German Democratic Republic, Armed Forces

Soldiers of the Guard Regiment Friedrich Engels marching at a changing-of-the-guard ceremony at the Neue Wache on the Unter den Linden in Berlin.

The armed forces of the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany) included the Nationale Volksarmee (NVA, National People’s Army), the Grenztruppen (Border Troops), units of the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (MFS, Ministry of State), the Volkspolizei (VP, People’s Police), the Kampfgruppen der Arbeiterklasse (Combat Groups of the Working Class), and the Zivilverteidigung (Civil Defense). The NVA was, however, the heart of East Germany’s national defense structure. In July 1952 the armed military police force was transformed into the Kasernierte Volkspolizei (KVP, Garrisoned People’s Police), predecessor of the armed forces of East Germany.

The rearmament of East Germany was made public in May 1955 in conjunction with the foundation of the Warsaw Treaty Organization (Warsaw Pact), which was itself a response to the incorporation of a rearmed Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany) with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that same month. On 18 January 1956, the East German parliament, the Volkskammer (Chamber of People’s Deputies), established the NVA and the Ministry of National Defense (MFNV). By 1 March 1956, the command authorities of the new army reported their operational readiness.

The NVA was organized in three military services: ground forces, consisting of two armored and four motorized rifle divisions (1987 peak strength of some 106,000 troops); air force/air defense, consisting of three divisions (1987 strength some 35,000 troops); and the People’s Navy of three flotillas (1987 peak strength of approximately 14,200 men).

At its inception, the NVA was a volunteer army. Only after the August 1961 construction of the Berlin Wall was the framework for compulsory military service created. It went into effect in 1962. Until spring 1990, there was no specific provision made for conscientious objectors, and all able-bodied East Germans served a minimum and compulsory eighteen-month tour of duty. In 1964, however, it became possible to satisfy the conscription requirement as a so-called construction soldier.

East Germany’s close association with Soviet military models and the state’s strong desire to establish unquestioned political supremacy quickly transformed the NVA into an army of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). Almost all NVA officers were members of the SED, and a network of political officers and members of the state security apparatus provided the required political indoctrination and supervision of the rank and file.

The NVA was equipped in accordance with the recommendations of the Joint Armed Forces Command of the Warsaw Pact. Thus, from 1962 the NVA received Soviet short-range missiles, and although it did have means of delivering nuclear weapons, the nuclear warheads remained in Soviet custody. Also in 1962, the air force became part of the unified air defense system of the Warsaw Pact. Beginning in 1963, the navy was equipped with Soviet missile patrol boats and landing craft capable of conducting offensive operations in the Baltic Sea.

In the prelude to the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, several NVA training exercises allowed Soviet forces in East Germany to be deployed elsewhere and provided cover for the general Warsaw Pact troop buildup. Although two NVA divisions were prepared to take part in the actual invasion, they were not requested. NVA participation was limited to a small liaison team at Warsaw Pact headquarters within Czechoslovakia.

The East German minister of defense commanded the Joint Warsaw Pact maneuvers in 1970, code-named WAFFENBRÜDERSCHAFT (brothers-in-arms), which were conducted on East German territory—proof positive that East Germany had been successfully integrated into the alliance.

In spite of the official policy of détente, combat capability and readiness were increased during the 1970s and accelerated in the early 1980s after the end of détente. In case of war, the NVA would reach a personnel strength of some 500,000 troops and would become part of the 1st and 2nd Front within the 1st Strategic Echelon. Under the command of the Soviet main force, attacks were to be launched on the territories of West Germany, Denmark, and Benelux. A special force supported by combat groups, border troops, and police readiness units were to invade West Berlin.

As civil unrest in Poland increased during 1980–1982, one NVA division was kept on alert should an invasion have been required. During the domestic crisis and disorder during the Velvet Revolution in October and November 1989, “groups of one hundred” were formed, comprising a total of 20,000 troops, to support East German police forces. The operation was conducted to secure buildings and institutions from damage or destruction.

Between 1989 and 1991, there was an initial phase of disorientation that in January 1990 was followed by demonstrations and strikes in more than forty garrisons. The NVA leadership stabilized the situation by making concessions and launching reforms. The disbanding of the political machinery within the armed forces and the introduction of democratic structures based on the rule of law after the first free elections in East Germany in March 1990 caused more uncertainty vis-à-vis the role and place of the NVA. Sweeping democratic-style reform was carried out against the backdrop of the still unsolved issue of whether there would be two armies on German territory after the reunification.

After the Soviet Union agreed to the reunified Germany’s membership in NATO, the end of the NVA was sealed. On 24 September 1990, it was removed from the military organization of the Warsaw Pact and was officially disbanded on 2 October. On the day of reunification, 3 October 1990, the Bundeswehr (Federal Armed Forces) of Germany integrated more than 89,800 former NVA members and 48,000 civilian employees.

References Childs, David. The GDR: Moscow’s German Ally. Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1983. Forster, Thomas. The East German Army: The Second Power in the Warsaw Pact. Translated by Deryck Viney. Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1980. McAdams, A. James. Germany Divided: From the Wall to Reunification. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993. McCauley, Martin. The German Democratic Republic since 1945: East and West. New York: St. Martin’s, 1986.

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