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 . . .)
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.
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
Memorial to victims of the Wall at Berlin at Bernauer Strasse (2011, author’s photo)
No Man’s Land at Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse (2011, author’s photo)
Photo of Chris Gueffroy (bottom row right) in Bernauer Street memorial to Wall and its victims (photo: author).
Mural with image of Wall as it was at Gartenstrasse/ Bernauerstrasse in 1989 (2011, author’s photo)
Rusted bars as part of the installation marking site of Berlin Wall at Ackerstrasse/ Bernauer Strasse (2011, author’s photo)
Today is a good day to reflect on the victims of the years of German division, in particular those whose lives were lost at the Berlin Wall, as it was on this day 28 years ago that a 20-year old East Berliner named Chris Gueffroy became the final victim of the “order to shoot” in effect at the border separating the two Berlins. Gueffroy was shot to death trying to make his way across the border fortifications separating the East Berlin district of Treptow and the Neukölln neighbourhood on the West Berlin side. The pair had chosen this evening to try and make their escape in the mistaken belief that a visit to East Berlin that day by Sweden’s Prime Minister had resulted in the temporary suspension of the “order to shoot”. This had been the case, but by the time of their attempt, the Swedish PM had left town and it was back to “business as usual” at the Wall.
I happened to be studying German in West Berlin at the time of this incident and I remember it as a moment which underscored for me just how cold the Cold War had left many West Berliners. Read More
“East Germany and things happening there had been in the news all the time. We understood the seriousness of the political situation, but we didn’t let it affect our decision making. . . . There was always a feeling of tension, no one was really sure where things were going, but no one was in any panic about it as I recall.”
George Hynna with two West Berlin Police, February 1962 (photo: G. Hynna).
“End of the French Sector” – Bernauer and Swinemünder Strassen. Note how the windows in the buildings on the eastern side have been bricked up to prevent escapes (photo: G. Hynna).
East German border guard patrols the Wall at Bernauer Strasse, February 1962 (photo: G. Hynna).
The words and tone are remarkably sanguine, even with the benefit of 55 odd years of temporal distance.They come from George Hynna, a retired lawyer living in Ottawa, reflecting on the mood among his fellow students as they boarded a boat to West Germany in September 1961. Only weeks before the group’s departure, East Germany had erected the Berlin Wall, reigniting fears that the Cold War might heat up and that a confrontation over the divided city would yet serve as a trigger to armed conflict between East and West.
Hynna was part of that group of promising young Canadians who, having received scholarships from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), were headed to spend a year studying at the University of Freiburg in the southwest corner of West Germany, just across from both the French and Swiss borders. Read More
“No more fig leaves” – photo from front page of Junge Welt, Nov. 7, 1989.
As the fall of 1989 progressed and the Socialist Unity Party’s (SED) grip on power began to loosen, many of the Party’s more than 2 million members watched in disbelief as the socialist project crumbled before them. One window onto the myriad of reactions that these developments gave rise to is found in the newspapers under SED direct control. Junge Welt (Young World) was the organ of the GDR’s youth organization, the Free German Youth (FDJ), and with 1.4 million copies printed, it was the country’s largest circulation daily. My collection includes this paper’s November 7, 1989 edition, and it provides an amazing reflection of the disintegration of state socialism in the GDR just before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Anvil desk ornament produced to mark the GDR’s 25th anniversary on October 7, 1974 (photo: Jo Zarth).
On this date in 1974, the GDR marked its 25th anniversary. The item featured in this post is a miniature anvil featuring this date (7 X 1974) which was produced as a memento to mark this occasion. The GDR was always keen on celebrating itself (who else was going to do it?!) and this sort of thing was distributed as a token of appreciation to Party loyalists.
But What Does It All Mean?
First-day issue postcard from Deutsche Post in honour of Reformation-era revolutionary “Thomas Müntzer” with an excerpt from Werner Tübke’s masterpiece, Early Bourgeois Revolution in Germany, as found in the Panorama Museum, Bad Frankenhausen.
From the outside, it looks like nothing so much an 80s-era sports arena that has been placed quixotically atop a small mountain in the Thuringian countryside. However, the Panorama Museum in Bad Frankenhausen is in fact one of the few manifestations of GDR cultural policy to have survived the transition to a unified Germany essentially intact. The museum houses one item, a massive panorama-style painting by East German painter Werner Tübke which bears the name Early Bourgeois Revolution in Germany (Frühbürgerliche Revolution in Deutschland). Measuring 123 m in length by 14 m high, this monumental work includes scenes from the German Peasants’ War, a series of uprisings that took place across German-speaking Central Europe between 1524 and 1526 and which leaders of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) were eager to present as an historical antecedent to their “Workers and Peasants’ State”. Indeed the clear ideological intent with which the Panorama Museum was created makes its continued existence all the more remarkable.
Panorama Museum above Bad Frankenhausen (Goertz Verlag, 1985).