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!
When one travels Germany by rail, the areas directly adjacent to the tracks when one enters and leaves towns and cities are often filled by allotment gardens. Another way Europeans make use of the limited space at their disposal, these gardens are often well tended and incorporate glorified garden sheds (often with tv satellite dishes) which indicate that the plot serves as the owner’s version of a country cottage. Trains I’ve been on have passed close enough to such gardens that I could see owners working away only feet from our carriage or families relaxing around a picnic table seemingly oblivious to the cacophony as we raced by. I soon learned that these plots are cherished sites of recreation for many German urban dwellers whose living arrangements don’t offer them access to any sort of green space.
The situation was no different in East Germany where such gardens were highly coveted for several reasons. First, having one meant you could produce fruit and vegetables to augment the often meagre selection available in the state shops. This harvest would either end up on gardeners’ own plates or was sold to generate a bit of additional income. Second, allotment gardens were desirable as a refuge from the demands placed on one by by the state and the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) and they serve as an example of the fiercely guarded private space which East Germans carved out for themselves and their families, a practice which led some observers to label the GDR a “niche society”.