Socialist Unity Party Of Germany - SED

The Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED - Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands) was the governing party of the German Democratic Republic from its formation on October 7, 1949, until the elections of March 1990. The SED was a Communist political party with a Marxist-Leninist ideology. In the 1980s, the SED rejected the winds of change emanating from the Soviet Union, such as Perestroika and Glasnost, and also failed to react positively to the growing discontent among the population of the GDR/DDR concerning its policies, particularly those in the areas of economics, personal liberty and freedom to travel, which eventually led to the party's downfall in the autumn of 1989.

Early history

The SED was founded on April 21, 1946, from a Soviet-influenced merger between members of the Social Democratic Party of Germany(SPD) and the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) who lived in the Soviet occupation zone of Germany and the Soviet-occupied sector of Berlin. Official East German and Soviet histories portrayed the merger between the SPD and KPD in the Soviet zone as a voluntary pooling of efforts by the socialist parties. However, there is much evidence that the merger was more troubled than commonly portrayed.

The Soviet Military Administration in Germany (Russian initials: SVAG) directly governed the eastern areas of Germany following World War II, and their intelligence operations carefully monitored all political activities. An early intelligence report from SVAG Propaganda Administration director Lieutenant Colonel Sergei Ivanovich Tiulpanov indicates that the former KPD and SPD members created different factions within the SED and remained mutually antagonistic for some time after the formation of the new party. Also reported was a great deal of difficulty in convincing the masses that the SED was a German political party, and not merely a tool of the Soviet occupation force.

According to Tiulpanov, many former members of the KPD expressed the sentiment that they had "forfeited (their) revolutionary positions, that (the KPD) alone would have succeeded much better had there been no SED, and that the Social Democrats are not to be trusted" (Tiulpanov, 1946). Also, Tiulpanov indicated that there was a marked "political passivity" among former SPD members, who felt they were being treated unfairly and as second-class party members by the new SED administration.

As a result of these problems, the early SED party apparatus frequently became effectively immobilized as former KPD members began discussing any proposal, however small, at great length with former SPD members, so as to achieve consensus and avoid offending them. Soviet intelligence claimed to have a list of names of a SPD group within the SED which was covertly forging links with the SPD in the West and even with the Western Allied occupation authorities.

A problem the Soviets identified with the early SED was its potential to develop into a nationalist party. At large party meetings, members applauded speakers who talked of nationalism much more than when they spoke of solving social problems and gender equality. Some even proposed the idea of establishing an independent German socialist state free of both Soviet and Western influence, and of soon regaining the formerly German land that the Yalta Conference, and ultimately the Potsdam Conference, had (re)allocated to Poland, the USSR, and Czechoslovakia.

Soviet negotiators reported that SED politicians frequently pushed past the boundaries of the political statements which had been approved by the Soviet monitors, and there was some initial difficulty making regional SED officials realize that they should think carefully before opposing the political positions decided upon by the Central Committee in Berlin.

The Party Congresses

The 1st Congress

The first party Congress (Vereinigungsparteitag), which convened on April 21, 1946, was the unification congress, specifically, a forced unification of the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands or KPD, led by Wilhelm Pieck) and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands or SPD, led by Otto Grotewohl). Initially, this decision was applied to the whole of occupied Germany. The union was rejected consistently in the three western occupation zones, where both parties remained independent. The union of the two parties was thus effective only in the Soviet zone. The SED was modelled after the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In 1946, the unification was announced in the Soviet occupation zone with an emblem depicting a handshake.

The 2nd Congress

The second party Congress convened from July 20-24, 1947, and adopted a fresh party statute and transformed the party executive committee into a central committee (Zentralkomitee or ZK).

The 3rd Congress

The third party congress convened in July 1950 and emphasized industrial progress. The industrial sector, employing 40% of the working population, was subjected to further nationalization, which resulted in the formation of the "people's enterprises" (German: Volkseigener Betrieb—VEB). These enterprises incorporated 75% of the industrial sector.

The 6th Congress

The sixth party Congress convened from January 15-21, 1963. The Congress approved a new party program and a new party membership statute. Walter Ulbricht was re-elected as the party's First Secretary. A new economic policy was introduced, more strongly centralized - the “New Economic System of Planning and Line.”

The 7th Congress

First Secretary Walter Ulbricht announced the “ten requirements of the socialist moral and ethics”. During his report at the seventh party congress in 1967, Erich Honecker had called for a return to an orthodox Socialist economic system, away from the recently instituted New Economic System. But the about-face in economic policy this year cannot be attributed to Honecker's advancement alone. During the last two winters, the GDR/DDR had been plagued with power shortages and traffic breakdowns.

The 8th Congress

From 1971 onwards, congresses were held every five years. The last was the 11th Party Congress in April 1986. In theory the party congress set policy and elected the leadership, provided a forum for discussing the leadership's policies, and undertook activities that served to legitimize the party as a mass movement. It was formally empowered to pass both the Party Program and the Statute, to establish the general party line, to elect the members of the Central Committee and the members of the Central Auditing Commission, and to approve the Central Committee's report. Between congresses the Central Committee could convene a party conference to resolve policy and personnel issues.

In the spring of 1971, the eighth Congress rolled back some of the programs associated with the Ulbricht era and emphasized short-term social and economic problems. The SED used the occasion to announce its willingness to cooperate with West Germany and the Soviet Union in helping to solve a variety of international problems, particularly the future political status of Berlin. Another major development initiated at the congress was a strengthening of the Council of Ministers at the expense of the Council of State; this shift subsequently played an important role in administering the "Main Task" program.

The SED further proclaimed that greater emphasis would be devoted to the development of a "socialist national culture" in which the role of artists and writers would be increasingly important. Honecker was more specific about the SED's position toward the intelligentsia at the Fourth Plenum of the Central Committee, where he stated: "As long as one proceeds from the firm position of socialism, there can in my opinion be no taboos in the field of art and literature. This applies to questions of content as well as of style, in short to those questions which constitute what one calls artistic mastery."

The 9th Congress

The ninth party Congress in May 1976 can be viewed as a midpoint in the development of SED policy and programs. Most of the social and economic goals announced at the eighth Congress had been reached; however, the absence of a definitive statement on further efforts to improve the working and living conditions of the population proved to be a source of concern. The SED sought to redress these issues by announcing, along with the Council of Ministers and the leadership of the FDGB, a specific program to increase living standards. The ninth Congress initiated a hard line in the cultural sphere, which contrasted with the policy of openness and tolerance enunciated at the previous congress.

Six months after the ninth Congress, for example, the GDR/DDR government withdrew permission for the singer Wolf Biermann to live in East Germany. The congress also highlighted the fact that East Germany had achieved international recognition in the intervening years. East Germany's growing involvement in both the East European economic system and the global economy reflected its new international status. This international status and the country's improved diplomatic and political standing were the major areas stressed by this congress.

The Ninth Party Congress also served as a forum for examining the future challenges facing the party in domestic and foreign policy. On the foreign policy front, the major events were various speeches delivered by representatives of West European Marxist-Leninist parties, particularly the Italian, Spanish, and French, all of which expressed in varying ways ideological differences with the Soviet Union. At the same time, although allowing different views to be heard, the SED rejected many of these criticisms in light of its effort to maintain the special relationship with the Soviet Union emphasized by Honecker. Another major point of emphasis at the congress was the issue of inter-German detente.

From the East German side, the benefits were mixed. The GDR/DDR regime considered economic benefits as a major advantage, but the party viewed with misgivings the rapid increase in travel by West Germans to and through the GDR/DDR. Additional problems growing out of the expanding relationship with West Germany included conflict between Bonn and East Berlin on the rights and privileges of West German news correspondents in East Germany; the social unrest generated by the "two-currency" system, in which East German citizens who possessed West German D-marks were given the privilege of purchasing scarce luxury goods at special currency stores (Intershops); and the ongoing arguments over the issue of separate citizenship for the two German states, which the SED proclaimed but which the West German government refused to recognize as late as 1987.

During the ninth Congress, the SED also responded to some of the public excitement and unrest that had emerged in the aftermath of the signing of the Helsinki Accords, the human rights documents issued at the meetings of the 1975 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Before the congress was convened, the SED had conducted a "People's Discussion" in order openly to air public concerns related to East Germany's responsibility in honoring the final document of the Helsinki conference.

The 10th Congress

The tenth Congress, which took place in April 1981, celebrated the status quo; the meeting unanimously re-elected Honecker to the office of general secretary, and there were no electoral surprises, as all incumbents except the ailing 76-year-old Albert Norden were returned to the Politbüro and the Secretariat. The congress highlighted the importance of policies that had been introduced or stressed at the two previous congresses and that had dominated East German life during the 1970s. As in the past, Honecker stressed the importance of the ties to the Soviet Union. In his closing remarks, he stated: "Our party, the SED, is linked forever with the party of Lenin, [the CPSU]."

A delegation led by chief party ideolougue Mikhail Suslov, a member of the CPSU Politburo, represented the CPSU at the SED congress. Honecker reiterated earlier positions on the relationship between the two German states, stressing that they are two sovereign states that have developed along different lines since World War II and that their differences must be respected by both sides as they continue efforts toward peaceful coexistence despite membership in antagonistic alliances.

In his speeches, Honecker, along with other SED officials, devoted greater attention to Third World countries than he had done in the past. Honecker mentioned the continually increasing numbers of young people from African, Asian, and Latin American countries who receive their higher education in East Germany, and he referred to many thousands of people in those countries who have been trained as apprentices, skilled workers, and instructors by teams from East Germany.

The bulk of the Central Committee report delivered at the opening session of the congress by the general secretary discussed the economic and social progress made during the five years since the ninth Congress. Honecker detailed the increased agricultural and industrial production of the period and the resultant social progress as, in his words, the country continued "on the path to socialism and communism."

Honecker concluded by calling for even greater productivity in the next five years, and sought to spur individual initiative and productivity by recommending a labor policy that would reward the most meritorious and productive members of East German society.

The 11th Congress

The eleventh Congress, held April 17-21, 1986, unequivocally endorsed the SED and Honecker, whom it confirmed for another term as party head. The SED celebrated its achievements as the "most successful party on German soil," praised East Germany as a "politically stable and economically efficient socialist state," and declared its intention to maintain its present policy course. East Germany's successes, presented as a personal triumph for Honecker, marked a crowning point in his political career.

Mikhail Gorbachev's presence at the congress endorsed Honecker's policy course, which was also strengthened by some reshuffling of the party leadership. Overall, the eleventh Congress exhibited confidence in East Germany's role as the strongest economy and the most stable country in Eastern Europe. Gorbachev praised the East German experience as proof that central planning could be effective and workable in the 1980s.

Official statements on the subject of foreign policy were mixed, particularly with respect to East Germany's relations with West Germany and the rest of Western Europe. Honecker's defense of his policy of "constructive dialogue" appeared in tune with Gorbachev's own calls for disarmament and détente in Europe. However, the SED leadership made it unequivocally clear that its foreign policy, including relations with West Germany, would remain closely coordinated with Moscow's.

Although Honecker's criticism of West Germany was low key, Gorbachev's was sharp, attacking Bonn's participation in the United States Strategic Defense Initiative and the alleged "revanchism" in West Germany. However, after a final round of talks with Gorbachev, Honecker signed a hard-line communiqué that openly attacked the policies of the West German government.

Overall, Gorbachev's statements suggested that the foreign policy emphasis would be on a common foreign policy adhered to by all members of the Warsaw Pact under Soviet direction. Until the Eleventh Party Congress, East German leaders had maintained that small and medium states had a significant role to play in international affairs. As a result of Soviet pressure, such statements disappeared from East German commentary on foreign policy.

The Final Days: Collapse of the SED

On the day of the 40th anniversary of the founding of the GDR, 7 October 1989, the old Social Democratic Party was (illegally) refounded. Following the riots in the GDR in October 1989, including those in East Berlin and Leipzig, on 18 October 1989, at a special Politbüro meeting, Honecker was forced to resign; he was replaced by Egon Krenz. The party made some attempts to adjust state policy, but could (or would) not satisfy the growing demands of the people for increased freedom.

Even the party's decision to loosen travel restrictions to the West (through the opening of the border to West Germany and West Berlin) did not improve the situation. On December 1, 1989, the GDR/DDR parliament (Volkskammer) rescinded the clause in the GDR/DDR Constitution giving the SED the leading role in the country's politics.

On December 3, 1989, the entire Central Committee and the Politbüro resigned. Egon Krenz resigned concurrently as General Secretary.

Rebirth as the PDS / Die Linkspartei

The rump of the SED that remained was renamed as the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) at a special party congress in December 1989. Gregor Gysi became the new leader of the party. Initially, the party was known by the combination initials SED-PDS; this practice was dropped on February 4, 1990, after which the party was known solely as the PDS. On March 18, 1990, the PDS lost the first free elections in GDR/DDR history. The Alliance for Germany coalition, led by the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), won the election.

The party survived the reunification of Germany and eventually started growing again, managing to get representatives elected to the [[Bundestag]]]. The PDS remains influential in eastern Germany, especially at the state and local levels. In 2005, the PDS was renamed "Die Linkspartei" (The Left Party) and subsequently received more than 8% of the votes in the September 2005 Bundestag election in a coalition with the WASG (Labour and Social Justice – The Electoral Alternative), a leftist break-away group (from the SPD) led by Oskar Lafontaine.

West Berlin branch

Initially the SED had a branch in West Berlin, but in 1962 the West Berlin became a separate party called the Socialist Unity Party of West Berlin (SEW - Sozialistische Einheitspartei Westberlins).

General Secretaries* of the Central Committee of the SED

(known as "First Secretary" from 1953 - 1976)

Walter Ulbricht (July 1950 – May 3, 1971)
Erich Honecker (May 3, 1971 – October 18, 1989)
Egon Krenz (October 18, 1989 – December 3, 1989)

See also:

The Left
Politics of Germany
List of political parties in Germany
List of foreign delegations at the 9th SED Congress
Free German Youth

External links:

Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands from chronik der wende

Berlin Political Personalities

1. Name or Alias Here- - A resident of which borough

2. Name or Alias Here- A resident of which borough

3. Name or Alias Here - A resident of which borough

Articles and News Stories

A Huge Step Towards Left Unity in Germany - Victor Grossman on Die Linke - MR Zine

A Berlin Commune Fights Developers
The Köpi in Berlin's Mitte district is a symbol of the city's far-left scene.

The Cold War as Ancient History
An American journalist interviews Berlin high school students.

German Intelligence Service Spies on Berlin Social Forum
Spying was made public by Der Spiegel and confirmed by the Berlin Senate.

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