This week I want to begin shining a light on the militarization of East German society, a subject that I’ll return to from time to time in the coming weeks. Here I want to present a couple of items in my collection which are related to the Combat Groups of the Working Class (Kampfgruppen der Arbeiterklasse (KdA)), a volunteer, paramilitary organization formally under the control of the GDR’s Interior MInistry (and which contained the notorious State Security Service (Stasi). The Combat Groups were made up largely of male members of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) who were organized into units at their workplaces (factories, state offices, collective farms, etc. but not, interestingly, educational institutions). Like army reservists, Members of the Combat Groups of the Working Class (to use the official GDR jargon or Kaderwelsch) met after work or on weekends several times a year for uniformed combat training and exercises. I think my interest here stems from the contrast between how military preparedness seeped into so many aspects of East German life and the way in which this contrasts with my own lived experience in Canada.
“Die Internationale” as sung by members of the Combat Groups during the 1986 iteration of Groups’ annual parade in East Berlin (on the Karl-Marx Allee!)
The Militarization of East German Society
The specifics of the GDR’s place in the geopolitical landscape of the post-WW II period together with its leaders’ ideological view and war-time experiences combined to ensure that military might was a priority throughout East Germany’s history. Faced with what GDR leaders perceived as a hostile, imperialist threat from West Germany and its NATO allies, they oversaw the creation of the National People’s Army (NVA) in 1956 as a means of helping secure the country’s external borders.
In the early years of the GDR’s existence, experience with acts of “economic sabotage” directed against the “People’s Economy” and then the Workers Uprising of June 1953 helped convince the leadership of the SED that it was necessary to mount a more robust response to the domestic challenges being posed to its leadership. One of these responses were the Combat Groups.
History of the Combat Groups
The Combat Groups were formally founded in 1953 and saw their importance increase quite dramatically in the wake of the widespread revolt that took place that same June. In assessing this event, the SED recognized that workplaces such as building sites and factories had served as central organizing points for protestors. To prevent this from happening again, the Combat Groups, made up as they were of loyal Party members, were given the task of carrying out armed patrols of such assets as a way of asserting the SED’s control over these.
By 1980, 210,000 people were organized in the Combat Groups either as “Operative Reserves” or “Site Security”. Those units close to Berlin or the inner-German border were often much better armed, a reflection of the sensitivity of their locations. Members of the Combat Groups were trained on and outfitted with a wide spectrum of weapons. Typically these were items that had been retired from use by the NVA and included pistols, machine guns and, in some cases, grenade launchers and anti-tank weapons. These items were usually stored in an arsenal located in the unit’s workplace.
The Combat Groups (In)Action
In the case of war, the Combat Groups would have come under the command of the NVA, likely in the role of securing the NVA’s rear from any armed threat that might have arisen from within the GDR population. Over the years, Combat Groups were mobilized to assist Civil Defence forces in times of emergency or disaster (e.g. during the winter of 1978/79 when harsh weather condition knocked power out in wide swathes of the country). The most significant action of the Combat Groups came in August 1961 when several thousand helped secure Berlin border areas as part of the construction of the Berlin Wall. During the fall of 1989, the Combat Groups were used to provide crowd control in Berlin during the October events marking the 40th anniversary of the GDR. However, a significant number of Group members who received these orders refused to carry them out, a reflection of just how deeply the social unrest and widespread dissatisfaction with the SED regime ran in the country at that point. Indeed, the Stasi had come to the conclusion that the Combat Groups were no longer a reliable tool for implementing Party decisions as early as November 1988, an assessment which may have shaped the decision not to use these forces to confront protesters during the demonstrations of 1989.
However, while the the Combat Groups were not deployed on a large scale in 1989, they were still used by the Party to convey its position. The most vivid example of this came in an October 6, 1989 letter-to-the-editor ostensibly written by a Combat Group Commander to the Leipziger Volkszeitung, the largest circulation newspaper in the Saxon city which had become the centre of anti-SED protests. In this letter, the commander pledged:
“We, the Members of the Combat Groups, are ready and willing to protect that which our hands and labour have created and to bring to an end these counterrevolutionary activities – with a weapon in our hands if necessary!”
This last phrase was understood by many protestors as a threat directly from the Party leadership and echoed the oath taken by Combat Group members to “protect the achievements of the Workers and Peasants’ State with a weapon in hand.” Thankfully the Party leadership didn’t take this commander up on his offer and, as a result of the dramatic events in the fall of 1989, the Combat Groups were disarmed and dissolved in December 1989.
In addition to the stamp found above, my collection includes both a satin pennant given to participants in the September 24, 1983 parade marking the Combat Groups’ 30th anniversary. I bought this from a second hand shop on Bornholmer Strasse in the northern part of the Prenzlauer Berg district just down the road from the border crossing from East into West Berlin which was the first to be breached on the night on November 9th, 1989. I wonder what the former owner of this pennant made of that occurrence which took place just down the road from his home? (FYI: David Bowie references this event in “Where Are We Now?”, the nostalgic new track he’s written reflecting on Berlin and the time he has spent there.)
In addition, I also have a cap which was part of the standard Combat Group field uniform. This one was purchased from the DDR-Museum Tutow, one of the many small museums which have sprung up to remember various aspects of GDR history. I was surprised to find that it had two names inside it, the older of which was crossed out with a ball-point pen, as this suggests that the had was a “hand-me-down” and perhaps also that the unit had problems keeping its members properly outfitted. There’s no question that the Combat Groups were down the pecking order in terms of importance amongst the GDR’s security forces, but I wouldn’t have thought they’d have had any materiel issues.
Considering the Combat Groups and the “Socialist Personality”
The GDR’s leadership wanted all its citizens to display the traits of what they called a “Socialist Personality”. A person with a proper “socialist personality” would:
- have internalized the ideals of socialism (“We before the I”)
- be a patriot and an Internationalist
- be a committed defender of the socialist order.
As the self-annointed avant-garde of GDR society, SED members were expected to embody these ideals at all times and active membership in a Combat Groups was one way SEDers demonstrated their loyalty to the system. But it was certainly not the only one. Indeed, GDR society was organized, both in and out of the workplace, in such a way that encouraged and/or required individuals to live their lives in ways compatible with the prevailing socialist ideology; indeed, these state-approved options were all there was in the public sphere. The examples of this are endless, but let me enumerate some of the organizations/groups to which an average SED member would have been expected to belong. At work, this would have included (in addition to the Combat Group):
- Party Group (smallest cell of the SED; it involved regular meetings both during and outside of working hours)
- Possibly a post with the Free German Trade Union Association inside the workplace – as another “transmission belt” of SED ideology, the leadership here were almost exclusively Party members and their work was not so much to advocate the workers’ position to plant or political leadership, but rather to try and bring workers in line with Party expectations (you’ll find this in GDR dictionaries under the entry for “thankless task”)
- Brigade of Socialist Labour – SED members were expected to assume leadership roles in these brigades, a unit of organization used in so-called “productive workplaces” (e.g. factories, collective farms, etc.). Lacking the competitive mechanisms built into a market economy, the GDR’s planners tried to replicate these impulses by organizing what they called “socialist competition” between groups of workers (brigades). The best-performing brigades received cash awards with the money used for “Brigade Outings” which were intended to foster togetherness amongst its members. Brigades were also expected to “look out” for their members, a responsibility which was, depending on the circumstance and one’s perspective, another example of the social controls all-pervasive in the GDR and/or a genuine manifestation of concern and support.
At home, the SED member would have been expected, at the bare minimum, to actively participate in:
- a House Community (Hausgemeinschaft) – this included all residents of an apartment and coordinated the regular cleaning of any garden and common areas (sidewalks, stairwells, etc.)
- Subbotniks – projects to improve public spaces (e.g. playgrounds, gardens, etc.) using volunteer labour
- Activities of the German-Soviet Friendship Society – the largest of the GDR’s mass organizations, it oversaw a program of activities throughout the year.
And holiday time frequently offered no reprieve as vacations would frequently have been taken with co-workers and their families at holiday camps affiliated the FDGB or, in the case of larger combinates, with the place of employment.
From my perspective, the extent to which the GDR laid claim to its citizens’ time seems remarkable. This practice by the Party can be interpreted in several ways. Many would argue that it reflects the “totalitarian” thrust of East German socialism, a desire to control every aspect of its citizens’ lives, and there is certainly more than a grain of truth to this view: by creating so many “duties”, the Party had a very clear idea of who was doing what and when they were doing it.
I think, however, that perspective needs to be tempered with an understanding of the vibrant, Weimar-era working class milieu out of which the SED leadership often came. Here, social solidarity was particularly strong with many worker-run organizations providing support to those class brothers in need of assistance or coordinating social activities for workers and their families. That the GDR leadership wanted to replicate these experiences certainly speaks to the paternalist impulses of the leadership, but it doesn’t necessarily strike me as all that surprising or sinister. An interesting aspect of the history is that, if one speaks to or reads the recollections of members of the “Construction Generation”, a great many of these older East Germans have fond memories of the solidarity and sense of belonging that these centrally-steered activities helped create. That said, there were certainly many – both Party members and not – who resented the frequent intrusions into their private lives and I have read a number such accounts over the years.