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!
Lutz L’s National People’s Army ID card (photo: author).
While teaching English in Leipzig in 1999, one of my colleagues in the office was Lutz L. In his early 30s, Lutz as our office “fixer”, someone who could be counted on to deal with any issue that came up, technical or otherwise. An affable fellow, I learned that he was pursuing a doctorate in Psychology at the university on the side but that he had a been at the start of a twenty-five year stint as a professional officer in the East German National People’s Army (NVA) when the revolution of 1989 put an end to his career plans.
I was intrigued and over the months, we had several short conversations about his experiences as the member of a mobile missile battery stationed at a base northeast of Berlin, near the Polish border. He was proud of his time in the army and happily shared stories of how professional and well trained he and his Comrades were. That the force was dissolved after unification clearly rankled and I remember him echoing a sentiment that I’d read expressed by other ex-NVAers: “They got rid of the wrong army.” The West German Bundeswehr, an army made up largely of conscripts, was in Lutz’ view, a fighting force in name only. Its propensity to keep regular business hours caused him quip, “If it had come to it, you can be sure we would’ve attacked on a Friday after 5 pm!”
To understand the lay of the land in footballing terms in the “Berlin – Capital of the German Democratic Republic”, it is helpful – appropriately enough – to take a dialectical approach. On the one end of spectrum, you had Berlin Football Club “Dynamo” (BFC), the country’s most successful, and despised, team thanks in large part its “sponsorship” by the state’s security organs including the notorious secret police the Stasi. (For an overview on BFC, see my earlier post on the club and its history here.) BFC’s opposite, in every sense, was 1. FC Union Berlin, a team with strong, genuine working class roots and a level of fan support unparalleled in the East.
1. FC Union pennant from late 1970s / early 1980s (photo: editor).
Reverse side of pennant cheekily featuring Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, part of of rival BFC’s turf (photo: editor).
Most sports leagues have a team that functions as a villain, a target for the antipathies of practically everyone who isn’t one of their fans. In baseball, the New York Yankees have worn the black hats, both literally and figuratively, since the 1970s when George Steinbrenner took over the team. In NFL football, the New England Patriots have attracted considerable scorn thanks to the their coach Bill Belichick, a man with the few scruples and even fewer social graces. In the hockey world, the 70s-era Philadelphia Flyers (aka “The Broad Street Bullies”) invited the disdain of practically every fan outside of the “City of Brotherly Love” for their successful redefinition of the sport to include a healthy dollop of Kubrickian ultraviolence.
A BFC wall calendar from 1985 purchased on my visit to East Berlin that spring. I think I got this at a kiosk in the Friedrichstrasse station. It measures 56 X 41 cm. (photo: author).
Lists of sporting villains are constantly being revised (mainly in bars and on sports talk radio), but I would contend that all would be enriched through the inclusion of East Germany’s most reviled soccer team: Berlin Football Club Dynamo (BFC Dynamo). Read More
This week’s post will continue examining a number of items which once belonged to Benno and Christel B., two Party loyalists from the socialist city of Hoyerswerda. Last week’s post parsed the the life of Christel B., a task made possible thanks largely to a short biography which she submitted in 1972 to some sort of Party office. This document provided considerable detail on Christel’s activities up to 1972, however, my collection of materials unfortunately sheds little light on her life after this point.
In the case of Christel’s husband Benno, the situation is reversed. It is his early years which remain opaque, while a collection papers from his time working at Hoyerswerda’s Combine “Black Pump” as both a functionary of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) and a senior member of his plant’s Combat Group give a fairly clear sense of his life from 1959 onwards.
Benno B.’s Early Years: What We Know, What We Can Surmise
Included in the materials I acquired on Benno and Christel B. were a number of evaluations done of Benno by various Party bodies between 1965 and 1982. These documents include details on Benno’s background and form the basis of the biography which I piece together here.
The only information that can be gleaned about Benno B.’s life before the end of World War II is that he was born in Liepe District Angersmünde “to a family of workers” (Evaluation by Party Secretary Zirz from Jan. 16, 1967, pg 1.) on July 14, 1921, an area just to the north of the Bad Freienwalde/ Eberswalde area from where his future spouse, Christel, was raised. The various documents contain no information on his youth which is not that surprising, but they are also silent on his activities during World War II. This strikes me as remarkable since It Benno B. would have been a healthy young man of fighting age during the period and it seems unimaginable that he could have escaped being mobilized into the German Wehrmacht for at least some of this time.
Evaluation of Benno B. done by the First Secretary of the SED Basic Organization at Combine “Black Pump” as part of attempts to have Benno accepted to the District Party School in 1967 (photo: R. Newson).
The GDR’s leaders were very sensitive about how their country was perceived internationally. Seen by many as a rump state and proxy of the Soviet Union, East German leaders took great pains to assert their legitimacy whenever and however they could. These efforts increased in 1971 with the ascension of Erich Honecker to the positions of First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) and Chair of State Council. Under Honecker, East Germany pursued international recognition through a variety of means including diplomacy (e.g. supplying aid to Third World countries, applying for and receiving member status at the United Nations (1973), signing the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe at Helsinki (1975)) and sport (by pouring huge amounts of money (and anabolic steroids) into the country’s Olympic programs to support the country’s “diplomats in training suits”). Another way the GDR attempted to massage its international image was by hosting the 10th iteration of the World Festival of Youth and Students in East Berlin in the summer of 1973, an event that has come to be known by some as the “Red Woodstock”.
Commemorative beer stein given to a family which hosted a billet in their apartment on Berlin’s Leninplatz during the festival.
This week I want to begin shining a light on the militarization of East German society, a subject that I’ll return to from time to time in the coming weeks. Here I want to present a couple of items in my collection which are related to the Combat Groups of the Working Class (Kampfgruppen der Arbeiterklasse (KdA)), a volunteer, paramilitary organization formally under the control of the GDR’s Interior MInistry (and which contained the notorious State Security Service (Stasi). The Combat Groups were made up largely of male members of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) who were organized into units at their workplaces (factories, state offices, collective farms, etc. but not, interestingly, educational institutions). Like army reservists, Members of the Combat Groups of the Working Class (to use the official GDR jargon or Kaderwelsch) met after work or on weekends several times a year for uniformed combat training and exercises. I think my interest here stems from the contrast between how military preparedness seeped into so many aspects of East German life and the way in which this contrasts with my own lived experience in Canada.
“Die Internationale” as sung by members of the Combat Groups during the 1986 iteration of Groups’ annual parade in East Berlin (on the Karl-Marx Allee!)
This week’s post picks up where I left off last week and examines the contents of a pair of house books I’ve acquired for two different apartment blocks in the Berlin neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg. It’s remarkable the way in which a number of facets of GDR history can be gleaned from the entries found in each of these documents . . .
Christburger Strasse 28
- The credits for the house book at Christburger Strasse 28 identifying Käthe Gipson as its keeper
The house book for Christburger Strasse 28 was started on June 12, 1959 by tenant Käthe Gipson and kept by her through to November 1, 1983. Wrapped in brown kraft paper, its cover was updated at some point as the GDR emblem found here has been pasted on, presumably overtop of the original state emblem which appeared on those house books issued in the early 1950s. It includes a few pages of entries for permanent residents of the address at the front of the book and separate sections for both foreign and GDR visitors. From the markings, it appears that the local Community Police Officer monitored the book on a regular basis through to 1967, but there is nothing to suggest that the book was controlled at any point after this. Despite this, however, Mrs. Gipson continued to fill it out conscientiously including all the details called for by law. Read More
House book for Christburger Strasse 28 in its protective kraft paper cover
Cover of house book for Christburger Strasse 28: note now state emblem has been updated after the original one was phased out
House book for Kollwitzstrasse 71
Recently a friend loaned me copy of German historian Karl Schlögel’s excellent book Moscow (London: Reaktion Books, 2005), the English-translation of Moscow lesen: Die Stadt als Buch (Reading Moscow: The City as Book), a work which originally appeared in 1984. In it, Schlögel used his explorations of the Soviet capital during a visit in the early 80s both as a jumping off point for a number of fascinating essays. Schlögel is a fine writer, and while this book includes excellent pieces on Russian architectural, political and social history, it is most satisfying when the author indulges his interest in the stuff of everyday life such as the signage on Soviet government buildings, second-hand bookshops, post offices and factories. Since I share his interest in such seemingly tangential matters, I found myself nodding vigorously on several occasions, but it was a passage on his methodology that resonated most clearly with me. Because it is germane to what I am trying to do with this blog, I quote him here:
“I think that since every detail has a historical dimension, being a product of its own time and bound up with its own time, it is in principle a valid document, a readable letter or even a syllable in the great text that we call history. Every age has its own signature, its own bearing, its own manner, be it flamboyant or restrained. As we know, the reading of old texts enhances our ability to find our way into a period, to gain a degree of intimacy with it. The details are given, they are deposits of stone, marble or iron . . . The text is written. We can not change anything about it. All we can do is approach it with due respect.” (pg. 291)
Amen to that, Karl.
Feeling validated, I turn my attentions to this week’s items of East German ephemera, two “house books” which testify about the society of their origin in a most informative way.
Abschnittsbevollmächtigtermütze – cap worn by a Community Officer of the People’s Police
This cap was worn by an Abschnitsbevollmächtigter (ABV) or Community Police Officer in the 1980s. ABVs were members of the People’s Police (Volkspolizei) and assigned responsibility for a particular area of a city or town. In addition to walking the beat, carrying out traffic controls and general law enforcement, ABVs were also expected to carry out more unpopular duties such as keeping an open ear for Western television or radio broadcasts and working with volunteer helpers to ensure that “House Books” were kept up to date. These books registered all overnight visitors to a residence and served as an effective means of keeping tabs on residents and those who visited them.