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Youth Researcher Collective in the Leuna Works Research Centre, October 1971 (Photo: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-K1027-0014)

In our previous post on the Chemical Works at Leuna and Buna, the focus was very much on the political and economic history of those sites. But what was working life like for the nearly 50,000 East German workers who were employed at these works (28,000 at Leuna, 18,000 at Buna)? In this post, I’ll speak to someone who did just that in the hopes of getting a glimpse into the life of a blue collar worker in the “Workers and Peasants State”.

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Whenever I think of Leuna and Buna, two of the GDR’s largest chemical production facilities, I am reminded of a pivotal scene in Mike Nichol’s iconic 1967 film “The Graduate”. In it, Dustin Hoffman’s character Ben, a recent college graduate struggling to figure out his place in the world, is taken aside at a party by Mr. McGuire, a man of his father’s generation who wishes to impart some wisdom to the young man:

“I just want to say one word to you,” the older man begins earnestly. “Just one word. Are you listening?”
“Yes sir,” responds Ben.
When Mr. McGuire is sure that he has the younger man’s attention, he finally speaks: “Plastics.”

What, you may be asking, does this have to do with two East German industrial facilities? Well, imagine Walter Ulbricht in the role of Mr. McGuire while the the East German populace is Ben. The pitch takes place not at a cocktail party in mod, 60s-era California bungalow, but rather nine years earlier at the “GDR Chemical Conference” taking place at the Leuna Works (GDR, always at the vanguard of progress! ed.). For it is here that SED leader Ulbricht articulated the Party’s vision for the GDR’s economic future which famously included the promise that “chemistry brings bread, prosperity and beauty”. This dream of better living through chemistry represented a broadening of the GDR’s economic focus to include not just Stalinist-style heavy industry (e.g. steel and machine building) but also the quickly emerging petrochemical chemical industry, a move which represented a big gamble. Read More

 

From Ein Stein, Ein Kalk, Ein Kran, Louis Rauwolf/Klaus Lettke (Verlag Tribuene Berlin)

The GDR was not a society necessarily known for its humour and certainly not for its irony, at least not in the Party-controlled media. That said, “real existing socialism” was rife with contradictions and situations which provided ample fodder for the country’s humorists both professional and amateur. The country’s best known cartoonists were Louis Rauwolf and Klaus Lettke a pair who achieved considerable public profile and popularity for the carefully crafted barbs of everyday East German life, many of which appeared in Eulenspiegel, the GDR’s satirical magazine. It’s interesting to try and glean the limits to what was acceptable. While problems of everyday life and reflected here with relative accuracy, fault for these shortcomings are typically found with individuals themselves, certainly not the Party or decision makers. The cartoons found here are from Ein Stein, Ein Kalk, Ein Kran, a collection of cartoons which dealt with the theme of housing and appeared in 1987. Read More

Earlier this year, I was able to travel to the German-Polish border region southeast of Berlin to the town of Guben. In GDR times, Guben was an important centre for textile production and known as “Wilhelm-Pieck-Stadt Guben”, an honorific paying tribute to the GDR’s first, and only, president who was born there. These days, the town is perhaps best known, if at all, as one of Germany’s “oldest” municipalities, a result of the collapse of the region’s industry and relocation of many from its younger generations. Not surprisingly, perhaps, there is a still considerable GDR-era imprint on the town and that’s what I went to find on this field trip.

For those of you interested in East German football, you may wish to lend an ear to this interview which Alan McDougall, author of The People’s Game: Football, State and Society in East Germany, gave to the always interesting Radio GDR podcast. Alan was kind enough to sit through a number of questions put to him by myself and Radio GDR’s Shane Whaley and the result is an interview which I think does justice to a book of remarkable breadth and insight.

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