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East German city planning is a particular interest of mine because here the frictions between the utopian aspects of the socialist project and the concrete realities of daily life in the GDR are revealed in a most telling way. East German leaders were determined to create the “new socialist personality” (their version of the Homo Sovieticus) and saw in city planning another tool to facilitate this goal. At the centre of these efforts were four so-called “socialist cities”, towns planned from the ground up and, theoretically at least, built in such a way as to enable its citizens to live their lives in conformity with the values and priorities of the state’s socialist ideology. Over the past number of years, I managed to visit three of these several times (Eisenhüttenstadt, Hoyerswerda and Halle-Neustadt), but had never made it to the fourth, Schwedt. That changed this past April when I was able to spend a day in this town in the lovely Uckermark region to the north-east of Berlin.

Public Art from GDR Era, Pt. 1

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My guide in Schwedt was Dr. Johanna Goldberg, a resident of the town since 1969 and someone who will be familiar to regular readers as the subject of several recent posts. My hope was that she would be able to give me a personal take on Schwedt’s history and I was not disappointed. Before heading out for my tour, however, I gave a close read to Dr. Philipp Springer’s Verbaute Träume: Herrschaft, Stadtentwicklung und Lebensrealität in der sozialistischen Industriestadt Schwedt (Blocked Dreams: Power, City Planning and Daily Life in the Socialist Industrial Centre of Schwedt – Ch. Links Verlag, 2006), a detailed look at the development of this “socialist city” and source of many of the facts laid out here. Read More

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Today marks the 25th anniversary of the largest demonstration in the history of the GDR and another important milestone on the path to the toppling of the GDR’s one party state. The demonstration took place on East Berlin’s Alexanderplatz and attracted more than half a million protestors. The demo’s reach was extended by GDR television which broadcast the more than three hour long event live – including boos drawn by Party representatives – to every corner of the Republic.

"We were the people." - a banner hung on the House of Teachers on East Berlin's Alexanderplatz in 1999 to mark the revolution that had taken place ten years earlier.

“We were the people.” – a banner hung on the House of Teachers on East Berlin’s Alexanderplatz in 1999 to mark the Nov. 4th demo.

The demo was approved in the wake of the resignation of Erich Honecker, the head of the ruling Socialist Unity Party, on October 18th and featured a broad spectrum of GDR public figures calling for changes in “the better Germany”. These included civil rights activist Jens Reich, authors Christa Wolf and Stefan Heym, actor Ulrich Mühe (The Lives of Others), Markus Wolf, the recently retired head of the Stasi’s foreign espionage wing, and even Günter Schabowski, the Party boss who would somewhat unwittingly open the Berlin Wall a mere five days later. Read More

We all have days that persist in our memory, ones that remain vivid despite the passage of time. This can result from any number of factors such as meeting particularly interesting people, experiencing things different from those part of one’s regular routine or perhaps visiting a place where the physical space imprints itself on onto your senses in a deep, affecting way. If we’re lucky, all three of those factors come together at once and for me they did in May 2006 when I visited the Saxon town of Hoyerswerda for the first time.

Sun shining through the grey: a ceramic mosaic graces the wall of a block of flats in "socialist city" Hoyerswerda (photo: author).

A ceramic sun shines through the grey from the wall of a block of flats in Hoyerswerda, East Germany’s second “socialist city” (photo: author).

When I first announced to my German friends that I was intended to visit Hoy, as it is known by locals, the general response was :”What do you want to go there for?” To be honest, the reaction didn’t surprise me as Hoy has become a sort of shorthand for the wave of xenophobic violence that shook parts of Germany in the early post-unification years. When economic and social upheaval gripped eastern German during the early 1990s, neo-Nazis and their allies skillfully exploited the situation to cultivate antipathy towards foreigners. Attacks on those visually identifiable as “non-German” became alarmingly commonplace in the former-East, but in 1991 in Hoyerswerda the violence took on, for the first time, the character of mob violence perpetrated over several days to the open approval of a significant portion of the local population.

The victims of these attacks were asylum seekers and so-called “guest” or “contract” workers who had been brought to work in local industry during the GDR era and had decided to try and stay on. These “outsiders” were concentrated in a handful of apartment blocks in the town, essentially segregated from the locals and essentially sitting ducks for the mob violence. Most shamefully, after several days of rioting and attacks on the foreigners’ homes, federal and state authorities capitulated to the violence and removed them from the town thereby handing a victory to neo-Nazis who subsequently celebrated their role in making Hoyerswerda “ausländerfrei” (“free of foreigners”). I certainly recalled the terrible images from the television reports: the buses of the asylum seekers and guest workers inching their way out of town to the jeers and cheers of the mob with a police escort that was unable or unwilling to even try to defend the terrified passengers huddling under blankets to protect themselves from the shards of splintering glass caused by rock attacks.

My motivation to visit Hoyerswerda, however, was not driven by any perverse kind of “catastrophe tourism”. Read More

Wed, February 10, 1999

“Do you have time?”, she asks ambiguously, the friendly but pleading tone perfectly complementing her difficult situation. I am on the way back to my apartment in my new hometown of Leipzig when I happen upon her: an elderly woman balancing precariously on her cane, afraid to go further upon the icy, uneven path. Stranded and in need of a way out, preferably not at the price of her dignity.

Her question catches me off guard as I move to pass her. I stop and am momentarily confused, thinking that she wants to know what time it is. As she waits for an answer, I realize that she really wants my help. “Time for what?”, I ask.

"The Socialist Family", a sculpture in front of Frau Karich's apartment (photo: author).

“The Socialist Family”, a sculpture in front of Frau Karich’s apartment (photo: author).

“A short walk perhaps?”, she suggests, her steady tone betrayed by the onset of panic in her pale blue eyes. When I nod in agreement, her body visibly lightens as she straightens and slides her arm through mine. We have walked a few meters in silence when, with the disarming directness that appears to be one of the few privileges old age bestows, she asks, “Are you a boy or a girl?”

“A man,” I answer. She smiles, only momentarily embarrassed by her uncertainty.

“Of course. A man.”

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Happy Wall Fall everyone! On this day 24 years ago, the Berlin Wall was breached after East German authorities buckled to the pressure caused by a wave of emigration and let their citizens travel West upon demand. Anyone old enough to have been aware of the event seems to have a story about where they were when the Wall fell and here is mine . . .

The Berlin Wall at Bernauer Strasse in summer 1990 (photo: author).

The Berlin Wall at Bernauer Strasse in summer 1990; in the distance the lighting masts of Friedrich Jahn Sportpark, homeground of the Dynamo Berlin Football Club (photo: author).

Soup, Sandwich with Some History on the Side

On November 9th, 1989, I was a twenty-one year old record store employee pursuing German language studies part-time at the University of Saskatchewan. That same year I’d spent three months in Germany immersing myself in a language course in West Berlin and then travelling around the Federal Republic for a few weeks. As the situation in the GDR came to a head that fall, I followed events through reports on PBS’ McNeil Lehrer Newshour which typically featured clandestinely shot footage of street protests, demonstrations and/or arrests being carried out by People’s Police officers. These grainy videos were all bathed in the distinctive orange and yellow glow cast by the East German street lights, an effect that has imposed itself on most of my memories of that tumultuous time.

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