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
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!”)
A paper bag from the Handelsorganisation (HO), the main retail trade outfit in the GDR, likely from Leipzig in mid-80s (photo: author).
Paper bag from People’ Book Store (Berlin) produced by People’s Own Packaging Dresden (46.5 cm X 33 cm) – held my GDR pressing of Billy Bragg’s Talking with the Taxman LP after buying this in East Berlin in 1989.
Paper bag from Leipzig record store, “Disco-Zentrum” – produced by People’s Own Packaging Dresden (44 cm X 33 cm)
Paper bag for vinyl LPs from Leipzig’s “Melody” Music Store (photo: author).
Polyethylene bag from the Regatta at Talinn, Estonian SSR, part of the 1980 Moscow Olympics (30 cm X 22 cm) (This bag from the Moscow Olympics was found at a Leipzig flea market, and, while not technically of East German provenance, is a fine example of the Soviet practice of reserving polyethylene bags for prestige vendors/events)
The iconic GDR design classic, the Dederon shopping bag (37.5 cm X 35.5 cm)
Hand-printed paper bag, provenance unknown (29 cm X 18.5 cm)
Polyethylene bag from the Berlin TV Tower (42 cm X 30 cm)
Polyethylene bag from National People’s Army Book and Magazine Distribution Berlin (47 cm X 39 cm)
Shortly after arriving in Leipzig in January of 1999, I came across an intriguing article in a free local monthly. Entitled “The Good Person of Stötteritz”, it wasn’t so much the Brecht reference that caught my eye as it was the accompanying picture of a fellow showing off an apron with the logos of teams from East German soccer’s Oberliga (First Division) .
I read on and learned that the fellow, Martin Bayer, was a local social activist who aimed to redirect the cast offs of consumer society to people who might be able to use them. Originally from the West, he’d moved East after unification and though registered as a Psychology student at the university, he spent most of his time on self-directed, social improvement projects.
The Good Person of Stötteritz himself: Martin Bayer and the Oberliga apron (photo from Blitz magazine)
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”.
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