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Memory Culture

Join the GDR Objectified on a field trip to Frankfurt / Oder, a city one-hour east of Berlin on the German-Polish border. The East German era has left considerable traces in the city and we’ll seek some of them out here.

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In May 2019, The GDR Objectified ventured to Berlin’s Friedrichshain district to seek out the building housing Neues Deutschland (New Germany), a left-wing daily newspaper founded as the official organ of the GDR’s ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED). Join us as we seek out remnants of the East German past on site and explore the paper’s history.

Check out part II of GDR Objectified’s Field Trip to Halle an der Saale. In this visit, we finish exploring the Neustadt, a socialist-era district on the city’s western edge which was once home to nearly 100,000 residents. We’re joined by Micha B., an eastern German who grew up there, so there’s some insider perspective on this fascinating place!

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

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