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!
In the twenty five years that have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of the two German states, little of what might reasonably be labeled “East German” has survived to find its place as part of joint German culture. There’s the distinctive and almost-Disneyesque Ampelmännchen found on pedestrian signals in the former-East, a whimsical and certainly far less business-like figure than its striding western counterpart. Beyond that, however, I am able to think of only one other example of a GDR product that has managed to rise above its “socialist taint” to assume place in the collective culture and that would be the Berlin television tower.
Postcard of Berlin TV Tower (Bild und Heimat, 1984)
To understand the lay of the land in footballing terms in the “Berlin – Capital of the German Democratic Republic”, it is helpful – appropriately enough – to take a dialectical approach. On the one end of spectrum, you had Berlin Football Club “Dynamo” (BFC), the country’s most successful, and despised, team thanks in large part its “sponsorship” by the state’s security organs including the notorious secret police the Stasi. (For an overview on BFC, see my earlier post on the club and its history here.) BFC’s opposite, in every sense, was 1. FC Union Berlin, a team with strong, genuine working class roots and a level of fan support unparalleled in the East.
1. FC Union pennant from late 1970s / early 1980s (photo: editor).
Reverse side of pennant cheekily featuring Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, part of of rival BFC’s turf (photo: editor).
The GDR’s leaders were very sensitive about how their country was perceived internationally. Seen by many as a rump state and proxy of the Soviet Union, East German leaders took great pains to assert their legitimacy whenever and however they could. These efforts increased in 1971 with the ascension of Erich Honecker to the positions of First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) and Chair of State Council. Under Honecker, East Germany pursued international recognition through a variety of means including diplomacy (e.g. supplying aid to Third World countries, applying for and receiving member status at the United Nations (1973), signing the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe at Helsinki (1975)) and sport (by pouring huge amounts of money (and anabolic steroids) into the country’s Olympic programs to support the country’s “diplomats in training suits”). Another way the GDR attempted to massage its international image was by hosting the 10th iteration of the World Festival of Youth and Students in East Berlin in the summer of 1973, an event that has come to be known by some as the “Red Woodstock”.
Commemorative beer stein given to a family which hosted a billet in their apartment on Berlin’s Leninplatz during the festival.
While recently observing the orgy of consumerism that are the Boxing Day (December 26th) sales here in Canada, I got to thinking and realized that, in a way, everyday was Boxing Day in the GDR. Admittedly, no 72-inch flat screen televisions were involved, but think about it: this was a place where consumers constantly had to line up for access to scarce goods. And if you were shopping for food staples, there were some amazing bargains to be had thanks to some very rigid price controls. (For everything else, however, supply was always an issue so it was kind of like the Boxing Day flyer which reads “Only four per store”. Maybe the GDR state motto should have been “Quantities are Limited”. Indeed, maybe the socialist planned economy inadvertently pioneered the “loss leader concept”: “Come for dirt cheap potatoes, then stay for the endlessly bright Communist future!”)
A paper bag from the Handelsorganisation (HO), the main retail trade outfit in the GDR, likely from Leipzig in mid-80s (photo: author).
Paper bag from People’ Book Store (Berlin) produced by People’s Own Packaging Dresden (46.5 cm X 33 cm) – held my GDR pressing of Billy Bragg’s Talking with the Taxman LP after buying this in East Berlin in 1989.
Paper bag from Leipzig record store, “Disco-Zentrum” – produced by People’s Own Packaging Dresden (44 cm X 33 cm)
Paper bag for vinyl LPs from Leipzig’s “Melody” Music Store (photo: author).
Polyethylene bag from the Regatta at Talinn, Estonian SSR, part of the 1980 Moscow Olympics (30 cm X 22 cm) (This bag from the Moscow Olympics was found at a Leipzig flea market, and, while not technically of East German provenance, is a fine example of the Soviet practice of reserving polyethylene bags for prestige vendors/events)
The iconic GDR design classic, the Dederon shopping bag (37.5 cm X 35.5 cm)
Hand-printed paper bag, provenance unknown (29 cm X 18.5 cm)
Polyethylene bag from the Berlin TV Tower (42 cm X 30 cm)
Polyethylene bag from National People’s Army Book and Magazine Distribution Berlin (47 cm X 39 cm)