Desperately Seeking Secretary: Reflections on Notions of Labour and Autonomy in the GDR

One of the interesting things about writing this blog has been the way my assumptions about the “Workers and Peasants State” have been challenged from time to time and this week’s post is a fine example. In it I’m going to look at responses to a “job wanted” ad placed in the Berliner Zeitung newspaper by an unidentified female resident of East Berlin on February 12, 1980  as I think these contradict a number of stereotypes that many of us in the West hold about how labour was (or wasn’t) organized in the GDR and the degree of autonomy which individual workers had within East Germany’s planned economic system.

Secretary envelopes

The letters I’ll be looking at here were supplied to me by a friend (thanks Uli!) who acquired them a number of years ago while living on Berlin’s Karl-Marx Allee. When he mentioned these documents and their contents, I was more than a little surprised as the idea that GDR workers advertised their labour in the pages of one of the country’s mass circulation dailies suggested that the country’s labour market took forms that seemed at odds with my understanding of the rigidities of the GDR’s centrally-planned economy. How was it, in a system, where a central office literally dictated the number of ingots a foundry produced or how many university spaces were to be opened in Slavic studies, that an individual worker could hang up his/her sign and see what the market would bear?

"The modern office" circa 1966 - photo from: Karl Hecht „ Der Mensch neben Dir“ Physio-psychologische Grundfragen der Leitungstätigkeit Urania-Verlag Leipzig Jena Berlin 2.Auflage 1966

“The modern office” circa 1966 – photo from: Karl Hecht „ Der Mensch neben Dir“ Physio-psychologische Grundfragen der Leitungstätigkeit Urania-Verlag Leipzig Jena Berlin 2.Auflage 1966

Labour, Scarcity and Power in the GDR

It turns out that assumptions that the GDR’s “command economy” extended into the labour market are largely misguided. The reasons that the state didn’t enjoy such control over its workers were several. First and foremost, the GDR faced a labour shortage throughout the country’s entire existence. This was caused by a number of factors including a scarcity of working age men as a result of World War ii (either through having been killed or incarceration in POW camps) and then the flight westward of a significant portion of the country’s working age population in the years before 1961 when the Berlin Wall effectively sealed the border between East and West.

To deal with the the shortage in manpower, East German authorities pursued two different policies. First, they worked to bring more women into the paid workforce by a) creating the necessary infrastructure (primarily daycare spots, but also more convenient shopping options and expanded maternity benefits) and b) by promoting the idea of a “duty to work” through PR campaigns and legislative measures. The second approach used by the GDR to address its labour shortage was to import workers from other socialist nations (e.g. Vietnam, Cuba, Poland, Mozambique) for short term work in the industrial and agricultural sectors. This labour situation meant that GDR workers, particularly those with skills, were in considerable demand and gave them a degree of leverage in finding a workplace that corresponded to their expectations and needs.

So-called "Contract Employees" from Mozambique in an East German textile factory in the 1980s (photo: Bundesarchiv, Matthias Hiekel)

So-called “Contract Employees” from Mozambique in an East German textile factory in the 1980s (photo: Bundesarchiv, Matthias Hiekel)

Another way the East German labour market favoured East German workers was the state’s reluctance to implement workplace changes that would have required greater worker productivity or efficiency. In Jeff Kopstein’s excellent work The Politics of Economic Decline in East Germany – 1945-1989 (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), he makes a compelling case that the Socialist Unity Party’s inaction on this front had its roots in the June 1953 uprising which was fuelled by discontent over the Party leadership’s decision to increase workplace norms (the outputs workers had to produce to receive full pay). When these protests reached a scale that  posed a genuine challenge to Communist rule, it was only the intervention of Soviet tanks that restored order and the SED never forgot this experience. Shaken, the Party subsequently avoided confrontation or ultimatums when dealing with “its” workers, resulting in a modus vivendi reflected by the well-known GDR maxim: “We pretend to work and you pretend to pay us.”

Desperately Seeking Secretary

The collection of letters were sent to a post office box (perhaps to prevent her present employer from identifying her in the paper?) and contain no other information that would identify the woman who placed the ad. However, based on the responses she received, it seems our Berlinerin was a trained secretary with shorthand skills seeking employment in the city at an office which was able to provide a daycare space for her child. Reading through these, it quickly becomes apparent that our subject knew what she was doing in advertising her availability, for it was obviously a seller’s market for those with labour on offer in East Berlin in 1980. That this was in fact the case is demonstrated in a number of ways.

Where To Begin: A Flood of Responses

The first piece of evidence that this woman was in the driver’s seat in terms of choosing her place of employment is testified to by the volume of responses she received. Within several days of placing the ad, our Berlinerin had twenty-three answers. Of these, fourteen contained concrete jobs offers with the remaining nine expressing an interest in discussing the possibility of employment with their organization.

These responses came from a cross section of the GDR society including high profile industrial organizations (e.g. four outfits involved in the import and/or export of industrial equipment), prestigious social services (e.g. East Berlin’s leading hospital, the Charite), national and local government administrations (e.g. the GDR’s Ministry of Finance, the Berlin City Magistrate’s Office and the District Council in Lichtenberg) as well as the Central Historical Institute affiliated with the GDR’s Academy of Sciences, the country’s leading academic organization and even one of the GDR’s leading publishing houses (New Life). In short, the ball was in our secretary’s court.

You LIke Fruit and Vegetables Don’t You? – Benefits and Perks on Display

The second way in which the responses clearly underline the worker’s power in this situation is found in the way many adopt what I would label a “recruitment tone”. By this I mean that the letters frequently go to great lengths to outline the benefits associated with employment with their specific organization. (click on the photos below for English language translations of letter excerpts illustrating how our Berlinerin was wooed) Almost all the letters outline the expected salary she could expect to receive and any bonuses which typically accrued to employees (e.g. bonuses for fulfilling the “Five Year Plan” targets, loyalty pay for years of service).In addition to this, some responses include details on working conditions (e.g. the presence of electric typewriters in the workplace), the amount of holiday time she might expect (on average 3-4 weeks to start, in some cases even more) and the locations of the organization’s holiday homes (typical holdings for medium and large sized operations).

Several of the responses, however, go well beyond this and detail further, more unusual benefits on offer to employees such as bonuses in the form of coal for personal use, mention by one office that it has a hair stylist visit its premises twice weekly, the presence of a unit canteen in or near the office (and sometime the number of entrees on offer) and access to the organization’s on-site medical clinics. (The inclusion of this last incentive intrigues me as it suggests at least the existence of a perception that there were different levels of care to be found inside the GDR’s socialized health care system and that the factory-own model was seen by some to have advantages over the standard doctor/hospital arrangement.)

Pleading or Courting: Varieties of Language in the Response Letters

The third way these letters reflect the balance of power in this situation is in their use of an almost excessively polite, or in some cases even pleading or obsequious, language. Of particular interest here are those which would see the secretary being forced to use medical or academic terminology. In these cases, the letter writers try to address any misgivings about the work and language involved. Some examples of the sorts of things mentioned above are found below:

Playing Hard-To-Get: Varieties of Language in the Response Letters, Pt. II

It is notable that the organizations most closely affiliated with the SED and the East German state take a relatively standoffish tone in their responses. Work in such environments would assumed a high degree of political compatibility and reliability, so it is comes as little surprise that these contain no immediate job offers as any candidate would’ve undergone considerable scrutiny to determine his/her appropriateness. But given the apparent paucity of skilled secretaries, the unwillingness of the writers to at least lay out the advantages of their workplaces seems odd. I suppose it is possible that any East German looking at the title of an organization would have had a pretty good idea of the sorts of privileges that would be on offer in that environment so perhaps state/Party offices had no need to parade their advantages about.

A Matter of Form

One final way in which the leverage enjoyed by skilled workers is illustrated in the responses is in their form: eight of the twenty-three answers sent were form letters that were “personalized” through a signature and the insertion of a few details (e.g. job title, date of ad placement, etc.). That more than a third of respondents had such forms on hand speaks to the fact that it was clearly not unusual for these employers to recruit staff through the classified ads of the Berliner Zeitung. Note the purple ink in several of the letters below: anyone else remember the joys of the Gestetner?

With Socialist Greetings: Where’s the Communist Beef?

Several other things jumped out at me when reading these letters in relation to the presence, or  lack thereof, of the official ideology and its rituals. Of the twenty three responses, only three are signed “with socialist greetings”. These came from the Magistrate of Berlin’s Office for Health and Social Affairs, the District Council of Lichtenberg and the People’s Own Foreign Trade Concern for Industrial Systems, a holder of “Banner of Labour” naturally. (I wonder what happened to the Department Head at the Academy of Science’s Central Historical Institute (an organization which would’ve been expected to closely toe the Party line) and whether his practice of signing with only “friendly greetings” had any repercussions. Not that “friendly” and “socialist” were mutually exclusive attributes, but I think we’re all fairly clear on which of the two occupied the higher rung in the hierarchy of values in the SED-led GDR.)

The Publishing House ‘New Life’ took an interesting tack in selling its working environment by pointing out that it had been awarded the title “Collective of Socialist Labour” as part of the preceding year’s celebrations in honour of the GDR’s 30th anniversary.

On a related note, I was surprised to encounter so many responses from institutions/ organizations which I would have assumed to have had good connections to and priority for the Party (e.g. the Foreign Trade Combines active in the import/export fields, the prestigious Charite hospital, the Academy of Science’s Historical Institute). The fact that even these offices were suffering from staff shortages underscores for me how wrong it is to understand that the GDR’s “command economy” extended its reach into the labour market for surely if that were the case, the Party would’ve seen to it that its favoured organizations were better staffed, no?

Brush With Fame: A Response from Prof. em. Dr. Dr. S. Rapoport

Secretary - Charite Rapoport

When I first scanned this letter, it seemed to be one of the least remarkable of the set. In it a retired professor emeritus from the Humboldt University’s Institute for Physiological and Biological Chemistry makes a low-key case for work with him on what he describes as “primarily scientific terrain”. Inspecting the author’s title (a double Dr.!), I searched the name on a hunch and quickly learned that Samuel Mitja Rapoport was the GDR’s leading biochemist and Communist of Jewish background who had fled both the Nazis to the United States before later abandoning the U.S. for asylum in the GDR in order to avoid McCarthyite persecution. Rapoport went on to have a highly distinguished career and was internationally recognized beyond the GDR’s borders, however, I would recommend reading the short biography found at the link above for he was one of those individuals whose lives intersected with a number of the 20th century’s most important events.

"Prof. em. Dr. Dr. S. Rapoport" - 1912-2004.

“Prof. em. Dr. Dr. S. Rapoport” – 1912-2004.

The Rest of the Letters

What Happened?

Unfortunately, we simply have no information on how the secretary decided? Was she lured by the promise of travel given by Invest Export, or did her maternal duties make such an offer impractical? Perhaps she was a Party loyalist (that my friend found these at a Karl-Marx Allee address might hint to this) and she moved to a workplace closely aligned with the SED and its goals. Or maybe the thought of taking things easy with the academic journal Studia Biophysica and its four (!!!) entree choice lunches at the House of Electronic Industry was more what she was after, but we will never know . . .

Secretary letters open


I hate it when this happens. No sooner had I posted today’s piece than did my mind start whirring and I remembered that I have an issue of the Berliner Zeitung from 1980 in my collection. I hauled it out just now and was amazed to find that I have a weekend edition from June 1980, the same year in which our secretary placed her ad. Lo and behold, in the Classified section I find a heading “Job Search” (see photo below) and am blown away by what I find. It’s nothing less than the GDR’s 1980 version of There are ads from practically every field imaginable: lawyers, cooks, mechanics, office clerks, sailors, translators . . .

"Job Search" ads from June 14/15 1980 issue of the Berliner Zeitung. (photo; author)

“Job Search” ads from June 14/15 1980 issue of the Berliner Zeitung. (photo; author)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: