On August 13, 1961, 55 years today, East Germany erected the Berlin Wall. At least 138 individuals died at the Wall during its more than 28 years of existence, most of them East Germans seeking to flee “real existing socialism”. Approximately half of these deaths occurred in the first five years after the Wall’s construction in the period before the GDR was able to refine the fortifications to a point where escape became virtually impossible.

While the construction of the Wall turned the flood of East German citizens fleeing West via Berlin to a trickle, in the early years of the barrier, many desperate individuals tried to escape from East to West across what was in places still a semi-porous border. At times these escape attempts escalated into open confrontations between East German border guards and West Berlin police, sometimes accompanied by an exchange of gunfire. One result of this was that the atmosphere in the newly divided city was highly charged. This was most certainly the case on Sunday, May 27, 1962.

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)

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

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

“Chemie-Schweine ‘raus! Chemie-Schweine ‘raus!”
“Chemical Pigs Out! Chemical Pigs Out!”

“Lok-Schweine ‘raus! Lok-Schweine ‘raus!”
“Locomotive Pigs Out! Locomotive Pigs Out!”

The chants reverberated around the large hall on Leipzig’s new Trade Fair Grounds as the groups of opposing fans hurled their chants at each other. Rows of riot police ensured that the supporters were kept in their assigned sections and that none slipped out to confront their “enemies”.

Leipzig fans climb over security fence seeking to join others storming the Sachsen fan bloc (photo: author).

VfB Leipzig fans climb over security fence seeking to join others storming the Sachsen fan bloc during the May 1999 derby at Bruno Plache Stadium (photo: author).

The scene was like nothing I had witnessed before: exciting, frightening and more than a little bewildering. It was January 1999 and the occasion was an inconsequential indoor soccer tournament being put on by the German Football Association in the eastern German city of Leipzig during the long winter break in the German Bundesliga schedules. Taking part were the two local clubs, VfB Leipzig and FC Sachsen Leipzig, two top teams from eastern Germany (Hansa Rostock (1st div.) and Energie Cottbus (2nd)), along with a handful of western German clubs from the 1st and 2nd divisions. Coming from Canada, where a hockey game between the country’s two greatest rivals could be staged under the supervision of couple dozen policeman with little to no violence, real or threatened, the vitriol on display was hard to process.

LPZ Football - DFB Hallenfussball Neue Messe

Also confusing were the epithets being thrown around. Who were Chemie and Lok? I had come to Leipzig a “soccer fan” (not saying much in a country where, at the time, there was precious little soccer to be a fan of!) but almost completely ignorant of the city’s footballing history. I worked up my courage and asked a teenager standing near me if he could explain and I learned that the fans were referring to the East German predecessors of VfB (1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig) and FC Sachsen (Chemie Leipzig). These two teams, he told me, really don’t like each other.

It turned out that I hadn’t seen the half of it. Read More

%d bloggers like this: