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Wilhelms 27 05 18

Friedmut and Gundula Wilhelm, May 27, 2018 (photo: author)

When asked to characterize his approach to dealing with Communist authorities, Friedmut Wilhelm, a retired Lutheran pastor who largely grew up in the German Democratic Republic and served parishes there from 1966 to 1979, is matter of fact: “We simply refused to play the game by their rules.” (Interview between author and Friedmut Wilhelm, September 5, 2017).

It’s a telling remark and one that I would contend is the key to understanding how the Lutheran Church in the GDR persisted in the face of forty plus years of hostile rule by the Socialist Unity Party (SED). This post is based on three interviews I conducted with Friedmut Wilhelm and his wife Gundula over the past number of months and it relates experiences they had as a clergy couple in rural East Germany between 1966 and 1979. While the Wilhelms’ story is theirs alone, I suggest that it is an example of the church’s – or more accurately, some of its clergy’s – dogged determination  to maintain independence from direct state control, an attitude which allowed the Lutheran Church to help facilitate the peaceful revolution of 1989 which brought an end to both the GDR’s state socialism and the Cold War. Read More

My copy of the East German pressing of Depeche Mode’s Greatest Hits album which state’s Amiga label in 1987 (photo: author).

In 1988, it was clear to both East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) and its official youth organization, the Free German Youth (FDJ), that the country’s youth were being lost to the “real existing socialist project”. Searching for a means to address this, the FDJ reached for a solution which would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier and started booking major western pop stars for concerts in East Berlin in the hope that the organization might burnish its image by basking in some reflected glory. Many of the bookings made as part of this project including Bruce Springsteen, Bryan Adams and Joe Cocker made sense on one level as the acts’ blue-collar, working class images dovetailed somewhat with the GDR’s official ideology.

But Depeche Mode? How did the FDJ justify having the British synth-pop stars headline the organization’s birthday concert at East Berlin’s Werner Seelenbinder Hall on March 7, 1988? Read More

Roter Okt - Tuch

Souvenir scarf from “Festival of Red October”, ‘Capital of the GDR, October 1977’; note the signatures, a popular way for attendees to personalize their souvenir (photo: Jo Zarth).

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the “October Revolution” in Tsarist Russia, a date of particular importance on the East German calendar. As the Soviet Union’s most loyal ally, the GDR went to considerable lengths to demonstrate its fealty to the Communist cause and commemorating this event was a key part of that ritual.

On the 60th anniversary of “Red October” in 1977, the leaders of the German Democratic Republic, the revolution’s self-proclaimed German heirs, were not going to let occasion pass without giving it its proper. So from October 19-22, 1977, the country’s official youth organizations, the Free German Youth and Young Pioneers, held “The Festival of Red October” in East Berlin. The festival brought together tens of thousands of East German young people with 4,000 representatives of the Komsomol, the Soviet Union’s official youth organization, for for a full program of cultural events, showcases of their work and a review of past achievements.

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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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Gorbachev bust

Bust of Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of Soviet Communist Party during the Wende period in the GDR (photo: author)

It was embarrassing to his East German hosts: every time Mikhail Gorbachev, head of the Soviet Communist Party and guest of honour at the GDR’s 40th anniversary celebrations in East Berlin in early October 1989, set foot in public, GDR citizens would inevitably begin chanting his name: “Gorbi! Gorbi!” Particularly bold ones even cried out “Gorbi save us!” Add to this Gorbachev’s public chiding of his Socialist Unity Party  (SED) allies for their reluctance to implement meaningful reform of their version of “real existing socialism” (“Danger only lies in wait for those who do not react to life!”) and its safe to say the party did not unfold as the Party had hoped. Read More

With the fall season rapidly approaching, so too is the anniversary of the Wende, the German term meaning “turn” which refers to the events in October and November of 1989 which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the GDR.

 

Demontagebuch 1

To mark this occasion, GDR Objectified is pleased to announce a Wende-themed contest, the winner of which will receive a copy of Leipziger Demontagebuch, a book published in the Saxon metropolis in 1990 which brings together hundreds of private photos of the demonstrations which brought East German state socialism to its knees along with a chronicle of events and a number of insightful essays (in German only!).

To learn how this piece of German history can be yours, read on . . . Read More

peace-day-wandzeitungelement.jpg

“My workplace: where I fight for peace”, poster from a portfolio of propaganda elements produced in 1989 (photo: author).

The GDR marked the World Day of Peace, September 1st, from its earliest days, with Party leaders seeing it as a platform to advance its politics and justify its place of primacy. In the immediate post-war era, the idea of peace was decidedly concrete for Germans and it occupied a key place in the GDR’s self-legitimization, but this argumentation ran right through to the country’s late stages.

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Happy May Day! This traditional working class holiday was the political and social highlight of the East German calendar for Party loyalists and a day off for everybody else. Regardless of the city or town, May Day in the GDR was marked with a parade by workers (attendance mandatory!) and the armed forces past a grandstand of Party notables after which the authorities rewarded this display of open loyalty with a well-lubricated street festival.

"May, Labour, Peace": Soviet May Day greeting card circa 1985.

“May, Labour, Peace”: Soviet May Day greeting card circa 1985.

Watching this clip from the last May Day of the SED-era below, it strikes me that May Day 1989 could well have been the last time the GDR leadership was able to project their power without earning any pushback. Read More

“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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