of whether the DDR was sovereign one can ask exactly the same question of the BRD. Until the 4 + 2 Treaty I would say that neither German entity was wholly sovereign. The three western powers said that they wouldn’t violate the BRD’s sovereignty, but when the Union representing Air Traffic Controllers in the BRD threatened to go on strike, the Air Attaché at the US Embassy in Bonn, on behalf of the three powers told the Union that if one Berlin flight was delayed for one minute, military contollers would switch themselves in, and take over full control of the three air corridors. The strike ended.

    In the context of the British vote for BREXIT (which I deplore) one can legitimately ask “what is sovereignty today?”

    Liked by 1 person

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