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Consumer Goods

When one travels Germany by rail, the areas directly adjacent to the tracks when one enters and leaves towns and cities are often filled by allotment gardens. Another way Europeans make use of the limited space at their disposal, these gardens are often well tended and incorporate glorified garden sheds (often with tv satellite dishes) which indicate that the plot serves as the owner’s version of a country cottage. Trains I’ve been on have passed close enough to such gardens that I could see owners working away only feet from our carriage or families relaxing around a picnic table seemingly oblivious to the cacophony as we raced by. I soon learned that these plots are cherished sites of recreation for many German urban dwellers whose living arrangements don’t offer them access to any sort of green space.

An East German allotment garden (Thanks for photo to Creative Blog, http://www.thom-blog.de/Wordpress/archives/3945)

An East German allotment garden (Thanks for photo to Creative Blog, http://www.thom-blog.de/Wordpress/archives/3945)

The situation was no different in East Germany where such gardens were highly coveted for several reasons. First, having one meant you could produce fruit and vegetables to augment the often meagre selection available in the state shops. This harvest would either end up on  gardeners’ own plates or was sold to generate a bit of additional income. Second, allotment gardens were desirable as a refuge from the demands placed on one by by the state and the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) and they serve as an example of the fiercely guarded private space which East Germans carved out for themselves and their families, a practice which led some observers to label the GDR a “niche society”.

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To understand the lay of the land in footballing terms in the “Berlin – Capital of the German Democratic Republic”, it is helpful – appropriately enough – to take a dialectical approach. On the one end of spectrum, you had Berlin Football Club “Dynamo” (BFC), the country’s most successful, and despised, team thanks in large part its “sponsorship” by the state’s security organs including the notorious secret police the Stasi. (For an overview on BFC, see my earlier post on the club and its history here.) BFC’s opposite, in every sense, was 1. FC Union Berlin, a team with strong, genuine working class roots and a level of fan support unparalleled in the East.

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Most sports leagues have  a team that functions as a villain, a target for the antipathies of practically everyone who isn’t one of their fans. In baseball, the New York Yankees have worn the black hats, both literally and figuratively, since the 1970s when George Steinbrenner took over the team. In NFL football, the New England Patriots have attracted considerable scorn thanks to the their coach Bill Belichick, a man with the few scruples and even fewer social graces. In the hockey world, the 70s-era Philadelphia Flyers (aka “The Broad Street Bullies”) invited the disdain of practically every fan outside of the “City of Brotherly Love” for their successful redefinition of the sport to include a healthy dollop of Kubrickian ultraviolence.

A BFC wall calendar from 1985 purchased on my visit to East Berlin that spring. I think I got this at a kiosk in the Friedrichstrasse station (photo: author).

A BFC wall calendar from 1985 purchased on my visit to East Berlin that spring. I think I got this at a kiosk in the Friedrichstrasse station. It measures 56 X 41 cm. (photo: author).

Lists of sporting villains are constantly being revised (mainly in bars and on sports talk radio), but I would contend that all would be enriched through the inclusion of East Germany’s most reviled soccer team: Berlin Football Club Dynamo (BFC Dynamo). Read More

This week, I’m going to examine a couple of aspects of money in East Germany including the official and unofficial exchange of the East German mark for the hard Western currencies which the GDR regime coveted, consumer choice, the country’s Intershop store network and then wrap up with a few notes on the currency itself.

Exchange Rates

As a soft currency, East German marks were not widely available on world markets the way Deutschmarks, Pounds or Dollars were. The official, largely symbolic, rate of exchange for the Deutsch Mark and East Mark was 1:1, however, one could find illegal currency traders in the West offering rates of between 1:8 and 1:12. I have memories of seeing such rates posted in West Berlin exchange booths in the mid- to late-1980s and remember wondering who would make use of such services as the import of East Marks into the GDR from the West was illegal and subject to criminal prosecution. Over time, I found out . . . Read More

While recently observing the orgy of consumerism that are the Boxing Day (December 26th) sales here in Canada, I got to thinking and realized that, in a way, everyday was Boxing Day in the GDR. Admittedly, no 72-inch flat screen televisions were involved, but think about it: this was a place where consumers constantly had to line up for access to scarce goods. And if you were shopping for food staples, there were some amazing bargains to be had thanks to some very rigid price controls. (For everything else, however, supply was always an issue so it was kind of like the Boxing Day flyer which reads “Only four per store”. Maybe the GDR state motto should have been “Quantities are Limited”. Indeed, maybe the socialist planned economy inadvertently pioneered the “loss leader concept”: “Come for dirt cheap potatoes, then stay for the endlessly bright Communist future!”)

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First an admission: housewares are not, as you will see, a strength of my collection. However, this is fitting as they were not a particular strength of the East German economy either. Indeed, histories of everyday life in the GDR often point to the shortages of what Germans call the “thousand little things”, the items that are used to run a household or office on a daily basis (e.g. suspenders, coffee filters, bottle openers, paper clips, etc.). The improvisation and creativity required to cope with this situation were hallmarks of GDR society and most certainly part of the nostalgia some people have for their lives in the “Workers and Peasants State”.

That said, by East Bloc standards, East Germans were very well supplied with consumer goods. (This was not, of course, the standard of measure used by most East Germans (or their political masters) who tended to compare their lifestyle with that of their West German neighbours as propagated by Western media.) Indeed, in recent years many GDR consumer goods have become highly coveted collectors items. As you will quickly learn, I possess none of these.

For an English-language look into this world of collectable East German design items, visit this article and photo gallery from Spiegel Online, the web version of Germany’s most important news weekly. More information on the history of East German consumer goods is found on the page “Consumer Goods”.

My Collection

Egg cups in chicken shape, reproduction of Sonja Plastics’ “practical and hygienic” classic design

My collection includes a reproduction of one bona fide GDR design classic, a set of six plastic egg cups in chicken-shaped form. These egg cups first appeared in the wake of the GDR’s steps in the late 1950s to establish plastic production in the country as a means to improving the supply and quality of a wide variety of both industrial and consumer goods. The firm which produced this item, Sonja Plastics of Wolkenstein in the Ore Mountains region, was established prior to the GDR’s founding, survived both the Third Reich and Communist systems intact and is still in operation today.   Read More

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