The party emblem represented the handshake between Communist Wilhelm Pieck and Social Democrat Otto Grotewohl when their parties merged in 1946

The Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) (German: Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands) was the governing party of East Germany from its formation in 1949 until the elections of 1990. The SED was created in 1946 from a Soviet-influenced merger between the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) members and the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) members who lived in the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany and the Soviet-occupied sector of Berlin. After 1990, the party reformed itself as the Party of Democratic Socialism (later in 2005, the Left Party.PDS), and continues to be a notable force in German government on the state and local levels in former East German territory.

Early history

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The poster reads: To learn from Stalin means to learn how to win. Later, the word Stalin was replaced with the USSR. During the Gorbachev days, the famous slogan was finally abandoned, as SED did not believe there was anything to learn from the perestroika-era USSR

Official East German and Soviet histories portray the merger between the SPD and KPD in the Soviet sector 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 (see External Links, below) indicates that the former KPD and SPD members created different factions within the SED and remained rather 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, the early SED party apparatus frequently became effectively immobilised as former KPD members began discussing any proposal, however small, at great length with the 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 military governments.

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 provincial SED parties realize that they should think carefully before opposing the political positions decided upon by the Central Committee in Berlin.

The Cold War Era

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

The Final Days

An SED Membership Card.

Between the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the election in March 1990, the old Social Democratic Party was re-established as a separate party, while the rump of the SED that remained after a massive plunge in membership was renamed as the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) at a special party congress in December 1989. In this form, the party survived the reunification and eventually started growing again, managing to get representatives elected to the Bundestag. As of 2003, the PDS remains influential in eastern Germany, especially at local levels. In 2005, the PDS was renamed to "Die Linkspartei" (the left party) and subsequently reached more than 8% in the September 2005 Bundestag election in a coalition with WASG (Electoral Alternative for Labor and Social Justice), a leftist break-away group (from the SPD) led by Oskar Lafontaine.

The Party Congresses

The 1st Congress

The first Party congress (Vereinigungsparteitag) was the union congress. It convened in April 21th 1946. The Socialist Unity Party of Germany was founded 21th April 1946 by 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 refused consistently in the three western occupation zones, where both parties remained independent. The union of the parties was thus only effective in the Soviet zone. The Socialist Unity Party of Germany was modelled after the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In the year 1946, the unification was announced in the Soviet occupation zone with an emblem of a handshake. After that the first flag was adopted on the meeting of the union in East Berlin.

The 3rd Congress

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This SED poster informs the viewer about the Third SED Party Congress which will be held on July 1950

The Third SED 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: Volkseigene Betriebe--VEB). These enterprises incorporated 75% of the industrial sector.

The 6th Congress

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

The 7th Congress

During his report at the seventh party congress in 1967, Honecker had called for a return to the 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 has been plagued with power shortages and traffic breakdowns.

The 8th Congress

Since 1971 congresses were held every five years. The last was the Eleventh 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 report. Between congresses the Central Committee could convene a party conference to resolve policy and personnel issues.

In the spring of 1971, the Eighth Party 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 nationalist 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 Party 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 East German Council of Ministers and the leadership of the FDGB, a specific program to increase living standards. The Ninth Party 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 Party Congress, for example, the East German 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 dיtente. From the East German side, the benefits were mixed. The East German 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 East Germany. 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 has proclaimed but which Bonn as of 1987 had refused to recognize.

During the Ninth Party 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 Party 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 seventy- six-year-old Albert Norden were returned to the Politburo 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 Politburo of the CPSU, represented the CPSU at the SED congress. Honecker reiterated earlier positions on the relationship between the two Germanies, 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 Party 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 called for even greater productivity in the next five years, and he sought to spur individual initiative and productivity by recommending a labor policy that would reward the most meritorious and productive members of society.

The 11th Congress

The Eleventh Party 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. 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 Party 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 can 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.

General Secretaries of the Central Committee of the SED

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

See also