Corey Ross,
Constructing Socialism at the Grass-Roots:
The Transformation of East Germany, 1945-65

(London: MacMillan Press LTD, 2000)
262 pages. UCSB: HX280.5.A6 R67 2000.

Book essay written by Armando Godinez
February 2004
For Prof. Marcuse’s upper division lecture course Germany since 1945
(course homepage)

UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2004

About the author:
I am a junior history major with minors in Spanish and education. My interests are Islamic history and 20th century U.S. history. I had very minimal knowledge of German history prior to this class, but I have absolutely enjoyed it. I chose to write about socialism in East Germany because I wanted to know more about post-war East Germany.

Corey Ross’s Constructing Socialism at the Grass-Roots argues that the implementation of socialism from above was facilitated by the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. He states that industry, agriculture, and the East German youth resisted socialism through direct protest, strikes, and by escaping to the West known as Republikflucht. Ross divides his book into four sections organized chronologically and by topic. The first three sections are dedicated to demonstrating the development of socialism from above by the Soviet Union on East German industry, agriculture, and youth. Each section reflects an escalation of Soviet influence and opposition. The last section analyzes the construction of socialism and opposition to it after the construction of the Berlin Wall. Here, Ross argues that the construction of the wall allowed the Soviets to impose socialism by ending mass Republikflucht. Ross allows readers to compare and contrast the effects of socialism from above on East German industry, agriculture, and youth at different periods of the postwar era. In addition, Ross also shows that the decrease in opposition and protest in East Germany after 1961 was due to the construction of the Berlin Wall and the decrease of mass migration to the West.

Book essay

The East German Struggle

As World War II was brought to an end, the Allies began preparation for the "re-education" of Germany. The country was quickly divided between the major world victorious powers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Even though all powers sought German reparations and reconstruction, the Soviet Union had an additional plan for East Germany. It intended to add it to its rapidly growing socialist bloc. Corey Ross’s Constructing Socialism at the Grass-Roots: The Transformation of East Germany, 1945-65, addresses the turmoil initiated by the Soviet powers through the implementation of their Socialist plan. According to Ross, the Soviets used an aggressive totalitarianism of not only German industrial and agrarian production, but of the German people as well to install a socialist system "from above." Many East Germans successfully hindered its implementation until the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. They developed systems of corruption to deceive socialist programs, they migrated to the west, and in some instances they resisted the Soviet policies through direct protests. Overall, the construction of socialism was not an easy task for the Soviets. Twenty years passed, and a wall had to be erected for socialism to finally settle in East Germany.

In the early Soviet occupation years of East Germany, the Soviets established a top-down perspective of power in East Germany. This allowed the state to gain control of all the institutions in East Germany including the economy, law, and politics. The Soviets cleverly created the Socialist Unity Party (SED). This party would allow the Soviets to begin their construction of socialism in the "grass-roots" of East Germany, in the villages and in the factories, with the common people. "The SED…did not allow for significant digression from the official line…the claims it made on East German society and individuals were therefore unlimited and absolute: a new society, a new morality, a ‘new man’" ( Ross 2). The SED took advantage of its new ally and implemented a rigorous reformation in the factories and in the agricultural sector of Germany.

The first reform by the Soviets was the land collectivization. This allowed the Soviet Union to punish the Nazi land owners still left from the Third Reich and establish socialist measures of agriculture. The land was to be collectivized and then distribute to land poor peasants, landless farm laborers, and refugees from eastern territories (17), allowing the processes to be seen as a movement for the lower classes, but at the same time to take everything away from the Nazis which could possibly allow them to cause another war. The Soviets also expected to be able to reach out to the ‘new farmers’ and influence them with Socialist ideology. "Its aim was not just to punish supporters of the Third Reich…but also…to create a more egalitarian structure of land ownership and thereby to gain a rural clientele and expand the influence of the German Communist Party (KPD)" (17). In this sense, the Soviets were killing two birds with one stone. Even though this plan seemed logical and promising, it was not easy to implement.

The new farmers thought of the redistribution of land as a great opportunity to gain their own property, but the innate kinship networks established in the villages powered over the dream of land owning. Many of the new farmers refused to antagonize their former landlords and employers. In other cases, many land owners, or Junkers, refused to separate from their lands and established agreements with their employees to remain in their lands as landlords. "…In a number of cases the distribution of confiscated estates to land-poor, landless farmers…existed only on paper…" (20). The new farmers also feared that the distribution of land would hinder the productivity. Most new farmers were not accustomed to working small plots of land. They had farmed in large estates with a higher labor source. In addition, the new farmers were not allowed to harvest and grow crops in demand like potatoes; instead they were forced to harvest crops like wheat to meet certain quotas. The Soviets’ totalitarianism and irrational demands from the villages led the farmers to contradict them and the SED. Instead of drawing the farmers to accept socialist ideology, the Soviets increased the existing tension.

The industrial sector of East Germany also felt the sorrows of reformation. Like in the agrarian district, the factory elites were also disposed of. Instead of improving the war torn East German industry, the Soviets took power and seized what little was left of East German industry. To achieve this it developed a Soviet-style labour relations in the factories. "The main tool used to accomplish this was the Soviet Military Administration of Germany’s (SMAD) Order 234" (35). This order would provide incentives and punishments for those who excelled in the factories and for those who needed to improve their working standards. This was another tactic by the Soviet Union to increase the production of certain products like the coal and steel needed to rebuild the Soviet Union. Like the collectivization of land in the villages, Order 234 also seemed like a profitable development, for the Soviets that is. East Germans realized that they did not benefit from the order and quickly began to question it.

The factory workers disapproved of the new factory developments and orders and protested against them. Ross illustrates several instances in which German industrial workers protested Soviet modifications like that of Order 234. One intense protest took place on June 17, 1953. On June 16 workers at several construction sites became frustrated with the inhumane norms imposed by the Soviets in the factories, and decided to walk out of the factories and not work. Within one day, the movement had spread to 272 cities and towns in the GDR (55). The protest was so powerful it eventually evolved to include political demands for democratic elections and unity with the West. Once again the Soviets attempted to install socialism in the grass-roots of East Germany, and once again, the East German people showed that socialism imposed from above was not welcome in their country.

Socialism not only controlled the land and the industry in East Germany, it also controlled the people, with a special interest in East Germany’s youth. As the only generation of East Germans not corrupted by the legendary Third Reich, the Soviets saw the East German youth as their clay to shape into good socialist citizens. In addition to creating a new generation of socialists, the youth would also allow the Soviets to remilitarize Soviet occupied Germany with a soviet-style military. First the Soviets had to sever all the youths’ relations with any institutions threatening socialism, in this case, the Church. "Church events were occasionally hindered by tightened police regulations; religious instruction in schools was essentially abolished with the school reform of 1951" (78). The Soviets developed organizations like the Society for Sports and Technology, a school for military training, and the Service for Germany Programme, in order to encourage youth to participate in the development of East Germany as a major Socialist power. However, like its other socialist implementations this was one was a failure as well.

Protest against the militarization of East Germany soon began. Militarization brought the fear of another war to a country that was still recovering from a war. Most interestingly, the Soviets were wrong once again, German youth was not willing to join the Garrisoned People’s Police (KVP). "What the party leadership propagated as an ‘honorable service’ in the KVP seemed more like a disgrace to many East German youths" (78). Vandalism in East Germany also showed the opposition of youths toward joining the KVP. Google marcuse 133c to find where this has been published on the web. Ross states that some of the youths saw the militaristic training and discipline in the KVP no differently than that which had been imposed during the Third Reich and in fascist countries. The Soviets had finally accomplished the unthinkable. Ironically, the Soviets attempted to diverge from Nazism and educate the East German youth with socialist values, but ended up implementing a Nazi-style military.

In addition, as a protest to the Soviet occupation of East Germany, many East Germans also resisted social transformation through other means. When the Soviet Union rolled into East Germany, the doors to the world closed for this country. Many people, as Ross indicates, involved themselves in a black market in which they would find products and items denied by the Soviet Union. When the Soviets implemented the quotas of wheat on farmers during the early collectivization years, the black market provided scarce crops. Another very popular form of protest was fleeing to the West, known as Republikflucht. This was more common and easier to do before 1961, when the Berlin Wall was built. Ross indicates that many of the middle class farmers, who were not able to pay the high taxes imposed by the Soviet Union for not to joining the Agricultural Co-operatives (LPGs), left their property and began a new life in the West. There is no better way to defeat socialism than to drive away its people, its labor source.

The best way to maintain a large labor source, and in this case socialism as well, was with the construction of a wall. In 1961 the erection of the Berlin Wall became the solution to the high emigration rates in the GDR. Nevertheless, the people continued their attack on the SED. The Wall forced the people to adjust themselves to life under socialism, but could not force them to accept it. Furthermore, the confinement of the East German people allowed socialism to grip various parts of East German life. Industry, Agriculture, and the German youth, were a few of the segments of East Germany to feel the settlement of socialism.

During the early 1960s the Soviets installed a program known as the New Economic System (NES). The purpose of NES "was to increase the efficiency and productivity through greater flexibility and a new system of ‘economic levers’: prices, profits, credits wages and bonuses" (185). After the construction of the wall, the Soviets realized that the people could no longer run away from socialism. Even then, the SED still did not have a big influence in the factories. With the NES program, the SED attempted to buy support with material wealth. The SED’s plan did not gain them support, but it did make life in the East easier for the people. "…On the whole the reports become more and more sanguine by 1964, especially in the better-paid branches of industry" (187). The acceptance of the NES allowed for the growth in production output which concurrently increased the standard of living, making the NES more appealing. Besides the success of the NES, the SED did not achieve complete control of the shop floor, forcing it to settle for partial control, a big improvement compared to the period before the wall was established.

The Soviets developed a plan similar to the NES for the agricultural sector of East Germany. After the development of the Berlin Wall, when the Soviets knew that farmers like the factory workers, had nowhere else to go but to stay and live life under socialism, they developed a program called "rationalization." "…The idea was to improve yields with increased mechanization and specialization…allow for a more efficient use of machinery, [and] also of forcing recalcitrant and ‘uncooperative’ Type I LPGs finally to develop meaningful collectives" (189). Once again the SED understood that the people wanted to a better standard of living and ‘rationalization’ would provide it. Rationalization called for the clustering of LPGs in order to use machinery more effectively. This method increased agricultural production, which caused the standard of living to rise as well. The SED also used this to try to prove to farmers that collectives were more efficient than individual farming, and to try to gather support. Like the factory workers, the villagers were only interested in their own economic interest, showing that their support for ‘rationalization’ did not mean they supported the SED.

German youth, like the villagers and the factory workers, also were affected by the rise of the Berlin Wall. Ross has classified German youth as the most opposed to the SED. He justifies this by stating that it is mostly those who were born after the construction of the wall who were the most active in bringing it down in 1989. Nevertheless, socialism did manage to partially dominate them with the implementation of conscription. With the Berlin Wall in full operation, people refusing to enlist could no longer escape to the West, leading the success of conscription. Conscription was derived from the KVP, except that conscription attacked German youth with stronger blows by forcing everyone to do it. "Few were willing to risk their careers by refusing to enlist, and in any event it no longer seemed as unattractive once everyone had to do it" (200). Like in the villages and in the factories, the SED was only able to achieve partial control of the youth. German youth praised Western popular culture and there was nothing the SED could do about it. Neither the SED nor the Berlin Wall were able to deprive German youth of the pleasures of Western popular culture.

Although socialism attacked the East German people with great force, the East Germans did not go down without a fight. The Soviets planned and implemented program after program for the construction of socialist ideals, but these plans backfired on the Soviets. Through protest, crime, and Republikflucht, East Germans opposed essentially every program proposed by the Soviets. It was not until the construction of the Berlin Wall when the Soviets were able to form the foundations for socialism in East Germany. With the help of a wall and a totalitarian regime, the Soviets reformed East German industry, agriculture, and the people themselves. To the East Germans’ credit, it took socialism about twenty years to firmly grasp East Germany, due to their strong opposition to socialist ideals imposed from above. It was not until the Soviet Union decided to trap East German citizens with a cement wall, when socialism finally began to settle in East Germany.


Caldwell, Peter. Dictatorship, State Planning, and Social Theory in the German Democratic Republic. (Cambridge,U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 200 pages. UCSB: HX280.5.A6 C35 2003. Provides an analysis of the social theories proposed during the 1950s to contradict the socialist state in East Germany.

Dennis, Mike. The Rise and Fall of the German Democratic Republic. (Harlow England; New York: Longman, 2000) 334 pages. UCSB: DD286.4.D46 2000. History of the GDR in East Germany from its origins to its fall in 1989.

Epstein, Catherine. "The Making of the GDR, 1945-1953: From Antifascism to Stalinism and Constructing Socialism at the Grass-Roots: The Transformation of East Germany, 1945-1965." Rev. of Constructing Socialism at the Grass-Roots: The Transformation of East Germany, 1945-65, by Corey Ross. The Journal of Modern History 74 (2002): 446-450.

Forsyth, William. "Constructing Socialism at the Grass-Roots: The Transformation of East Germany, 1945-65." Rev. of Constructing Socialism at the Grass-Roots: The Transformation of East Germany, 1945-65, by Corey Ross. The English Historical Review 116 (2001): 1016.

Nicholls, A.J. "Historians and Totalitarianism: the Impact of German Unification." Rev. of Constructing Socialism at the Grass-Roots: The Transformation of East Germany, 1945-65, by Corey Ross. Journal of Contemporary History 36 (2001): 653-661.

Richards, Michael. "Constructing Socialism at the Grass-Roots: The Transformation of East Germany, 1945-65." Rev. of Constructing Socialism at the Grass-Roots: The Transformation of East Germany, 1945-65, by Corey Ross. German Studies Review 25 (2002): 639-640.

essay by Armando Godinez, Feb. 2004; prepared for web by H. Marcuse, 3/24/04
back to top; to Hist 133c essay index page; to Hist 133c homepage