Sam Seitz

Since its unification in 1871, Germany has retained a strong culture of federalism. Regional identity and local conceptions of Heimat (roughly translated as home) have been integral to the German psyche for centuries, and this dynamic persisted through German unification.[1] Indeed, federalism was baked into Germany during its unification precisely because Bismarck needed to bribe the rulers and elites in many of the smaller German states with promises of partial autonomy in order to convince them to amalgamate their lands into a Prussian-dominated united Germany.[2] The communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), therefore, faced a number of difficulties when it attempted to establish its centralized model of “democratic centralism” after World War Two. This paper will examine the ways in which the Socialist Unity Party (SED) attempted to curb regionalist and federalist tendencies within the GDR and elucidate the ways in which changes in the federal structure of the GDR overlapped with and contributed to the development of East German culture and identity. By examining both primary and secondary source documentation, this paper will argue that the SED failed to stamp out the German federal tradition, and instead merely suppressed regional identities that quickly re-emerged during the collapse of the GDR. However, the SED was successful in creating parallel identities that complemented citizens’ regional connections. Instead of eradicating regional identities, then, the GDR simply built over them, establishing an East German identity that complemented, rather than supplanted, the many regional and local identities that already existed.

Federal Reforms, Democratic Centralism, and the Expansion of the GDR State

“Democratic centralism” represented the “underlying principle of state organization” according to the 1968 Constitution of the GDR.[3] Its central goal was to create a system that connected the entire country to the leading state institutions. This system was democratic in the sense that it ostensibly permitted citizen input to flow up to the top, and it was central in that it allowed decisions of the Politburo and Central Committee to be quickly transmitted down to the masses. The degree of democratic input this system actually permitted is still hotly contested in the literature. For example, Mary Fulbrook argues that examining the GDR through a lens of totalitarianism is misguided and ignores the real, albeit limited, power of citizens to voice concerns through the state hierarchy.[4] Peter Sperlich, by contrast, is far more skeptical of the GDR’s model of democratic centralism, bluntly writing that “there was plenty of centralism, but there was no democracy.”[5] While there is no clear consensus about the degree to which lower level actors could influence the decisions of upper level policymakers, there is strong agreement that the SED sought to increase communist control of the state and that “the general parameters of the GDR’s existence were not open for discussion.”[6]

This ideology brought the SED into conflict with Germany’s federal tradition, as the delegation of state powers to regional states (Länder) necessarily required the ceding of political authority and a less centralized government apparatus. The Soviets initially reconstituted the five Länder in their occupation zone after defeating Nazi Germany in 1945. While these Länder were subordinate to the central government, they had broad autonomy, especially in areas that fell outside the purview of the centralized state apparatus.[7] The Länder also had the ability to restrict national laws through the Länderkammer, the upper house of the GDR that represented the interests of the Länder and had the authority to veto legislation passed by the lower house (Volkskammer).[8] By 1952, however, these Länder were abolished during a constitutional reform designed to increase the power and autonomy of the central government. In their place, the GDR established smaller administrative districts (Bezirke), which themselves were further subdivided into rural and urban Kreise.[9] By eliminating the Länder, the GDR also effectively nullified the Länderkammer, as the regional states that had appointed representatives to the upper house no longer existed, even though the Länderkammer was not formally abolished until 1958, six years after the federal restructuring.[10]

The purpose of these constitutional reforms is clear: they were designed to increase state centralization and transition the GDR from a federal to a unitary state, creating the political groundwork necessary for “democratic centralism.” Indeed, SED leaders admitted as much, with GDR Prime Minister Otto Grotewohl remarking that “the state apparatus in the Länder, with their parliaments and governments, has proved to be a constraint on our task, a source of bureaucratic obstacles and falsifications, in the realizations of our progressive goals.”[11] The abolition of the Länder and the Länderkammer, however, were only a small part of a broader set of initiatives designed to augment state power and build a communist state. In fact, 1952 also witnessed the establishment of the People’s Army (Volksarmee), tighter border controls (Sperrgebiet), and the collectivization of agricultural land into Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsgenossenschaften and Produktionsgenossenschaften des Handwerks.[12]

These changes in political organization were complemented by the establishment of national clubs and organizations designed to capture elements of civil society and place them under the control of the state. For example, the state created groups like the Freie Deutsche Jugend (FDJ) and the Pioniere – roughly the equivalent of Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts – to influence and shape the country’s youth.[13] The state also worked very diligently to create a new national identity based on the GDR rather than upon the former united Germany. Ironically, this effort intensely relied on appeals to patriotic nationalism that did not always perfectly align with the internationalist ideals of communism. The government heavily promoted sports, providing national athletes with a number of benefits like nice cars and spacious apartments.[14] The government also utilized more explicit nationalist appeals to try to create a new East German identity, attempting to replace the adjective “German” with “DDR”[15] and frequently referring to the country not simply as the DDR but as “unsere DDR” (our DDR).[16] This cultivation of nationalism was so extensive that it led to the creation of a separate GDR dictionary as well as the prohibition of FRG dictionaries despite the fact that both Germanys spoke the same High German language.[17]

The Resilience of Regionalism and the Federalist Tradition in the GDR

Despite the concerted effort to promote a central DDR identity, it is clear that regional differences continued to remain an important component of East German identity construction. Jan Palmowski has conducted path-breaking research on this question and has discovered that, in fact, significant elements of Heimat culture continued to permeate the GDR. In particular, he cites the popularity of regional theater groups, the persistence of strong regional dialects, semi-public hobbies like stamp collection, and local Heimat exhibitions.[18] Mary Fulbrook has also highlighted the ways in which the state explicitly promoted regional differences to encourage tourism. Specifically, she cites the promotion of Meissen china, the Wartburg castle, Weimar, and local and regional folk traditions as examples of the ways by which the state sought to highlight and profit from regional distinctiveness and traditions.[19]

These regional identities became increasingly pronounced during the leadup to the Wiedervereinigung (reunification of Germany) in 1990. For example, regional disputes during the reestablishment of the East German Länder became increasingly heated. One stark example occurred in Brandenburg, a German state in the northeast region of the country. While this region was under the control of the GDR, three counties formerly belonging to Mecklenburg were added to the Bezirk that replaced most of Brandenburg. When Brandenburg and Mecklenburg were reconstituted in the leadup to reunification, major protests broke out among the Mecklenburgers who had been reorganized into the Bezirk. They were extremely displeased with the prospect of becoming Brandenburgers and organized mass demonstrations in which they waved Mecklenburg flags and collected signatures for a petition calling for the return of their counties to Mecklenburg.[20] The story has a happy ending, as the federal authorities eventually permitted this border adjustment, but it also demonstrates the degree to which regional identities connected with the Länder continued to be salient even after 40 years of GDR rule.

The connections to the former Länder became so pronounced during the leadup to unification that even members and supporters of the SED had to concede that they had failed to fully replace the memory and power of the former federal states. One clear example of this can be seen in “Im Sturmschritt zu den Ländern?”, an op-ed penned by the noted GDR jurist and politician Gerhard Riege. In it, Riege admits that Thuringians viewed themselves as Thuringians and not as Gera-Bezirkler ­(residents of the Gera district). Additionally, he noted that while many residents of Saxony were familiar with the Saxony Song, nobody living there had composed a commensurate song for their GDR district, the Karl Marx Stadt District.[21] As the GDR moved ever closer to reunification with the FRG, it became increasingly evident that SED attempts to stamp out the German federal tradition and replace it with “democratic centralism” had failed. East Germans continued to maintain strong connections with their regions and the federal states that had existed before their abolition in 1952. And despite 40 years of all-pervasive GDR rule, the citizens of East Germany still identified more with the historic states than with the Bezirke and Kreise that replaced them.

Ossis and Wessis: How the East German Identity Continues to Influence German Society Long After the Death of the GDR

It is clear, then, that regionalism continued to play a prominent role within the GDR. And while the formal federal states no longer existed, many of the traditions and identities associated with them continued to persist, often due to explicit state intervention of the kind highlighted by Mary Fulbrook. However, it is important to recognize that a parallel GDR identity was developed during this period as well. The shared experience of Soviet occupation, mass dissemination of SED propaganda and ideology, and the common, state-dominated civil society groups like the FDJ bound the citizens of East Germany into a shared identity that both united the disparate regions of the GDR and created stark differences between East Germans and West Germans.

Again, the Wiedervereinigung is revealing in this regard, as it demonstrates the many difficulties faced by the East German population as it attempted to integrate into the newly united Germany (BRD). During the height of the protests, the East German activist Stephan Heym spoke at the Alexanderplatz in Berlin. In his speech, Heym excoriated the GDR regime for the political, economic, and spiritual stagnation it generated. Tellingly, however, he closed his speech by praising socialism and community solidarity, referring to “The socialism, not the Stalinism, the right kind of socialism, that we finally want to build for our use and the use of all of Germany.”[22] Heym was not an outlier, as other leading dissidents like the leader of Neues Forum, Bärbel Bohley, also sought a “third way” that incorporated Western democracy and limited market reforms with the egalitarian principles of communism. In her 2007 speech at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., she lamented the degree to which the reunification ignored and crushed the political, economic, and cultural wishes of the citizens of East Germany. And while Bohley praised the restoration of the decrepit cities of the GDR and the modernization of the country, she felt obliged to remind her listeners of the massive increase in unemployment and inequality and the drop-off in political participation that characterized the years following the reunification. Perhaps the most powerful line in her speech was her comment that “Many feel foreign once more… and they have the feeling that they can influence even less than before.”[23]

This feeling is not limited only to the leaders of the dissident movements. A 2003 article from Die Zeit looked at surveys and economic data and concluded that East Germans are more similar to immigrants than they are to West Germans in terms of their experience in post-unification Germany. Many of the factors they cite are structural, such as the lack of recognition for East German degrees, the teaching of Russian instead of English in the GDR, and economic pain caused by the transition to capitalism. However, the article also points to the “culture shock” of reintegration, arguing that while East Germans wanted integration, the West Germans wanted assimilation.[24] The power of the shared GDR identity is still evident today, nearly 30 years after Germany reunified. For example, the Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung (BPB) published a survey in 2009 that showed that 57% of people living in the former GDR thought that the GDR had more positive aspects than negative aspects. For comparison, only 18% of people living in the former FRG shared this opinion.[25] A 2014 survey also conducted by the BPB revealed that only 33% of people living in the former GDR felt like real citizens of the BRD. 53% said they didn’t want the GDR to return but also didn’t feel comfortable in the BRD, and 6% stated that they actually would prefer a return of the GDR.[26]

These data clearly illustrate that while the GDR was largely unable to extirpate old regional loyalties, it was extremely successful in creating a new, shared identity among the citizens of East Germany that continues to persist today. As Mary Fulbrook summarizes, “The rapid proliferation of Ossi/Wessi[27] jokes after the Wende (literally turning point, used to refer to the reunification) illustrates only too clearly the processes of construction, negotiation, and transformation of new regionally based identities, as differences between East and West Germans drowned out the proclamation of being ‘one people’ (ein Volk) prevalent in the demonstration of 1989.”[28] Ultimately, though, this new bifurcation of German identity is only one part of the story, as older regional and federalist traditions continue to remain highly significant in Germany, even in the newly reconstituted Bundesländer in the former GDR.


The GDR devoted vast resources to shape the identity of its citizens. By co-opting civil society organizations, spreading communist propaganda, and emphasizing the shared experiences of East German citizens, the SED hoped to use their model of “democratic centralism” to create a new GDR culture that replaced people’s regional ties and strongly held allegiances. Despite all of their efforts, however, the GDR experienced only mixed success. They successfully suppressed regionalism by creating a more centralized administrative system that diluted the federal states by replacing them with smaller, less influential political units. However, the GDR was unable to break the fundamental regional identities of its citizens. And in some cases the GDR even explicitly sought to promote regional and geographic differences for purposes of tourism, allowing the memory of Germany’s federal past to remain. The GDR did succeed, however, in its creation of a unique East German identity that continues to linger in Germany today. The new Bundesländer in the territory of the former GDR consistently show more support for the GDR and greater skepticism regarding their position in the BRD. This suggests that regionalism has as much to do with the land as with the political and cultural experiences of the people who occupy it.



[1] See, for example, Maiken Umbach, “History and Federalism in Nation-State Formation,” In German Federalism: Past, Present, Future, edited by Maiken Umbach, 42-69, New York, N.Y.: Palgrave, 2002.

[2] Alon Confino, “Federalism and the Heimat Idea in Imperial Germany,” In German Federalism: Past, Present, Future, edited by Maiken Umbach, 70-90, New York, N.Y.: Palgrave, 2002, 72-73.

[3] “1968 GDR Constitution,” Article 47.

[4] Mary Fulbrook, “Democratic Centralism and Regionalism in the GDR,” In German Federalism: Past, Present, Future, edited by Maiken Umbach, 146-172, New York, N.Y.: Palgrave, 2002, 149.

[5] Peter W. Sperlich, Oppression and Scarcity: The History and Institutional Structure of the Marxist-Leninist Government of East Germany and Some Perspectives on Life in a Socialist System, Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 2006, 53.

[6] Fulbrook, “Democratic Centralism,” 152.

[7] Jan Palmowski, “Regional Identities and the Limits of Democratic Centralism in the GDR,” Journal of Contemporary History 41, no. 3 (2006): 503-504.

[8] Mary Fulbrook, The Divided Nation: A History of Germany 1918-1990, Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1992, 172.

[9] And the larger Kreise were often subdivided further into Stadtbezirke

[10] Fulbrook, “Democratic Centralism,” 150.

[11] Otto Grotewohl, quoted in Umbach, pg. 151.

[12] Fulbrook, “Democratic Centralism,” 150.

[13] Sperlich, 198.

[14] Ibid., 204.

[15] The German abbreviation for the GDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik)

[16] Ibid., 71.

[17] Ibid., 99.

[18] Jan Palmowski, “Building an East German Nation: The Construction of a Socialist Heimat, 1945-1961,” Central European History 37, no. 3 (2004): 373-374.

[19] Fulbrook, “Democratic Centralism,” 157.

[20] “Wir wollen wieder in die Heimat,” Nordkurier, 10 November 1990; “In und um Havelberg zeichnet sich eine Mehrheit für Brandenburg ab,” Tagesspiegel, August 21, 1990.

[21] Gerhard Riege, “Im Sturmschritt zu den Ländern?”, Volkswacht, January 12, 1990.

[22] Stefan Heym, “Heyms Rede während der Protestdemonstration auf dem Berlin-Alexanderplatz,” Speech, Berlin, Germany, November 4, 1989, Lebendiges Museum Online.

[23] Bohley, Bärbel. “’Unter freiem Himmel’ Reflexionen zur Vergangenheit und Gegenwart.” Speech, Washington, D.C., October 3, 2007. German Historical Institute.

[24] Toralf Staud, “Ossis sind Türken: 13 Jahre Einheit: In Gesamt-Westdeutschland sind die Ostdeutschen Einwanderer,” Zeit Online, October 2, 2003,

[25] Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung. Rückblick auf die DDR. 2009. Available at

[26] Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung. Zugehörigkeit zur BRD. 2014. Available at

[27] Ossi and Wessi are German slang terms for East Germans and West Germans

[28] Fulbrook, “Democratic Centralism,” 169.