Dissatisfaction With The GDR And The Need For Personal Retreat To A ‘Niche’

Western Comparison

To begin looking at the dissatisfaction, we must firstly compare the GDR with its western counterpart, the FRG. Despite East Germany’s success economically, in comparison to other socialist states, it never reached the heights of the FRG, which was a source of discontent amongst the eastern population. During the 1950s and 60s, West Germany experienced a time of impressive economic growth, becoming a sound democracy with a robust economy, that was envied by many other western states, running on ‘social-market’ principles. The FRG, experienced further success due to the Marshall Aid loan from America, which was given in order to prevent the spread of Communism, as well as the availability of cheap labour in the form of Turkish ‘guest workers’. As a result, there was a clear trend of rising living standards and the government was able to provide effective social welfare provision. Furthermore, the west had access to consumer goods, which were a luxury not available in the east. However, perhaps the most important comparison can be found in terms of personal freedoms. Those in the east experienced a much higher level of travel restrictions and were not even allowed to be in possession of western currency. This was primarily in order to keep the East German population within the GDR. Many had fled the country during its early years, hence the building of the Berlin Wall, and the SED were determined to prevent further losses to their workforce. As a result, these restrictions were put in place and even trivial sporting clubs, such as gliding clubs, were banned to stop anyone getting over the wall.

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Despite being a signatory of the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which were designed to ensure free movement between countries, the SED refused to comply. It was almost impossible for anyone of working age to be issued the required travel permits to visit the West. However, East German pensioners were allowed to travel to the FRG, for the cynical reason that if they died there, the economic burden on the GDR was reduced. If someone was issued a permit for ‘urgent’ reasons, their family could not travel with them, to serve as emotional pressure to ensure the traveller’s return. Furthermore, the very fact a wall was needed, along with the escape attempts thereafter, proves the general dissatisfaction felt within the GDR. In addition, the fact that only a small percentage attempted to escape, highlights the fear felt towards the state and the need for personal retreat to a ‘niche’.

Although the GDR enjoyed relative success with its economy and living standards, it was no match for the FRG and the consumer goods, freedom of travel and freedom of speech that was available there. This contrast was particularly obvious within East Berlin, as many of the people there had seen the difference in West Berlin before the wall had been built and had experienced the freedoms of the west. Consequently, many East Germans were dissatisfied with the GDR and, once in their ‘niche’, voiced their true opinions, criticising the state.


During the life of the GDR, there were several key events of opposition, which certainly highlight the general dissatisfaction felt by the population. The first of which took place in June 1953, sparked by builders working on Stalinallee in East Berlin, who downed their tools in protest at the demanded increase in work norms which were not being met by a rise in standard of living. Their strike spread across the entire GDR with workers marching to government offices, joined by thousands of other workers, all of whom demanded free elections, a general strike and the resignation of the government. Meetings were held, and workers’ councils elected. In one instance, in Merseburg, workers stormed a police station and released prisoners. Chants included such messages as “we don’t want a national army, we want butter” and “death to Communism”, whilst some tore the USSR flag from the Brandenburg Gate and burnt it. The Soviet army eventually intervened, under the command of Beria, Stalin’s former Chief of Secret Police, who told the troops not to “spare bullets”. Martial law was declared, tanks moved in and the East German police opened fire. Figures vary, however, up to 260 died and around 6000 people were arrested. The GDR authorities and SED-controlled newspapers claimed that the uprising had been initiated by the FRG’s interference with East German affairs and that it was part of an American plan to overthrow the state. Although 1953 was the last example of an uprising until 1989, the GDR faced opposition in other forms too. Similar to the acts of Jan Palach in Czechoslovakia, Oskar Brüsewitz, an evangelical pastor committed self-immolation in protest against the oppression of Christians and the collaboration of prominent church officials with the state authorities. In August 1976, he drove to a church near a pedestrian zone, spread a banner over his car that read “a radiogram for everyone, the church in the GDR accuses Communism of oppressing children and the youth at school”, before pouring petrol over himself and lighting it. He died later of severe burns and his actions forced the protestant church to re-evaluate its attitude towards the state. Furthermore, the regime’s attempt to play down his acts triggered even more defiance amongst the population. In fact, the reaction was so strong that Ehrhart Neubert, a German historian, classified Oskar Brüsewitz’s self-immolation as “one of the most relevant events in the history of the East German resistance”.

Further resistance came from the artistic world, notably due to the expatriation of songwriter Wolf Biermann. Due to his criticism of the SED and their policies, he was forbidden to perform, however, his lyrics kept being distributed and he became a central spokesperson for opposition. Whilst performing in the FRG, his citizenship was revoked, but this just made the problems worse for the state. Numerous other artists voiced their protest in light of his expatriation and were joined also by people from all classes and backgrounds, which heavily damaged the GDR’s reputation. Following the oil crisis of the 1970s, which affected the globe, the GDR experienced a serious economic downturn in the 80s. Honecker, the East German leader, had borrowed heavily and the state had accumulated large debts as a result. Attempts to boost trade were unsuccessful and the historians Kuhrt, Buck and Holzweissig described the economy in the mid-1980s as “moribund”. Despite this, the SED deliberately manipulated the official government statistics to give misleading impressions of the economy. As a result of this, and likely other events, an assassination attempt was made on Honecker. The East German president was shot at from a speeding car, however the attacker missed and later took his own life. There was certainly large discontent amongst the population, however, it was the lack of consumer choice that was most significant in causing this. Nevertheless, the fact that no large-scale action was taken, despite the general feeling of dissatisfaction in the population, proves the existence of a ‘niche society’. People were not willing to take the risk and therefore put up with the inequalities they had to experience in contrast to the west. Mary Fulbrook observes that “East Germans were not… prepared to rise in a clearly hopeless revolt just because the choice in their fruit and vegetable shops was between cabbage and more cabbages”, however this of course changed during the late 1980s. Although the riots of 1989 initially focused on reformations within the GDR, it was not long before calls were made for a “united Fatherland”. The initial chants of “Wir sind das Volk” (we are the people) shifted to “Wir sind ein Volk” (we are one people) and the demonstrations became increasingly supportive of German reunification. The participants always emphasised a non-violent means to inspire change and whenever an incident between the people and police got out of hand, chants of “no violence” could be heard. In a last attempt to maintain control, the entire government resigned in order to appease the people, but it was too late. Two days later, as a result of a miscommunication, East Germans were permitted to pass freely through the Berlin Wall. The end of the GDR had come.

It is clear, therefore, that there was large dissatisfaction felt towards the GDR throughout its existence. Despite, the lack of mass protest between 1953 and 89, East Germany was definitely not a ‘niche society’ for all. People felt discontented, and had little support for the state, however, in the cases above there was not a ‘niche’ and instead a clear opposition to the SED. Therefore, despite a ‘niche’ being present for the majority of East German citizens, there was perhaps not a ‘niche’ at all for those that showed opposition.

The Stasi

Das Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, also known as the Stasi, was the secret police agency of the GDR and was the most hated and feared element of the state, thus also being the primary reason for dissatisfaction. Supposedly the “sword and shield” of the SED, its main function was to use surveillance to prevent disturbances by exposing opposition. Shortly after the 1953 uprising, Erich Mielke became head of the Stasi, and remained there until the collapse of the GDR in 1989. The Stasi also undertook ‘mood reports’ of the general population, which were used to help inform government policies and to indicate where propaganda campaigns needed to be aimed. Following the uprising, the Stasi began recruiting ‘Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter’ (unofficial collaborators), civilians who were expected to report on specific individuals. By 1989, there were up to two million IMs, as well as 100, 000 regular employees maintaining files on over a third of the population. The Stasi were incredibly meticulous and had information on the smallest parts of a suspicious person’s life. Many within the vast network of IMs were threatened and forced to denounce their friends, family and co-workers. They were also skilled at invading the minds of citizens and they achieved this by launching a wave of indiscriminate arrests before returning to silent spying. Dagmar Hovestädt, the spokeswoman for the National Commissioner for Stasi Records, described how “they created a mythology of fear to surround themselves. The fear in your head became almost as powerful as having an actual Stasi agent breathing down your neck”. The scale of the Stasi’s information is truly highlighted by the 68 miles of documents that were found once the state had collapsed and shows the genuine need for a ‘niche’ within this country where nothing was secret.

The Stasi also infiltrated the west, often sending ‘Romeo spies’, an idea that came from Markus Wolf, the former head of the GDR’s foreign intelligence service. Agents were assigned to women, often secretaries in one of Bonn’s many ministries or government offices, and they were informed about every detail of the women’s life in order to woo her effectively. Marianne Quoirin, the author of ‘Agentinnen aus Liebe’ (The Spies Who Did It For Love), says that “a woman pursued by an agent was usually vulnerable in some way”, which of course made it easier for an agent to take advantage. The agents acted with old fashioned manners and made sure to listen to every word they were told, both to collect information and also to be more attractive to the woman. Gabriele Kliem was one of these women, who was approached by what she described as her “dream man”, which was no surprise as one of her best friends had inadvertently informed a Stasi researcher of her preferred type. Kliem was a translator working at the American embassy and, over the course of their seven-year relationship, she provided hundreds of secret documents to her man, who she believed worked for an international research company committed to world peace. It was not until her eventual trial for espionage in 1996 that she discovered the agent, Frank Dietzel, had been married throughout their relationship and had also been passing all her love letters to Stasi psychologists. However, it was not just women that were targeted. Günter Guillaume, the most famous spy in German history, had initially been briefed in 1956 to infiltrate the Social Democratic Party (SPD) within West Germany. He slowly worked his way through the ranks of the Bundeskanzleramt before being promoted in 1972 and becoming aide to the Federal Chancellor, Willy Brandt. The painstaking process the Stasi went through in order to collect information, effectively highlights the need for a ‘niche’ in the east. The fact that they were able to achieve this much success in the FRG, shows just how much more power they would have had within their own country and therefore validates the fear of the population. Further fear and overall dissatisfaction were certainly caused by the arrests carried out by the Stasi. For those arrested in Berlin, they were sent to Hohenschönhausen, which was infamous for its regime of physical and psychological torture. The area around the prison was restricted and prisoners were blindfolded and driven around in circles, when taken there, so they did not know where they were. Furthermore, when being taken around the prison by guards, prisoners never saw other prisoners as they were made to look at the floor if they passed one. Examples of the psychological torture can be seen in Donnersmarck’s ‘Das Leben der Anderen’ (The Lives of Others), which begins with a man being asked the same question over and over again for around 40 hours, in order to tire him out so that he tells them the truth. However, this level of interrogation often went on for months, with the Stasi officer presuming the prisoner’s guilt and stopping at nothing to extract incriminating evidence. Thomas Raufeisen, a former prisoner, describes how “the interrogations served merely to determine the extent of my guilt” and that he was allowed to speak to a lawyer, in order to give the outside world the semblance of a fair process, but was not allowed to discuss anything relating to the case with him. The unfair and inhumane treatment of those arrested by the Stasi, brought further fear to the population of the GDR. Although the majority of citizens were unaware of what actually took place, the disappearance of people was enough to terrify them. It is largely as a result of the Stasi that a ‘niche society’ occurred, as East Germans would rightly not speak poorly of the state in public. As shown in the ‘Lives of Others’, many suspects houses were bugged with listening devices, however, for the everyday citizen of the GDR, their house became their ‘niche’ in which they could escape conformity and voice their dissatisfaction, and in some cases hatred, of the state. The Stasi controlled their lives and were an omnipotent and omnipresent force that could strike at any moment. Many people, therefore, showed support for the state whenever they could in order to keep themselves and their family safe, thus creating a ‘niche society’ filled with unheard dissatisfaction.


Due to the work of the Stasi, and society as a whole, many citizens became focused on self-preservation for themselves and their family, which is perhaps the best representation of the ‘niche’.

As mentioned previously, many people within the GDR became determined to work towards the best future that was possible. However, this by no means suggests complete support for the state. Many people realised the hopelessness of creating a significant change during much of the GDR’s existence and therefore focused on dealing with everyday life instead. The population joined the mass organisations that were controlled by the SED, merely to fit in and improve their opportunities with both work and education. They adopted the mentality of trying to fit in and keep their heads down in order to better, and also preserve, their lives. Despite large levels of dissatisfaction due to a lack of freedom, it was simply easier for the everyday person to get on with it, thus creating a ‘niche society’. This therefore, forms much of the argument to the points brought up within the first section of this dissertation. Yes, there was some satisfaction and a growing national pride, however this was all relative. In comparison to much of Eastern Europe, life was good, but when compared to the western world, the GDR was significantly worse off. The ‘niche society’ existed as a direct result of this. People were dissatisfied with their living standards and freedoms; however, their situation could have been much worse and showing obvious signs of discontent and opposition could lead to their lives becoming a living hell. As a result, people kept quiet, for the most part, and settled for what the GDR was and, in doing so, preserved their lives.


Upon reaching the final element of this dissertation, it is clear in my mind that the large majority of people in East Germany did not truly support Socialism. Despite the joy felt at the Soviet liberation from the Nazis, the propaganda, the mass organisations, the relative satisfaction, the sporting achievements, the people’s determination to build a strong nation, and the lack of major protests, this was not enough to keep the population contented. This was not enough when their daily lives were controlled and restricted by the state, that supposedly had the best interests of the people at heart. This was not enough when the average person lived their days in fear, too afraid to speak out. And this was not enough when those who demanded to be heard, rose up in opposition to the SED and the regime that had been created. However, the question of a ‘niche society’ still remains.

I can neither say that there was a total ‘niche’ or total lack thereof, as the true answer lies somewhere in between. For the average citizen of the GDR it certainly existed. Whether their ‘niche’ took the form of their house, a trusted group of friends or a ‘dacha’ deep in the German countryside, a personal retreat, away from the prying eyes and ears of Stasi informants, was necessary in order to keep sanity. Gaus himself, who first used the term in relation to the GDR, was careful to warn his West German readers not to misunderstand this withdrawal into the private sphere as ‘oppositional’ behaviour. He stated that “in this private burrow, you’ll find the average man and his clan, clever enough to demonstrate only as much of the social engagement demanded by the Party and State as is necessary so that nothing stands in his way when he retreats into his private sphere”. He also adds that “individuals who come in to conflict with the state [are those that] step out of the niche”, hence my mixed judgement. The uprising of 1953, the self-immolation of Brüsewitz, the results of the expatriation of Biermann and the eventual demonstrations of 1989, show that for a percentage of the GDR’s population, a ‘niche’ was not present. They instead openly opposed the state and acted in order to promote change. Therefore, in concluding this dissertation I have come to the overall judgement that although the majority certainly showed support towards the socialist state in public, the true feelings of the people were of dissatisfaction. Furthermore, a ‘niche society’ was certainly present amongst the bulk of East Germans, however, was not present amongst the entirety, as the examples of opposition mentioned above highlight.

18 May 2020

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