Is grassroots democracy worse than benevolent dictatorship

Long ways of German unity

Everhard Holtmann

Professor (a.D.) for Political Science at the University of Halle-Wittenberg, Research Director at the Center for Social Research Halle e.V. (ZSH) at the University of Halle-Wittenberg. His focus areas include party (system) research, local political research, democracy and participation research, historical political research and transformation research.

Was the GDR an injustice state? The question is widely discussed by the media, politicians and the general public. Nothing was left of the rule of law in the GDR. So where does the often positive assessment of the GDR come from?

Left: Public swearing in, Merseburg 1986; Right: Village disco, Nehmsdorf-Göhrendorf 1988 (& copy "Ostwind - Waschwind" by Jochen Ehmke; Halle (Saale) 2006)

Just in time for the 70th anniversary of the GDR or the 30th return of its state end, the public dispute flared up again over whether the GDR could be described as an injustice state. In the run-up to the Thuringian state elections in 2019, the controversy about the applicability of the term was mainly conducted as a political exchange of blows. For the Prime Minister Manuela Schwesig (Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania), the GDR was "clearly not an injustice state". The term suggests "as if the whole of life had been wrong. But we need more respect for East German life's achievements" (Spiegel Online. October 7, 2019). Her counterpart Bodo Ramelow (Thuringia) also distanced herself from the term more clearly than five years earlier. Ramelow criticized its instrumental use and opposed the universal application of the term unjust state in the legal sense to the GDR (confession rituals, diary entry October 10, 2019). From the CDU politicians Michael Kretschmer (Saxony) and Mike Mohring (Thuringia), in turn, came resolute opposition (Berliner Morgenpost October 8, 2019). The federal commissioner for the Stasi documents, the GDR civil rights activist Roland Jahn, affirmed in a radio interview that the term unjust state encompasses "the essence of this state, the SED has used all state organs to enforce its power." Injustice had been done with the help of these state organs (NDR October 7, 2019).

In the spring of 2009, almost 20 years after reunification, a heated public debate was held for the first time as to whether the GDR was an injustice state. The views on this were already controversial at the time: For Gregor Gysi, the left parliamentary group leader at the time, the GDR was "a dictatorship without democratic control and not a constitutional state"; there was "also injustice in it, but it was not an injustice state" (MZ, April 21, 2009). Federal Chancellor Merkel (CDU), on the other hand, affirmed the designation of the unjust state (FAZ, May 11, 2009), as did her cabinet colleague, Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee (SPD). Merkel emphasized that the GDR had already been founded on injustice and could not have survived without fear and lies. The Prime Minister of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Erwin Sellering (SPD), again protested against "condemning the GDR as a totally unjust state in which there was not the smallest bit of good" (FAZ.NET, May 12, 2009).

Other prominent SPD politicians differentiated "between the failed system and the people" (Peter Struck, SZ 11-13 April 2009). "Most of the people who lived in the GDR had no mess" (Franz Müntefering, SZ 14.4.2009). Wolfgang Thierse, then Vice President of the Bundestag, judged similarly: The GDR was an injustice state and failed, but its citizens did not fail (SZ 11-13 April 2009). Finally, Andreas Voßkuhle, Vice President at the time and now President of the Federal Constitutional Court, said the GDR was an injustice state that should not be played down. But "the people there could also have had beautiful moments" (SZ, April 11-13, 2009).

Even former civil rights activists disagreed. The theologian Friedrich Schorlemmer, turned against Merkel, warned against demonizing the GDR with the term unjust state. In this way one does not do justice to real life in the lost state. Joachim Gauck, also a theologian, saw it differently, until 2000 Federal Commissioner for the Stasi documents and later Federal President:

In 1971, GDR border guards carried a person who was shot while trying to escape through the border installations in Berlin. (& copy AP)
"The term applies because in the GDR there was no independence of the judiciary, no separation of powers. There was no rule of law because an authority like the ruling SED could intervene in the area of ​​law. Not everyone could do that, but the central ones Leaders of the party very much.
In addition, it was impossible to attack government action through the courts; the administrative courts would have been needed for this. But there was no more than a constitutional court. However, as in feudalism, it was possible to submit petitions to the rulers and appeal: Injustice is happening here. And then maybe you got lucky. Or not. Everything speaks in favor of calling the regime of the GDR an injustice regime, even if there was, for example, a civil law and a traffic law in the country, which the defenders of the GDR keep citing. "(Mitteldeutsche Zeitung, April 18, 2009)

Five years later, in the autumn of 2014, the controversy over the past-political stimulus word “the unjust state” flared up again, this time in the run-up to the formation of a red-red-green coalition in Thuringia. The future coalition partners had written the following "protocol note" in their coalition agreement: "Because unfree elections already lacked the structural democratic legitimacy of state trade. Because every right and every justice in the GDR could come to an end if one of the small or large powerful did so Because all right and justice were lost for those who did not behave in accordance with the system, the GDR was consequently an injustice state "(quoted in Mitteldeutsche Zeitung of 4/4/2014).

Against this, Gregor Gysi and Friedrich Schorlemmer took opposing positions. Both criticized the fact that the verdict of the unjust state completely delegitimized the GDR or "everything that was in the GDR" (Schorlemmer). An injustice state, said Gysi, "for me that is the Hitler state". For Schorlemmer, the "General Damnation Club of the Unlawful State" suppressed any differentiating view and thus the possibility of "not discarding lived life as lost time" (quotations from Süddt. Zeitung of October 1 and October 25/26, 2014).

For the assessment of whether or not a state is injustice, perspective is indeed decisive. That means whether the gaze is directed at the system or regime of the SED state or at the subjectively experienced life worlds. What The life As far as the GDR is concerned, the majority of East Germans judged benevolently 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as the following illustration shows. In 2009, a total of 57 percent agreed with the reading that the GDR had "more good than bad" or even "predominantly good" sides (Illustration). Behind this is the subjective certainty that a "successful life" (according to the Saxon-Anhalt CDU politician Jürgen Scharf on May 23, 2009 in the state parliament) was quite possible in the GDR. Anyone who has "been a man" under difficult external conditions does not want to be retroactively spoiled for this lifetime achievement - especially not by those who, like the West Germans, were not there themselves. "Because the former GDR citizens should know better from their own experience" (letter to the editor in the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung, Halle).

From the perspective of many East Germans, personal life history, social life and state activity are superimposed to this day in retrospect on the GDR. Older generations perceive their own biography as an authentic and inseparable part of those times. To call the GDR an injustice state would consequently mean devaluing individual résumés at the same time.

Assessment of the living situation in the GDR ( Graphic for download) License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de / (representative survey carried out on our own behalf by TNS Emnid April 20-23, 2009)

"We took what was there and made something beautiful out of it" (Zeitzeugin, quoted in Martens / Holtmann 2017, p. 61) - The "good sides" of everyday private life are de facto credited to the GDR state. Where the personal living conditions were not perceived as directly threatening (or, in retrospect, even transfigured into an idyll), as was the case for the majority of GDR citizens, opinions on the overall character of the state reality at the time are also divided: a survey According to March 2009, 41 percent of East Germans rejected the term unjust state designation of the GDR. 28 percent thought it was true. 25 percent ("partly partly") fluctuated (Institute for Market Research Leipzig, March 2009).

On the other hand, that doesn't mean that you can do that in the same breath political system approves of the GDR in retrospect: 85 percent of East Germans were "proud of the peaceful overcoming of SED rule" in the same year (Emnid survey 4/2009). The social services of the GDR state remain largely fond memories to this day. They are decoupled from its suppressive character in the subjective perception. In readers' forums in the East German press, which accompanied the public discourse on the injustice of the rule of law, this basic attitude, which fluctuated between identification and aversion, was expressed.

To infer the objective character of the GDR system from remembered subjective experiences, however, distorts the view of historical reality. Everyday life in the GDR certainly offered many private niches that had definitely positive things to offer for their users.

"Of course the GDR had strengths. Many people keep telling me: We already know what you do in the day-care centers or what is done in schools based on the example of Finland. There were things that we are now introducing to improve health care already in the GDR "(Erwin Sellering, Prime Minister of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, March 2009).

Much becomes clear from the critical distance: the medical technology and quality of patient care were in an objectively poor condition. Long after reunification, hospital density showed a clear east-west divide (Datenreport 2008, p.248). Statistical life expectancy, which in eastern Germany had fallen behind the comparative values ​​in western Germany since about the mid-1970s (and has only adjusted again for women since 2005; cf. Datenreport 2016, p. 29), can also be used "as an indicator for the Interpret the health development of the population "(IWH 2009, p.74).

And the publicly subsidized social system of the GDR was bought economically with state bankruptcy - although it was veiled until the system upheaval. In the Schürer report to the SED Central Committee in October 1989, the state's money in circulation and borrowing, largely drawn from the savings deposits of the population, had "increased faster than economic performance," with the result that the GDR's insolvency was immediate imminent (The socialist planned economy of the GDR, pp.79, 81).

But it is also true: Most of its citizens experienced the GDR as a despotism with a caring face. In reminiscences, this impression was reinforced because the living conditions in a unified Germany did not provide a state-guaranteed all-round care in the field of work and social security and because the economic and social upheavals of the 1990s brought unemployment and social decline for millions of East Germans. In a very personal comparison of the systems, the GDR therefore scores favorably in terms of its social aspects in the eyes of many older East Germans to this day. However, younger people now see this noticeably differently (Figures [1]).
System comparison GDR / Federal Republic - East Germans over 35 years of age (2014, figures in percent) (graphic for download) License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de / (Gabriel / Holtmann et al. (2015), Germany 25, p. 136f. )

System comparison GDR / Federal Republic - East Germans under 35 years of age (2014, figures in percent) (graphic for download) License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de / (Gabriel / Holtmann et al. (2015), Germany 25, p. 136f. )

However, if you look soberly at the GDR, i.e. without the glasses that only capture a private section of everyday life, which in retrospect appears subjectively beautiful and was supposedly beyond the reach of the omnipresent state surveillance, oppression and paternalism, the outlines of an injustice state appear very clear . Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, the term injustice state is not necessarily a political battle term. Rather, it describes in the scientific type theory a certain type of state regime that differs fundamentally from the counter-model of the constitutional state, but also from the intermediate type of the non-constitutional state.

The rule of law is an elementary achievement of bourgeois modernity. In the democratic legal and constitutional understanding, the older elements of the formal Rule of law to the younger elements of the materials Rule of law principle has been added. While the formal rule of law secures civil liberties vis-à-vis the state, the material rule of law, as it was also incorporated into the Basic Law in 1949, defines the content and direction of state activity. It obliges the state, as the former President of the Federal Constitutional Court Ernst Benda put it, in general "to fair compensation, that is to say to justice".

To put it simply, the formal rule of law is process-oriented, whereas the material rule of law is value-related or content-oriented. Central elements of the formal rule of law are the separation of powers, an independent judiciary, a legal order that is secured by the primacy and reservation of the law, furthermore the binding of state activity to law and statute (principle of legality), judicial protection against interference by the administration (administrative jurisdiction) as well as a right to compensation in the event of tampering with private property. The material rule of law includes the validity of the constitution as the highest norm as well as fundamental rights, the principle of fair equality, a balancing requirement between legal security and justice and the preservation of public peace, which is incumbent on the state (cf. Benda 1987).

Measured against these principles, the GDR was clearly not a constitutional state. This is mostly also admitted by those who oppose the term "unjust state". So was the GDR just a "non-constitutional state"? - That would be trivializing. For non-constitutional states characterize such historical transitional regimes, as for example in Baden and Prussia in the 18th century, which were only halfway to the rule of law, but gave decisive impulses for the modernization of the state community.

"They even pushed progress in a particularly humane way, namely without terror. But they were not constitutional states, but non-constitutional states, because according to the state of historical development they could not be constitutional states. Unjust states, on the other hand, could have been constitutional states" (Gerd Roellecke, FAZ 15.6 .2009).

The GDR cannot claim the grace of early historical birth as a non-constitutional state. Rather, it was, as Horst Sendler, President of the former Federal Administrative Court, wrote in 1991, "essentially an injustice state". Mind you: that does not mean that the GDR in its entire appearance was a "criminal state", even if many features of its state practice can be described as criminal. Even more:

"Like every state, the GDR was dependent on establishing and maintaining social order (also) through generally effective norms. For the design of everyday life - when shopping, at work, on the road, during marriage and divorce - these laws are popular as a largely "normal" legal system must have been felt. And some things were also well-ordered for the circumstances at the time. " (Rainer Robra, SZ April 14, 2009)

But the laws were, among other things, what constitutes the character of the unjust state, "pushed aside in an uncontrolled manner when necessary". According to Sendler, written law was "subject to the political in the form of the will of the party and was interpreted or suspended at will." The criminal law was twisted into an instrument to prosecute "class enemies", "saboteurs", "boycotters" or other politically dissenters labeled as pests. And: "The area-wide spying of almost the entire population with the most disgusting and devious police-state methods, which scorn every constitutional belief, were a characteristic expression of this inhuman system" (Sendler).

As a result, nothing was left of the formal or material rule of law in the GDR. Rather, characteristic of their regime was the ruling practice of an unjust state, namely state arbitrariness and a political tendency towards justice.At that time, many citizens of the GDR instinctively adjusted to this and only expressed their displeasure with the prevailing conditions in private circles, where they believed they were safe from stalking and spying. The retreat into private life opened ways to evade the unreasonable demands and especially the - dangerous - openly critical examination of the system. This makes it possible to explain what actually seems absurd: where the GDR lives on primarily as a reminder of its privatized everyday pages, the injustice nature of the system often fades.


  • Benda, Ernst (1994): The Social Rule of Law, in: Ders./ Maihofer, Werner / Vogel, Hans-Jochen (Hrsg.), Handbook of Constitutional Law of the Federal Republic of Germany, 2nd edition Berlin, pp. 719 - 797.
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  • Der Tagesspiegel:
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  • Institute for Economic Research Halle (IWH): East Germany's transformation since 1990 in the mirror of economic and social indicators (1/2009, special issue), Halle.
  • Bernd Martens / Everhard Holtmann: "But people lived here and they were very individual". The GDR and German unity in a conversation between the generations, Halle 2017.
  • North German Broadcasting:
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  • Rainer Robra: On behalf of the Stasi. Article in Süddt. Newspaper of April 14, 2009, p. 2.
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  • 60 years of the Basic Law - 20 years of peaceful revolution. Current debate in the state parliament of Saxony-Anhalt on 8 May 2009 (motion by the CDU parliamentary group - Drs. 5/1958).
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