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The Contemporary World

1945 to the present


After World War II, a new world order came into being in which two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, played the leading roles. Their ideological differences led to the arms race of the Cold War and fears of a global nuclear conflict. The rest of the world was also drawn into the bipolar bloc system, and very few nations were able to remain truly non-aligned. The East-West conflict came to an end in 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent downfall of the Eastern Bloc. Since that time, the world has been driven by the globalization of worldwide economic and political systems. The world has, however, remained divided: The rich nations of Europe, North America, and East Asia stand in contrast to the developing nations of the Third World.

The first moon landing made science-fiction dreams reality in the year 1969.
Space technology has made considerable progress as the search for new
possibilities of using space continues.




SINCE 1945


see also: United Nations member states -


Even after the defeat of the Nazi regime, Germany was seen as the "key to Europe." Due to its economic potential and strategic position, it became hotly contested between West and East. This brought with it the î partition of the country. The symbolic focus of the Cold War (p. 532) was the city of Berlin, a city partially controlled by Western forces in the middle of the Soviet occupation zone. In 1989 the fall of the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate became the symbol of the demise of the Communist state system.


East Germany: The Ulbricht Era 1948-1971

The Stalinist government of East Germany had to struggle against popular resistance to it among the people. Consolidation was only possible through coercion.


1 Walter Ulbricht (1893-1973), a founder of the German Communist Party, was the first secretary of the Socialist Unity party of Germany from July 1953, the same year the German Democratic Republic was accepted into the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, the Soviet counterpart to the Marshall Plan.

1 Walter Ulbricht

The Socialist Unity party had presented the first five-year plan in 1951.

In 1952 the Western allies rejected Stalin's suggestion for a neutral Germany, so the aim of Soviets became the integration of East Germany into the Eastern Bloc. The establishment of an army posed economic difficulties for the young republic, which were to be solved by overtime and the reduction of wages. Resistance in the party and society was broken through "cleansings" and repression.

When the party increased the work requirements for industrial factories in May 1953, uprisings took place in Berlin and almost all other large cities on 2 Uune 16 and 17—the first people's rebellion in an Eastern Bloc country.

4 Soviet tanks suppressed the uprising, and in its wake, the state government bolstered the secret police of the Ministry of State Security—a force referred to as the "Stasi"—headed by 6 Erich Mielke.

2 Uprising in East Berlin; a burning police station, June 17, 1953

4 Uprising in East Berlin; Soviet tanks at Potsdamer Platz, June 17, 1953

6 Erich Mielke, minister of state security
in the GDR from 1957-1989, in 1980

East German government minister (1907-2000), was the long-time head (1957–89) of the German Democratic Republic’s dreaded ministry of state security (Stasi), a secret police and espionage agency that scrutinized every aspect of East German domestic life, persecuted and arrested suspected dissidents, and ruthlessly suppressed all forms of dissent through a network of tens of thousands of official operatives and civilian informants, many of whom were forced to spy on their families and friends. In 1993 Mielke was deemed physically unfit to stand trial for his actions as director of the Stasi, but he served two years in prison (1993–95) for the 1931 murder of two police officers.




Minister Mielke and Stasi generals singing

East German government
official name Ministerium für Staatsicherheit (German: “Ministry for State Security”)

secret police agency of the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany). The Stasi was one of the most hated and feared institutions of the East German communist government.

The Stasi developed out of the internal security and police apparatus established in the Soviet zone of occupation in Germany after World War II. The law establishing the ministry, whose forerunner was the Kommissariat 5 (modeled along the lines of the Soviet KGB), was passed by the East German legislature on February 8, 1950, four months after the establishment of the German Democratic Republic. The Stasi, whose formal role was not defined in the legislation, was responsible for both domestic political surveillance and foreign espionage, and it was overseen by the ruling Socialist Unity Party. Its staff was at first quite small, and its chief responsibilities were counterintelligence against Western agents and the suppression of the last vestiges of Nazism. Soon, however, the Stasi became known for kidnapping former East German officials who had fled the country; many of those who were forcibly returned were executed.

Under Erich Mielke, its director from 1957 to 1989, the Stasi became a highly effective secret police organization. Within East Germany it sought to infiltrate every institution of society and every aspect of daily life, including even intimate personal and familial relationships. It accomplished this goal both through its official apparatus and through a vast network of informants and unofficial collaborators (inoffizielle Mitarbeiter), who spied on and denounced colleagues, friends, neighbours, and even family members. By 1989 the Stasi relied on 500,000 to 2,000,000 collaborators as well as 100,000 regular employees, and it maintained files on approximately 6,000,000 East German citizens—more than one-third of the population.

In addition to domestic surveillance, the Stasi was also responsible for foreign surveillance and intelligence gathering through its Main Administration for Foreign Intelligence (Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung). Its foreign espionage activities were largely directed against the West German government and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Under Markus Wolf, its chief of foreign operations from 1958 to 1987, the Stasi extensively penetrated West Germany’s government and military and intelligence services, including the inner circle of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt (1969–74); indeed, the discovery in April 1974 that a top aid to Brandt, Günter Guillaume, was an East German spy led to Brandt’s resignation two weeks later.

The Stasi also had links to various terrorist groups, most notably the Red Army Faction (RAF) in West Germany. During the 1970s and ’80s, the Stasi worked closely with the RAF and cooperated with Abū Niḍāl, Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (commonly known as Carlos, or “the Jackal”), and the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Stasi also allowed Libyan agents to use East Berlin as a base of operations for carrying out terrorist attacks in West Berlin. Following the bombing of a discotheque in West Berlin (April 1986) that killed two U.S. servicemen, the Stasi continued to allow Libyan agents to use East Berlin as both a base of operations and a safe haven.

Soon after the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the East German legislature passed a law to reconstitute the Ministry of State Security as the Office for National Security (Amt für Nationale Sicherheit); however, because of public outcry, the office was never established, and the Stasi was formally disbanded in February 1990. Concerned that Stasi officials were destroying the organization’s files, East German citizens occupied its main headquarters in Berlin on January 15, 1990. In 1991, after considerable debate, the unified German parliament (Bundestag) passed the Stasi Records Law, which granted to Germans and foreigners the right to view their Stasi files. By the early 21st century, nearly two million people had done so.

Joel D. Cameron

Encyclopaedia Britannica


Under massive pressure, the 5 nationalization of agriculture into production cooperatives and of businesses into people-owned enterprises was carried out.

The level of production, however, did not improve, which fanned opposition to the government among many parts of the population. The short political "thaw" after 1956 did not alter the inadequate situation. The most visible form of resistance was citizens "voting with their feet"—leaving the country.

It was determined that 3 sealing of the borders was necessary to save East Germany from economic collapse, and on August 13,1961, construction of the Berlin Wall was started.

Many citizens lost their lives trying to cross the wall.

In the following years, the import of food from the Soviet Union to East Germany provided some relief. The political system opened itself slowly and economic reforms led to briefly to a mood of new beginnings.

5 A former manor is divided into lots and given to industrial workers, 1945

3 Sign at the border between East and
West Germany



Walter Ulbricht

Walter Ulbricht

German communist leader

born June 30, 1893, Leipzig, Germany
died August 1, 1973, East Berlin, East Germany

German Communist leader and head of the post-World War II German Democratic Republic, or East Germany.

Ulbricht, a cabinetmaker by trade, joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 1912 and during World War I served on the Eastern Front, deserting twice. After the war he entered the new Communist Party of Germany (KPD). A bureaucrat and organizer, he was elected to the party’s central committee in 1923. With the rise of Joseph Stalin, Ulbricht became instrumental in Bolshevizing the German party and organizing it on a cell basis. He became a member of the Reichstag (parliament) in 1928 and led the Berlin party organization from 1929.

After the accession of Adolf Hitler to power in Germany (January 1933), Ulbricht fled abroad, serving for the next five years as an agent of both the KPD and the Comintern in Paris and Moscow and in Spain during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), all the time relentlessly persecuting Trotskyites and other deviationists. Back in Moscow at the start of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union (1941), Ulbricht was assigned to propagandize German prisoners of war and process information from the German army.

Returning to Germany on April 30, 1945, Ulbricht helped reestablish the KPD and was charged with organizing an administration in the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany. He played a leading role in the merger of the KPD and the SPD into the Socialist Unity Party (SED; April 1946), which controlled East Germany until 1989.

On the formation of the German Democratic Republic (October 11, 1949), Ulbricht became deputy prime minister, adding the post of general secretary of the SED in 1950. When President Wilhelm Pieck died in 1960, the office of the presidency was abolished and a council of state instituted in its stead. Subsequently, Ulbricht became chairman of the council, thus formally taking supreme power. He crushed all opposition and became so powerful that he was able to block the de-Stalinization movement that swept eastern Europe after the death of the Soviet dictator. Only after the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 did the government finally begin to ease its strict control and permit a certain amount of economic liberalization and decentralization. East Germany became one of the most industrialized countries in eastern Europe, yet Ulbricht remained implacably opposed to the Federal Republic of Germany. Forced to retire as first secretary of the SED in May 1971 when the Soviet Union opened new relations with West Germany, he retained his position as head of state until his death.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



"Voting with the Feet"

In the first year of the German Democratic Republic, 130,000 of its citizens fled to the West; in the year of the 1953 uprising, it was 330,000.

In total, some 2.5 million people—a seventh of the population, of which 60 percent were employed—had left East Germany by the time the wall was built.

GDR border officials arrest a citizen
who was trying to flee through
the sewage system, 1962




East Germany: The Honecker Era 1971-1989

The supply situation improved, yet due to its high debts, East Germany was dependent on the West. The refusal to reform led to the demise of the state.

East German general secretary 11 Erich Honecker, who took office in 1976 after the death of Walter Ulbrich, proclaimed "real existing socialism"—meaning that one should no longer hold off for a coming communist paradise but should attempt to improve contemporary living conditions.

11 Erich Honecker, front, at the eighth party meeting of the SED,
June 15, 1971: In front of the committee, from left to right:
Stoph, Brezhnev, Ebert, Sindermann

In fact, the national income of the country rose steadily until it reached its highest level in 1975, giving East Germany the highest 12 standard of living in the Eastern bloc.

10 Housing reform was implemented; while West Germans spent 20 percent of their income on rent, an East German spent only five percent.

Medical care was free, and family support led to an increase in the birth rate.

In 1974, East and West Germany were welcomed into the United Nations together, and the equal participation of both states in the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) was a successful step on the way to international recognition. In September 1987, when Honecker was received in Bonn by West German chancellor Helmut Kohl with all the honors of a state leader, de facto recognition had been acknowledged.

The country could not finance the desired increase in social spending, however. Due to inadequate modernization, productivity stagnated. The finance gaps were bridged by credits from the West. In 1983 Bavarian prime minister Franz Josef Strauss provided a billion-mark loan, which gave the East Germans some breathing space. Wages once again rose, yet there was less and less to buy.

The average citizen had to wait ten years for a car, and the only choice was the locally manufactured and poor quality Trabant, known as the 9 Trabbi.

12 Uniforms of the GDR youth organizations Young Pioneers and Free German Youth Organization (FDJ), 1972

10 View from within the ruins of the newly constructed buildings for the social housing program in Berlin, ca. 1955

9 A "Trabbi", ca. 1970

Television sets were present in 90 percent of the households, however, and most of them could receive broadcasts from the West.

In response to the growing discontent, the state government increased 7 propaganda and the development of the Stasi.

The expatriation of the politically critical singer Wolf Biermann in 1976 pushed the East German cultural elite into the opposition.

Under the protection of the church, the environmentalist and 8 peace movements gathered.

In 1984, 32,000 citizens applied for permission to leave the country; by 1988, this figure had risen to 110,000. Honecker's refusal to implement the reforms recommended by Mikhail Gorbachev proved disastrous and within a few months would bring the East German regime crashing down in ruins.

7 Honecker portrait on display, 1986

8 Members of the peace movement
demonstrate in Dresden, 1987



Erich Honecker

Leonid Brezhnev kissing Erich Honecker in 1979; Bruderkuss - Michail Gorbatschow und Erich Honecker

German politician

born Aug. 25, 1912, Neunkirchen, Ger.
died May 29, 1994, Chile

communist official who, as first secretary of East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, or SED), was East Germany’s leader from 1971 until he fell from power in 1989 in the wake of the democratic reforms sweeping eastern Europe.

The son of a miner who was an official of the Communist Party, Honecker joined the Communist Youth Movement at the age of 14 and in 1929 became a full party member. By trade he was a slater. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, he organized illegal activities by young communists in various parts of Germany. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1935 and sentenced to 10 years’ hard labour for “preparing treason.” He refused to repudiate his communist convictions.

In 1945 he was freed by the Soviet Red Army as it swept across eastern Germany, and he quickly caught up with those German communists who had been trained in the Soviet Union to set up a communist government in the Soviet-occupied zone. He was one of the founders of the Free German Youth movement (Freie Deutsche Jugend, or FDJ) and was its chairman from 1946 to 1955.

He was elected a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1946 and was one of the prime movers behind the fusion of the Communist and Social Democratic parties in East Germany into the newly formed SED. In 1961 he was put in charge of building the Berlin Wall. His influence in the SED grew rapidly, and in 1967 he was designated as the successor to the East German leader, Walter Ulbricht. He became leader of the SED in 1971 and chairman of the Council of State in 1976, thus heading both party and government. Under Honecker’s rule, East Germany was one of the more repressive but also one of the most prosperous of the Soviet-bloc countries of eastern Europe. He allowed the growth of some trade and travel ties with West Germany in return for West German financial aid. His wife, Margot, was minister of education in the East German government.

Having lost the support of the reform-minded Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the aged and inflexible Honecker was forced to resign in October 1989 when confronted with massive prodemocracy demonstrations in East German cities. In the face of growing public agitation, he was then charged with abuses of power and other crimes. In ill health, he was released by the German authorities in 1993 and allowed to go to Chile, where he died.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



Commercial Coordination

Since the 1960s the Stasi officer Alexander Schalck-Golodkovski had built up a shadow economy empire to supply foreign currency for the servicing of foreign government debt.

Rubbish was imported, and expropriated antiques, weapons, and the blood of East German citizens were exported. Political hostages who were bought free by the Western powers were also a source of income.



see also: United Nations member states -



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