The National People’s Army (NPA) (German: Nationale Volksarmee – NVA) was the name used for the armed forces of the German Democratic Republic. The majority of NATO officers rated the East German army the best in the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Army included, although it numbered only 120,000 men. This reputation was based on discipline, thoroughness of training, and quality officer leadership. East German officers were identified while they were still in high school and strongly encouraged to pursue a military career.
The NVA was first established in 1956 and disbanded in 1990; it did not see any significant combat. It participated in the invasion with the Soviet Armed Forces against the Czechoslovak interim government during the Prague Spring of 1968, but without seeing combat. However, there were frequent reports of East German advisors working with communist African governments during the Cold War.
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The German Democratic Republic (GDR) established the National People’s Army on 1 March 1956 which was six months after the formation of the West German Bundeswehr from the Kasernierte Volkspolizei (Barracked People’s Police). This formation culminated years of preparation during which former Wehrmacht officers and communist veterans of the Spanish Civil War helped organize and train paramilitary units of the People’s Police. Though the NVA featured a German appearance – including uniforms and ceremonies patterned after older German military traditions – its doctrine and structure showed the strong influence of the Soviet Armed Forces.
During its first year, about 27 percent of the NVA’s officer corps had formerly served in the Wehrmacht. Of the 82 highest command positions, ex-Wehrmacht officers held 61; however, very few of them had served in high ranks. The military knowledge and combat experience of these veterans were indispensable in the NVA’s early years, although by the 1960s most of these World War II veterans had retired. The West German Bundeswehr similarly relied on Wehrmacht veterans, who initially comprised the majority of its commissioned ranks.
In its first six years the NVA operated as an all-volunteer force. West Germany, in contrast, re-introduced universal military service in 1956. The GDR introduced conscription in 1962. According to the Parallel History Project on Cooperative Security:
The NVA was incorporated in the Warsaw Pact and consisted of army, air force/air defense (Luftstreitkräfte/Luftverteidigung), and the People’s Navy (Volksmarine). At its peak in 1987, the three NVA services had about 156,000 men under arms altogether. Between 1956 and 1990, about 2.5 million male GDR citizens performed army duty.
Like the ruling communist parties of other Soviet satellites, the East German Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) assured control by appointing loyal party members to top positions and by organizing intensive political education for all ranks. The proportion of SED members in the officer corps rose steadily after the early 1960s, eventually reaching almost 95 percent.
The NVA saw itself as the “instrument of power of the working class” (Machtinstrument der Arbeiterklasse). According to its doctrine, the NVA protected peace and secured the achievements of socialism by maintaining a convincing deterrent to imperialist aggression. The NVA’s motto, inscribed on its flag, read: “For the Protection of the Workers’ and Farmers’ Power”.
The NVA never took part in full-scale combat, although it participated in a support role in the suppression of the Prague Spring of 1968, and NVA officers often served as combat advisers in Africa. Some of the first NVA advisors went to the Republic of the Congo in 1973. During the 1980s at various times, the NVA had advisors in Algeria, Angola, Ethiopia, Guinea, Iraq, Libya, Mozambique, South Yemen, and Syria. When the Soviet Union prepared to occupy Czechoslovakia in 1968, the GDR government committed the 7th Panzer Division and the 11th Motorised Infantry Division to support the intervention assigned to 20th Guards Army and 1st Guards Tank Army respectively, becoming the first deployment of German troops outside Germany for the first time since the Second World War. But the East German participation raised Czech ire, and the two divisions were kept out of sight in the Bohemian forests and allowed to travel only at night. In a few days, they were withdrawn.
In the early 1970s, the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany (GSFG) high command assigned to the NVA the wartime mission of capturing West Berlin. The NVA plan for the operation, designated Operation Centre, called for some 32,000 troops in two divisions, accompanied by the GSFG’s Soviet 6th Separate Guards Motor Rifle Brigade. The plan was regularly updated until 1988, when a less ambitious plan that simply aimed at containing Berlin was substituted.
In the autumn of 1981, the NVA stood ready to intervene in Poland in support of a possible Soviet invasion, but the declaration of martial law in Poland (13 December 1981) averted the crisis.
The NVA went into a state of heightened combat readiness on several occasions, including the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, and, for the last time, in late 1989 as protests swept through the GDR.
The NVA operated as a professional volunteer army until 1962, when conscription was introduced. The GDR’s National Defense Council controlled the armed forces, but the mobile forces came under the Warsaw Pact Unified Command. Political control of the armed forces took place through close integration with the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), which vetted all the officers. Military training (provided by the school system) and the growing militarization of East German society bolstered popular support for the military establishment. From a Leninist perspective, the NVA stood as a symbol of Soviet-East German solidarity and became the model Communist institution – ideological, hierarchical, and disciplined. The NVA synthesized Communist and Prussian symbolism, naming its officers’ academy after Karl Marx’s co-author Friedrich Engels, and its highest medal after Prussian General Gerhard von Scharnhorst.
During the popular demonstrations of 1989 that led to the downfall of the GDR’s Communist government, some NVA forces were placed on alert but were never deployed against protestors. At the same time, the Soviet government ordered its troops in the GDR to remain in barracks. After the forced retirement of SED and state leader Erich Honecker and other conservatives from the ruling Politburo at the height of the crisis in October 1989, the new SED leadership never considered the possibility of using armed force against the “Peaceful Revolution”.
The manpower of the NVA consisted of some 85,000 soldiers in 1962, climbed to 127,000 by 1967, and remained essentially steady through 1970. In 1987, at the peak of its power, the NVA numbered 175,300 troops. Approximately 50% of this number were career soldiers, while the others were short-term conscripts.
According to a 1973 study, NVA leaders from the late 1950s through the 1960s came predominantly from working-class backgrounds, with few from middle-class or professional families and no representatives of the aristocracy present in the upper echelons. Excepting specialized military or political instruction, most NVA leaders reported primary school as their highest level of formal education.
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