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(A ubiquitous plastic red carnation: the flower of May 1st in the GDR photo: Jo Zarth).

A May Day recollection from Friedmut Wilhelm, a Lutheran minister who served several parishes in the GDR before emigrating to Canada in the 1970s: “Our son Markus was born on the first of May, so of course there was a demonstration march every year on his birthday. And that march passed by our house in the little town where we lived, so we told Marcus that everyone was coming by to wish him a happy birthday. We explained that there would be music and that people would get a Bockwurst, which they did so that they’d come out and march. Anyway, we’d park ourselves at the fence and wave at everyone as they passed by, me the local pastor giving his blessing to the masses from the garden gate!” (May 27, 2018)

For my earlier post with the full story of Friedmut Wilhelm, his wife Gundula and their family, please click here.

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RadioGDRheader728x450With apologies to all on Facebook who will have seen this, I did an interview about the GDR Objectified blog with Radio GDR, a very fine podcast which shares my fixation with “the first socialist state on German soil”. If you’re interested, you can listen to it by clicking here.

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“Musik Hans Tappert” in Leipzig’s Eisenbahnstrasse (formerly Ernst-Thälmann-Strasse) circa 1999 (photo: author).

The relationship of East German young people to Western popular culture, in particular pop music, is an aspect of GDR history that often comes up in work exploring this era. I’ve written about this a few times on this blog, but while reading Peter Wensierski’s The Unbearable Lightness of Revolution (my translation, sadly available in German only), his book examining anti-state youth culture in late 80’s Leipzig, I came across a passage which opened a window onto the logistics of acquiring one of the relatively hard-to-come by East German releases by Western acts. That it referred to a music shop that in 1999 still sat down the street from my Leipzig flat, largely unchanged from the old days (see photo above), was an nice bonus. Read More

To mark the 57th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall, here are some memories of Gundula Wilhelm, a retired pastor’s wife from Alberta, Canada. Gundula and her family moved to East Berlin in 1952 so that her father, a Lutheran pastor, could serve the zum Vaterhaus parish on Treptow’s Baumschulenweg, just a short stroll to the border dividing the two halves of the city.

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Berlin August 13, a publication of Federal Republic of Germany’s Ministry for All-German Affairs, here in a revised and expanded version in April 1965 (author’s collection)

“It was wonderful growing up in the Berlin of that time. When we arrived in the city, the border was still open of course, so you could go over on the S-Bahn [commuter train, ed] any time you wished,” remembers Gundula.  “You might be unlucky and get searched, but that never happened to me. We had close relatives over there though, so we were over often. In fact, we were in the West visiting a cousin on August 12, 1961, but came back to the ‘lovely’ East that evening. We woke up the next morning to the sound of tanks passing by our house on their way to the border just up the road. And from that point on, you couldn’t go across, simple as that.” (Interview with author, May 27, 2018)

While we are familiar with these sad stories of the immediate consequences of the Wall’s construction, it was the account of the years that followed shared by Gundula and her husband Friedmut which I found most fascinating as they help bring to life the atmosphere that the couple and their circle of young friends experienced in the aftermath of the Wall.

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Friedmut and Gundula Wilhelm, May 27, 2018 (photo: author)

When asked to characterize his approach to dealing with Communist authorities, Friedmut Wilhelm, a retired Lutheran pastor who largely grew up in the German Democratic Republic and served parishes there from 1966 to 1979, is matter of fact: “We simply refused to play the game by their rules.” (Interview between author and Friedmut Wilhelm, September 5, 2017).

It’s a telling remark and one that I would contend is the key to understanding how the Lutheran Church in the GDR persisted in the face of forty plus years of hostile rule by the Socialist Unity Party (SED). This post is based on three interviews I conducted with Friedmut Wilhelm and his wife Gundula over the past number of months and it relates experiences they had as a clergy couple in rural East Germany between 1966 and 1979. While the Wilhelms’ story is theirs alone, I suggest that it is an example of the church’s – or more accurately, some of its clergy’s – dogged determination  to maintain independence from direct state control, an attitude which allowed the Lutheran Church to help facilitate the peaceful revolution of 1989 which brought an end to both the GDR’s state socialism and the Cold War. Read More

Check out part II of GDR Objectified’s Field Trip to Halle an der Saale. In this visit, we finish exploring the Neustadt, a socialist-era district on the city’s western edge which was once home to nearly 100,000 residents. We’re joined by Micha B., an eastern German who grew up there, so there’s some insider perspective on this fascinating place!

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