Poster celebrating May Day 1989 “the Day of Struggle and Celebration of the Working Class”, taken from my collection (photo: editor).
One of the highlights of the annual calendar of the GDR leadership, and many of its loyal followers, was that traditional holiday of the working class, May Day. In the GDR, The May First holiday was known officially as “The International Day of Struggle and Celebration of the Workers for Peace and Socialism”. As was the case elsewhere in the East Bloc, May Day was typically marked by a huge parade of workers who paid tribute to representatives of the “vanguard of the proletariat”, that is, the Party leadership, by filing past them en masse.
Technically attendance at the parade was optional, but if you didn’t want to invite questions, or potentially worse, from the state’s representatives at your work or school, you were well advised to show up. Read More
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”.
This week, I’m going to examine a couple of aspects of money in East Germany including the official and unofficial exchange of the East German mark for the hard Western currencies which the GDR regime coveted, consumer choice, the country’s Intershop store network and then wrap up with a few notes on the currency itself.
Friedrich Engel’s graces the GDR’s 50 Mark note
Schwedt Oil Refinery Works, one of the GDR’s main industrial projects of the 1960s
As a soft currency, East German marks were not widely available on world markets the way Deutschmarks, Pounds or Dollars were. The official, largely symbolic, rate of exchange for the Deutsch Mark and East Mark was 1:1, however, one could find illegal currency traders in the West offering rates of between 1:8 and 1:12. I have memories of seeing such rates posted in West Berlin exchange booths in the mid- to late-1980s and remember wondering who would make use of such services as the import of East Marks into the GDR from the West was illegal and subject to criminal prosecution. Over time, I found out . . . Read More
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)
First an admission: housewares are not, as you will see, a strength of my collection. However, this is fitting as they were not a particular strength of the East German economy either. Indeed, histories of everyday life in the GDR often point to the shortages of what Germans call the “thousand little things”, the items that are used to run a household or office on a daily basis (e.g. suspenders, coffee filters, bottle openers, paper clips, etc.). The improvisation and creativity required to cope with this situation were hallmarks of GDR society and most certainly part of the nostalgia some people have for their lives in the “Workers and Peasants State”.
That said, by East Bloc standards, East Germans were very well supplied with consumer goods. (This was not, of course, the standard of measure used by most East Germans (or their political masters) who tended to compare their lifestyle with that of their West German neighbours as propagated by Western media.) Indeed, in recent years many GDR consumer goods have become highly coveted collectors items. As you will quickly learn, I possess none of these.
For an English-language look into this world of collectable East German design items, visit this article and photo gallery from Spiegel Online, the web version of Germany’s most important news weekly. More information on the history of East German consumer goods is found on the page “Consumer Goods”.
Egg cups in chicken shape, reproduction of Sonja Plastics’ “practical and hygienic” classic design
My collection includes a reproduction of one bona fide GDR design classic, a set of six plastic egg cups in chicken-shaped form. These egg cups first appeared in the wake of the GDR’s steps in the late 1950s to establish plastic production in the country as a means to improving the supply and quality of a wide variety of both industrial and consumer goods. The firm which produced this item, Sonja Plastics of Wolkenstein in the Ore Mountains region, was established prior to the GDR’s founding, survived both the Third Reich and Communist systems intact and is still in operation today. Read More