Roter Okt - Tuch

Souvenir scarf from “Festival of Red October”, ‘Capital of the GDR, October 1977’; note the signatures, a popular way for attendees to personalize their souvenir (photo: Jo Zarth).

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the “October Revolution” in Tsarist Russia, a date of particular importance on the East German calendar. As the Soviet Union’s most loyal ally, the GDR went to considerable lengths to demonstrate its fealty to the Communist cause and commemorating this event was a key part of that ritual.

On the 60th anniversary of “Red October” in 1977, the leaders of the German Democratic Republic, the revolution’s self-proclaimed German heirs, were not going to let occasion pass without giving it its proper. So from October 19-22, 1977, the country’s official youth organizations, the Free German Youth and Young Pioneers, held “The Festival of Red October” in East Berlin. The festival brought together tens of thousands of East German young people with 4,000 representatives of the Komsomol, the Soviet Union’s official youth organization, for for a full program of cultural events, showcases of their work and a review of past achievements.

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Luther Statue - Wittenberg Town Square - 1980

Statue of Martin Luther, Wittenberg Town Square, spring 1980 (photo: D. Hendricksen)

As today is Reformation Day, it seems an appropriate moment to turn our attentions to the GDR’s relationship to Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), the German theologian generally credited with having been one of the key figures in setting this transformative process in motion.

“Grave digger of the nation”, “servant of the princes”: these were but two of the epithets popularly directed at Luther by East German ideologues and cultural leaders, at least in country’s early years. Hewing close to a Marxist-Leninist reading of German history, GDR historians understood Luther as the “seed of the German misery” which would later blossom into fully formed disaster with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

While this position softened somewhat by the mid-1970s and some of Luther’s contributions to German culture came to be grudgingly acknowledged by the Socialist Unity Party (SED) apparat, the reformer remained nevertheless an ambivalent figure in East German cultural life. That is, until 1980 when East German leader Erich Honecker labelled the medieval monk “one of the greatest sons of the German people.” (pg. 3. Berliner Zeitung, June 14-15, 1980) It was a reassessment which caught many, in particular his SED comrades, off guard.

What was behind this change and what were the results?

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Gorbachev bust

Bust of Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of Soviet Communist Party during the Wende period in the GDR (photo: author)

It was embarrassing to his East German hosts: every time Mikhail Gorbachev, head of the Soviet Communist Party and guest of honour at the GDR’s 40th anniversary celebrations in East Berlin in early October 1989, set foot in public, GDR citizens would inevitably begin chanting his name: “Gorbi! Gorbi!” Particularly bold ones even cried out “Gorbi save us!” Add to this Gorbachev’s public chiding of his Socialist Unity Party  (SED) allies for their reluctance to implement meaningful reform of their version of “real existing socialism” (“Danger only lies in wait for those who do not react to life!”) and its safe to say the party did not unfold as the Party had hoped. Read More

With the fall season rapidly approaching, so too is the anniversary of the Wende, the German term meaning “turn” which refers to the events in October and November of 1989 which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the GDR.

 

Demontagebuch 1

To mark this occasion, GDR Objectified is pleased to announce a Wende-themed contest, the winner of which will receive a copy of Leipziger Demontagebuch, a book published in the Saxon metropolis in 1990 which brings together hundreds of private photos of the demonstrations which brought East German state socialism to its knees along with a chronicle of events and a number of insightful essays (in German only!).

To learn how this piece of German history can be yours, read on . . . Read More

peace-day-wandzeitungelement.jpg

“My workplace: where I fight for peace”, poster from a portfolio of propaganda elements produced in 1989 (photo: author).

The GDR marked the World Day of Peace, September 1st, from its earliest days, with Party leaders seeing it as a platform to advance its politics and justify its place of primacy. In the immediate post-war era, the idea of peace was decidedly concrete for Germans and it occupied a key place in the GDR’s self-legitimization, but this argumentation ran right through to the country’s late stages.

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Sandman doll with bag

Sandman doll with his bag of sand, 25 cm (photo: J. Zarth).

Surveying the landscape of post-unification German culture, it is hard to find many examples of cultural products from the GDR-era which still have a place in the new Germany.

In fact, I can only come up with two: the Sandmännchen, the subject of today’s post, and the Ampelmännchen, the distinctively East German pedestrian crossing lights. (ed. note: I find it rather remarkable that Ampelmännchen survived given that its design was inspired by a photo of the GDR’s Panama hat loving leader Erich Honecker. Considering the thoroughness with which remnants of the SED dictatorship were erased from the eastern German public space in the 1990s, how this escaped attention baffles me still today. But I digress . . .)
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Happy May Day! This traditional working class holiday was the political and social highlight of the East German calendar for Party loyalists and a day off for everybody else. Regardless of the city or town, May Day in the GDR was marked with a parade by workers (attendance mandatory!) and the armed forces past a grandstand of Party notables after which the authorities rewarded this display of open loyalty with a well-lubricated street festival.

"May, Labour, Peace": Soviet May Day greeting card circa 1985.

“May, Labour, Peace”: Soviet May Day greeting card circa 1985.

Watching this clip from the last May Day of the SED-era below, it strikes me that May Day 1989 could well have been the last time the GDR leadership was able to project their power without earning any pushback. Read More

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