Dear Comrade Diary: Workers’ Voices from Bitterfeld

The Brigade Diary is one of the most interesting items that testifies to working life in the GDR. These books were kept by “Brigades”, the work units created in the late 1950s as part of the program of “Socialist Competition” which was intended to increase efficiency in East German workplaces by having groups of workers compete with one another. The Brigades were supposed to foster a lived socialist culture both at and outside of work and the Brigade Diaries were to serve as a repository for information on a Brigades’ working and social activities.

Bestand:Bild 183 - Allgemeiner Deutscher Nachrichtendienst - Zentralbild Signatur:Bild 183-73766-0083 Originaltitel:info Zentralbild Gahlbeck 13.6.1960 2. Arbeiterfestspiele des FDGB. Schriftsteller-Treffen im Wälzlagerwerk Fraureuth. Ein Schriftsteller-Treffen mit über 20 bekannten Schriftstellern der DDR fand am 10.6. und 11.6.1960 im VEB Wälzlagerwer Fraureuth statt. Die Schriftsteller besuchten einzelne Brigaden des Betriebes und unterhielten sich mit den Arbeitern. UBz: Die Schriftstellerin Helga Höffken-Kast im Gespräch mit dem Brigadier Werner Sachse über das Brigadebuch. Werner Sachse ist schreibender Arbeiter. Datierung:Juni 1960 Fotograf:Gahlbeck, Friedrich Quelle:Bundesarchiv

Author Helga Höffken-Kast speaks with Brigadier Werner Sachse about his Brigade’s Diary during a visit of writers to the People’s Own Anti-Friction Bearing Factory in Fraureuth in June 1960 (photo: Bundesarchiv, 183-73766-0083) 

As originally conceived, the Brigade Diaries were supposed to provide an outlet for workers’ creativity and typically included reports on a collective’s activity, but could also contain drawings, collages and more creative writings. The form a Diary varied from Brigade to Brigade, but many were perfunctory in content and simply kept to satisfy the representative of the Free German Trade Union Associaion (FDGB) charged with vetting these books on a regular basis.

The Brigade Diary for "World Peace" from People's Own Brown Coal Power Plant Bitterfeld (photo: author)

The Brigade Diary for “World Peace” from People’s Own Brown Coal Power Plant Bitterfeld (photo: author)

Recently I acquired a Brigade Diary for my collection which was produced by the Brigade “World Peace” at the People’s Own Brown Coal Power Plant in Bitterfeld during the years from 1984 through to early 1989. This Diary is by no means as elaborate as some I’ve seen, but does include 18 reports of varying lengths and quality and manages to produce a narrative illustrating aspects of both the place of its production and the lives of several of the workers who contributed to it.

Bitterfeld as a Site of MIddle German Industry

In order to understand the contents of the Diary, it is helpful to give a bit of background on Bitterfeld itself. This city lies in south central eastern Germany in a region that was largely defined  by the chemical and mining industries to which it was home. During the Third Reich, Bitterfeld was home to many factories involved in supplying the Nazi war machinery including some owned by IG Farben, the manufacturers of Zyklon-B, the chemical used to gas victims in Nazi death camps.

During the GDR-era, the city continued to be an important centre for the chemical and brown coal industries using facilities that had typically been built in the late 19th. century. Brown coal was used to fire the furnaces of these industries and several large power plants, none of which was equipped with any sort of emission controls. As a result that the pollution in and around Bitterfeld was immense and in the 1980s the city was known as one of Europe’s dirtiest.

East German writer Monika Maron published an autobiographical novel which dealt with the ecological disaster of Bitterfeld in 1981 (using a West German publisher as the discussion of environmental issues was largely taboo in the GDR). Entitled Flight of Ashes, the book includes a passage in which its protagonist – a thinly-veiled version of the writer herself – describes her impressions of the city of “B.” in the following manner:

“This woebegone nest. These smokestacks, which, like cannons aiming for the sky, send their loads of filth onto the city, day after day, night after night. But not with a thud, instead like snow, falling slowly and  gently – until it clogs the eaves and has gathered on the roofs where it sits waiting to be sculpted into waves by the wind. In the summer, this dry, black dust is kicked up by the wind and stings one’s eyes . . . The residents of B. walk through their city with their eyes squinted so that, if you didn’t know better, you might think they were smiling.

And the fumes, fumes which could serve as sign posts. Just go straight ahead until the ammonia, then left to the nitric acid. Once you get a biting pain in your throat and lungs, turn back and call the doctor: that was the sulfur dioxide.

And how these people clean their windows. Every week, every day if possible. In the midst of wretched filth, clean windows everywhere you look.”
(translation JPK, Flugasche: Frankurt a.M.: Fischer Taschenbuch, 1981, pg. 16)

“Bitterness From Bitterfeld”

Below, you’ll find excerpts from a 1988 film on the Bitterfeld region that was secretly shot by East German environmental activists and smuggled out for broadcast in West Germany in 1988. “Bitterness from Bitterfeld” marked one of first times environmental degradation in the GDR was captured on film and is considered one of the most important achievements of the East’s environmental movement. It’s worth a look to get a sense of how deserved Bitterfeld’s terrible reputation was  – even if you don’t speak German.

Bitterfeld and the Workers’ Uprising of 1953

In many ways, Bitterfeld enjoyed its “Golden Years” during the Third Reich when many of its factories enjoyed full order books as they produced for the war effort. The workers who benefited from this situation showed their satisfaction by supporting the Nazi Party to extent greater than was the case in other blue collar regions. At the war’s end, a number of the more important factories in Bitterfeld were transferred to direct Soviet control and their production sent to the USSR as part of the GDR’s war reparations. The importance of these goods was such, however, that the Denazificiation of these employees (particularly those in management or skilled labour positions) tended to be relatively lax, in sharp distinction to elsewhere in East Germany.

Ceramic wall art extolling the virtues of socialist industry found on the wall of an old cafe on Bitterfeld's Market Square (1999, author's photo).

Ceramic wall art extolling the virtues of socialist life found on the wall of an old cafe on Bitterfeld’s Market Square (1999, author’s photo).

Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that Bitterfeld was one of the “hot spots” during the Workers’ Uprising in June 1953. Here, upwards of 50,000 protestors gathered in the city centre (considerably more than the town population of 30,000+), removed the SED mayor from his office, occupied the local Stasi office and released statements calling on the government to resign, free elections and the release of all political prisoners.

This experience had a profound impact on the SED and its leaders and jaundiced their view of this region and its workers right through to the end of GDR. While conducting interviews for his excellent oral history of East German workers in Bitterfeld during the late 1980s, West German historian Lutz Niethammer ran into this mistrust head-on when trying to arrange interview partners through the usual Party channels. When this proved difficult, he and his team were surprised as they had experienced no such problems in other locations. They initially chalked it up to a particularly “Stalinist” local Party organization, but after persistent digging brought them into contact with a decent sample of Bitterfeld workers, their interviews revealed the extent of both Nazi Party membership and participation in the 17th of June uprising among this group and the penny dropped. In the volume which resulted from this research, the excellent The People’s Own Experience, Niethammer argues that, “The 17th of June was the event in Bitterfeld history, a shock which had carved itself all the more deeply into every resident’s memory because it had been completely obliterated from public memory – and as a result, it still unconsciously shaped the Party’s perceptions of the grassroots.” (Die volkseigene Erfarhung: Berlin, Rowohlt Verlag, 1991, pg. 55)

“World Peace” Through Brown Coal: Who Was the Brigade?

The Brigade “World Peace” was organized within the People’s Own Brown Coal Power Plant at Bitterfeld and was comprised of between 20-25 members at any given time. The Brigade Diary I acquired contains eighteen separate entries and fourteen one-page point form bios of some of the Brigade’s members which, based on the dates which appear in them, seem to have been prepared when the book was begun in 1984. These bios are useful in that they give a fairly good sense of the political and demographic reality inside GDR industrial plants.

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A quick glance shows that only two of the Brigade were Party members, all were (as would have been required) members in the Free German Trade Union Association (FDGB) and thirteen were members in the GDR’s largest mass organization, the Society for German-Soviet Friendship (DSF). Ten of the fourteen were men while the four female members of the Brigade all occupied low rungs on the organizational ladder working as machine operators (three) or as clerical support in the plant administration. Five of the group were younger than twenty five and of these three maintained membership in the GDR’s youth organization the Free German Youth (FDJ). Interestingly, of the members chronicled in these bios (and it should be noted that only some of the members were as elsewhere in the reports, it is stated that Brigade membership fluctuated between 20-25), none was born before the end of WW II with the oldest registered coming from the cohort of 1947.

These bios naturally include lines for “Socialist Brigades” and awards. Of the fourteen individuals detailed here, three were previously members of Brigades which were honoured as “Activists of Socialist Labour”, in each case on several occasions. Three also received individual awards, the most notable of which was Comrade H., a Party member who appears to have transferred to the power plant in 1983 from a previous position with the People’s Police where he was given service medals in bronze and silver as well as two other awards.

The Diary as an Affirmation of SED Policies

Every Brigade was technically required to keep a Diary of its activities, and as a result the quality of these documents varies considerably. When introduced, the intention was that the Diary would assist in helping workers’ collectives achieve the goal of “working, learning and living ‘socialistically'”, but they were also to provide its members an avenue for expression and a creative  outlet. Typically, however, the Diaries were completed in such a way as to fulfill requirements, but without much intellectual or creative investment on the part of the contributors. The Diaries I’ve seen are often made up of a series of short contributions by Brigade Members which report on the group’s performance in various “Socialist Competitions”, aspects of their day-to-day working life in the most general of terms or affirm their support of specific Party’s policies. Typically an “Annual Report” is included is well, but often this is quite short and superficial. Most, but by no means all, of the entries found in the Brigade Diary by “World Peace” BKK Bitterfeld would fall into this category quite comfortably.

The Diary entries made by “World Peace” in 1984, the first year included in this volume, are a good example of the sort of rote reporting to which many Diaries descended. Here, “Colleagues” (the GDR equivalent of “Co-Workers”) dutifully wrote in support of the Socialist Unity Party’s decisions at their recent 10th Party Congress, reported on the Brigade’s activities in a “Socialist Competition” held in honour of the GDR’s 35th anniversary and provided a brief annual report.

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The number of entries falls off quite dramatically in 1985 and 1986, but what they lack in quantity they make up for in quality. I’ll turn my attention to the 1985 entries later, but the entries for 1986 include a five-page annual report by Colleague M., a Master Craftsman and Shift Supervisor for the Brigade. This document is actually quite interesting in the way it illustrates the way the standards in effect within East Germany industry. Naturally there is much mention of the Plan (e.g. “The Brigade was able to able to fulfill its contribution to the “State Plan for Electro-energy” at 12:15 am on November 15, 1986”, pg. 1; their ‘partner’ Brigade in the neighbouring briquette factory overshot the plan by 10 tonnes, pg. 1; details on shortfall in reaching Plan level for furnace efficiency, pg. 3), but it’s interesting to see how Colleague M. makes several references to Soviet industrial methods that have been implemented in the Brigade’s work processes (e.g. Nina-Nasarowa Method was a method to increase efficiency by pledging to keep one’s work station neat, the Bassow Method was related to workplace safety, both pg. 2). The maxim “To learn from the Soviet Union is to learn to be victorious” clearly still had some resonance in this workplace, if only for those to whom this report was submitted.

One very interesting section in the report deals with the Brigade’s efforts to limit tonnage of coal dust which their work produced to 150 tonnes for the calendar year (pg. 3). As mentioned above, the emission of coal dust and other less-than-benign substances into the air in and around Bitterfeld was extreme, so this part of the report shows that this very real environmental problem had registered with the Party and that its response to it was to wrest ‘commitments’ from the shop floor that would ostensibly result in lower dust levels. Colleague M’s report makes no mention of any support that the Brigade might have received to help reach their goal, so hi sober note that, “Our commitment was not achieved,” (pg. 3) comes as no surprise. the fact that this section is tucked in the middle of the report testifies to the lack of importance the environment had in the hierarchy of values both for the Party and in East German industry.

1985 Annual Report Prepared by Colleague M.

The only other entry for 1986 is a wonderfully half-hearted one provided by Colleague Uwe P. who must have been brow beaten to write a page on “the importance of sport as an aspect of cultural life”. Based on the text here, it appears that Uwe P. might have had the stuff for a professional athletic career, as his mastery of the socialist, sporting cliche was quite impressive:

“Our team has been able to celebrate several successes, but have also suffered bitter defeats which have served to strengthen our Collective.”

Brigadetagebuch - 1986 Sport

In 1987, there is a noticeable uptick in servile pap content. It can not be coincidental that this comes almost immediately after the Diary is used by one colleague to launch a direct attack on the Union to which all the Brigade’s members belonged (more on this below). Following this blast, the Brigade’s more “loyal” members attempt to paper over their colleague’s indiscretion with a flurry of contributions which depict the Brigade in a positive light. These include reports on the Brigade’s performance within “Socialist Competitions”, a pledge from a new apprentice to “do her best to be and become a good member of the Brigade”, minutes from the Brigade’s Party Group Elections (Comrade B. was re-elected to the role of Party Group Organizer).

"My workplace - my battleground for peace" - poster included in portfolio of agitation materials produced for 40th anniversary of GDR (photo: author)

“My workplace – my battleground for peace” – poster included in portfolio of agitation materials produced for 40th anniversary of GDR (photo: author)

My favourite of these entries, however, is an entry on the occasion of International Women’s Day which I’ve translated and in full at the beginning of the slideshow of 1987 documents found below. In it, the writer, Colleague K., reports on the Brigade’s marking of the holiday (the male Brigadiers presented their female counterparts with gifts at the start of their shift), before then moving on to laud the socialist system for providing “rights and possibilities for women’s development”. She closes with a reference to a SED campaign then in high gear which pronounced “My workplace – My battleground for peace”, the implication here being that conscientious citizens should work hard to strengthen the GDR’s economy so as to provide the state with the resources necessary to mount a robust defence of their country from imperialist aggression.

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The More We Get Together, The Happier We’ll Be: Brigade Outings in the Diary

Brigade Diaries were also meant to chronicle the Collective’s activities outside of working hours as well. Some Brigades socialized more than others and “World Peace” appears to have spent relatively little time together away from the power plant. Still, the Diary does include a couple of entries on such activities. In November 1984, Colleague Petra T. reports on a bowling outing that the group made after a training session. Apparently they waiting 45 minutes for the alley’s operator to show up, but Petra insists “that we didn’t let this ruin our good mood.” Belated congratulations to Mrs. P. and Colleague K. for taking the women’s and men’s competitions!

Brigadetagebuch - 1984 Kegeln

Note the results of the Brigade’s bowling outing to Holzweissig.

The highlight of the Diary for me is a two-page report filed by Colleague Rainer E., the Brigade’s ‘Senior Stoker’, on the occasion of the Brigade’s three day trip to a holiday camp near Potsdam, Wild Life Park West. In this, Rainer E. essentially recounts what appears to have been a three day bender for the group in a tone that is about the only dry thing in this text. I also love the fact that he uses the opportunity to needle his superiors a couple of times. Very nice stuff . . .

Rainer E’s Report on the Brigade’s Trip to Wild Life Park West

Brigadetagebuch - Wildpark Eng 1

Brigadetagebuch - Wildpark Eng 2

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The Union Reviews the Diary: Peter Encourages “World Peace”

Wonderfully, Brigade “World Peace” had their Diary vetted shortly after Rainer E. wrote up his report of the Wild Life Park West trip. To the credit of Peter, the FDGB official charged with this task, he manages to keep things both critical and constructive so it’s worth a moment to read his response. It’s interesting to see the emphasis Peter places on “voice” and the way he encourages the Brigade to draft Rainer E. as the permanent scribe for the Diary, positions which echo the original intention that these documents foster worker creativity.

Brigadetagebuch - 1985 Eval Eng

Brigadetagebuch - 1985 Evaluation
One Big Happy Family?: The Brigade Diary As a Means of Communicating Unhappiness

As alluded to above, the entries in the Diary created by Brigade “World Peace” do not only portray a world of what Germans would call “peace, happiness and pancakes”. There are certainly many reports that parrot the Party’s worldview, but there is a bit of grit present as well. For this we have, once again, Colleague Rainer E. to thank. It appears that from time to time, the Brigade realized that it needed to generate some content for this document and turned to Rainer E. to address this shortcoming. It’s interesting that they would have done so as Rainer E. appears to have been a bit of strange bird.

There are a couple of things that point to Rainer’s outsider status. First, he was a ‘stoker’. This work feeding the coal furnaces was amongst the most dangerous and dirty on offer in East German industry and was where loners or individuals who had run afoul of the system were often to be found. A more specific reference to Rainer E’s standing within the Collective is found in  Colleague M.’s 1986 Annual Report. While tallying the Brigade’s cultural and social activities in that year, M. reports that the Collective presented Rainer E. with a cuckoo clock on the occasion of his wedding, an appropriate gift he writes, because “this is what we call him.”

So, we should keep this in mind as we examine Rainer E’s contribution to the Brigade Diary. In addition to his report on the Brigade trip to the Wild Life Park West, Rainer E. made several other contributions as well. The second such piece came at the end of 1985 when Rainer prepared the Brigade’s annual report. It stands in sharp contrast to the other two such reports present in the Diary largely on the basis of Rainer’s willingness to use it to air problems within the Brigade and grievances it has in relation to the Power Plant’s management. In the 1985 Annual Report, Rainer criticizes several Brigade members by name (including Comrade H., a Party member who apparently had a drinking problem that affected his work) whose performance has been less than adequate before going on to explicitly reject the concept of “Collective responsibility” for individual Brigadier’s performances, a move which would have placed Rainer E. in open conflict with those above him in the hierarchy.

After this, he then reports on the Brigade’s anger at having been passed over for awards (and the cash bonuses these would have entailed) by the Power Plant’s management, both collectively and individually. To hear Rainer E. tell it, the Brigade had achieved the standards required for these and was “indignant” at the slight.

Rainer E. next surfaces in March 1987 with a short complaint regarding what he perceived as a lack of Union support in his search for a new apartment closer to his workplace. In the entry found below (both in the original and in English translation), Rainer E. outlines his unacceptable commute and then announces that he has decided to protest his abandonment by the authorities by refusing to vote in the next election. This is significant as in the GDR, individual citizens had very few means at their disposal to put any pressure on authorities. Refusing to vote, however, could be effective. While elections were a sham, citizens were expected to participate nonetheless and the Party expected turnout of at least 99%. The pressure on functionaries to produce these results meant that citizens could sometimes leverage this situation into action on a matter of importance to them. This is what Rainer was trying to do. That his actions were seen as significant by his colleagues is indicated by the fact that they leapt into damage control mode almost immediately after he made his gambit (details above).

Brigadetagebuch - 1987 Apartment

Brigadetagebuch - 1987 Koll E Apt issue

The repercussions for Rainer E. for his threat not to vote appear to have been minimal for a couple of years later he was called into duty once again to produce a report on the Brigade’s activities in 1987 and 88. This is the last entry in the book and begins with an acknowledgement that the Brigade has been negligent of its Diary in the preceding two years:

“For anyone who looks in our Brigade Diary, it becomes clear that the person responsible for its upkeep has not added anything to the book since 1986.

Because of this, one would be excused for thinking that our Brigade must be a undisciplined crew with no initiative whatsoever. To counter this, I am writing this short look back for our Brigade Diary.”

Rainer goes on to outline the Brigade’s excellent performances in the “Socialist Competitions” of the past two years (they received the Kashmir Pennant!) and makes mention of some social activities. He limits his criticism this time to a general statement of regret, however:

“Sadly, one must also say, that it was not always possible to get all the members of our Brigade to join us on our three-day trips. When one is a member of a collective as strong as ours, I find it too bad when not everyone comes along.”

When one considers what was to happen to the GDR within a year of Rainer E’s writing of these lines, the sentiment he expresses here probably serves to echo the regret felt by many East Germans  as they watched the socialist order, a system in which they had invested hope for a more just, fair society, disintegrate before their very eyes.

Brigadetagebuch - 1988 Ann Rpt

  1. Steve Billinton said:

    Am I the only GDRO reader concerned about the expropriation of GDR cultural properties that underlie this blog?

    • Hi Steve,
      I believe you may find that you are indeed alone with this concern, but we’ll see . . .
      John Paul

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