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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

“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

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

Train type A I near Schönhauser Allee, October 1989 (photo: PetrS, Wikicommons)

East Berlin subway running on elevated section of track on Prenzlauer Berg’s Schönhauser Allee in October 1989 (photo: PetrS, Wikicommons).

The scene is Saturday afternoon in February 1989 and I am in East Berlin with a group of fellow German language students from around the world. Someone in our group has gotten word that Prenzlauer Berg is the place to be to experience “cool” in the “Capital of the German Democratic Republic”, so maps are consulted and before too long we are underground at Alexanderplatz looking for the train headed for Pankow. We find the platform but when the train pulls in several moments later I remember us looking at each other incredulously, as if to ask, “Are we supposed to get into that?” “That” being a wooden subway car that looked less like part of a modern rapid transit system and more like an exhibit I’d see at the Western Development Museum in my hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. When the locals scurry to get in, we do likewise and seconds later we’re rumbling our way in a rather quaint, wood-paneled subway car that Wikipedia tells me was at least 60 years old at the time. Apparently the East Berlin Transit Authority retired the last of these cars on November 5, 1989.

For a taste of what a ride on the East Berlin subway was like, check out the YouTube video below shot in June 1989. The train that pulls in at about the 2:15 mark is similar to the one I took in February 1989.

Did you know? – After unification, the Berlin Transit Authority offloaded a number of its Iconic orange subway cars, from both the eastern and western parts of the city, to North Korea for use in the Pyongyang subway Read More

Berlin - Building in the middle is a reconstruction of Berlin's Ermeler House. It reopened on October 7, 1969 to mark the GDR's 20th anniversary and contained one of the city's few luxury category restaurants. (Bild und Heimat)

An East German postcard from 1971 of the reconstructed Ermeler House (pale yellow building at right) (Bild und Heimat)

Despite the destruction caused during World War II, post-war Berlin was dotted with notable structures that had miraculously survived the fighting. In East Berlin this architectural legacy posed a challenge that the rulers of the “first socialist state on German soil” would have been happy to have done without, keen as they were to put a “socialist” stamp on their new capital (e.g. see the Stalinallee project). In a few high profile cases, the decision was made to remove “ideologically unsuitable” buildings. The best known example of this approach was the destruction of the Hohenzollern City Palace in 1950 (the Palace of the Republic would later stand on this spot). In other instances, authorities took a more pragmatic approach, deciding to make use of facilities “tainted” by their previous associations. A good example here would be the House of Ministries, a massive complex in central Berlin that had been built for Hermann Göring’s Aviation Ministry. East German leaders turned into a major administrative centre and in fact it was in one of its ballrooms that the GDR was formally brought into existence during a ceremony on October 7, 1949.

Another interesting, albeit lower profile, illustration of how GDR authorities dealt with the architectural legacy they had been bequeathed is found in the case of Ermeler House, the subject of this post. Read More

Anyone with an interest in the GDR quickly encounters mention of Marzahn, a massive housing estate located on the northeastern edge of the East German capital Berlin. Made up of approximately 60,000 prefabricated concrete apartment units housed largely in high rise tower blocks, Marzahn was built over approximately fifteen years beginning in the mid-1970s to provide modern housing options for tens of thousands of East Berliners. Supporters of the socialist system saw the district as concrete evidence (I couldn’t resist!) of the state’s commitments to its citizens’ welfare and a tangible example of what the socialism could achieve. For critics, however, Marzahn’s seemingly endless blocks of anonymous, monotonous apartment blocks recalled the sort of dystopian world conjured up George Orwell in his totalitarian critique 1984.

While I didn’t get to Marzahn during the GDR era, I’ve had the chance to visit a view times over the past twenty years or so and been able to see first hand some of the remarkable changes that it has undergone since reunification in 1990. Before turning to my impressions, however, allow me to present a brief history of the district.

Marzahn: Heaven or Hell?
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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.

Berlin TV Tower (Bild und Heimat, 1984)

Postcard of Berlin TV Tower (Bild und Heimat, 1984)

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One of the interesting things about writing this blog has been the way my assumptions about the “Workers and Peasants State” have been challenged from time to time and this week’s post is a fine example. In it I’m going to look at responses to a “job wanted” ad placed in the Berliner Zeitung newspaper by an unidentified female resident of East Berlin on February 12, 1980  as I think these contradict a number of stereotypes that many of us in the West hold about how labour was (or wasn’t) organized in the GDR and the degree of autonomy which individual workers had within East Germany’s planned economic system.

Secretary envelopes

The letters I’ll be looking at here were supplied to me by a friend (thanks Uli!) who acquired them a number of years ago while living on Berlin’s Karl-Marx Allee. When he mentioned these documents and their contents, I was more than a little surprised as the idea that GDR workers advertised their labour in the pages of one of the country’s mass circulation dailies suggested that the country’s labour market took forms that seemed at odds with my understanding of the rigidities of the GDR’s centrally-planned economy. How was it, in a system, where a central office literally dictated the number of ingots a foundry produced or how many university spaces were to be opened in Slavic studies, that an individual worker could hang up his/her sign and see what the market would bear?

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Weltfestspiele - Logo

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.

Commemorative beer stein given to a family which hosted a billet in their apartment on Berlin’s Leninplatz during the festival.

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