Home is where the house book is . . . Part 2

This week’s post picks up where I left off last week and examines the contents of a pair of house books I’ve acquired for two different apartment blocks in the Berlin neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg. It’s remarkable the way in which a number of facets of GDR history can be gleaned from the entries found in each of these documents . . .

Christburger Strasse 28
The credits for the house book at Christburger Strasse 28 identifying Käthe Gipson as its keeper
The credits for the house book at Christburger Strasse 28 identifying Käthe Gipson as its keeper

The house book for Christburger Strasse 28 was started on June 12, 1959 by tenant Käthe Gipson and kept by her through to November 1, 1983. Wrapped in brown kraft paper, its cover was updated at some point as the GDR emblem found here has been pasted on, presumably overtop of the original state emblem which appeared on those house books issued in the early 1950s. It includes a few pages of entries for permanent residents of the address at the front of the book and separate sections for both foreign and GDR visitors. From the markings, it appears that the local Community Police Officer monitored the book on a regular basis through to 1967, but there is nothing to suggest that the book was controlled at any point after this. Despite this, however, Mrs. Gipson continued to fill it out conscientiously including all the details called for by law.

Relatives from "Westberlin" visit Christburger 28 in 1972
Relatives from “Westberlin” visit Christburger 28 in 1972

It’s perhaps interesting to note that, over the almost quarter century covered by this register, there were only six overnight visitors from West Germany recorded (all in the mid-1970s), a sign of just how real the division of the German people was during the Cold War period. The only other visitors recorded here were Bulgarian nationals visiting a countryman who resided here from the early-1980s onward.

Kollwitzstrasse 71

The second house book is from Kollwitzstrasse 71 and it is much newer. It appears to have been started in the spring of 1989 and, tellingly perhaps, the space in which the book’ keeper was to enter his/her name is blank. Over five pages, the names, date and place of birth and details of each resident’s date of registration with the People’s Police are carefully entered, however, there are no entries for anyone’s occupations, their Personal Identity Card numbers nor details for any visitors (see below). It would be interesting to learn if these omissions reflect a slackening of the monitoring system or if they betray a difference in generational attitudes towards this task.

House books as a window onto a generational divide?
Note the missing information: compliance,non-compliance or other at Kollwitzstrasse 71?
Note the missing information: compliance,non-compliance or other at Kollwitzstrasse 71?

The contrast between the fastidious way in which Käthe Gipson kept the house book for Christburger Strasse and the more casual approach taken here is worthy of note. Given that she conscientiously kept up the house book, one can safely assume that Mrs. Gipson was, at the very least, a reliable citizen or, more likely, based on evidence we’ll see later, a strong supporter of the East German state. Looking at the handwriting found in the Kollwitzstrasse house book, it appears that this book was looked after by a woman but one from a much younger generation than Ms. Gipson. My hunch is that the differences in the way these house books were administered reflect the divergent generational attitudes towards the Workers and Peasants’ State that existed in late-period GDR. During this phase, skepticism and reserve towards the state were generally present in inverse proportion to a person’s age. That is, the older the individual, the more likely he/she was to be supportive of or sympathetic to the regime (not necessarily the avowed goal of “socialism” which enjoyed widespread popularity across all age groups), This is, of course, not that different from what one sees in other societies with those generations who have more of their lives invested in a way of life/a social order typically tending to be more positively inclined to it than those with relatively little “skin in the game.”

Socio-economic Mix of Residents

One of the hallmarks of East German life was the heterogeneous nature of its neighbourhoods in terms of social background/class of residents. With residential space administered and distributed by the state and rents standard regardless of location, the factors which combine to concentrate people of similar socio-economic backgrounds in specific geographic settings in a capitalist system were largely absent in the GDR. The entries in the Christburger Strasse house book are a fine example of this mix. Right from the initial entries of the late 50s through to the mid-80s, this building had a mix of residents. In 1959, the occupations listed included the trades (plumber, blacksmith, baker), white collar workers (bookkeeper, bank clerk, secretary) and professionals (engineers, editor, lawyer). Workers were present (crane operator, machine operator, labourer, lathe operator) but clearly in the minority and this in a neighbourhood which had traditionally been seen as a blue collar bastion. By the 80s, the mix was even more pronounced with a number of civil servants (economists, teachers, soldiers) residing here along with several university students, a musician, barmaids, sales clerk and the usual collection of retirees. Given Prenzlauer Berg’s reputation as a blue collar workers’ district, I was surprised to see how varied the occupations were, particularly in the earlier years recorded here and wonder whether the makeup of residents was a manifestation of state policies or if the district had always been considerably more diverse in its socio-economic make-up than is generally understood.

Occupational Evolution

Another interesting aspect of the occupations listed here is the way in which these reflected the way in which the East German economy evolved over time. In the first group of entries, I came across a number of professions which have since disappeared (seamstress, quilter) and others which I was simply unable to identify (Hucker, Kleberin, Kontorist – can anyone help with these?). The later entries see ever greater numbers of occupations which would require post-secondary education (Facharbeiter, lab workers, economists) and service industry roles (bar maids, cashier, etc.), a reflection of the changes in the economy and the state’s emphasis on seeing its citizens acquired advanced skills training. While traditional blue collar workers are still present (mason, truck driver), the transition to an economy marked by new technology and automation leaves its fingerprints all over the records found here.

Disappearing Housewives? Well, sort of.

A further observation has to do with the presence of “Hausfrau” or housewives over the years. Initially, there a number of women who list this as their profession, however, over time the number of women registered in this way diminishes significantly. In percentage terms (and using a method no statistics professional would endorse), 39% of the women of working age registered in 1959 (9 of 23) gave their occupation as “Hausfrau”. Of the 56 working-age women recorded in the following years (from 1960 to 1983) that figure drops to 11% (6 of 56), a development which reflects the GDR’s efforts to integrate women fully into their workforce from the late 1950s onwards.

With the exodus of some 2.7 million, mostly young and educated, East Germans from the state in the years prior to the building of the Berlin Wall, the GDR experienced a serious labour shortage and this made the mobilization of female labour a top priority. To this end, the state invested heavily in daycare spaces, gradually increased parental leave times and generally made efforts to accommodate women in the workforce. The expectation from the side of the state, and often society in general, in the East was that women were to be active in the workforce and live up to their duties as a wife and mother at home. This “Doppelbelastung” or double-burden was considerable and is often raised to counter those who argue that women in the GDR enjoyed a greater degree of emancipation than their opposites in West Germany. Be that as it may, the reality was that by 1989 92% of working age East German women were making a formal contribution to the economy through paid employment. (http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frauen-_und_Familienpolitik_der_DDR)

Test the West – Seniors on the Move

A pensioner turns her back on the Workers and Peasants State for "Westberlin" in 1964
A pensioner turns her back on the Workers and Peasants State for “Westberlin” in 1964

It is generally understood that it was very difficult, and often impossible, for GDR citizens to emigrate to the West. While the state did introduce a formal process whereby citizens could apply to leave in the 1970s, this was a drawn-out process which frequently saw applicants ostracized socially and economically during the period when their application was under consideration. The one group exempted from this process were retirees. Thanks to West Germany’s recognition of all East Germans as citizens of the West, retirees who moved to West Berlin or the Federal Republic automatically qualified for West German pension and old age security benefits. From the GDR’s perspective, such relocations were seen as benign or even in a positive light as its payments to the pensioner disappeared once the person had left the country. In the Christburger Strasse house book there are two examples of retirees who are registered as having left to West Berlin.

Moving on up to the East Side – Marzahn or Bust!
The Gipsons make the move to Marzahn in November 1983
The Gipsons make the move to Marzahn in November 1983

As mentioned in last week’s post, the decay of Prenzlauer Berg was quite advanced by the late period GDR and in many ways the district was representative of the core neighborhoods found in most East German cities. Faced with an acute housing shortage because of wartime destruction and the focus on rebuilding GDR industry in the 50s and 60s, in 1971 the Socialist Unity Party set out on an ambitious plan to “solve this social problem by 1990.” The method chosen to do this was to construct a number of new housing estates utilizing prefabricated apartments (Plattenbauten). These districts sprung up throughout the GDR and were generally coveted domiciles featuring such luxuries as central heating and hot and cold running water.

Between 1977 and the late 1980s, the largest such estate in the GDR was built on the eastern edge of Berlin around a small village named Marzahn. To be allocated an apartment here usually indicated that one was a loyal supporter of the SED and/or the GDR and so it is interesting to note that Käthe Gipson (she the keeper of the house book at Christburger Strasse 28) and her husband Hans made the move east on November 1, 1983 to take up residence in a new flat at Allee der Kosmonauten 69. Based on this change of address, I think we can be fairly confident that our assumptions about Mrs. Gipson and her positive attitude towards the system are correct and that “a deluxe apartment in the sky” (see link to Google Map photo above) was her reward for being a good and faithful servant of the regime.

Below: Georgie and “Weezie” Jefferson make their own move to the East Side

  1. What a great piece of lived history. Thanks so much, John Paul. I have a question about the mixed nature of the residents (white collar, blue collar, etc.), and whether the socialist experiment was more studied in the capital than in outlying areas. During my sabbatical in Erfurt, I noticed that on the outskirts of the city were large villas, which upon the Fall of the Wall were renovated and sold for small fortunes. I asked who lived in these during the GDR period. She told me that they were occupied by Soviet officers and Party officials, which created no small amount of resentment (according to her) by the workers. Since Erfurt was not levelled in the War, these neighbourhoods survived intact and pristine. One wonders, similarly, who occupied the posh residential neighbourhoods of Berlin (say, in Zehlendorf, where the Free University is, in west Berlin). My understanding from staying in Berlin Mitte, is that it was more prestigious to live closer to the centre of the state administration than away from it. But this would have meant living in precisely the kinds of buildings you have offered us to consider. Perhaps, though, this understanding is incorrect? In any case, what correlations do you know of between level of housing, location of housing, and party or army rank in the GDR, in Berlin and outside it? And, was there a difference between the state of affairs in Berlin and other cities? Is Second World War destruction of cities a salient variable in where people lived and why?

    • I appreciate the feedback, Harry. And thanks also for the questions. I think that your experience in Erfurt reflects the situation throughout the GDR. While all were equal in the Peasants and Workers State, some were clearly more equal than others and this was certainly reflected in housing arrangements. From what I’ve read and learned speaking with people, high-level SED functionaries and prominent public figures received preferential treatment in regards to their lodging. It should be noted that in the vast majority of cases, that individuals were not given the opportunity to purchase their homes (though some could and did) and as a result were tenants with the state as their landlord – something that would certainly have helped discourage many from biting the hand that fed!

      In the case of Berlin, up to 1960, the highest ranking Party people, including Walter Ulbricht and his successor Erich Honecker, lived on the Majakowskiring, a secure enclave in the Pankow district made up of the expropriated villas of industrialists and artists. After workers’ uprisings in the GDR in 1953 and Hungary in 1956, the leadership felt vulnerable in its urban enclave and approved the building of Wandlitz, a village on the outskirts of Berlin from which the Party elite commuted into the capital each day from 1960 onward. (Images of the leadership’s living conditions created genuine shock amongst East Germans when broadcast on GDR tv in November 1989. Though quite modest by Western standards, the sight of Western appliances, a private swimming pool and shops filled with Western delicacies rankled GDR citizens who seemed to have internalized the Party’s messaging that its leadership was truly “of the People”.)

      Lower ranking Party functionaries, including those on the Central Committee, in government posts and higher-level positions in the “Apparat” would’ve been spread out all over Berlin and, initially at least, been subject to many of the same privations as the general population. By the late 50s and early 60s, however, many would have found homes in new buildings as these were erected near the city centre (e.g. Stalinallee buildings which went up in early 50s and the Plattenbauten built on and around Alexanderplatz in the early 60s and onward). East Berlin did not have as many “upscale” neighbourhoods as were to be found in the Allied-controlled sectors, with only the Karlshorst district on the city’s eastern fringe (at least it was at the end of WW II) fitting this description. This neighbourhood was home to the Soviet Red Army barracks in East Berlin and the villas here were largely given over to the “Friends” (as the East German Apparat referred to their Soviet “partners”) for their administration and officers. After National People’s Army was founded in 1956, it was given an HQ just outside the boundaries of East Berlin proper (so as not to run afoul of the Four-Power Agreement regulating Berlin) in the town of Strausberg. As part of creating the NVA’s infrastructure, housing was built for the officers and their families in the town and these residents dominated the scene until the NVA was eliminated in 1990. Members of the Ministry for State Security, the notorious Stasi, were also geographically concentrated, in this case in the prefabricated high-rises built near the Ministry’s HQ in the Lichtenberg district. If you look at Berlin election results over the years since 1990, areas where the Linke/PDS (successor Party to the ruling SED) poll well give a good indication of those districts where the Party housed its most loyal supporters (Marzahn, Lichtenberg, Hohenschoenhausen) – not surprisingly, these tend to be neighbourhoods largely made up of the prefabricated apartment blocks which offered relative luxury by GDR standards.

      As one of your questions implies, you’re right to assume a difference between East Berlin and the rest of the country. The GDR being a centralized-state, its Apparatchiks were concentrated in the capital. While there were certainly significant numbers of Party members and functionaries in the District “capitals” (Halle, Leipzig, Dresden, Rostock, etc.), I don’t think they ever dominated specific neighbourhoods in these locations the way they did in parts of East Berlin. In the case of how those surviving villa neighbourhoods were distributed, I think the situation varied from place to place. While prominent citizens (Party leaders, state-approved artists, etc.) would have received these, I know that in many cases such houses were converted into offices for Party or government use (administration, National Front, Stasi, Houses of Culture, etc.) or given over to the “Friends”, typically to house high-ranking Red Army officers from nearby Soviet bases. However, in some cases, large villas were subdivided into flats and multiple households shared the building. (For a depiction of such a setting, see Uwe Tellkamp’s award-winning novel, Der Turm (The Tower) – sadly not yet translated into English! It is set largely in Dresden’s Weisser Hirsch neighbourhood, a villa quarter on the banks of the Elbe which survived the firestorm which largely destroyed the city in February 1945 and was the refuge of the city’s once strong “Bildungsbuergertum” (educated middle class) during the GDR period.)

      Finally, though I’ve touched on it above, you’re right that the destruction of the World War had a direct effect on where people lived and why. In many ways, the GDR never really recovered from the ruins left WW II with its cities displaying the scarring right through to unification in a way that was completely unusual in West Germany of the time. In the early years after the war, people were housed wherever this was possible. With Honecker’s ascent to power in the early 70s, the provision of housing became the #1 priority and it was only then that what we’ve come to understand as GDR city planning, with its monotonous subdivisons made up exclusively of prefab apartments, allowed the Party to really put its stamp on people’s living conditions. In some places, the building filled gaps created by the war or replaced dilapidated housing, but the vast majority of the construction ignored the legacy of the war altogether and built on fields at the edge of cities and towns, leaving older buildings often at the centre of things, to continue their decay unabated.

  2. Thanks so much for such a detailed and helpful account, John Paul. This helps me to make sense of what I saw in Erfurt, and helps me to contextualize the comments of the woman I refer to in my post. For her, housing inequities were a source of profound discontent with the regime. The neighbourhood polling correlations are fascinating and one wonders how both the state and local politicians are dealing with this present demography; surely it must be under scrutiny if not some form of surveillance. I do know that post-1989 GDR academics were required to sit before panels which ostensibly scrutinized their academic output to see if it squared with West German expectations and so warranted continuing appointment at a similar level. But in fact these were means to determine collaboration with the Stasi. One of my friends lost her position both because her output didn’t meet expectations, and because — I have heard from other sources — she was closely allied with a Stasi-connected professor, though she herself was not charged with collaboration (so far as I know).

    I will have a look at Der Turm. It looks fascinating. Thanks for the tip!

  3. Thor said:

    Re your questions on ‘Hucker, Kleberin, Kontorist – can anyone help with these’:

    – Kleberin – Literally translates as “Gluer”. Someone who works with Adhesives as in using adhesives to join parts. This would definitely have been a blue collar occupation with little required education. Generally, you’d see this in the shoe, textile or furniture industries.

    – Kontorist – one who works in a Kontor, which traditionally tends to be a small branch office or trade representation. It’s like a clerk. Some office management, book keeping, generally keeping things running kinda thing. One reason why you might see the occurrence of this increase over time is the creation of the ‘Handleszentrale’ which was tasked to be a broker of sorts between retail outlets and manufacturing.

    – Hucker – not the slightest idea. Never heard that word before.

    I was born and grew up in Erfurt in 1969 before coming to the US in 1993 😉

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