A Glimpse of Freedom: Allied Occupation and Political Resistance in East Germany
Jonas Jessen, Luis R. Martinez, and Guo Xu

``so long as [the masses] are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware that they are oppressed’’

George Orwell - 1984

Countries experiencing declines in civil liberties and political rights have outnumbered those with improvements for more than a decade. In many of these countries, overt political opposition carries a risk for people’s freedom, integrity, and lives. Theoretical models predict that if the expected gain from a regime change is larger, people’s willingness to rebel against the current regime will increase. However, in non-democracies the alternative may not be clear if the regime was to fall. Thus, the lack of alternative to the status quo can play a key role in explaining political opposition in authoritarian regimes.

In Martinez et al. (2023), we show that a short exposure to better governance and disciplined occupying forces can increase resistance to autocratic rule in the early stages of nation-building. We focus on the early years of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), which emerged from the Soviet-administered occupation zone in Germany after World War II. At the time of Nazi surrender, around 40 percent of the prearranged Soviet occupation zone was occupied by the Allied Expeditionary Force led by the US and the UK. We conduct careful historical and archival research to reconstruct the exact line of contact at the granular municipality level and demonstrate the idiosyncratic nature of the line. The line separated Western Allies and Soviet forces at the end of the war within East Germany and, as a result, part of the area assigned for Soviet occupation remained under Western Allied rule for around two months before the Soviet takeover, while the rest experienced Soviet rule throughout. (For simplicity, we henceforth use the term “Allies” to refer to the Western Allies, formally the Allied Expeditionary Force, comprised mostly of military units from the United States and the United Kingdom.)

We use a spatial regression discontinuity design to study the effects of a fleeting exposure to Allied occupation on protest incidence during the 1953 uprising, meaning that we compare protest incidence within municipalities just on either side of the Allied and Soviet line of contact. Municipalities that were initially occupied by Allied forces were approximately 15 percentage points more likely to experience protests during the 1953 uprising in the GDR. This is a large effect, corresponding to 68 percent of the sample mean. The findings are remarkable due to the short-lived nature of the treatment, with the Allied occupation lasting at most three months, averaging 75 days. We validate our findings with a large set of robustness checks, including placebo lines based on randomly drawn divisions based on salient geographical features to corroborate that our results are unlikely to have arisen due to chance.

To study persistent effects of Allied exposure, we collected data on more than 1,300 mayors to show that Allied-appointed mayors were quickly replaced after Soviet takeover. We additionally fielded a survey among residents of the former GDR to gain insights into the policies associated with the short-lived Allied occupation. In line with the historical narrative, we find that Allied occupation is more positively perceived and that it is associated with better governance. Other mechanisms find less empirical support: we identify no differences in exposure to radio signals from the sector that could have fostered opposition to the Soviet-supported GDR regime, we see no differential impact on public good provision in the GDR, and, using data from 1946 Berlin elections, we also show that the local population did not simply become more attached to the initial occupying force (``victor effect’’).

Our study provides evidence for the importance of initial conditions for nation-building. Limited exposure to alternatives to the status quo may play an important role in explaining the lack of costly political opposition in non-democracies. Even a short exposure to better governance and a more disciplined occupying force can increase subsequent resistance to autocracy.


You can access the full paper from: DOI: 10.1257/app.20200456

Reference: Martinez, Luis R.,  Jonas Jessen, Guo Xu. 2023. "A Glimpse of Freedom: Allied Occupation and Political Resistance in East Germany." American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 15 (1): 68-106.

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