One of the distinguishing features of state socialism in the GDR was its use of awards, medals and commendations as a means of acknowledging and encouraging its citizenry along the ‘correct path’. Such items were distributed in workplaces, at schools and in all manner of social settings and as a result are still floating about in considerable numbers. In the early years after German unification, these items were everywhere in the former-East, and the seemingly exotic bits of socialist kitsch were eagerly snapped up by tourists as souvenirs. (Indeed, these things were so popular at one point that in the mid-late 90s it was not unusual to encounter knock-off versions for sale at some major tourist attractions like the Reichstag in Berlin.) While most of the object presented here are not particularly rare, they warrant a closer look as they do provide an interesting window into an East German society that has almost completely vanished.
This post presents my collection of such items. I got a few of mine from hawkers set up near the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate or at flea markets in Leipzig and Berlin in the mid-90s, but most were passed on to me by friends clearing out their parents’ attics. As a result, I’m fairly confident that most of my stuff is authentic, but should the eagle-eyed among you spot any fakes in here, please do let me know!
The Sticky Stuff: Parsing the Pins
As I’ve argued elsewhere, considering objects produced and consumed in the GDR is one way of better understanding that now disappeared society. What do these pins tell us? Well, first and foremost, they reflect some of the central tenets of the East German version of state socialism. Presented in isolation, some of these pins can serve as a reminder of the virtues which the GDR wrote large on its flag, for example, its doctrine of antifascism and the creation of a better society through collective effort. Of course the fact that so many of the pins I have were issued to members of the armed forces (army, police, secret police, members of paramilitary organizations) serves to tell a different story: in these pieces we see the highly-militarized, rigidly controlled East Germany which dominates the popular consciousness today.
But looking even further, the pins can also remind us that this oppressive, overbearing regime also approved the existence of a federation for the allotment gardeners and small animal breeders among its citizens (see below).
One of the main narratives that accompanies our current understanding of East Germany is the notion that it was a society characterized by scarcity. There is no question that, in general, this was most certainly the case. However, these pins and awards seem to be some of the exceptions that prove this rule as they appear to have been numerous at all stages of the GDR’s existence. When one considers the political / pedagogical role that they were meant to fulfill, however, this is perhaps not all that surprising.
Another way these pins tell the story of the GDR is by considering their materials used to create them as these often reflect the economic realities of the East German state at the time of their creation. For example, several of my oldest objects, from the early and mid-1950s, were produced using pressed cardboard (see above), a testament to the scarcity of metal in those early years of the Republic. Those created in from the mid-50s onward are typically metal, an indication that the GDR economy had emerged from the worst period of post-war privation. Interestingly, the move towards producing all manner of consumer goods in plastic that began in the mid-60s (‘Better living through chemistry’) doesn’t appear to have found much purchase in the area of awards and pins. Metal remained the preferred material through to the end of GDR, a fact that perhaps reflects authorities’ recognition that using the less-durable plastic would serve to undermine the supposed importance which these items were meant to possess.
The public presentation of these awards remained a central part with the rituals of state power as practiced throughout the entire existence of the GDR. Despite the hollow nature which these ceremonies held for many participants from the mid-70s onward, East German authorities clung to them, a further symbol of their unwillingness and/or inability to imagine new, effective ways to reanimate what had become a moribund official ideology.
Children and Youth
As one might expect, inculcating the next generation of ‘socialist personalities’ was a high priority for Party and government officials and so considerable efforts were made to reinforce desirable behaviours through the presentation of awards, participation pins, etc. The pins seen here were all issued by the ‘Young Pioneers’, the organization for elementary school-aged children.
The pins below were presented by the Free German Youth (Freie Deutsche Jugend), which ‘organized’ high school and university students. Membership was not compulsory, however, not joining was interpreted as a hostile gesture towards the state and typically brought negative repercussions. As a result, in 1988, 88% of East German youth in this age group were members of the FDJ.
In a society where labour enjoyed a position of very high standing, it follows that East German authorities should have gone to considerable effort to reward good performances in the workplace. Below a selection of work-related awards from my collection.
Armed Organs (National People’s Army, Ministry of State Security, People’s Police, Combat Groups of the Working Class)
Medals have long occupied a key place in the symbolic language of armed forces and the GDR was no exception. Most of the awards found below would have been worn on dress uniforms during official gatherings, parades, etc.
For more medals and pins, see my earlier post on Benno B., a loyal and highly decorated servant of the GDR by clicking here.
Many of the pins presented here would have been worn on official holidays such as May Day. The one major exception is the first pin found below, a membership pin for the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED). Party members were encouraged to wear these at all times and so these were a common sight. However, particularly in the later years of the regime, many SEDers flouted this directive, preferring not to identify openly with the Party as a way of avoiding any unnecessary aggravation while out and about.
These pins / medallions were all produced to mark specific events.
Pins from a smattering of East German institutions and organizations:
Perhaps the most common of these trinkets are the Sports Awards given out at East German schools. Reminds me of the Participaction program that we had at my Canadian elementary school in the 1970s and 80s!
Unless otherwise indicated, the photos used in this post were supplied by Ralph Newson.
The remainder were taken by Jo Zarth.
Thank you, gentlemen!!