Britain and the GDR: Political and
Economic Relations, 1949–1989
Official political and economic relations between Britain and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) were only established in early 1973—almost twenty-five years after the founding of the East German state in October 1949. However, due to Britain’s important and jealously guarded position as one of the four occupation powers in Berlin, London never ignored the developments in the eastern zone of Germany. Both before and after 1973, British governments of all persuasions remained deeply distrustful of the unelected East German government and opposed to its authoritarian and undemocratic political system. In particular, during the 1950s very little contact existed between Britain and the GDR. In April 1954, after the Soviet Union had declared the GDR a sovereign country, Britain, France, and the United States felt the necessity to publicly reiterate the western world’s strategy towards the GDR. They announced that they would ‘continue to regard the Soviet Union as the responsible Power for the Soviet Zone of Germany’ and were thus not prepared to ‘recognise the sovereignty of the East German regime which is not based on free elections’. The three allied powers did ‘not intend to deal with it as a Government’. Moreover, they were convinced that this view would ‘be shared by other states who, like themselves, will continue to recognise the Government of the Federal Republic as the only freely elected and legally constituted government in Germany …’.1
However, in practice British–East German relations changed somewhat towards the end of the 1950s. This was mainly due to the Berlin crisis (1958–62) and then, in the 1960s, to an improving international climate brought about by the beginning of the era of détente. Increasing pressure on policy-makers from Labour and Conservative backbenchers who favoured exploiting trade opportunities with East Germany also played an important role. At the same time the GDR regime was waging an active
1 Joint Declaration by the three western Allied High Commissioners on 8 April 1954. Quoted in Public Record Office, London (hereafter, PRO): FO 371/189 154/RG 1011/4, 17/2/1966.