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Earlier this year, I was able to travel to the German-Polish border region southeast of Berlin to the town of Guben. In GDR times, Guben was an important centre for textile production and known as “Wilhelm-Pieck-Stadt Guben”, an honorific paying tribute to the GDR’s first, and only, president who was born there. These days, the town is perhaps best known, if at all, as one of Germany’s “oldest” municipalities, a result of the collapse of the region’s industry and relocation of many from its younger generations. Not surprisingly, perhaps, there is a still considerable GDR-era imprint on the town and that’s what I went to find on this field trip.

I was recently able to sit down with Dr. Luise von Flotow, a professor in the University of Ottawa’s School of Translation and Interpretation, to discuss They Divided The Sky her excellent English language translation of GDR author Christa Wolf’s 1963 novel Der geteilte Himmel. Our chat is now online through Radio GDR, the English-language podcast dedicated to all things East German and you can find it here: https://radiogdr.com/they-divided-the-sky-christa-wolf-episode-12/ 

Wolf’s novel is great place for those looking to get a sense of everyday life in the GDR during the “Construction Years” of the late 1950s and early 1960s and Dr. von Flotow was able to share some interesting insight into the work, its translation history and why it remains a vital piece of GDR culture.

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

During my year teaching English in Leipzig in 1999, the school I worked for held the contract for retraining groups of the long-term unemployed both in Leipzig itself and in Hartha, a town about 75 kilometres to the southeast. This was not a coveted gig as instruction began at 7:30 am, a starting time that meant one had to leave the city by 6:00 am the latest. As low man on the totem pole, I was assigned the Hartha gig shortly after my arrival in January. Though I grumbled at first, my assignment to “middle Saxony” turned out to be a blessing in disguise for there I was exposed to a completely different reality than the one I was experiencing in Leipzig. In Hartha the news reports about rural eastern Germany and aspects of GDR history came to life. Whether it was the “flight of the youth”, the rise of neo-Nazi youth culture or the rocky road on the way to the new  economic order, Hartha offered perspectives that I couldn’t get in the city.

The video below is a portrait of the town that was shot by the film club at a Hartha elementary school in 1982. For scenes of town life, skip to the 1:30 mark. The film is remarkable for the candour of local residents. When asked what it is they like about their town, one answers, “About Hartha?! At the moment not much! There’s nothing to buy in the grocery store and you have to stand in long lines!.”

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In 2008 I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Marcus Funck, my friend and colleague from the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies to lead a study tour of Canadian graduate students to the former-East. The central theme of our trip was transformation and one of our aims was to expose the group to what this process had been like not only in the major cities such as Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden, but in smaller centres as well. Given the way in which Eisenhüttenstadt had been connected to the old regime, we were confident that including it in the itinerary would be useful and I’m pleased to say that we were not disappointed.

Children are our future: Stained glass from 1950s by Walter Womacka in former daycare centre (photo: author).

Children are our future: Stained glass from 1950s by Walter Womacka in former daycare centre (photo: author).

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Until a few years ago, I could tell my stories about Eisenhüttenstadt and 99% of people wouldn’t know what the hell I was talking about. Then Tom Hanks went and ruined it. After the actor’s 2011 visit, and subsequent storytelling of it on the Letterman Show, “Iron Hut City” now occupies a tiny space in the popular consciousness and even the local tourism board has gotten into the action creating an unintentionally amusing video that uses Hanks’ visit as a jumping off point to lure visitors to eastern Brandenburg, an endeavour likely to bear little fruit.

Which is not to denigrate Eisenhüttenstadt. While it may have little to attract the average tourist, those with a passion for architecture, city planning and East German history will find much to explore. Over the years, I have the opportunity to visit “Hütte” four times and In this week’s post I’ll give a bit of background on the city history and share my experiences exploring the German Democratic Republic’s first “socialist city”.

1987 photo of Eisenhüttenstadt's main street, Leninallee, which leads to the city's steel mill (photo: Peukert).

1987 photo of Eisenhüttenstadt’s main street, Leninallee, which leads to the city’s steel mill (photo: Peukert).

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"Reconstruction East": Marcus Funck and John Paul Kleiner in Frankfurt/Oder, October 2008 (photo: author).

“Reconstruction East”: Marcus Funck and John Paul Kleiner in Frankfurt/Oder, October 2008 (photo: author).

My 2006 visit to Hoyerswerda is one the most memorable experiences I’ve had in the former-East, so when the opportunity to return presented itself, I jumped at the chance. In my role as Coordinator of the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies at Toronto’s York University, I was able to co-organize a study tour of Canadian graduate students to the “new German states” with my friend and colleague Dr. Marcus Funck in the fall of 2008. The tour itinerary looked at the impact of German unification from a variety of disciplinary perspectives and incorporated visits with a number of my previous contacts. From the beginning, it was clear to both Marcus and myself that Hoyerswerda should be included in our plans and what follows here is my diary entry documenting the beautiful sunny day our group visited Hoy in October 2008:

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