This week’s post will wrap up my examination of the lives of Benno and Christel B., two GDR citizens from what has been labelled the Aufbaugeneration (“Construction Generation”), a cohort born between 1920-1935 which made up a significant chunk of the socialist regime’s loyal supporters. (For previous entries on this subject, see Part 1 and Part 2.) By considering a number of items and documents which once belonged to the couple I hope to illustrate a number of storylines from the GDR’s history. Here I’ll focus on the life of Benno B. after he and his wife Christel made the fateful decision to leave their Heimat northeast of Berlin for Hoyerswerda, the GDR’s second “socialist city” which sat in the relative isolation of the Lausitz, the country’s brown-coal mining region.
Benno Finds His Feet at “Black Pump”: 1959-1966
Last week we saw how Benno and Christel appear to have reached the decision to move to Hoyerswerda after concluding that life in the new city would offer them more career opportunities. Upon arrival in HoyWoy in February 1959, both Benno and Christel found work (he as a machinist and she as “greaser”(?)) in the briquette factory of the Combine “Black Pump” (CBP), a massive complex which processed the brown coal mined in the area. In the case of both Benno and Christel, they quickly took advantage of the chance offered them by the Socialist Unity Party (SED) at the CBP to upgrade their skills with Christel enrolling in courses to become a machinist while Benno worked on the qualifications to become a “Master of Socialist Industry”.
That both Benno and Christel grasped the opportunity to improve their education was typical of members of their generation, particularly those ambitious types who relocated to the “socialist cities”. The Party was constantly banging a drum on the topic of improving one’s qualifications and held out the promise of rewards for those who did (for an example of this, see pg. 1 of Stakelies, Antrag from Dec. 13, 1965- found at end of this post), a commitment that was honoured in the case of Benno B..
Indeed, once Benno had achieved “Master” status (likely by 1961), he quickly advanced in the SED hierarchy. First, he was made the leader of one of the briquette factory’s Brigades of Socialist Labour (referred to as a “Collective”, a the then-current term for the same work unit, in Stakelies, Application from Dec. 13, 1965, pg. 2) which was made up primarily of young people and women. At some point between 1959-1961, Benno’s group received the coveted designation “Brigade of Socialist Labour”, an award which was only granted during these three years and to just 3737 such collectives (see below). In addition to this leadership role on the shop floor, Benno was also drafted into the leadership group of the Party’s Basic Organization (the level closest to the grassroots) at the briquette factory. Finally, the Free German Trade Union Association, the GDR’s umbrella labour organization which ostensibly represented the workers’ interests in their dealings with the state-owned factories, recruited Benno B. to sit on its Conflict Commission.
Benno B.: Active with the Activists . . .
Parallel to Benno’s attempts to improve his vocational and political education came his work in helping establish a Combat Group (CG) unit in the briquette factory. As a veteran of the GDR’s “armed organs” the People’s Police and Border Police and a long-time Party member, Benno would have been expected to take on a leadership role within the CG and he appears not to have disappointed. Within the CG at the briquette factory, he assumed the position of Deputy Commander, a contribution that did not go unnoticed as he received the Combat Group’s “Service Medal in Bronze” on May 1, 1962 (see below).
By 1965, both Benno and Christel had translated their machinist qualifications into jobs at “Black Pump’s” newly opened Gas Plant, a move that would have been a step up from the briquette factory, a relic from the end of the previous century around which “Black Pump” had been built. For Benno, this change of scenery coincided with his elevation to the position of Deputy Secretary of the SED’s Basic Organization at the Plant; he was now a functionary with all the responsibilities and privileges which that implied and had shown himself to be “one of the reliable ones” (title of short story by Stefan Heym found in his 1990 collection of short stories “Auf Sand gebaut”/”Built on Sand”).
Based on the evaluations done of Benno during this period, it would appear that the Party was most pleased with his performance in the roles assigned to him. Benno is described as having “a selfless commitment to the Party” which is demonstrated through “the way in which he carries out every task given to him by the Party without discussion or concern for his personal interests” (Zirz, Assessment from Jan. 1967). His colleagues in the “Mechanik” working group draw attention to “his excellent understanding of how to ensure that each colleague pulled his or her weight” (Stakelies, Application from Dec. 13, 1965, pg. 2) while particular praise is also given to him for his work with the young people in his brigade: “He has been particularly successful in his work with our young coworkers, always representing the interests of our workers and providing them with help when they come to him with concerns or emergencies” (Zirz, Assessment from Jan. 1967). Lest we get the impression, however, that Benno B. has no flaws, Comrade Zirz does point out that “[Benno] is not always able to give the correct, comprehensive theoretical explanation for [Party decisions]” (Zirz, Assessment from Jan. 1967), an analysis which would likely have served to bolster his standing among most fellow Comrades as this lack of formal and/or theoretical education testified to his status as a true “son of the working class”.
Proof that the Party was paying attention to Benno’s efforts to fulfill its expectations is found in numerous awards and medals he began receiving during these years. Of these, perhaps the most notable is the Free German Youth’s “Artur-Becker Medal” (see below), an award which was the youth organization’s highest honour and that came with a cash honorarium. That Benno received the medal in bronze indicates that it was awarded him by either the the District or City chapters of the SED hierarchy. It seems likely that he received this honour for his work with the younger members of his “Brigade”/”Collective” which helps explain why a 35-year old man was receiving an award from the GDR’s youth organization.
Climbing the Ladder: 1967-1979
In 1967 Benno B. was delegated to the District Party School with the Party hoping that schooling in the “fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism” would prepare him for a greater degree of responsibility as a functionary (Zirz, Assessment from Jan. 1967). Once he completed this course of study, Benno was then passed up the hierarchy and assumed the position of First Secretary of a Department Party Organization, one level above a Basic Organization where he had previously served as a Deputy (Vent, Final Assessment from Nov. 1973, pg. 1). This appears to have gone well according to the same document (Vent, pg. 1), but after two years in this role, he returned to the position of Deputy Secretary in a Basic Organization in 1969, a position he held until 1971 when he was named First Secretary of a newly established SED Basic Organization in the Gas Plant’s maintenance department.
Benno Remains Active
The Combat Group also continued to play a significant role in Benno B’s life during these years and after his move to the Gas Plant he took on a leading role in helping to establish a CG unit here. Clearly Benno was devoted to the CG and taking on a leadership position with the group required considerable sacrifice of one’s free time. CGs met 16 weekends per year for training and ideological education, but Benno’s contribution did not pass unnoticed for on May Day 1978 he was awarded a Certificate of Honour from the SED Central Committee “in recognition of service in helping to establish and solidify Combat Groups of the Working Class”. Signed by SED First Secretary Erich Honecker, one can easily imagine that receiving this would have given Benno no small amount of satisfaction.
Benno’s Golden Year
Another notable milestone reached by Benno B. during this period was his 50th birthday on July 21, 1971. This occasion was marked not only within his family but by his work colleagues and SED comrades as well. The letters of congratulation all stick to a similar template running down aspects of his biography (as if Benno weren’t aware that he had worked at the “Black Pump” for almost 15 years or served as a Border Policeman?) and proceeding to wish him good health – primarily it would seem, in order that he could help carry out the “wonderful tasks decided on at the VIII Party Congress” (Langer, Basic Organization’s 50th birthday wishes). (see bottom of this post for the full texts of all the letters of congratulation . . .)
In the 1973 “Final Assessment” of Benno B., completed by the leadership group of the Basic Organization at the Gas Plant after his Party Schooling was done, Benno continues to get very positive reviews from his colleagues: “His personal strength lies in the areas of oral agitation. Comrade B. understands how to represent a clear class perspective in discussions and almost always manages to convince his conversation partner of the correctness of his arguments (Vent, Final Assessment from Nov. 1973, pg. 1). Also, “Comrade B. has performed well during the entire period of his work as a Party functionary at the Gas Plant. His standing, particularly among the workers, is considerable. Through his attention to detail, he has acquired respect and authority within the Party Collective. With Comrade B. it is easy to recognize that he comes from the working class and that he sees himself as a worker” (Vent, Final Assessment from Nov. 1973, pg. 1). But, it wouldn’t be a Communist assessment without some criticism. Here the “shortcomings of character” identified are Benno B’s “decidedly critical attitude towards the Intelligensia or a tendency to make hasty decisions” (Vent. Final Assessment from Nov. 1973, pg. 2). I do enjoy the first bit which evokes for me a wonderfully archetypal German worker with callused hands, furrowed face and a pronounced hostility towards the “soft eggs” who never get their hands dirty but who are somehow in charge!
By this point, Benno B. has clearly become part of the furniture at “Black Pump” and having done so, you can’t help but get the impression that things just gained a certain inevitability. Benno was not going to climb beyond where he was in the SED hierarchy, he seems to have been too unpolished (or uncompromising?) for this. But he he was a loyal foot soldier and, in lieu of material rewards, the Party rained on him, as it did to many others, a flurry of awards, commendations and medals.
Benno’s Medal marking the 30th anniversary of the founding of the GDR in October 1979 (photo: R. Newson)
The End Is Nigh: 1980-1989
As Benno approached the end of his working life, he continued on down the paths established in his younger days. He continued on as a Party functionary and worker in the Gas Plant. In 1979, he was promoted to manager of all maintenance activities here. Similarly he continued on with the Combat Group through to 1982 when he reached the 25 years of service plateau and received a special certificate marking this milestone, an achievement of some note as it granted Benno the right to claim an additional 100 Marks pension each month (a privilege that would have been revoked after unification). Other commendations which came him his way during this period were the SED Pin of Honour for 40 Years of Membership, a certificate from the Free German Trade Union Association (also for 40 years membership and signed by its notorious Chairman Harry Tisch) and the Medal of Honour on the 40th Anniversary of the Founding of the GDR.
That Benno’s status within the system remained high is testified to by the final assessment we have of him done in September 1982 when he applied to travel to either “Westberlin” or the Federal Republic. As he was yet to retire at this point, such a trip needed official approval, particularly when a Comrade was involved. All we have is the assessment and not any actual application form (sadly), so we can only infer that Benno was wishing to travel to visit his brother Werner K. who had settled in what would later become West Berlin in 1944. The work colleague tasked with preparing this evaluation continued to speak of Benno in positive terms: “By focusing on the future, giving a clear opinion and his ability to quickly assess a situation, he has become a valuable agitator and political leader, particularly for the younger colleagues” (Schneider, Evaluation from Sept. 1982, pg. 2) On the personal side of things, we learn, “Coll. B. leads an orderly family life and there is nothing negative known about his private life” (Schneider, Evaluation from Sept. 1982, pg. 2). Having established this, “The Collective approves travel to Westberlin or to the Federal Republic” (Schneider, Evaluation from Sept. 1982, pg. 2).
Who Was Benno B.? – The Limits of Archival Sources
The documents and objects I’ve used to tell the story of Benno B. clearly have their limitations given the fact that they were all generated by Party sources. While the Party may have laid claim to the totality of its members lives, expecting them to “Work, learn and live in a socialist way”, these people still had private lives of some sort and the items I’ve acquired are only part of a story, tiles in a larger mosaic. So the trick here becomes trying to determine how many pieces of the whole one has.
Of course the depiction of Benno delivered by these items could very well have been true and his job, Party work and volunteering with the Combat Group could well have taken up all his time. Indeed, there is frequent mention made of Benno’s readiness to work overtime without complaint, his considerable CG activities, of him working shifts with members of his Brigade in order to better understand them and their situation, even of his efforts to establish a relationship between his workplace and a local school. So it’s possible that Benno B.’s life and identity found their full reflection in his these documents. It might be hard to believe given all we’ve been told about attitudes towards work in the GDR, but I suppose that there were workaholics in the GDR too.
What is most troubling for me is that I find the documents and items here haven’t allowed me to come to any definitive perspective on the kind of person that Benno B. was (is?). Rather they can be understood in ways that lead in several different directions. There is plenty here to suggest that he was a decent fellow with a concern for his fellow workers, that he was ready to pitch in as needed and socially (if not intellectually) adept. But his unfailing loyalty to the Party and his dedication to the Combat Group could also point to an inveterate Stalinist, a hardliner quick to join in on a chorus of “The Party, The Party, The Party’s is Always Right”, whose recreational needs were fulfilled spending 16 weekends a year crawling through marshes on training with his Combat Group buddies and who shook his head in disbelief at the SED bosses’ unwillingness to crack some heads when protests reached threatening proportions in the fall of 1989. The truth probably lies somewhere in-between I would imagine.
“Is It Possible to Kiss in Hoyerswerda?”
Given the masses of documents and items I have, it is remarkable to me that almost none of them speak to Benno’s relationship with his wife Christel. In fact, there is only one piece that offers what might be a fleeting glimpse at the couple’s private life: it is a lapel pin from TK Mosaik Dresden, a dance club in the Saxon city about one hour’s drive from HoyWoy. Were the B’s enthusiastic dancers? Or is this evidence of a short-lived attempt to create some work-life balance and give the couple some face time? Maybe membership in the club explains why Christel raced out of work on the dot (see “The Chronicle of Christel” in Part 1 here)? Part of me likes to imagine that this pin testifies to the pair tripping the light fantastic on the parquet floor of a newly-built House of Culture in Weisswasser, Spremberg, Cottbus or some other regional site of romantic delight. With Benno’s hand firmly on placed on Christel’s back, the two move gracefully in time to the music, in tune with one another and Party Congresses and socialist competitions slowly fade into meaninglessness . . .
This image in turn directs my thoughts to an article written by Brigitte Reimann, a young East German writer who lived in Hoy throughout most of the 1960s and placed it at the centre of several of her works including Franziska Linkerhand, a novel about an idealistic young architect sent to help build a socialist city. Reimann was sharply critical of the utilitarian, soulless atmosphere she found in her adopted hometown and bemoaned the point in an article published in the early 60s entitled “Is it Possible to Kiss in Hoyerswerda?”/”Kann man in Hoyerswerda küssen?”. If the lapel pin above is anything to go by, the answer appears to be “No,” one had to travel down the road to Dresden for that sort of thing.
WHAT DO YOU THINK? – POLL: You’ve read the post & the documents, so was Benno B. a . . .
ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS and their TRANSLATIONS
Nomination for Award for Benno B. on Occasion of SED’s 20th anniversary – Dec. 1965
Assessment of Comrade Benno B. by Basic Organization, Gas Plant Party Secretary – Jan. 1967
In January 1967, the Party nominated Benno B. to attend the District Party School for a period of study to prepare him for a position of greater responsibility within the SED Apparat. This nomination necessitated an evaluation of Benno and this was prepared by the First Secretary of the Gas Plant’s Basic Organization, Mr. Zirk.
50th Birthday Wishes – July 14, 1971
On the occasion of Benno B’s 50th birthday, he received a number of letters of congratulation from various instances at “Black Pump”. There are translations below, but the general gist of each is that he should stay healthy in order to help achieve the goals laid out by the Party at the recently held VIII Party Congress of the SED. These people knew how to have a good time.
Letter of Congratulations on Occasion of Benno B’s 25 Years in the Mining Industry – Sept. 1973
Bizarrely, Benno B. only arrived at the Combine “Black Pump” in February 1959, so there was some sort of mistake here. It’s possible that he was to receive a certificate for 15 years as he would have almost completed that, but this is an inexplicable wrinkle in things . . .
Final Assessment of Benno B. by the Deputy Secretary, Basic Organization at Gas Plant, “Black Pump” – November 1973
Having completed his study at the District Party School and promoted to the position of First Secretary of the Gas Plant’s Basic Organization, it was necessary for a final evaluation of Benno B. and his performance during this process. This was completed by Benno’s Deputy Secretary in the Basic Organization, a Mr. Vent, in what might have been a bit of an awkward process. Though given the Communist, and SED, practice of issuing open, constructive criticism to one another at all times, perhaps I’m just being overly sensitive.
Evaluation of Comrade Benno B. regarding his Application to Travel to Westberlin/Westgermany – September 1982
The final drafted document we have on Benno B. is an evaluation of his suitability to travel to Westberlin or Westgermany (as GDR-ese had it; to separate the adjective from the noun would have implied that the GDR and its capital Berlin – Capital of the German Democratic Republic (as East Berlin was known) were only parts of a whole and not stand alone entities themselves). It was likely that Benno wished to travel to capitalist Berlin to visit his older brother Werner who had settled there during WW II. It is unlikely that Christel would have received permission to join Benno as the Party typically kept one spouse in the country as a measure to ensure the other returned from abroad.