German unification brought major changes to the NBI (see last week’s post on the what was the GDR’s version of LIFE magazine). The magazine’s Party-owned publishing house, Berliner Verlag, was privatized and ultimately fell into the hands of West German publishing giant Gruner + Jahr in 1991. The company renamed the magazine extra and installed a new Editor-in-Chief who was charged with revamping NBI for the new times. Interestingly, the arrival of the new, West German ownership did not mean the wholesale dismissal of the East German staff as so was often the case in other workplaces at that time. From a distance, this decision seems bizarre given the reputation, well earned really, of East German journalism as little more than the PR arm of the Socialist Unity Party (SED). However, the decision reflected the new editor’s vision for the magazine which was intended to speak to the newly emerging eastern German middle class; for this to be credible, he argued, eastern Germans would need to be on staff and writing.
“No one will be worse off!”
I have the first issue of extra from March 1991, and leafing through its pages, one is reminded of just how quickly the bloom came off the rose that was unification. The issue’s cover story does a fine job reflecting the reality of the personal and social costs that unification was demanding of eastern Germans. The rapid privatization of GDR state property (that is, virtually everything) had kicked into gear, throwing thousands of people out of work and souring the mood in the “new federal states” only five months after unification.
extra’s reporter captures the anger so prevalent at the time and makes no attempt to sugar coat things: “All the economic indicators point to in the same direction: the economic benchmarks in the ex-GDR for 1991/92 will be worse than those for 1931/32 [the last year of the Weimar Republic before the Nazis came to power]”. Blame is apportioned, to Chancellor Kohl for his misleading election rhetoric (e.g. “No one will be worse off!”), the Treuhand (the arm’s length organization charged with overseeing the privatization) and the Unity Contract. Of this latter agreement, the extra reporter writes, “in every decisive matter, the Unity Contract secures the interests of the West, its politicians, its industry and its citizens” (pg. 13, extra 11 91).
A four-page report from the Saxon-Anhalt town of Genthin gives voice to locals bearing the brunt of the social and economic upheaval and communicates the existential fears and sense of betrayal so prevalent at the time: “I don’t even dare to light the [coal-fired, ed.] oven before afternoon because of what it costs”, “I understand that structural changes are necessary, but not like this!”, “Of course I voted for Kohl. I figured that then the big money would come.”, I’ve basically had everything I was taken from me and I’m supposed to forget everything I was and did.”
Of the ten interviewees, only one, a bar owner, sees a rosy future: “We just need to hang on for the next three years, then things will be all right. When Kohl said no one would be worse off, I could only smile.” (pg. 16, extra 11 91).
Something for Everyone
In keeping with its roots as being a general interest magazine, extra tried to provide content that would appeal to a broad cross-section of interests. In 1991, and for many years that followed, this included the Stasi, the GDR’s notorious secret police. extra managed to squeeze two Stasi-related pieces into its debut issue. The first looks at the fate of the numerous villas used by the KGB in East Berlin, property that owned by the Stasi. These properties were now in the hands of the much maligned Treuhand and still being administered, extra reported, by former-Stasi officers now in the employ of the German Interior Ministry. This was the sort of story that would have caused blood pressure to rise in the former-East at this time.
The second Stasi piece is an anonymous first hand account of how the service used prostitutes, strictly illegal in the GDR, as part of their informant networks. Glancing at the gratuitous photos of naked women which accompany the article, you can practically see extra’s editors slapping themselves on the back for having successfully walked the fine line between information and titillation.
Another piece treads similar ground. Entitled “World Class in Bed”, it is the first of the series comparing the sex lives of Germans on both sides of the old border, a topic that would enjoy great popularity in German periodicals for many years after unification. Figures and facts are quoted suggesting that East Germans had and have more sex, earlier and with greater satisfaction than their Western counterparts. The author takes some time to explore why this may have been and comes to the conclusion that the East German social system may have played a role here: “GDR citizens had more time for each other, because the Workers and Peasants’ State was not a meritocracy with a working day that lasted until total exhaustion, stress and existential uncertainty, with unknown and changing rules and demands. Life was lived differently in the old system in which everything was better in theory than it was in practice. Only with sex were things the other way around.” (pg 50, extra 11 91).
Solace in Celebrities
Another important element of this issue of extra are reports on prominent eastern Germans who are making their mark in the new order. At a time when so many people were feeling deeply unsettled by the social upheaval going on around them, it is easy to understand how readers would have gravitated towards reports showing their former-countrymen (and women). Here there are is a profile on GDR and Olympic boxing champ Henry Maske from his Florida training camp, another one on eastern German women who’re making a name for themselves in the modeling world and finally there is a report on renowned nuclear physicist Manfred von Ardenne, a prolific scientist who had enjoyed a relatively high profile in the GDR (and who would inspire a figure in The Tower, Uwe Tellkamp’s excellent chronicle of a remnant of Dresden’s bourgeoisie in the late period of the GDR.)
How To Win Friends and Influence People
Of course extra also includes a number of that standard magazine “go to”, the advice column. Here there are columns on everything from food, cars, gardening, technology (TV satellite dishes, a ubiquitous element of the post-Wall eastern German cityscapes), tax tips and career. The profile on Henry Maske also sees the author take on the role of advisor, here for those eastern Germans intrigued by life in the vacation paradise of Florida: “Parrots fly in pairs over the highways. Pop music trills from speakers attached to fast food restaurants that are everywhere, and it isn’t annoying. Ice cream and gas are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And then there are the beaches! Unlike on those expensive Bulgarian holidays, here no one has to be up at 7 am to lay out a towel on the sand to ensure a piece of the sun. 1,600 kilometers of white sand beach mean there is room for everyone.” (pg. 56, extra 11 91).
extra Time: Up
The realities of the new eastern German magazine market caught up with extra quickly. Circulation never rose above 120,000 and in November 1991, after only 32 issues, the publisher Gruner + Jahr pulled the plug. With the eastern German economy sputtering, extra’s decision to target a new middle class which was proving very slow to emerge had proven fatal. Exacerbating the situation was the emergence of some highly-popular competition: Super Illu!, a newly-founded competitor run by a veteran of West German tabloid giant Bild. With its was mix sex, crime and outrage at the “big wigs’ from the GDR past and the unified German present, Super Illu! had found a populist sweet spot and quickly established itself as one of the most important voices in the eastern German media landscape, a position it continues to hold today.