Founding of the German Democratic Republic (GDR)

October 7th, 1949


Borders Families & Relationships Identity & Belonging

On October 7, 1949, only a few months after the founding of the FRG, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) is established. Thus the division of Germany that was already underway is formally completed. The GDR has since been described as a one-party dictatorship.

On October 7, 1949, the constitution of the GDR came into force in the Soviet zone of occupation in Germany, effectively marking the founding of the GDR. Otto Grotewohl was the first Minister President, Wilhelm Pieck the first and only President of the GDR. The first Parliament would be elected a year later by means of unified lists of candidates, which prevented voters from selecting the party of their choice, or, as was later revealed, electoral manipulation. The Council of Ministers officially formed the government of the GDR, but in reality it was subject to the control of the politburo of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party (SED). Thus, while the GDR was a parliamentary democracy on paper, it was in practice a one-party dictatorship exercised by the SED. As a part of the so-called Eastern bloc, it oriented itself politically, economically, socially, and culturally towards the Soviet Union.

In the following years, growing waves of GDR citizens immigrated to the FRG. The reasons for emigration included, alongside political persecution, massive restrictions on the freedom of opinion and of travel, and the precarious economic situation. Especially young and well-qualified people who saw no future for themselves in the GDR were welcome in the FRG, as they could make a contribution as skilled workers to the West German economic recovery. The GDR responded to this mass-emigration first by largely sealing off the inner-German border, and ultimately by building the Berlin Wall. (See also: Construction of the Berlin Wall, 1961). Flight from the GDR was criminalized as “unauthorized border crossing” (also known as “fleeing the Republic”)

By 1989, approximately 3 million people had fled the GDR. Alongside GDR citizens, many Poles and Czechs fled to West Germany via the GDR. Sinti and Roma, Soviet soldiers, Jewish people and Black Germans also lived in the GDR from its inception. After reaching the Commuters’ Agreement with Poland in 1965 and signing a series of labor treaties beginning in 1971, first with Eastern European countries and later with countries outside of Europe, the GDR contained about 100,000 so-called contract workers as well as over 300,000 Soviet troops (See also: Agreement between the GDR and Poland, 1965; and Labor treaties between the GDR and Eastern European states. 1971-1973).