People wonder why I’m fascinated by flags. It’s because flags tell a story, sometimes good, sometimes bad, about the nations that they represent.
I’m especially fascinated by the flags and symbolism of East Germany. They represent a protracted, bitter struggle on the part of East Germany’s ill-fated leaders to secure legitimacy, not only among the nations of the world but also among their own people.
This struggle was bound up in the legacy of the East German state, one as remarkable as it was tragic. East Germany – the Deutsche Democratische Republic (German Democratic Republic), as it was officially known – was the product of one of the most brutal conquests and occupations in human history. An estimated one-million German women suffered rape at the hands of the Soviet conquerors, and following this conquest, the Soviets removed a third of the region’s industrial capacity and extracted an additional $10 billion from its industrial and agricultural sectors as war reparations.
This was only the beginning: Following this brutal conquest, the Soviets were reluctant to let go of this zone of occupation and to allow eastern Germany to be reunited with the rest of what remained of post-war Germany, although they actively considered it from time to time. They viewed their sector as a vital geopolitical asset – the crown jewel of the Soviet Empire, much as the British had regarded Imperial India. Eastern Germany served the Soviets as a vital strategic asset, safeguarding Soviet interests in the very heart of Europe. For the Soviets, controlling this part of Germany, historically known as Prussia, greatly reduced the chances that a unified Germany, Russia’s historic foe, would rise again to threaten it.
This Soviet legacy of brutal conquest, occupation and exploitation presented the leaders of East Germany with a daunting set of challenges. Many ordinary East German citizens understandably reviled the Soviet Union and regarded East German government as simply an illegitimate extension of Soviet power. The loss of some 3 million Germans who fled the sector from 1945 until the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 attested to the enmity among millions of East Germans felt for their Soviet occupiers and their German lackeys.
East German True Believers
Yes, there had always been socialist and communist sentiment in eastern Germany, and, yes, there were some Germans who were genuinely receptive to a socialist or even a communist regime, even a Soviet-imposed one. These sympathies were reinforced by Germany’s defeat in World War II and by what was widely perceived as the deep portrayal of the German people by Adolph Hitler and the Nazi regime.
The utter defeat of Germany and dispossession of Nazi Germany profoundly altered the thinking of many Germans, particularly young post-war Germans. Hans Modrow was among them. Captured as a teenaged German soldier by the Soviets in 1945, Modrow felt grateful for being fed and assigned work as a POW instead of being killed, which was more than could be said for the millions of Soviet soldiers who fell into German hands during the war. That made a deep impression on Modrow and other POWs. He ultimately joined the East German communist party, though he remained throughout his adult life a maverick and rather dissident one, later sympathizing with Mikhail Gorbachev’s calls for glasnost. Modrow was selected as the last Communist leader of East Germany before the election of the first fully democratic East German government in 1989.
But Modrow, at best, represented only a minority of Germans in the Soviet sector.
For many other Germans in the Soviet zone occupation, communist loyalties didn’t come this easily. For their part, the Soviets were aware of the daunting challenges involved in forming a separate socialist German state.
Socialism in One Occupation Zone
For a time, the Soviets collaborated with the West Allies – Britain, France and the United States – with the expressed goal of securing a neutral Germany at the heart of Europe, one patterned after Austria. But after repeated disagreements with the Soviets, the Western allies in 1949 established their own government in the Western zones that was formally named the Federal Republic of Germany, more commonly known as West Germany.
The Soviets then undertook their own state building in the eastern sector, but they knew that to succeed they would have to create the illusion of a state with many of the attributes of a Western-style democracy. The Potsdam Agreement, negotiated among the Soviet Union and the Western Allies, called for building democracy in Germany. And the Soviets were content to do so, as long as the democracy that emerged in their sector placed East Germany squarely on the path toward a full-fledged Marxist-Leninist state.
While they have every intention of ultimately creating a communist state, they dressed up their state-making in liberal democratic clothing. And these efforts were reflected in the symbols the communists developed for the East German state, including flags.
Virtually from the beginning of their occupation of their sector, the Soviets staged elections, inviting several “anti-fascist” parties — the Christian Democrats, Liberal Democrats and Peasants — to participate. As Stalin’s request, the East German leaders even organized the National Democratic Party to accommodate former Nazi Party members, former Wehrmacht personnel and members of the displaced middle class.
The Clasped Hands of the Socialist Unity Party
Moreover, the Soviets, having concluded that the Communist Party was incapable of winning a democratic majority of its own, forced a merger with the far more popular and democratic socialist party, known in Germany as the Social Democratic Party. They staged a joint conference of the two parties and at its culmination the party leaders — Communist leader Wilhelm Piecke and Social Democrat Otto Grotewohl — rose to shake hands to affirm this unity. This merged party became known as the Socialist Unity Party, and while it purported to be a unity party, it functioned as party undergoing transition into a full-fledged Marxist-Leninist party patterned after its Soviet counterpart.
The image of two hands forming a handshake become the symbol of the party rather than the iconic Hammer and Sickle, which was far more commonly associated with Marxist-Leninist parties.
This marks the beginning of a long-term East German practice: The use ambivalent symbolism to project to the rest of the world that East Germany was a People’s Democracy rather than a full-blown Marxist-Leninist state in the tradition of the Soviet Union. East Germany purported to function as a people’s democracy, governed principally by the Socialist Unity Party, but supposedly in dialogue with other, so-called Bloc Parties, such as the Christian Democratic and Liberal parties. All of these Bloc parties were afforded a limited number of seats in the Volkskammer, the East German parliament.
The same method was employed in the East German youth movement. The Soviet and East German communist authorities invited young people from other anti-fascist backgrounds to participate, but over time, the democratic elements were rooted out and the movement transformed completely into a communist-led youth organization.
In time, virtually all the symbolism of the East German reflected this intentional obfuscation.
The communist regime settled on the Weimar Republic flag, bearing three horizontal stripes of black, red and gold and that dated all the way back to the liberal Revolution of 1848 – the same flag chosen by West Germany. There was some support for adopting the black-white-and-red imperial flag, which was used by the National Committee for a Free Germany, an anti-fascist group organized among captured German officers during the war.
Both East and West Germany flew the Weimar Republic flag until 1959, when East Germany affixed its national emblem to the flag: a wreath of barley wrapped in black, red and gold bunting and enclosing a hammer affixed with a compass. The wreath of barley represented farmers, the hammer, workers, and the compass, intellectuals and technocrats.
The national symbol departed significantly not only from previous German symbols from older symbolism in general. Most western countries, particularly western European countries, followed the time-honored rules of heraldry, which governed how shields, wreaths and other symbolic devices related to each other.
East Germany and other communist countries, largely to underscore that they represented a new departure in human history, broke with these old heraldic practices. They designed new symbols that drew from a variety of graphic elements, some rather mundane, such as Romanian coat of arms, which featured an oil derrick set amid a forested mountainside with a sunburst in the background.
Yet side from the inclusion of this somewhat communist-looking symbol on its national flag, most East German flags carried few references to communism.
The flag of the Free German Youth, which effectively expelled its non-communist elements, was entirely bereft of communist symbolism. And that goes for the East German Pioneer organization, roughly the equivalent of our Cub Scouts.
Inspired by their Soviet patrons, East German leaders were convinced that they could create an entirely socialist man, much has their Soviet patrons had.
Yet, all of these attempts at fusing liberal democratic with Marxist-Leninist practices and symbols to create the appearance of constitutional democracy had little effect in engendering much loyalty among ordinary East Germans.
A Failed Socialist State
What the East German leadership created instead was a sham — a state in which hundreds of millions of discontented people were forced to eat rationed, substandard food, to use shoddy products, and to subscribe to discredited ideas, even as their fellow Germans across the Elbe River in the West created one of the most successful countries in the world: an economically and vibrant constitutional democracy.
The East German people eventually rose in righteous indignation.
The flag of the Revolution of 1848, embodying the values and ideals of 18th century liberalism, flies over a unified capitalist and liberal democratic Germany today. And the vast majority of Germans living east of the Elbe River are happy that this flag is bereft of the hammer and compass and barley wreath that once symbolized the peculiar Marxist-Leninist interlude of German history known as the German Democratic Republic.