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“Auf dem Wege”, Uwe Pfeifer (1987).

I am by no means an expert in fine art, however, I have found that East German art has provided me with some very useful perspectives on GDR life and society. One of my favourite artists is Uwe Pfeifer, a painter from Halle, whose work captures an ambivalence towards the state socialist system in a palpable way. Technically speaking, the impact of his schooling under two masters of German art, Wolfgang Mattheuer and Werner Tübke, is clear, however, Pfeifer clearly treads his own path.

Above a work entitled Auf dem Wege (On The Way) which features a number of references to German cultural life, but, unable to decipher them all myself, I wrote the artist in search of assistance. To my delight he responded to my mail with the following note:

“This picture was commissioned by the Kulturbund der DDR (GDR Cultural Association) in 1987 to mark the organization’s 40th anniversary.

From left, the figures are as follow:

Sitting in front of the GDR-era garbage can is Pan, a god from Greek mythology and next to him is a child (son of the artist) playing “Indians”.

Emerging from the depths first is the symbolic figure of a German Man of Sorrows (Deutscher Schmerzensmann) followed by Bert Brecht, an unnamed figure and then Johannes R. Becher (poet and GDR Minister of Culture from 1954-58, ed.).

From left, the figures at ground level are: some have seen author Christa Wolf in this first person (U. Pfeifer: “I can accept this interpretation.”), then comes Hans Eisler, next to him Caspar David Friedrich (German Romantic painter, ed.) in front of whom is a child in a Pierrot costume (perhaps symbolic of a fool, ed.) in behind whom is an observer in coat and hat meant to represent the Stasi, the red female nude is a figure symbolizing life and next to her is a symbolic worker. That covers the people.

The wind wheel at the bottom can be understood to represent, among other things, stagnation and movement . . . “

Auf dem Wege was not the first time Pfeifer used this motif of a group in motion in his work. Another piece from the same year, Die Gefährten (The Companions), which was commissioned for the Pedagogical College in the artist’s hometown of Halle, also features a group of prominent figures from different eras striding a path together. While both works take socialist society and culture as their starting points, each seems to incorporate reference to the shadows which hung over everyday life in the GDR.

An earlier work of Pfeifer’s, Feierabend (After Work) from 1977 (seen below), shares the same central image with the two aforementioned paintings, but was the target of much more criticism. Set in an underground walkway (likely inspired by a similar one found under Halle’s Ernst Thälmann Square which has since been removed), this painting features a largely faceless crowd shuffling their way home. The only figure to face the viewer has turned back to glance over his shoulder, a vaguely threatening look on his face, his hand balled into a fist. In the foreground, a garbage can holds a newspaper. This last detail provoked the charge from a high level cultural apparatchik that Pfeifer was criticizing East German media; I’ve also seen interpretations that emphasize the anonymity of the crowd and the monotony of the setting as critiques of the GDR’s “normed” culture, but I find that the artist’s choice of colours and the distinctive dress which he has given these passersby work against such a reading. Again, it’s this ambivalence that I find so engaging. Hopefully you will too.

“Feierabend”, Uwe Pfeifer (1977).

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(A ubiquitous plastic red carnation: the flower of May 1st in the GDR photo: Jo Zarth).

A May Day recollection from Friedmut Wilhelm, a Lutheran minister who served several parishes in the GDR before emigrating to Canada in the 1970s: “Our son Markus was born on the first of May, so of course there was a demonstration march every year on his birthday. And that march passed by our house in the little town where we lived, so we told Marcus that everyone was coming by to wish him a happy birthday. We explained that there would be music and that people would get a Bockwurst, which they did so that they’d come out and march. Anyway, we’d park ourselves at the fence and wave at everyone as they passed by, me the local pastor giving his blessing to the masses from the garden gate!” (May 27, 2018)

For my earlier post with the full story of Friedmut Wilhelm, his wife Gundula and their family, please click here.

My copy of the East German pressing of Depeche Mode’s Greatest Hits album which state’s Amiga label in 1987 (photo: author).

In 1988, it was clear to both East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) and its official youth organization, the Free German Youth (FDJ), that the country’s youth were being lost to the “real existing socialist project”. Searching for a means to address this, the FDJ reached for a solution which would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier and started booking major western pop stars for concerts in East Berlin in the hope that the organization might burnish its image by basking in some reflected glory. Many of the bookings made as part of this project including Bruce Springsteen, Bryan Adams and Joe Cocker made sense on one level as the acts’ blue-collar, working class images dovetailed somewhat with the GDR’s official ideology.

But Depeche Mode? How did the FDJ justify having the British synth-pop stars headline the organization’s birthday concert at East Berlin’s Werner Seelenbinder Hall on March 7, 1988? Read More

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Souvenir scarf from “Festival of Red October”, ‘Capital of the GDR, October 1977’; note the signatures, a popular way for attendees to personalize their souvenir (photo: Jo Zarth).

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the “October Revolution” in Tsarist Russia, a date of particular importance on the East German calendar. As the Soviet Union’s most loyal ally, the GDR went to considerable lengths to demonstrate its fealty to the Communist cause and commemorating this event was a key part of that ritual.

On the 60th anniversary of “Red October” in 1977, the leaders of the German Democratic Republic, the revolution’s self-proclaimed German heirs, were not going to let occasion pass without giving it its proper. So from October 19-22, 1977, the country’s official youth organizations, the Free German Youth and Young Pioneers, held “The Festival of Red October” in East Berlin. The festival brought together tens of thousands of East German young people with 4,000 representatives of the Komsomol, the Soviet Union’s official youth organization, for for a full program of cultural events, showcases of their work and a review of past achievements.

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In the late 1940s, it was by no means certain that Joseph Stalin’s careful calculus of the Soviet Union’s best interests in regards to their German zone of occupation (SBZ) would result in the establishment of a client state. However, once Stalin had decided to proceed down this path and allow the Soviets’ allies in the Socialist Unity Party (SED) in East Berlin to found the German Democratic Republic, Soviet support served as the bedrock guaranteeing the existence of the “Workers and Peasants state”.

For the GDR’s leadership cadre this close alignment to the Soviet Union was something to be welcomed. Practically all of these individuals had been inspired to join the Communist movement by the Great October Revolution of 1917 and many had spent the twelve years of Nazi rule taking refuge in the Soviet Union. The result of these experiences was an ideological and emotional bond with the Soviet Union that ran very deep. The vast majority of East German citizens, however, were not as positively predisposed towards the Soviet Union as their leaders, a fact that posed a significant challenge to both the GDR and Soviet authorities.

It was against this backdrop that in 1949 the Soviet Military Administration in Germany approved the founding of the Society for German-Soviet Friendship (Gesellschaft für Deutsch-Sowjetische Freundschaft (DSF)), an organization mandated to foster a deeper knowledge of and appreciation for Soviet culture and history among East Germans.

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