A (Very) Brief History of Consumer Goods in the GDR
As is all other East Bloc states, initially the GDR’s economic focus was on establishing its heavy industry with the result that the production of consumer goods received the short shrift. The tensions this created were considerable (e.g. supply and price of consumer goods was one of the grievances of protestors during the June 17, 1953 uprising) and the Party made several attempts were made to ameliorate the situation.
The first of these came in 1958 with the campaign to establish a plastics industry in the GDR. Under the banner “Chemistry Brings Bread, Prosperity and Beauty”, considerable resources were poured into establishing facilities that would produce items for both consumers and industry. In the years which followed, a myriad of plastic consumer goods made there way into GDR shops. Shortages, however, remained.
With Erich Honecker’s assumption of the position of General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) in 1971, the Party ordered a reorientation of economic priorities explicitly placing the needs of average citizens in the forefront. In large part, this manifested itself in a massive construction program that was intended to solve a housing shortage which had lingered since the end of World War II.
Consumer goods, however, also received attention, and here Honecker pursued a two-pronged strategy. First, he took steps to nationalize a number of small, privately-held workshops which produced a disproportionate amount of the country’s consumer goods. As remnants of a capitalist economic system, these private workshops had long been a thorn in the Party’s side and so Honecker moved to nationalize them with the argument that state control would lead to improved productivity. The second move to improve access to consumer goods was considerably more creative. Resources being limited, there were no funds available to finance the creation of new consumer-oriented production facilities so the Party instead ordered factories producing for the industrial sector to ensure that 5% of their output was made up of consumer goods. As one can imagine, this led to rather bizarre outcomes:
- the steel mill at Eisenhüttenstadt produced microwave ovens
- a brown coal-fired power plant in Jänschwalde turned out ironing boards
- a factory producing phones developed a line of lampshades.
Despite these efforts, discontent with the supply and quality of consumer goods remained a problem through to the end of the GDR.
For many East German firms producing consumer goods, the end came with the GDR’s currency union with the Federal Republic on July 1, 1990. The effects of this move were twofold. First, most East German shops cleared their shelves of any ‘Made in GDR’ products and replaced these with the West German equivalents. Second, the adoption of the Deutschmark made GDR-produced goods prohibitively expensive for Eastern European customers, the main foreign recipients of these items. With their domestic and international customers having evaporated, many of these firms quickly fell onto hard times with some ceasing operations in short order, their employees the first casualties of German unification.
By the late 1990s enough time had passed that a nostalgia for some GDR consumer goods emerged and a some well-known brands made their way back onto the market. Sometimes the revived product carried only the GDR brand name and used a different formula (e.g. Club Cola, Bambina chocolate or Spee laundry powder), others which had managed to hang on through the transition (e.g. Rotkäppchen sparkling wine, Spreewälder pickles) enjoyed a huge upswing in demand and have gone on to reestablish themselves, particularly with consumers in eastern Germany.