GDR History

Propaganda and the cult of personality in the early GDR

The Soviet Occupation Zone, later the GDR, was considerably shaped by the policies of the Soviet Union and the personality cult of Stalin. However, with the succession of Nikita Khrushchev came the process of so-called »de-Stalinisation«. In this blog post, you will find out what this process looked like and how it changed the GDR. (23 Apr 2015)

The establishment of the Soviet Occupation Zone

After the Second World War in Europe had ended with the surrender of the remnants of the Wehrmacht on 8 May 1945, the four Allies – France, Great Britain, the USA and the Soviet Union – each occupied a zone of occupation in Germany. The respective spheres of influence had been determined months earlier at the Yalta Conference by the heads of government of the main Allied powers. Josef Vissarionovich Dzhughashvili, better known by his »fighting name« Stalin, played a significant role in the division of Germany and the resulting post-war order in Europe. In the Soviet-controlled part of Germany, the Soviet Occupation Zone (SBZ), political structures along Soviet lines were immediately installed. Stalin was at the zenith of his power as long-standing General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and as Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR from 1946. For several decades he had a decisive influence on the politics of his country. The personality cult that arose around him in the Soviet Union had a corresponding effect on the Soviet Occupation Zone and the young GDR.

The personality cult of Stalin

In honour of Stalin's 70th birthday on 28 December 1949, the print media went into overdrive. The Russian magazine »Neue Welt« devoted the entire December issue to the »Great Leader« Stalin. In Berlin-Mitte, Alte Frankfurter Strasse was renamed Stalinallee. In the following years, representative and modern buildings in the style of »Socialist Classicism« were to be built there. The 1952 book »Die Stalinallee: Die erste sozialistische Strasse der Hauptstadt Deutschlands Berlin« (Stalinallee: The First Socialist Street in the Capital of Germany Berlin) documents the construction work in propaganda terms with numerous photos as well as text and map material.

In the summer of 1950, the Ironworks Combine East was built east of Berlin. The residential city for the workers was named Stalinstadt in honour of the great role model and was prototypically regarded as the »first socialist city«.

Postcard of Stalinstadt

A few months after Stalin's death in March 1953, many workers in the construction brigades around Stalinallee went on strike to express their displeasure against the demanded increase in work standards. The regional protest movement culminated days later in the nationwide popular uprising of 17 June 1953, which could only be brought under control by the GDR government with Russian help and many deaths and injuries. Ironically, the protest movement began at the place that was emblematic of the cult of personality around Stalin in the GDR.


Stalin's successor, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, gave a speech at the XXth Party Congress of the CPSU in February 1956, in which he criticised the personality cult around Stalin and the crimes of the 1930s – the time of the Great Terror, to which several million people fell victim. In this way, Khrushchev pushed for »de-Stalinisation« and at the same time secured his own integrity and position of power. Subsequently, monuments to Stalin were dismantled throughout the Eastern Bloc. Streets, squares and cities were also renamed.

After the Wall was built, de-Stalinisation took concrete shape in the GDR. The five-metre-tall Stalin monument on the avenue of the same name in Berlin was demolished and melted down in the autumn of 1961. The street was renamed Karl-Marx Allee and still bears this name today.

Stalinstadt becomes Eisenhüttenstadt

The model city of Stalinstadt, which had been created on the drawing board, was also renamed Eisenhüttenstadt on 13 November 1961. In the print media, especially in the central organ »Neues Deutschland«, a break with the person of Stalin can also be seen. For example, while the term Stalin appears a total of 3218 times in Neues Deutschland in 1951, ten years later there are only 348 entries. The following year, there were only 55 mentions. History books from this period also downplay Stalin's importance for the period between 1925 and his death in 1953. In year 9 history books from 1977, Stalin is mentioned in passing, with a clear focus on Marxism-Leninism, the working class and the party. The Stalin model had become outdated. Incidentally, Khrushchev's secret speech from 1956 was also published in the GDR at the time of the fall of communism. Dietz Verlag printed the speech manuscript in 1990 and published the book.

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