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"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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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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The images above are taken from what was known as the “Sport Show”, a key element of 8 gymnastics and sport festivals held in the GDR between 1954 and 1987. For readers today, I imagine that these images recall first and foremost the so-called “Mass Games” which have been presented by the North Korean regime in the recent past. These events feature a cast of thousands performing carefully synchronized, highly choreographed displays of gymnastics, acting and music in honour of the hermit kingdom’s “Dear” and “Great” leaders.

While North Korea may be the country most closely associated with “Mass Games” today, it is interesting to note that this artistic medium has roots which extend back to early 19th century Germany and that its traditions were, as the photos above attest, continued on the GDR as well.

To get a sense of what “Mass Games” looked like in the East German context, check out this video below which features clips from the 1977 and 1987 GDR Gymnastics and Sport Festivals in Leipzig. As an added bonus, you’ll get to hear / read the recollections of a participant in one of these Sport Shows; her words give a clear insight into what role the festivals played in the propagation of the GDR’s official ideology.

Excerpt of 2009 film by Anna Hoetjes

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Plastic pin produced for participants in the Spartakiade of the Combat Groups of the Working Class in Halle / Saale in 1973 (photo: Jo Zarth).

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!

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Last year while searching eBay for potential new acquisitions to my collection of GDR ephemera, I came across some used school notebooks, a rather unusual find but one which had me excited as I’m always on the lookout for items which have a clear personal angle. When they arrived, I discovered that the notebooks were from 1970 and had belonged to a grade 1 girl with the rather distinctive name of Kordula Striepecke. While the notebooks for her mathematics and German class were unrevealing, young Kordula’s notebook for Heimatkunde, a sort of introduction to civics, told a rather interesting story.

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