Was East Germany Ever Really a Country: Thoughts on the Problem of Sovereignty

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Today in 1955, East Germany became a sovereign country. Officially sovereign according to the Soviet Union that is. At that time, the German Democratic Republic was still occupied by the Red Army, its capital city of East Berlin remained legally under the control of a council of the four Allied powers, and as a state it was only recognized by the USSR, fellow Eastern Bloc countries, and Yugoslavia. So was it a sovereign country or not?

Whether or not a country exists is a deceptively simple problem. When you look at the map of the world, at first glance it seems to be neatly divided into clear and distinct sovereign units. Yet, there are six United Nations member countries that are not recognized by at least one other UN member nation and at least ten other entities that claim to be sovereign countries that lack widespread recognition. Not to mention more than 150 border disputes

Although it was founded in 1949, only twenty years later in 1969 was East Germany first recognized by a non-socialist country and it did not gain universal diplomatic relations around the globe until 1975 after the signing of the Helsinki Accords. While the GDR, along with West Germany, was able to join the United Nations in 1973, it was not until the 2+4 Agreement, signed on September 12, 1990 that the Allies officially relinquished their rights over German territory. Before it actually came to force, on this day in 1990, the East German Volkskammer voted 299-80 in favour of the Unification Treaty with the Federal Republic of Germany. Before the GDR could attain full sovereignty, its representatives voted it out of existence.

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East German flag flying at the UN in 1973

The strange history of East Germany and its almost perpetual quasi-sovereign status highlights just how important a wide variety of symbols and markers are in determining if we perceive a country to exist. As Frank Zappa so eloquently put it:

“You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline – it helps if you have some kind of football team, or some nuclear weapons, but in the very least you need a beer.”

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No shortage of East German beers.

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