In 2008 I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Marcus Funck, my friend and colleague from the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies to lead a study tour of Canadian graduate students to the former-East. The central theme of our trip was transformation and one of our aims was to expose the group to what this process had been like not only in the major cities such as Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden, but in smaller centres as well. Given the way in which Eisenhüttenstadt had been connected to the old regime, we were confident that including it in the itinerary would be useful and I’m pleased to say that we were not disappointed.
Until a few years ago, I could tell my stories about Eisenhüttenstadt and 99% of people wouldn’t know what the hell I was talking about. Then Tom Hanks went and ruined it. After the actor’s 2011 visit, and subsequent storytelling of it on the Letterman Show, “Iron Hut City” now occupies a tiny space in the popular consciousness and even the local tourism board has gotten into the action creating an unintentionally amusing video that uses Hanks’ visit as a jumping off point to lure visitors to eastern Brandenburg, an endeavour likely to bear little fruit.
Which is not to denigrate Eisenhüttenstadt. While it may have little to attract the average tourist, those with a passion for architecture, city planning and East German history will find much to explore. Over the years, I have the opportunity to visit “Hütte” four times and In this week’s post I’ll give a bit of background on the city history and share my experiences exploring the German Democratic Republic’s first “socialist city”.
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
East Germans seem to have had a thing for postcards. During its roughly forty years of existence, the GDR generated well over 30,000 (!) unique postcards, a rather remarkable number for a country which was never the most popular tourist destination. Many of these were put out by Bild und Heimat (which can be roughly translated as Picture and Home), a publisher from the small Saxon town of Reichenbach, and the producer of the vast majority of the cards in my small collection.
The Use of Postcards in East Germany
East Germans certainly used postcards much in the way these are typically used today: as a means to send vacation greetings or a quick hello to friends and family. However, I would suggest that this use accounted for only some of the postcard mail that circulated in the country. Indeed, the large number of different motifs churned out in the GDR reflects a strong demand for this item and a short consideration of the context of postcards’ use in the country is helpful to understand what was driving consumers to use so many postcards.
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One of the hallmarks of East German life was its slow pace and I would argue that this tempo was a result of a number of factors. First, the transport infrastructure for both people and goods was generally old and didn’t facilitate quick movement. Second, the country’s socialist planned economy did away with competition, a corollary of which was that the dynamism which this can bring to public life was largely absent from the GDR. Finally, communications were dramatically different from both what we know today and what was typical in the Western world in the 1970s and 80s.
From our 21st century perspective, it’s difficult to imagine just how different communication was in East Germany, but this was a country where only 24.6% of the population had access to a telephone at home (1989 figures). If one did not have an obliging neighbour or didn’t wish to conduct personal conversations in someone else’s home, the other options were to try using a phone booth (these were few and far between and often out of service) or line up at a post office to use one of the phones found there.
Given these hurdles, it’s not surprising that many East Germans simply did not use the phone all that often outside of their work settings. Instead, it was common for friends to simply drop in on one another unannounced in order to catch up on things. (Indeed, this aspect of the East German culture has largely disappeared but is often fondly recalled as one of the elements of the GDR lifestyle that people miss today.) When it was necessary or desirable to make more formal arrangements, people would often use a postcard to communicate with friends or family, and my collection of postcards has several examples of postcards used in just this way.
For instance, one postcard sees the writer informing the recipients of her train’s planned arrival time on an impending visit. Another postcard from a Leipzig resident to a relative in a small town asks for specific instructions regarding purchases the city dweller is going to make on the relative’s behalf. Most interesting are a series of postcards written by one Leipziger to a good friend who lived across town. These postcards communicate the sort of everyday content (e.g. work schedule, plans for meeting for a concert or for a coffee) which a West German (or Canadian) would have normally carried out in a phone call in the 80s (or, in an email, text message or tweet in more recent times). For an outsider, the tone and content of these postcards are more than a bit odd as they represent a kind of communication that is completely foreign (in all this word implies). The way in which the most basic of exchanges were stretched out over a period of days gives a clear sense of the different way in which time was often experienced in the GDR.
East German postcards are largely comparable to those found elsewhere. Most presented either historic or important buildings, natural landscapes, artwork and the like. Naturally there is an emphasis on “socialist themes” and this makes postcards a useful means of assessing the regime’s priorities. It was not uncommon to find postcards depicting major industrial plants and housing estates which the Party erected as part of its housing program in the 70s and 80s. My collection has examples fro most of these categories, but I have a particular fondness for those which document GDR-specific scenes (e.g. housing estates, “socialist” streetscapes, etc.).
Related Themes – Further Reading
The DDR-Postkarten-Museum has been the first destination for anyone interested in East German postcards for a while now. This website presents a private collection of some 33,000 different postcards produced in the GDR 40+ years of existence. At present, the site is being reorganized as part of a process which will see Berlin’s DDR Museum take on the oversight of this fascinating archive. Apparently the site will be back up “soon” and you can register your email address with them at the link above to be informed when things are up and running again.
English artist/photographer Martin Parr’s Langweilige Postkarten (Boring Postcards) has edited a most enjoyable collection of postcards with prosaic motifs which were produced in the two Germanies between the end of WWII and German unification in 1990. Housing estates, autobahns, highway rest stops, hotels/holiday camps get the bulk of the attention and what is most remarkable are the clear parallels in aesthetic sensibility on display on either side of the Iron Curtain.
To get a sense of the motifs common to the East German postcard, there’s a nice online collection of some which were produced for the city of Schwedt, the GDR’s third “socialist city” (read: planned city) and home to the country’s only oil refinery. The postcards are from the mid-50s to the late 60s and can be found at:
Mail Art in the GDR
One interesting topic related to postcards in the GDR but which is not (yet!) represented in my collection is the phenomenon of Mail Art. This movement involved a small group of underground artists who used mail art as a means of both circumventing the strict public controls placed on artists and their work in the East and to overcome the isolation many of them experienced working in such a society. Mail Art took many different forms but often directly addressed notions of artistic freedom and the surveillance regime in place in the GDR (which included close controls of the postal system).
For an overview of the Mail Art movement in Eastern Europe, including the GDR, see this piece by Hungarian artist Bálint Szombathy found in issue 21of the journal Left Curve. It was written on the occasion of an exhibit of Mail Art in the eastern German city of Schwerin and provides some background on the Mail Art movement in Eastern Europe, including the GDR.