Home is where the house book is . . . – Part 1


Recently a friend loaned me copy of German historian Karl Schlögel’s excellent book Moscow (London: Reaktion Books, 2005), the English-translation of Moscow lesen: Die Stadt als Buch (Reading Moscow: The City as Book), a work which originally appeared in 1984. In it, Schlögel used his explorations of the Soviet capital during a visit in the early 80s both as a jumping off point for a number of fascinating essays. Schlögel is a fine writer, and while this book includes excellent pieces on Russian architectural, political and social history, it is most satisfying when the author indulges his interest in the stuff of everyday life such as the signage on Soviet government buildings, second-hand bookshops, post offices and factories. Since I share his interest in such seemingly tangential matters, I found myself nodding vigorously on several occasions, but it was a passage on his methodology that resonated most clearly with me. Because it is germane to what I am trying to do with this blog, I quote him here:

“I think that since every detail has a historical dimension, being a product of its own time and bound up with its own time, it is in principle a valid document, a readable letter or even a syllable in the great text that we call history. Every age has its own signature, its own bearing, its own manner, be it flamboyant or restrained. As we know, the reading of old texts enhances our ability to find our way into a period, to gain a degree of intimacy with it. The details are given, they are deposits of stone, marble or iron . . . The text is written. We can not change anything about it. All we can do is approach it with due respect.” (pg. 291)

Amen to that, Karl.

Feeling validated, I turn my attentions to this week’s items of East German ephemera, two “house books” which testify about the society of their origin in a most informative way.

A History of the House Book in the GDR

A house book was the legally-mandated register that was kept at each residence in the GDR and which was used to record the personal information of all those who lived in, or visited, a particular address. Based on a Soviet example (the term “house book” is also borrowed from the Russian), house books were part of the state’s well-developed surveillance apparatus, a system which used uniformed police officers (see my earlier post on Community Police Officers) as well as the official and informal agents of the State Security Service (Stasi) to provide authorities with a complete picture of the goings-on in the Workers and Peasants’ State.

So-called 'Silent Porter', an apartment directory found in entrance hall in older buildings, from an apt. house in East Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg circa 1989. In lower left, note information on which resident kept the 'house book' (photo: author)

So-called ‘Silent Porter’, an apartment directory found in entrance hall in older buildings, from an apt. house in East Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg circa 1989. In lower left, note information on which resident kept the ‘house book’ (photo: author)

While Germans had long been required to register themselves and their address with police whenever they moved (a legal requirement which is still in place today, though it is often ignored), the introduction of house books The aim of the house book was to facilitate a “complete registration of the population and prevent illegal layovers and relocations.” (pg. 228 – Frank Roggenburg, Das Berliner Grenzgängerproblem (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2008). These documents contained a wealth of personal information including: the names of residents, the dates upon which they moved in and out, their dates of birth, country of citizenship, occupations, the number on their Personal Identity Cards (a document that each East German citizen over the age of 14 had to carry with them at all times and produce on demand as required by state officials), and, in the case of apartment dwellers, their specific location within the building (e.g. 4th floor, middle door).

GDR citizens who visited an address for longer than three days were required to register in their host’s house book as well and such registrations naturally included the hosts’ names along with most of the above personal information for the guest as well as details of his/her  home address. For foreign visitors with visas permitting overnight stays, it was necessary to register their details with both the local People’s Police station and in the relevant house book within 24 hours of their arrival in the country. The details required of such visitors was similar to that for GDR citizens visiting the address.

In apartments, the house book was usually kept by a tenant while the owner/resident of a private home was required to keep such a record as well. The house book could be inspected at any time by a representative of the People’s Police, its Volunteer Helpers or the State Security Service. From what I’ve been able to discern, it appears that the Community Police Officer (“Abschnittsbevollmächtigter – ABV”) was expected to monitor these documents on a fairly regular basis, but that such controls were sporadic and, in some cases, simply not carried out at all. The exception was naturally in cases where citizens were known to have hosted “persons of interest”; in such instances the house book could function as evidence confirming an attempt to conceal a relationship.

Obviously, house books would have played a role in ensuring the state remained well-informed of the whereabouts of all its citizens at all times, information that authorities could, and did, use to control “enemies of the state”. Furthermore, one can readily imagine the sort of behaviours that the intrusive registration requirements would have facilitated in some circumstances. Scanning the house books I have acquired, there is no real way to know how these might have been used as part of any repressive measures, but regardless, these books were kept in such a way that they could have assisted authorities in their campaigns of harassment, or worse.

The legal requirement for the keeping of house books was taken out of the legal code as part of the unification treaty, and individuals responsible for keeping these were asked to submit them to their local police stations, something which frequently did not take place.

My House Books and their Context: Prenzlauer Berg

I have acquired two house books from apartment buildings in the Prenzlauer Berg neighbourhood of what was then East Berlin. Built up during the second half of the 19th century, the district was a densely populated residential district for blue collar workers prior to World War II. Its distinctive five and six story tenement houses emerged from the war largely intact, however, the age of its building stock and a general lack of maintenance during the GDR period soon combined to leave the neighbourhood in a state of dilapidation and decay. Over time, many apartments were abandoned after leaks and mold rendered them uninhabitable, and by the 1970s and 80s, it was not uncommon for only parts of buildings (e.g. the lower floors) to be occupied. Some of the flats left empty attracted squatters and this, coupled with the neighborhood’s reputation for tolerance and openness, helped make it the Greenwich Village of East Germany. Photographer Jürgen Hochmuth documented the district in black and white between 1980 and 1990. A selection of photos from his excellent collection No Blue, No Yellow, No Green are found in a slideshow here. A further selection of photos from three other Prenzlauer Berg photographers (Bernd Heyden, Eberhard Klöppel, Gerd Danigel) and their books documenting the area from 1966 to 1998 found at this link are also well worth a look.

Having established the history, use and context of these items, next week’s post will see me attempt to “read” them a la Schlögel . . . Until then!

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