The German Democratic Republic (1949 - 1990)

The black, red and gold flag of the GDR bearing the state emblem of a hammer and a pair of compasses inside a wreath of wheat ears.

The black, red and gold flag of the GDR bearing the state emblem of a hammer and a pair of compasses inside a wreath of wheat ears. (© ZB - Fotoreport)

The German Democratic Republic (GDR) regarded itself as the first Socialist state on German soil, the governmental structure of which was to be based on the principles of ‘democratic centralism’, in other words on the principles established by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin for the leadership of Communist parties. The representative assembly of the GDR, the Volkskammer or People’s Chamber, however, remained an exceptional phenomenon in the development of German parliamentary democracy. The process of creating the People’s Chamber ran parallel to the creation of the German Bundestag, and it was conceived as an alternative model to that of the Bundestag, although it was unable to dispense entirely with the conventions of liberal constitutional parliamentary practice.

The People’s Chamber

The People’s Chamber was the fruit of People’s Congresses. The first of these congresses took place in December 1947 and was designed to be a cross-party assembly representing the entire people of post-war Germany. In March 1948, the second German People’s Congress elected the German People’s Council, a consultative and decision-making body that was to function in the periods between People’s Congresses. Its structure, comprising a presidium and committees, foreshadowed that of the People’s Chamber. On 7 October 1949, the Provisional People’s Chamber of the GDR was constituted from members of the third People’s Congress.

At the sittings of the plenary chamber, which served as a constituent and legislative institution, decisions were taken on fundamental political issues, including the state economic plans, which had the status of laws from the second electoral term onwards. Besides its own Presidium, the People’s Chamber elected the chairman and members of the Council of Ministers of the GDR, the chairman of the National Defence Council, the president and judges of the Supreme Court and the Attorney-General. The People’s Chamber laid down the principles governing the activities of these state authorities. These authorities, like the representative assemblies in the municipalities, counties and districts, were accountable to the People’s Chamber.

Leadership role of the SED

Regardless of this assignment of responsibility to Parliament, however, from 1968 onwards the Constitution prescribed a leadership role for the Socialist Unity Party (SED), which possessed the unrestricted and final authority to determine who could stand as a National Front candidate for election to the People’s Chamber, which was defined in turn as the “expression of the exercise of power by the workers led by the working class and its Marxist-Leninist party”. Accordingly, polling results did not reflect the level of popular acceptance of party policies but served to demonstrate the propagated ‘unity of party and people’, to which end the authorities did not even shrink from electoral fraud.

The venues where the People’s Chamber met reflect the status accorded to the people’s representative assembly in the state structure of the GDR. The constituent sitting of the Chamber in 1949 was held in the headquarters of the German Economic Commission, which had previously housed the Reich Ministry of Aviation. From 1950 onwards the Chamber sat in the main auditorium of the Langenbeck-Virchow Building. Once the GDR obtained international recognition in 1973, there was a desire to place new emphasis on the importance of the representative assembly. From 1976, plenary sittings were held in the Palace of the Republic, although the People’s Chamber shared the new building with a theatre and leisure facilities.

Distribution of seats

Before 1963 the People’s Chamber had 466 members, and thereafter it had 500. These were elected for terms of four and five years respectively. They were supposed to reflect the “political and moral unity of all classes and categories of the people under the leadership of the working class and its Marxist-Leninist party”. The people’s representatives were a group of citizens selected by the political functionaries to typify what they regarded as the best elements of Socialist Germany. Their rights and duties as members of parliament were defined in a catalogue set out in the Constitution of the GDR, the principle of honorary mandates being strictly applied. Members enjoyed no independence in the exercise of their mandates; on the contrary, the parties and mass-membership organisations that existed in the GDR until 1989 were allocated a predetermined number of seats on the basis of a distribution formula, which ensured that the predominance of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) was not jeopardised until the first free elections to the People’s Chamber. Besides the SED, these parties and organisations were the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Liberal Democratic Party of Germany (LDPD), the National Democratic Party of Germany (NDPD) and the Democratic Peasants’ Party (DBD) as well as the Free German Trade Union Federation (FDGB), the Democratic Women’s Federation of Germany (DFD), the Free German Youth (FDJ) organisation, the Cultural Association (Kulturbund), the Association of Victims of the Nazi Regime (VVN) and, for a time, the Association for Mutual Agricultural Assistance (VdgB).

Sittings of the People’s Chamber

First and foremost, the sittings of the People’s Chamber symbolised the political unity of the people and the state, even though they purported to have a decision-making function. Whereas 50 sittings were held during the first electoral term, in its eighth term the Volkskammer sat only 12 times. The work of the Chamber was directed by the Presidium, to which the Volkskammer secretariat was subordinated. All of the parliamentary groups in the People’s Chamber were represented on the Presidium, but the office of President (Speaker) was held by an SED member, Horst Sindermann, from 1976 until 1989. The Council of Elders was dissolved in 1974. After the death of the first President of the GDR, Wilhelm Pieck, the country was no longer legally represented by an individual head of state but by the State Council (Staatsrat). Legislative bills were discussed by the 15 parliamentary committees, while the Council of Ministers was responsible for the implementation of the economic plans and for foreign policy. The first free and democratic elections to the People’s Chamber on 18 March 1990 were also the last, for on 23 August 1990 a total of 299 out of 380 Volkskammer representatives approved the Unification Treaty.