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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

"Let the fig leaves fall" - photo from front page of Junge Welt, Nov. 7, 1989.

“No more fig leaves” – photo from front page of Junge Welt, Nov. 7, 1989.

As the fall of 1989 progressed and the Socialist Unity Party’s (SED) grip on power began to loosen, many of the Party’s more than 2 million members watched in disbelief as the socialist project crumbled before them. One window onto the myriad of reactions that these developments gave rise to is found in the newspapers under SED direct control. Junge Welt (Young World) was the organ of the GDR’s youth organization, the Free German Youth (FDJ), and with 1.4 million copies printed, it was the country’s largest circulation daily. My collection includes this paper’s November 7, 1989 edition, and it provides an amazing reflection of the disintegration of state socialism in the GDR just before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
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Anvil desk ornament produced to mark the GDR's 25th anniversary on October 7, 1974 (photo: Jo Zarth).

Anvil desk ornament produced to mark the GDR’s 25th anniversary on October 7, 1974 (photo: Jo Zarth).

On this date in 1974, the GDR marked its 25th anniversary. The item featured in this post is a miniature anvil featuring this date (7 X 1974) which was produced as a memento to mark this occasion. The GDR was always keen on celebrating itself (who else was going to do it?!) and this sort of thing was distributed as a token of appreciation to Party loyalists.

But What Does It All Mean?

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Kordula Striepecke receives her victor's medal at the 1983 GDR Championship in Zeitz (photo: Striepecke archive)

Kordula Striepecke receives her victor’s medal at the 1983 GDR Championship in Zeitz (photo: Striepecke archive)

To mark the start of the Olympic Games two weeks ago, I published part I of a look at the sporting career of  an elite-level GDR athtete Ms. Kordula Striepecke. Born in the GDR in 1963, Ms. Striepecke was identified as a promising athlete at a young age and pt. I of her story covers her first years as a competitive paddler through to her admission to the Sport School in Leipzig, on East Germany’s top level training centres for young athletes, in 1978-79. This post picks up at that point with the young Kordula believing that her dream of competing at an Olympic Games was coming nearer to her grasp. Read More

With today marking the opening of the Rio Olympic Games, it seems an appropriate time to begin a series of posts on the sporting career of an elite athlete trained in the GDR, Ms. Kordula Striepecke, a world-class competitor in canoe slalom.

In the years that have followed the fall of the Berlin Wall the narrative that has emerged around East Germany’s sporting culture has tended to focus on the way in which the state socialist system relentlessly pursued sporting excellence, often at the expense of the health and well-being of the very athletes expected to deliver these results. In my discussions with Ms. Striepecke about her remarkable sporting career, both in the GDR and in the unified German team after 1990, I was interested to see they ways in which her experiences serve to both confirm and challenge the prevailing impressions of what the pursuit of elite sport involved in the German Democratic Republic.

I am grateful to Ms. Striepecke for her willingness to share her story with me and hope that you find it as enjoyable to read as I did to research and write.

Like dreams held by many East German citizens, the one at the centre of this week’s post was also born in front of a television set tuned to a West German channel. It was late summer 1972 and nine-year old Kordula Striepecke was transfixed by images she saw on the TV sitting in the living room of her family’s Erfurt apartment. On the screen were images of the Summer Olympics being held in neighboring West Germany, specifically, the canoe slalom event. As the competitors navigated their way through the white water course with skill and precision, a dream was born: “I immediately joined a club to start paddling and I collected every article I could find about the sport from the East German papers. And the wish to compete at an Olympic Games began to grow inside me.” (from Wendegeschichten nach 20 Jahren Wende / 20. Jahrestag des Mauerfalls by Kordula Striepecke)

Kordula Striepecke standing in front of Progress Erfurt's boat house (photo: Striepecke archive)

Kordula Striepecke standing in front of Progress Erfurt’s boat house (photo: Striepecke archive)

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One of the GDR’s most popular magazines was the weekly Neue Berliner Illustrierte (New Berlin Illustrated), a bright and colourful publication which, with its mixture of politics, portraits, social trends, sport and culture, resembled nothing so much as that iconic chronicler of American society and politics LIFE.

Issue #35 of the NBI in 1969 with a cover story on the construction of the "New Berlin" (photo: R. Newson)

Issue #35 of the NBI in 1969, the 20th anniversary of the GDR. The cover story focused on the construction of the “new, socialist Berlin” (photo: R. Newson).

NBI was older than the GDR itself, first appearing already in 1945 during the early months of the Soviet occupation. Over the years, the magazine enjoyed considerable popularity and by the end phase of the Workers and Peasants’ state, NBI had a weekly circulation of 800,000 issues. While such numbers are perhaps not the most reliable measure of popularity in a command economy (well, beyond a publication’s popularity with those in charge), the NBI “was sought after just like all other bright and glossy magazines in which there was less propaganda” (“Amboss oder Hammer sein” by Christoph Dieckmann, ZEIT, November 1, 1991). Read More

The November/December issue of the GDR's "magazine for fashion and culture", Sibylle (photo: R. Newson)

The November/December issue of the GDR’s “magazine for fashion and culture”, Sibylle (photo: R. Newson)

While the notion of an East Bloc fashion magazine may leave one imagining photo spreads of models clad in Mao suits or Thälmann caps, for thirty-three years Sibylle, East Germany’s magazine for “fashion and culture”, made the case (sometimes more convincingly than others) that state socialism and style were not necessarily mutual exclusive concepts. Read More

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