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Luther Statue - Wittenberg Town Square - 1980

Statue of Martin Luther, Wittenberg Town Square, spring 1980 (photo: D. Hendricksen)

As today is Reformation Day, it seems an appropriate moment to turn our attentions to the GDR’s relationship to Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), the German theologian generally credited with having been one of the key figures in setting this transformative process in motion.

“Grave digger of the nation”, “servant of the princes”: these were but two of the epithets popularly directed at Luther by East German ideologues and cultural leaders, at least in country’s early years. Hewing close to a Marxist-Leninist reading of German history, GDR historians understood Luther as the “seed of the German misery” which would later blossom into fully formed disaster with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

While this position softened somewhat by the mid-1970s and some of Luther’s contributions to German culture came to be grudgingly acknowledged by the Socialist Unity Party (SED) apparat, the reformer remained nevertheless an ambivalent figure in East German cultural life. That is, until 1980 when East German leader Erich Honecker labelled the medieval monk “one of the greatest sons of the German people.” (pg. 3. Berliner Zeitung, June 14-15, 1980) It was a reassessment which caught many, in particular his SED comrades, off guard.

What was behind this change and what were the results?

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Sandman doll with bag

Sandman doll with his bag of sand, 25 cm (photo: J. Zarth).

Surveying the landscape of post-unification German culture, it is hard to find many examples of cultural products from the GDR-era which still have a place in the new Germany.

In fact, I can only come up with two: the Sandmännchen, the subject of today’s post, and the Ampelmännchen, the distinctively East German pedestrian crossing lights. (ed. note: I find it rather remarkable that Ampelmännchen survived given that its design was inspired by a photo of the GDR’s Panama hat loving leader Erich Honecker. Considering the thoroughness with which remnants of the SED dictatorship were erased from the eastern German public space in the 1990s, how this escaped attention baffles me still today. But I digress . . .)
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“East Germany and things happening there had been in the news all the time. We understood the seriousness of the political situation, but we didn’t let it affect our decision making. . . . There was always a feeling of tension, no one was really sure where things were going, but no one was in any panic about it as I recall.”

The words and tone are remarkably sanguine, even with the benefit of 55 odd years of temporal distance.They come from George Hynna, a retired lawyer living in Ottawa, reflecting on the mood among his fellow students as they boarded a boat to West Germany in September 1961. Only weeks before the group’s departure, East Germany had erected the Berlin Wall, reigniting fears that the Cold War might heat up and that a confrontation over the divided city would yet serve as a trigger to armed conflict between East and West.

Hynna was part of that group of promising young Canadians who, having received scholarships from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), were headed to spend a year studying at the University of Freiburg in the southwest corner of West Germany, just across from both the French and Swiss borders. Read More

On August 13, 1961, 55 years today, East Germany erected the Berlin Wall. At least 138 individuals died at the Wall during its more than 28 years of existence, most of them East Germans seeking to flee “real existing socialism”. Approximately half of these deaths occurred in the first five years after the Wall’s construction in the period before the GDR was able to refine the fortifications to a point where escape became virtually impossible.

While the construction of the Wall turned the flood of East German citizens fleeing West via Berlin to a trickle, in the early years of the barrier, many desperate individuals tried to escape from East to West across what was in places still a semi-porous border. At times these escape attempts escalated into open confrontations between East German border guards and West Berlin police, sometimes accompanied by an exchange of gunfire. One result of this was that the atmosphere in the newly divided city was highly charged. This was most certainly the case on Sunday, May 27, 1962.

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"Read more, know more, do more": large scale neon from 1964 for LKG, a book wholesaler based in Leipzig, circa 1999 (photo: author).

“Read more, know more, do more”: large scale neon from 1964 for LKG, a book wholesaler based in Leipzig, circa 1999 (photo: author).

East German cities came by their reputations as grey, dingy and depressing places honestly. From the early 1960s onward, efforts by the GDR authorities to give their urban centres a “socialist face” often meant that the renovation or maintenance of historical buildings was neglected in favour of new construction using prefabricated blocks with little charm, character or colour. The approach left most East German cities looking rather generic and unattractive.This is not to say that no attention was given to the aesthetics of development, and one tool that city planners did turn to in an attempt to brighten up these city scapes was the neon sign. This post will examine the use of such signage in GDR-era Leipzig and also include a section from my Master’s thesis which looks at the restoration of Leipzig’s most famous neon, the Spoon Family.

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“Chemie-Schweine ‘raus! Chemie-Schweine ‘raus!”
“Chemical Pigs Out! Chemical Pigs Out!”

“Lok-Schweine ‘raus! Lok-Schweine ‘raus!”
“Locomotive Pigs Out! Locomotive Pigs Out!”

The chants reverberated around the large hall on Leipzig’s new Trade Fair Grounds as the groups of opposing fans hurled their chants at each other. Rows of riot police ensured that the supporters were kept in their assigned sections and that none slipped out to confront their “enemies”.

Leipzig fans climb over security fence seeking to join others storming the Sachsen fan bloc (photo: author).

VfB Leipzig fans climb over security fence seeking to join others storming the Sachsen fan bloc during the May 1999 derby at Bruno Plache Stadium (photo: author).

The scene was like nothing I had witnessed before: exciting, frightening and more than a little bewildering. It was January 1999 and the occasion was an inconsequential indoor soccer tournament being put on by the German Football Association in the eastern German city of Leipzig during the long winter break in the German Bundesliga schedules. Taking part were the two local clubs, VfB Leipzig and FC Sachsen Leipzig, two top teams from eastern Germany (Hansa Rostock (1st div.) and Energie Cottbus (2nd)), along with a handful of western German clubs from the 1st and 2nd divisions. Coming from Canada, where a hockey game between the country’s two greatest rivals could be staged under the supervision of couple dozen policeman with little to no violence, real or threatened, the vitriol on display was hard to process.

LPZ Football - DFB Hallenfussball Neue Messe

Also confusing were the epithets being thrown around. Who were Chemie and Lok? I had come to Leipzig a “soccer fan” (not saying much in a country where, at the time, there was precious little soccer to be a fan of!) but almost completely ignorant of the city’s footballing history. I worked up my courage and asked a teenager standing near me if he could explain and I learned that the fans were referring to the East German predecessors of VfB (1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig) and FC Sachsen (Chemie Leipzig). These two teams, he told me, really don’t like each other.

It turned out that I hadn’t seen the half of it. Read More

Berlin - Building in the middle is a reconstruction of Berlin's Ermeler House. It reopened on October 7, 1969 to mark the GDR's 20th anniversary and contained one of the city's few luxury category restaurants. (Bild und Heimat)

An East German postcard from 1971 of the reconstructed Ermeler House (pale yellow building at right) (Bild und Heimat)

Despite the destruction caused during World War II, post-war Berlin was dotted with notable structures that had miraculously survived the fighting. In East Berlin this architectural legacy posed a challenge that the rulers of the “first socialist state on German soil” would have been happy to have done without, keen as they were to put a “socialist” stamp on their new capital (e.g. see the Stalinallee project). In a few high profile cases, the decision was made to remove “ideologically unsuitable” buildings. The best known example of this approach was the destruction of the Hohenzollern City Palace in 1950 (the Palace of the Republic would later stand on this spot). In other instances, authorities took a more pragmatic approach, deciding to make use of facilities “tainted” by their previous associations. A good example here would be the House of Ministries, a massive complex in central Berlin that had been built for Hermann Göring’s Aviation Ministry. East German leaders turned into a major administrative centre and in fact it was in one of its ballrooms that the GDR was formally brought into existence during a ceremony on October 7, 1949.

Another interesting, albeit lower profile, illustration of how GDR authorities dealt with the architectural legacy they had been bequeathed is found in the case of Ermeler House, the subject of this post. Read More

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