On this date in 1974, the GDR marked its 25th anniversary. The item featured in this post is a miniature anvil featuring this date (7 X 1974) which was produced as a memento to mark this occasion. The GDR was always keen on celebrating itself (who else was going to do it?!) and this sort of thing was distributed as a token of appreciation to Party loyalists.
But What Does It All Mean?
Most of the time, these objects are not especially difficult to decipher in terms of their meaning, but this one has left me scratching my head a bit. While the anvil can be understood as a symbol of the sort of manual labour idealized in East Germany, for me, it unavoidably evokes Ein anderes, a well known poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany’s master poet, philosopher and statesman who lived from 1749 and 1842. This work is considered an important one and was included in the grade 8 German curriculum taught in in GDR schools. Below a translation of the poem from an anonymous
Go! Listen to my advice,
Utilize your youthful days,
Learn early to be cunning!
On Fortune’s great scales
The tongue is seldom a guarantee:
You must rise or sink,
You must conquer and win,
Or serve and lose,
Suffer or triumph,
Be anvil or hammer.
(accessed on February 18, 2016 – Dioscorus Boles (14 June 2012), GOETHE’S OTHER COPTIC SONG – EIN ANDERES, https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/06/14/goethes-other-coptic-song-ein-andres/)
The teacher’s manual for this class from the year 1978 provides a clear sense of how Goethe’s work, and specifically the central metaphor of the hammer and anvil, were to be interpreted so as to buttress the state’s official Marxist-Leninist ideology:
“The revolutionary working class has long since made this Goethe maxim its own, in his words it finds the path forward, for
it is only by assuming the mantle of power that this class can ‘rise’, ‘conquer and win’ and not ‘serve and lose’, ‘triumph’ not
‘suffer’, no longer be the ‘anvil’, but rather the ‘hammer’.”
(Jan Riemann, Helden der Literatur – Instrumentalisierung von Literaturtexten in DDR Schulbücher an ausgewählten Beispielen (Berlin: epubli, 2012), pg. 40).
In this interpretation, the hammer and anvil serve as a way of posing the question of power as it was formulated by Lenin: “Who whom?” Here, it is made very clear that it is the hammer, the doer, that students are to aspire to, while the anvil – the passive “victim” that is being done to – is dismissed.
For an indication of the currency this image of the hammer had in the East that time, one need look no further than the GDR’s official crest where it enjoys prominence as the symbolic representation of the workers. The state emblem is featured in this stamp marking the 25th anniversary.
So if it was the hammer, and not the anvil, that was the preferred symbol, why would the latter be produced as a momento of this milestone in GDR history? Any ideas?
Postscript: The symbolism of the hammer and anvil surfaced in an important way in the mid-1980s when medium range missiles were stationed in the two Germanies. In reaction to these developments, a small, autonomous peace movement emerged in the GDR and it adopted as its symbol a small crest featuring the words “swords to plowshares” (taken from the Bible (Micah, chapter 4) along with the image of a sculpture by Yevgeny Vuchetich which had been a gift from the Soviet Union to the United Nations some decades earlier.
Party leaders saw this movement as a real threat. After all “peace” was a central part of the official ideology and the East German leadership was not interested in seeing this value occupied by people it viewed as “rowdys”. That the movement coopted a Soviet art work was understood as a clear provocation by the authorities and students who dared show up to school wearing this item on their clothing typically faced sanctions.