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Youth Researcher Collective in the Leuna Works Research Centre, October 1971 (Photo: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-K1027-0014)

In our previous post on the Chemical Works at Leuna and Buna, the focus was very much on the political and economic history of those sites. But what was working life like for the nearly 50,000 East German workers who were employed at these works (28,000 at Leuna, 18,000 at Buna)? In this post, I’ll speak to someone who did just that in the hopes of getting a glimpse into the life of a blue collar worker in the “Workers and Peasants State”.

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Whenever I think of Leuna and Buna, two of the GDR’s largest chemical production facilities, I am reminded of a pivotal scene in Mike Nichol’s iconic 1967 film “The Graduate”. In it, Dustin Hoffman’s character Ben, a recent college graduate struggling to figure out his place in the world, is taken aside at a party by Mr. McGuire, a man of his father’s generation who wishes to impart some wisdom to the young man:

“I just want to say one word to you,” the older man begins earnestly. “Just one word. Are you listening?”
“Yes sir,” responds Ben.
When Mr. McGuire is sure that he has the younger man’s attention, he finally speaks: “Plastics.”

What, you may be asking, does this have to do with two East German industrial facilities? Well, imagine Walter Ulbricht in the role of Mr. McGuire while the the East German populace is Ben. The pitch takes place not at a cocktail party in mod, 60s-era California bungalow, but rather nine years earlier at the “GDR Chemical Conference” taking place at the Leuna Works (GDR, always at the vanguard of progress! ed.). For it is here that SED leader Ulbricht articulated the Party’s vision for the GDR’s economic future which famously included the promise that “chemistry brings bread, prosperity and beauty”. This dream of better living through chemistry represented a broadening of the GDR’s economic focus to include not just Stalinist-style heavy industry (e.g. steel and machine building) but also the quickly emerging petrochemical chemical industry, a move which represented a big gamble. Read More

amiga - tappert leipzig

“Musik Hans Tappert” in Leipzig’s Eisenbahnstrasse (formerly Ernst-Thälmann-Strasse) circa 1999 (photo: author).

The relationship of East German young people to Western popular culture, in particular pop music, is an aspect of GDR history that often comes up in work exploring this era. I’ve written about this a few times on this blog, but while reading Peter Wensierski’s The Unbearable Lightness of Revolution (my translation, sadly available in German only), his book examining anti-state youth culture in late 80’s Leipzig, I came across a passage which opened a window onto the logistics of acquiring one of the relatively hard-to-come by East German releases by Western acts. That it referred to a music shop that in 1999 still sat down the street from my Leipzig flat, largely unchanged from the old days (see photo above), was an nice bonus. Read More

East German city planning is a particular interest of mine because here the frictions between the utopian aspects of the socialist project and the concrete realities of daily life in the GDR are revealed in a most telling way. East German leaders were determined to create the “new socialist personality” (their version of the Homo Sovieticus) and saw in city planning another tool to facilitate this goal. At the centre of these efforts were four so-called “socialist cities”, towns planned from the ground up and, theoretically at least, built in such a way as to enable its citizens to live their lives in conformity with the values and priorities of the state’s socialist ideology. Over the past number of years, I managed to visit three of these several times (Eisenhüttenstadt, Hoyerswerda and Halle-Neustadt), but had never made it to the fourth, Schwedt. That changed this past April when I was able to spend a day in this town in the lovely Uckermark region to the north-east of Berlin.

Public Art from GDR Era, Pt. 1

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My guide in Schwedt was Dr. Johanna Goldberg, a resident of the town since 1969 and someone who will be familiar to regular readers as the subject of several recent posts. My hope was that she would be able to give me a personal take on Schwedt’s history and I was not disappointed. Before heading out for my tour, however, I gave a close read to Dr. Philipp Springer’s Verbaute Träume: Herrschaft, Stadtentwicklung und Lebensrealität in der sozialistischen Industriestadt Schwedt (Blocked Dreams: Power, City Planning and Daily Life in the Socialist Industrial Centre of Schwedt – Ch. Links Verlag, 2006), a detailed look at the development of this “socialist city” and source of many of the facts laid out here. Read More

In the twenty five years that have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of the two German states, little of what might reasonably be labeled “East German” has survived to find its place as part of joint German culture. There’s the distinctive and almost-Disneyesque Ampelmännchen found on pedestrian signals in the former-East, a whimsical and certainly far less business-like figure than its striding western counterpart. Beyond that, however, I am able to think of only one other example of a GDR product that has managed to rise above its “socialist taint” to assume place in the collective culture and that would be the Berlin television tower.

Berlin TV Tower (Bild und Heimat, 1984)

Postcard of Berlin TV Tower (Bild und Heimat, 1984)

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Poster celebrating May Day 1989, taken from my collection (photo: editor).

Poster celebrating May Day 1989 “the Day of Struggle and Celebration of the Working Class”, taken from my collection (photo: editor).

One of the highlights of the annual calendar of the GDR leadership, and many of its loyal followers, was that traditional holiday of the working class, May Day. In the GDR, The May First holiday was known officially as “The International Day of Struggle and Celebration of the Workers for Peace and Socialism”. As was the case elsewhere in the East Bloc, May Day was typically marked by a huge parade of workers who paid tribute to representatives of the “vanguard of the proletariat”, that is, the Party leadership, by filing past them en masse.

Technically attendance at the parade was optional, but if you didn’t want to invite questions, or potentially worse, from the state’s representatives at your work or school, you were well advised to show up. Read More

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