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The November/December issue of the GDR's "magazine for fashion and culture", Sibylle (photo: R. Newson)

The November/December issue of the GDR’s “magazine for fashion and culture”, Sibylle (photo: R. Newson)

While the notion of an East Bloc fashion magazine may leave one imagining photo spreads of models clad in Mao suits or Thälmann caps, for thirty-three years Sibylle, East Germany’s magazine for “fashion and culture”, made the case (sometimes more convincingly than others) that state socialism and style were not necessarily mutual exclusive concepts. Read More

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Plastic pin produced for participants in the Spartakiade of the Combat Groups of the Working Class in Halle / Saale in 1973 (photo: Jo Zarth).

Plastic pin produced for participants in the Spartakiade of the Combat Groups of the Working Class in Halle / Saale in 1973 (photo: Jo Zarth).

One of the distinguishing features of state socialism in the GDR was its use of awards, medals and commendations as a means of acknowledging and encouraging its citizenry along the ‘correct path’. Such items were distributed in workplaces, at schools and in all manner of social settings and as a result are still floating about in considerable numbers. In the early years after German unification, these items were everywhere in the former-East, and the seemingly exotic bits of socialist kitsch were eagerly snapped up by tourists as souvenirs. (Indeed, these things were so popular at one point that in the mid-late 90s it was not unusual to encounter knock-off versions for sale at some major tourist attractions like the Reichstag in Berlin.) While most of the object presented here are not particularly rare, they warrant a closer look as they do provide an interesting window into an East German society that has almost completely vanished.

This post presents my collection of such items. I got a few of mine from hawkers set up near the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate or at flea markets in Leipzig and Berlin in the mid-90s, but most were passed on to me by friends clearing out their parents’ attics. As a result, I’m fairly confident that most of my stuff is authentic, but should the eagle-eyed among you spot any fakes in here, please do let me know!

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(photo: R. Newson)

Activist of Labour awards presented to GDR Objectified staff for their work in building (photo: R. Newson)

GDR Objectified has reached the milestone of 50,000 views, an achievement that has seen the blog exceed its Plan target by more than 32.5%. Editor-in-Chief John Paul Kleiner and his staff were presented with “Activist of Labour” medals for their performance at a ceremony in the blog’s Toronto headquarters. Kleiner stated: “We hope our work makes a meaningful contribution to combating ignorance about the Workers and Peasants’ state. Of course we could not have achieved these results without our readers. Oh, and of course, the Party. It’s been cool too.”

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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Last year while searching eBay for potential new acquisitions to my collection of GDR ephemera, I came across some used school notebooks, a rather unusual find but one which had me excited as I’m always on the lookout for items which have a clear personal angle. When they arrived, I discovered that the notebooks were from 1970 and had belonged to a grade 1 girl with the rather distinctive name of Kordula Striepecke. While the notebooks for her mathematics and German class were unrevealing, young Kordula’s notebook for Heimatkunde, a sort of introduction to civics, told a rather interesting story.

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The Brigade Diary is one of the most interesting items that testifies to working life in the GDR. These books were kept by “Brigades”, the work units created in the late 1950s as part of the program of “Socialist Competition” which was intended to increase efficiency in East German workplaces by having groups of workers compete with one another. The Brigades were supposed to foster a lived socialist culture both at and outside of work and the Brigade Diaries were to serve as a repository for information on a Brigades’ working and social activities.

Bestand:Bild 183 - Allgemeiner Deutscher Nachrichtendienst - Zentralbild Signatur:Bild 183-73766-0083 Originaltitel:info Zentralbild Gahlbeck 13.6.1960 2. Arbeiterfestspiele des FDGB. Schriftsteller-Treffen im Wälzlagerwerk Fraureuth. Ein Schriftsteller-Treffen mit über 20 bekannten Schriftstellern der DDR fand am 10.6. und 11.6.1960 im VEB Wälzlagerwer Fraureuth statt. Die Schriftsteller besuchten einzelne Brigaden des Betriebes und unterhielten sich mit den Arbeitern. UBz: Die Schriftstellerin Helga Höffken-Kast im Gespräch mit dem Brigadier Werner Sachse über das Brigadebuch. Werner Sachse ist schreibender Arbeiter. Datierung:Juni 1960 Fotograf:Gahlbeck, Friedrich Quelle:Bundesarchiv

Author Helga Höffken-Kast speaks with Brigadier Werner Sachse about his Brigade’s Diary during a visit of writers to the People’s Own Anti-Friction Bearing Factory in Fraureuth in June 1960 (photo: Bundesarchiv, 183-73766-0083) 

As originally conceived, the Brigade Diaries were supposed to provide an outlet for workers’ creativity and typically included reports on a collective’s activity, but could also contain drawings, collages and more creative writings. The form a Diary varied from Brigade to Brigade, but many were perfunctory in content and simply kept to satisfy the representative of the Free German Trade Union Associaion (FDGB) charged with vetting these books on a regular basis.

The Brigade Diary for "World Peace" from People's Own Brown Coal Power Plant Bitterfeld (photo: author)

The Brigade Diary for “World Peace” from People’s Own Brown Coal Power Plant Bitterfeld (photo: author)

Recently I acquired a Brigade Diary for my collection which was produced by the Brigade “World Peace” at the People’s Own Brown Coal Power Plant in Bitterfeld during the years from 1984 through to early 1989. This Diary is by no means as elaborate as some I’ve seen, but does include 18 reports of varying lengths and quality and manages to produce a narrative illustrating aspects of both the place of its production and the lives of several of the workers who contributed to it. Read More

One of the interesting things about writing this blog has been the way my assumptions about the “Workers and Peasants State” have been challenged from time to time and this week’s post is a fine example. In it I’m going to look at responses to a “job wanted” ad placed in the Berliner Zeitung newspaper by an unidentified female resident of East Berlin on February 12, 1980  as I think these contradict a number of stereotypes that many of us in the West hold about how labour was (or wasn’t) organized in the GDR and the degree of autonomy which individual workers had within East Germany’s planned economic system.

Secretary envelopes

The letters I’ll be looking at here were supplied to me by a friend (thanks Uli!) who acquired them a number of years ago while living on Berlin’s Karl-Marx Allee. When he mentioned these documents and their contents, I was more than a little surprised as the idea that GDR workers advertised their labour in the pages of one of the country’s mass circulation dailies suggested that the country’s labour market took forms that seemed at odds with my understanding of the rigidities of the GDR’s centrally-planned economy. How was it, in a system, where a central office literally dictated the number of ingots a foundry produced or how many university spaces were to be opened in Slavic studies, that an individual worker could hang up his/her sign and see what the market would bear?

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