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 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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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!
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