Archive

Wende

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)

Read More

"Read more, know more, do more": large scale neon from 1964 for LKG, a book wholesaler based in Leipzig, circa 1999 (photo: author).

“Read more, know more, do more”: large scale neon from 1964 for LKG, a book wholesaler based in Leipzig, circa 1999 (photo: author).

East German cities came by their reputations as grey, dingy and depressing places honestly. From the early 1960s onward, efforts by the GDR authorities to give their urban centres a “socialist face” often meant that the renovation or maintenance of historical buildings was neglected in favour of new construction using prefabricated blocks with little charm, character or colour. The approach left most East German cities looking rather generic and unattractive.This is not to say that no attention was given to the aesthetics of development, and one tool that city planners did turn to in an attempt to brighten up these city scapes was the neon sign. This post will examine the use of such signage in GDR-era Leipzig and also include a section from my Master’s thesis which looks at the restoration of Leipzig’s most famous neon, the Spoon Family.

Read More
"How Bonn tricks us out of our cash" (extra 11 91, photo: R. Newson).

“How Bonn tricks us out of our cash” (extra 11 91, photo: R. Newson).

German unification brought major changes to the NBI (see last week’s post on the what was the GDR’s version of LIFE magazine). The magazine’s Party-owned publishing house, Berliner Verlag, was privatized and ultimately fell into the hands of West German publishing giant Gruner + Jahr in 1991. The company renamed the magazine extra and installed a new Editor-in-Chief who was charged with revamping NBI for the new times. Interestingly, the arrival of the new, West German ownership did not mean the wholesale dismissal of the East German staff as so was often the case in other workplaces at that time. From a distance, this decision seems bizarre given the reputation, well earned really, of East German journalism as little more than the PR arm of the Socialist Unity Party (SED). However, the decision reflected the new editor’s vision for the magazine which was intended to speak to the newly emerging eastern German middle class; for this to be credible, he argued, eastern Germans would need to be on staff and writing. Read More

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

This video of a match report on an GDR Oberliga football match from November 25, 1989 has been making the rounds for a while, and I thought I’d post it here with a translation of the moderation as it’s a nice little window into the social changes taking place in East German at that time.

The game in question between Lokomotive Leipzig, a team typically to be found at the top of the East German table (though not in this year) and BSG Stahl Eisenhüttenstadt, a weak sister of GDR football, at Stahl’s homeground, Ironworkers’ Stadium, just over two weeks after the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9th. Read More

In an earlier post from a few months back, I looked at the issue of Vietnamese contract workers in the GDR through the experiences of Hieu L., father of Minh, a young woman I met through my work at the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies at Toronto’s York University. After spending a number of years in the GDR in the 1970s learning German and completing engineering studies, Hieu returned to Vietnam where he worked as a university lecturer. In the mid-1980s, however, he received an offer to return to the GDR to work as a translator for Vietnamese guest workers and in 1987 he accepted, leaving his wife and young daughter behind to take on what was quite an attractive position compared to those on offer in his native Vietnam. If you are interested in Hieu’s work in the GDR, you’ll find plenty of those details in the earlier post. We pick up the story here in the summer of 1989 . . .

The Wende and a World Turned Upside Down

In the summer of 1989, Hieu received welcome visitors to his East German home in Wallendorf, his wife Diu and their daughter Minh. Minh explained: “My Dad’s contract was for five years and so we were allowed to visit him [in the GDR] for six months in the summer of ’89. We could do that because he was not a regular guest worker. He was more highly qualified and directly employed [ed. note – by the East German state, not a specific factory or industrial combine as was the case for most guest workers].” During the visit, Diu became pregnant with the couple’s second child and this important development in the family’s life was mirrored by the major changes taking place in geopolitics.

Indeed, the backdrop for the family’s reunion was the gradual disintegration of the GDR over the summer and fall of 1989, a situation which really picked up speed with the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. The scenes from the Brandenburg Gate in the aftermath of the Wall’s fall reached Wallendorf’s television sets and Diu quickly decided that she wanted to be part of this monumental moment. So, with Minh in tow, she and a friend boarded a bus for the once divided city. Once in West Berlin, they spotted a supermarket through the bus window, got off to marvel at all that was on offer there and even bought some soap and mandarin oranges. The scene remains vivid in Diu’s mind to this day: “Our eyes were sparkling with joy and we thought of West Germany as a prosperous country!”

The political changes, however, quickly plunged the many foreign guest workers inside the GDR into uncertainty about their futures. Minh relates, “My Mum told me that after the GDR ceased to exist [ed. note: formally on October 3, 1990, but the decision to unify was essentially sealed with the results of the March 1990 elections in the GDR], the contract workers had no ‘existential status’ anymore. So they were told to go back and they were offered or given 3,000 Marks or so to buy tickets and go back.” While some guest workers accepted this offer, for others, including Hieu, a return home was not particularly appealing and so he and Diu decided to try and stay and find a place for themselves and their young family in the new Germany.

Berlin, Abflug vietnamesischer Arbeiter

Returning home: in the fall of 1990 thousands of Vietnamese guest workers returned home via daily charter flights from East Berlin’s Schönefeld airport (photo: Bundesarchiv 183-1990-1109-032 / Bernd Settnik).

Read More

During my year teaching English in Leipzig in 1999, the school I worked for held the contract for retraining groups of the long-term unemployed both in Leipzig itself and in Hartha, a town about 75 kilometres to the southeast. This was not a coveted gig as instruction began at 7:30 am, a starting time that meant one had to leave the city by 6:00 am the latest. As low man on the totem pole, I was assigned the Hartha gig shortly after my arrival in January. Though I grumbled at first, my assignment to “middle Saxony” turned out to be a blessing in disguise for there I was exposed to a completely different reality than the one I was experiencing in Leipzig. In Hartha the news reports about rural eastern Germany and aspects of GDR history came to life. Whether it was the “flight of the youth”, the rise of neo-Nazi youth culture or the rocky road on the way to the new  economic order, Hartha offered perspectives that I couldn’t get in the city.

The video below is a portrait of the town that was shot by the film club at a Hartha elementary school in 1982. For scenes of town life, skip to the 1:30 mark. The film is remarkable for the candour of local residents. When asked what it is they like about their town, one answers, “About Hartha?! At the moment not much! There’s nothing to buy in the grocery store and you have to stand in long lines!.”

Read More

In my former job as the Coordinator of the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies at Toronto’s York University I supervised a number of German students in Canada on exchange who were assigned to our office as student assistants. For the first few years I was at York, the students I worked with were all white, had “German” family names and could trace their connection to Germany back over many, many generations. But in more recent years this began to change and our German students often came with family names betraying a variety of ethnic and cultural heritages. I greeted this development as a reflection of the fact that the German academy had begun – finally – to reflect the multicultural reality of the society around it.

That said, I was more than a little surprised when one year the C.V. belonging to our new German student bore a distinctly Vietnamese name. I immediately wondered whether Minh L. was from the family of a former East German guest worker as this was the provenance of many people of Vietnamese background in the united Germany. Reading on, the dates and locations suggested that this might be the case.

Vietnamese guest workers from "Banner of Peace" shoe factory march in the 1988 May Day parade in Weissenfels (photo: courtesy of Minh and Diu L.).

Vietnamese guest workers from “Banner of Peace” shoe factory march in the 1988 May Day parade in Weissenfels (photo: courtesy of Minh and Diu L.).

However, this remarkable aspect was quickly overshadowed by an entry in the C.V. which showed that from 1993 to 1999, Minh had attended elementary school in that most notorious of eastern German towns, Hoyerswerda! (For more on Hoy, click here for my earlier post on this subject) This was only two short years after German authorities had caved to several days of anti-foreigner pogroms by neo-Nazis and their sympathizers and removed all former-GDR guests workers and refugee seekers from the town. Neo-Nazis subsequently declared Hoy a “national liberated zone” (German: national befreite Zone) and the town became synonymous with the wave of xenophobia and violence that surfaced in the early years after German unification.

The mind boggled. Read More

Last week I wrote about the club career of Dieter Frenzel, one of the best hockey players to play in the German Democratic Republic. Frenzel was a key player on the SC Dynamo Berlin team that won the East German title 12 of the 17 years he played for them, but he was also the leader of the country’s national team, and his experiences with this team make up this week’s post.

Dieter Frenzel in action against Italy in a photo taken from GDR sport newspaper, Sport Echo.

Dieter Frenzel in action against Italy in a photo taken from GDR sport newspaper, Sport Echo.

Any visitor to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, Canada would be forgiven for thinking that East Germany had never played a role of any significance in the history of the sport. A stroll through an exhibit on world hockey which presents jerseys and some basic statistics on some of the more exotic national teams includes no mention of the GDR’s accomplishments in the international game. Mentions of the German hockey during the Cold War era are limited to the West German team and when I relate my experience to Dieter Frenzel, he shakes his head: “There were jerseys for a couple of our players there. Joachim Ziesche [the only East German inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame, ed. note] gave them to them, so that’s too bad. For almost forty years we were among the top 8 teams in the world and they’ve completely forgotten about us.” (Interview, Dieter Frenzel, April 3, 2014) The issue it seems is that the East German players’ records have never been recognized by the (West) German Ice Hockey Association, now the sole administrator of German hockey records. As a point of comparison, GDR soccer players have had their statistics incorporated into the official record books of German soccer, likely as a result of team members contributions to the country’s 1990 World Cup victory, but nothing of the sort happened for ice hockey. Naturally this is a sore spot for Frenzel: “That leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The only place where we GDR players can be found in the record books is with the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). That’s it. Not in the German records, not in the other international records. Nothing. It’s as if we never existed.”

GDR TV ice hockey graphic, Horst Müller (1974).

GDR TV ice hockey graphic, Horst Müller (1974).

Read More

Last year I used the 24th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall to tell my personal “Wall fall” story. There are many that are more exciting, but few that provide that all important “view from Saskatchewan” perspective.

Pseudo-panorama of the death strip at Potsdamer Platz (photo: author).

Pseudo-panorama of the death strip at Potsdamer Platz. Graffiti in underlined in black reads “Germany is more than the Federal Republic of Germany” (photo: author).

This year I’d like to share my memories of my first encounter with the Wall in the spring of 1985 and reflect on the reality that this structure imposed on the divided Berlin for the 28 years of its existence. Read More

%d bloggers like this: