Some time ago I came across an eBay listing for a collection of certificates, awards, pins and various other relics of a life lived as a loyal citizen of the GDR. This was not that unusual as eBay is flooded with this stuff, but what made this listing intriguing was that it was claimed that the items being auctioned all belonged to one person. Interest piqued, I made a bid and was lucky enough to win out. While making shipping arrangements with the seller, I asked whether he had any information on the individual to whom all these things had belonged. “Yeah, I’ve got a couple of reports, a CV and some other stuff lying around. You want me to throw these in the box?” Uh, yeah, I did.
When the package arrived a number of weeks later, I began sorting through my purchases and was astounded by what I discovered. These items had belonged to a couple each of whom were born in the 1920s and so members of the Aufbaugeneration, or “Construction Generation”, which formed the nucleus of the regimes’ supporters. The documents which had been sent included a biography of the wife written in 1972 along with a number of evaluations the husband, a Party functionary, done by various Party organizations. The more I read and sifted through the box, the more I came to see that these items spoke not only of this couple’s experiences but could function as representative of the lives of a much wider section of East German society.
Over the next several weeks, I’ll be telling the story of this couple to the extent that my items allow it, and I hope that you find it as interesting as I do.
The Only Way Is Up: Starting at the Low End of the Socio-Economic Scale
One of the most enlightening of the documents which I acquired was a short biography for Christel B. that she prepared in August 1972 (see above). This CV was prepared in what appears to have been a standard format and includes details not only about Christel, but her husband Benno and their 1st degree relatives (parents, brothers and sisters). It’s not clear why Christel prepared this document, but I would guess that it might have had something to do her nomination to receive the “Service Medal for the Energy Sector”, an award which she was given in October 1972. Regardless of the reasons this document was prepared, however, Christel B’s short biography gives us considerable insight into her family and upbringing.
The first point of interest is related to Christel’ B. birth which took place on Oct. 25, 1925 in “Wamlitz, People’s Republic of Poland” (Short Biography of Christel B, August 3, 1972, pg. 1). This place of birth initially suggested to me that the family were part of the wave of nearly 4 million Displaced Persons which washed into the GDR with the change of Germany’s borders at the end of World War II. However, a closer look at her bio suggests that this was likely not the case.
Indeed, the earliest entries in her Work History as well as her elderly mother’s address (in Hohenlandin, a village just over the border with Poland) suggest that the geographical orbit of Christel B’s family was around the district centre of Eberswalde and the Uckermark region on the west side of the Oder River (just across the Oder River from Wamlitz). While her family may not have been refugees, there is enough detail to assume that the family belonged to the lower end of the socio-economic scale. We learn from the bio that the family held a plot of land, but that Christel’s father died in 1937, an event that would most likely have had a devastating economic impact on the surviving members of the family. That money was tight is suggested by the fact that Christel only attended school up to the 8th grade in 1940, something that would not have been at all unusual for a girl from her background, but almost certainly a necessity given her father’s passing. The teenage daughter of a single mother in this relatively poor district of Germany, Christel would have been of little help on the farm at that point so it is not surprising to learn that she found work as a domestic in the home of an area doctor to help support the family. She stayed in this job from the time she left school until 1943 when she was commandeered for work in a local munitions plant, a position she held through to 1945 (pg. 1).
Starting from Scratch: Year Zero in Soviet Zone of Occupation and the Lure of a Socialist Future
At the war’s conclusion, Christel returned to the family’s farm (Ger. – Siedlung) where she worked as a farm hand through 1949. Given the privations and upheavals of this period, she and her family were likely better off than many around them thanks to the stability and sustenance which this plot would have offered them but Christel, like so many of her generation, experienced her coming of age in an environment of shaped by privation, social and political upheaval, the destruction (physical and psychological) of the war experiences and in which the future was uncertain at best.
It was during this period back at the family farm, that, in June 1946, Christel joined the then nascent Socialist Unity Party (SED). In 1949, she struck out from the family farm and took work as domestic help in the home of a Master Butcher in a nearby village (Wen-Tornow). This biography reveals that Christel was actively involved the Party unit of the Schiffmühle, a village on the edge of Bad Freienwalde, from 1949 to 1953. Her work with this unit appears to have had career implications, for when she left her work as domestic help in 1952, Christel moved into a position as an “Instructor” with the Democratic Women’s League of Germany, a mass organization for East German women which was closely affiliated with the SED. At that time, the League was given the task of educating East German women on issues related to hygiene, health and pregnancy so it seems likely that Christel was working in this capacity. In 1953, she moved to the local SED Party Office and continued in the capacity of “Instructor” here as well, though of what it is impossible to say.
While he bio does state that she comes from a “Workers” background (pg. 1), something that was important in the GDR if you wished to advance in society, we have no indication that Christel was raised in a politically-active family. Still, her move to join the SED in this period would not have been entirely unusual. The Party openly recruited young people into its ranks and its message of equality and promises of a bright future for those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder enjoyed resonance with many struggling to subsist in the early post-war years, but in particular with the young. Given that she joined the Party only two months after its founding in April 1946, it is safe to surmise that Christel B. identified closely with the vision of Germany espoused by the SED. It seems likely that she also saw in the Party a means for social mobility and it appears that the she quickly embraced the opportunities and autonomy which allegiance to the SED would have offered her.
Based on her bio, it seems clear that she met her future husband, Benno B., at some point after 1947. Benno B. worked in the area with the German People’s Police and Border Police in the years between 1947 and 1959, positions which would have required Party membership so there would have been many opportunities for him to come into contact with Christel.
A Domestic Interlude
After only 9 months working in the SED Party Office in Bad Freienwalde, Christel’s CV tells us that she dropped this for the life of a housewife for the better part of the next 4 years (pg. 1). From the bio, it is impossible to tell why she made this move. There is no indication that she left as the result of disciplinary action by the Party, information which she would have been required to include here, but the documents also show that she became completely inactive in Party work once she left her instructor position. One might assume that this indicates that she and Benno had started a family, but there is no mention of children in any of her documents and the frequent references in the documents related to her husband to his long hours suggest to me that the couple may have been childless.
This unexplained domestic interlude came to an end in 1957 when Christel returned to the workforce for two years as a sales woman at the Consumers Cooperative, the GDR’s version of a supermarket chain, in Bad Freienwalde.
A New Beginning in a New Town: Hoyerswerda Beckons
In 1955 GDR authorities ordered construction to begin on a massive brown coal processing facility in the country’s Lausitz region. Combine “Black Pump” (CSP) would include a heating plant, gas works and a coking plant and also process lignite into the charcoal briquettes used by most GDR households for heating purposes. As the importance of brown coal increased in East Germany over time, so too did that of “Black Pump” and by 1989 the Combine had over 15,000 employees.
To house these workers and their families, the country’s second “socialist city” was erected in nearby Hoyerswerda, and the Party had no difficulties attracting people to it. While the promise of relatively well-paid work and a new apartment had broad appeal, the pioneer-like environment was particularly appealing to Displaced Persons (who were attracted to any place without locals to resent them) and ambitious individuals and/or Party loyalists for whom the project represented a chance of social advance.
From reading the documents on hand, I’d suggest that Christel and Benno B. saw their 1959 move to HoyWoy (as the town is know to locals; an amalgam of Hoyerswerda and Wojerecy, its name in the language of the local Sorbian minority) as an opportunity to get a comfortable home for themselves and contribute to a project which GDR leadership and media were selling as being central to the building of socialism on German soil.
Upon arriving in Hoyerswerda, the couple were quickly put to work in the Combine’s briquette factory. Thanks to his previous blacksmith training, Benno assumed the supervisory role of foreman of a “Collective of Socialist Labour” while Christel took on the rather unattractive sounding job of “greaser”. She stayed in this position until 1965 and it was during this period that she returned to Party work joining the briquette factory’s Department Party Organization between the years 1961-1965. In 1962 Christel’s Collective received the award “Collective of Socialist Labour” in 1962.
Now She’s Cooking With Gas: A New Challenge
In July 1965 both Christel and Benno transferred out of the briquette factory to work in CSP’s newly completed Gas Plant. Here Christel took on a role as a machinist, a position which would have required more training than her previous one and which likely included a raise in pay. While there is no doubt in my mind that personal ambition would have played a role in the couple’s move to the new workplace, this sort of career path was typical for the GDR. Indeed, the state placed a very high value on seeing to it that its workers were constantly improving their skills (the mantra of “Qualification” is found throughout documents from the work world) and the biographies of many East Germans, particularly those of from “worker families” are often filled with a seemingly endless series of courses of study (usually technical in nature).
Once established in the Gas Plant, Christel would go on to assume several positions of responsibility (Treasurer and Deputy Chair of the Women’s Committee) for her chapter of the Society for German-Soviet Friendship (SGSF). SGSF was another of the GDR’s mass organizations and designed to educate East Germans about and build respect for the Soviet Union. While there is no denying the political aims of the organization, it also functioned as a social outlet for many of its members who enjoyed the subsidized cultural and social programming it had to offer. For others, membership in SGSF was seen as a way to demonstrate the minimum allowable level of political conformity without incurring the hassle of attending endless meetings. By 1988, SGSF counted 6.4 million East Germans as members.
Christel’s move to the Gas Plant also saw her continue with her Party work, as she joined the leadership group of the Gas Work’s Department Party Organization in 1971 and continued there at the time this bio was drafted the following year. Her return to Party work coincided, perhaps not by chance, with Christel’s receipt of the award “Activist of Socialist Labour” in March 1971.
That same year, the Party acknowledged the 25th anniversary of Christel’s membership by presenting her with a leather-bound certificate of honour signed by Party leader Walter Ulbricht. In this, she is praised for her years of “loyal Party work in the the struggle for peace, democracy and socialism”.
Then on the 23rd anniversary of the GDR’s founding, October 7, 1972, Christel is awarded with her highest honour, the “Service Medal for the Energy Sector in Bronze”. This award acknowledged her years of service and “excellent performance”. I imagine that the bio prepared in August 1972 was probably part of the application process for this award and intended to allow authorities to vet her to ensure that she was an appropriate recipient of such an honour.
The only further award which Christel seems to have received at the workplace came in the form of a certificate of recognition awarded her in 1974 on the occasion of her 15th year at “Black Pump”.
A Chronicle of Our Christel
Unfortunately, I have no detailed records of Christel B. and her activities for the years after the mid-1970s. The only exception is a rather remarkable piece of ephemera entitled “A Chronicle of Our Christel” which was presented to her on the occasion of her 60th birthday in October 1985 in the name of the “Boozer Brigade ‘Seltzer and Soda'”. This piece was most likely created by a couple of the junior members of Christel’s “Brigade of Socialist Labour” at work and appears to have been dashed off without too much consideration. It includes some nice caricatures of a figure one can only assume to be Christel racing home at day’s end (‘Feierabend!’), working and enjoying a break, but the text is more illuminating as it provides some sense of how C.B. was perceived by some of her co-workers. In it, she’s labeled a “hard head” and there is mention made of how she’s “dealt with” a series of bosses over the years. The writers make reference to her reputation as being honest “to the bone” but also to her practice of working only exactly the amount of time required of her and not a minute more.
In these descriptions of Christel and her working life, we see a reflection of the workplace situation for the vast majority of East German workers. Most did their duty only to the extent necessary and absolutely no further. The GDR leadership was unable and unwilling to do much to challenge this state of affairs. Unable because their ideological claims to be operating in the best interests of the workers narrowed their room to maneuver. Unwilling because of an apprehension that imposing onerous norms or controls on the workforce might lead to the sort of unrest which had culminated in the Workers’ Uprising of 1953. By refusing to implement a stricter workplace regimen, the Party inadvertently granted workers a limited amount of agency which they used to the fullest extent possible (e.g. by challenging supervisors and doing only the bare minimum required). It’s interesting here that we see such behaviour attributed to a seemingly loyal, active Party member and this gives us some indication of the degree to which the East German workplace really was, as the joke of the time had it, governed by the attitude “We pretend to work and you pretend to pay us.”