This past May, I was able to visit Berlin and spent part of my time there exploring the area around People’s Park Friedrichshain and what was Lenin Square. This GDR-era still resonates strongly in this part of the former East Berlin, so join me as I go in search of these sites.
I was recently able to sit down with Dr. Luise von Flotow, a professor in the University of Ottawa’s School of Translation and Interpretation, to discuss They Divided The Sky her excellent English language translation of GDR author Christa Wolf’s 1963 novel Der geteilte Himmel. Our chat is now online through Radio GDR, the English-language podcast dedicated to all things East German and you can find it here: https://radiogdr.com/they-divided-the-sky-christa-wolf-episode-12/
Wolf’s novel is great place for those looking to get a sense of everyday life in the GDR during the “Construction Years” of the late 1950s and early 1960s and Dr. von Flotow was able to share some interesting insight into the work, its translation history and why it remains a vital piece of GDR culture.
The GDR Objectified visits Marzahn, a socialist-era housing project on the eastern edge of Berlin, to seek out GDR-era public art scattered throughout the estate.
In May 2019, The GDR Objectified ventured to Berlin’s Friedrichshain district to seek out the building housing Neues Deutschland (New Germany), a left-wing daily newspaper founded as the official organ of the GDR’s ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED). Join us as we seek out remnants of the East German past on site and explore the paper’s history.
“Mechanization” (Photo: author).
Many visitors travelling by subway to Berlin’s Stasi Museum in the Normanenstrasse may not know it, but their immersion into the ambiance of late-stage “real existing socialism” actually begins when they exit their train at the Magdalenenstrasse station. For it is here, that passengers are met by a series of 20 large scale paintings done in a neo-expressionist style: angular, often grim and only occasionally punctuated by a blast of bright colour. They aren’t “easy” images these 3 metre by 4 metre paintings on Meissen porcelain tile. They challenge and unsettle.
Those with a keen eye will find a tile at one end of the platform which identifies the works as being from the year 1986 and gives their title as “History in Twenty Images”. The artists are named (Harmut Hornung and Wolfgang Frankenstein) as is the commissioning institution (Berlin Magistrate’s Office).
While marginally enlightened by the information plaque, one is left asking oneself: how, pray tell, did art of this type – so distant from the bright futures, heroic poses and “positive” themes typically favoured by GDR authorities – find its way into the public realm anywhere in the East German capital, much less onto the walls of the subway station directly adjacent to the Stasi headquarters?!
Let’s take a couple of minutes to answer this question . . .
To mark the 57th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall, here are some memories of Gundula Wilhelm, a retired pastor’s wife from Alberta, Canada. Gundula and her family moved to East Berlin in 1952 so that her father, a Lutheran pastor, could serve the zum Vaterhaus parish on Treptow’s Baumschulenweg, just a short stroll to the border dividing the two halves of the city.
Berlin August 13, a publication of Federal Republic of Germany’s Ministry for All-German Affairs, here in a revised and expanded version in April 1965 (author’s collection)
“It was wonderful growing up in the Berlin of that time. When we arrived in the city, the border was still open of course, so you could go over on the S-Bahn [commuter train, ed] any time you wished,” remembers Gundula. “You might be unlucky and get searched, but that never happened to me. We had close relatives over there though, so we were over often. In fact, we were in the West visiting a cousin on August 12, 1961, but came back to the ‘lovely’ East that evening. We woke up the next morning to the sound of tanks passing by our house on their way to the border just up the road. And from that point on, you couldn’t go across, simple as that.” (Interview with author, May 27, 2018)
While we are familiar with these sad stories of the immediate consequences of the Wall’s construction, it was the account of the years that followed shared by Gundula and her husband Friedmut which I found most fascinating as they help bring to life the atmosphere that the couple and their circle of young friends experienced in the aftermath of the Wall.
My father, John Kleiner, at a masquerade ball on board the Homeric, the ship which transported him to Europe in the fall of 1959.
Today would’ve marked the 82nd birthday of my father, Dr. John Kleiner, a professor of at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Canada, and the man whom I have to thank for my interest in German history. To mark this date, I thought that I’d share some photos and notes from a trip he took to Berlin in the winter of 1960. I think that these provide an interesting perspective on the divided city before the Wall and I hope that after reading this post that you’ll agree with this assessment.
My copy of the East German pressing of Depeche Mode’s Greatest Hits album which state’s Amiga label in 1987 (photo: author).
In 1988, it was clear to both East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) and its official youth organization, the Free German Youth (FDJ), that the country’s youth were being lost to the “real existing socialist project”. Searching for a means to address this, the FDJ reached for a solution which would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier and started booking major western pop stars for concerts in East Berlin in the hope that the organization might burnish its image by basking in some reflected glory. Many of the bookings made as part of this project including Bruce Springsteen, Bryan Adams and Joe Cocker made sense on one level as the acts’ blue-collar, working class images dovetailed somewhat with the GDR’s official ideology.
But Depeche Mode? How did the FDJ justify having the British synth-pop stars headline the organization’s birthday concert at East Berlin’s Werner Seelenbinder Hall on March 7, 1988? Read More
One could argue that no one defined the face of “Berlin – Capital of the German Democratic Republic” more than visual artist Walter Womacka (1925 – 2010). A favourite of GDR leader Walter Ulbricht during the mid- to late-1960s during which East Berlin received much of its socialist makeover, Womacka was a key protagonist in the GDR’s “Kunst am Bau” (literally “art on building”) movement. This sought to ideologically mark East German cityscapes through large-scale, agit-prop artworks and Womacka’s creations graced a number of prominent buildings in the East German capital.
Eastern side of Walter Womacka’s 1964 mosaic “Our Life” on Berlin’s House of Teachers building (photo: M. Bomke).
Interestingly, more 28 years after the fall of the Wall, many of Womacka’s works remain intact and have even found a place in the iconography of present day Berlin. Given the ideologically charged debates around the legacy of much GDR-commissioned public art in the years following German unification in 1990, this was by no means a certainty. I think the reason for this lies in the way Womacka combined the aesthetic language of socialist realism with elements of folk art, an approach which allows many viewers to overlook the overtly propagandistic of much of his public art. Read More
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