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

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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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Sandman doll with bag

Sandman doll with his bag of sand, 25 cm (photo: J. Zarth).

Surveying the landscape of post-unification German culture, it is hard to find many examples of cultural products from the GDR-era which still have a place in the new Germany.

In fact, I can only come up with two: the Sandmännchen, the subject of today’s post, and the Ampelmännchen, the distinctively East German pedestrian crossing lights. (ed. note: I find it rather remarkable that Ampelmännchen survived given that its design was inspired by a photo of the GDR’s Panama hat loving leader Erich Honecker. Considering the thoroughness with which remnants of the SED dictatorship were erased from the eastern German public space in the 1990s, how this escaped attention baffles me still today. But I digress . . .)
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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

Today is a good day to reflect on the victims of the years of German division, in particular those whose lives were lost at the Berlin Wall, as it was on this day 28 years ago that a 20-year old East Berliner named Chris Gueffroy became the final victim of the “order to shoot” in effect at the border separating the two Berlins. Gueffroy was shot to death trying to make his way across the border fortifications separating the East Berlin district of Treptow and the Neukölln neighbourhood on the West Berlin side. The pair had chosen this evening to try and make their escape in the mistaken belief that a visit to East Berlin that day by Sweden’s Prime Minister had resulted in the temporary suspension of the “order to shoot”. This had been the case, but by the time of their attempt, the Swedish PM had left town and it was back to “business as usual” at the Wall.

I happened to be studying German in West Berlin at the time of this incident and I remember it as a moment which underscored for me just how cold the Cold War had left many West Berliners. 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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