The first constitution of the GDR was proclaimed on 7 October 1949, based largely on a draft prepared by the Socialist Unity Party (SED) in September 1946. The 1949 constitution was intended for a united Germany and may have been written before the Soviet Union had irrevocably decided to establish a separate socialist republic in its zone of occupation. The constitution both resembled and differed from Western parliamentary democracies in various respects. With regard to state organization, the 1949 constitution resembled, at least superficially, the Basic Law (Grundgesetz) of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). As in other parliamentary-democratic systems, provision was also made for two legislative assemblies, the States Chamber (Länderkammer) and the People’s Chamber (Volkskammer), and the election of a prime minister (Ministerpräsident) by the party with the largest mandate in the People’s Chamber. The president of the GDR, like his Western counterpart, had a very limited role and was removable by a joint two-thirds majority vote in both houses.

Lawmaking was essentially the job of the Volkskammer rather than the Länderkammer, but the latter could propose draft laws to the former. The legislative process also exhibited important differences from the West German model; the East German upper house, the Länderkammer, for example, which represented the interests of the individual states, occupied a much weaker position than its West German counterpart. The Volkskammer was constitutionally defined as the highest organ of state power. Article 51 stated that the members of the Volkskammer were to be elected in universal, equal, and secret elections based on the relative majority principle. Another important difference concerned the role of political parties in the government. According to Article 92, parties with at least 40 seats in the Volkskammer, which then had a total of 400 members, had the right to representation in the government. This policy was consistent with the SED’s Marxist Alliance Policy, which stipulated that in order to achieve its aims, the party of the working class must initially work with and through other parties. It also ensured that if the SED was ever demoted to a minority position, its continued influence in the government would be safeguarded if it maintained a minimum of 40 seats. A set of basic human rights, including the right to strike (Article 14) and to emigrate (Article 10) retained features of a liberal Rechtsstaat and formally guaranteed that sovereignty would remain vested in the people.

The 1949 constitution was a compromise; it could have served either as a basis for building a socialist (and eventually Communist) society or as the basis for a democratic all-German republic. Critics have pointed out that the absence of a genuinely independent constitutional judiciary (since it and all other governmental organs were subordinated to the Volkshammer) rendered the document virtually meaningless, however. As time progressed, the authorities ignored most of its formal provisions and permitted the emergence of a centralized political order similar to that of other Communist countries, in which the state bodies did little more than rubber-stamp decisions already made by the SED and its Politburo.

Several important amendments were made at the initiative of the SED in the eighteen years in which the constitution was in force. An amendment of August 1950 eliminated state parliaments and called for the election of parliamentary deputies through the creation of a joint platform and lists organized by the National Front, the SED-dominated umbrella organization of all political parties and mass organizations. A 1952 decision replaced the five states (Länder) with fifteen administrative districts (Bezirke) that were tied more directly to the central government. (The United States, Britain, and France never recognized East Berlin as a Bezirk of the GDR.) This step effectively neutered the Länderkammer, and formed the basis for its formal dissolution by constitutional amendment in December 1958. A series of amendments known as the Law Toward the Completion of the Constitution were passed by the People’s Chamber in March 1954, when the country was formally granted sovereignty by the Soviet Union. These amendments delineated the features of the country’s new sovereignty and a formal military structure, which prepared the ground for the obligatory military service clause of 1955. Finally, upon the death of President Wilhelm Pieck on 7 September 1960, a constitutional amendment of 12 September 1960 replaced the office of President with the Council of State (Staatsrat der DDR); Walter Ulbricht became its first chairman. The same constitutional amendment also acknowledged the role of the recently formed National Defense Council of the GDR (Nationale Verteidigungsrat der DDR) in GDR defense policy.