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In an earlier post from a few months back, I looked at the issue of Vietnamese contract workers in the GDR through the experiences of Hieu L., father of Minh, a young woman I met through my work at the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies at Toronto’s York University. After spending a number of years in the GDR in the 1970s learning German and completing engineering studies, Hieu returned to Vietnam where he worked as a university lecturer. In the mid-1980s, however, he received an offer to return to the GDR to work as a translator for Vietnamese guest workers and in 1987 he accepted, leaving his wife and young daughter behind to take on what was quite an attractive position compared to those on offer in his native Vietnam. If you are interested in Hieu’s work in the GDR, you’ll find plenty of those details in the earlier post. We pick up the story here in the summer of 1989 . . .

The Wende and a World Turned Upside Down

In the summer of 1989, Hieu received welcome visitors to his East German home in Wallendorf, his wife Diu and their daughter Minh. Minh explained: “My Dad’s contract was for five years and so we were allowed to visit him [in the GDR] for six months in the summer of ’89. We could do that because he was not a regular guest worker. He was more highly qualified and directly employed [ed. note – by the East German state, not a specific factory or industrial combine as was the case for most guest workers].” During the visit, Diu became pregnant with the couple’s second child and this important development in the family’s life was mirrored by the major changes taking place in geopolitics.

Indeed, the backdrop for the family’s reunion was the gradual disintegration of the GDR over the summer and fall of 1989, a situation which really picked up speed with the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. The scenes from the Brandenburg Gate in the aftermath of the Wall’s fall reached Wallendorf’s television sets and Diu quickly decided that she wanted to be part of this monumental moment. So, with Minh in tow, she and a friend boarded a bus for the once divided city. Once in West Berlin, they spotted a supermarket through the bus window, got off to marvel at all that was on offer there and even bought some soap and mandarin oranges. The scene remains vivid in Diu’s mind to this day: “Our eyes were sparkling with joy and we thought of West Germany as a prosperous country!”

The political changes, however, quickly plunged the many foreign guest workers inside the GDR into uncertainty about their futures. Minh relates, “My Mum told me that after the GDR ceased to exist [ed. note: formally on October 3, 1990, but the decision to unify was essentially sealed with the results of the March 1990 elections in the GDR], the contract workers had no ‘existential status’ anymore. So they were told to go back and they were offered or given 3,000 Marks or so to buy tickets and go back.” While some guest workers accepted this offer, for others, including Hieu, a return home was not particularly appealing and so he and Diu decided to try and stay and find a place for themselves and their young family in the new Germany.

Berlin, Abflug vietnamesischer Arbeiter

Returning home: in the fall of 1990 thousands of Vietnamese guest workers returned home via daily charter flights from East Berlin’s Schönefeld airport (photo: Bundesarchiv 183-1990-1109-032 / Bernd Settnik).

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In my former job as the Coordinator of the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies at Toronto’s York University I supervised a number of German students in Canada on exchange who were assigned to our office as student assistants. For the first few years I was at York, the students I worked with were all white, had “German” family names and could trace their connection to Germany back over many, many generations. But in more recent years this began to change and our German students often came with family names betraying a variety of ethnic and cultural heritages. I greeted this development as a reflection of the fact that the German academy had begun – finally – to reflect the multicultural reality of the society around it.

That said, I was more than a little surprised when one year the C.V. belonging to our new German student bore a distinctly Vietnamese name. I immediately wondered whether Minh L. was from the family of a former East German guest worker as this was the provenance of many people of Vietnamese background in the united Germany. Reading on, the dates and locations suggested that this might be the case.

Vietnamese guest workers from "Banner of Peace" shoe factory march in the 1988 May Day parade in Weissenfels (photo: courtesy of Minh and Diu L.).

Vietnamese guest workers from “Banner of Peace” shoe factory march in the 1988 May Day parade in Weissenfels (photo: courtesy of Minh and Diu L.).

However, this remarkable aspect was quickly overshadowed by an entry in the C.V. which showed that from 1993 to 1999, Minh had attended elementary school in that most notorious of eastern German towns, Hoyerswerda! (For more on Hoy, click here for my earlier post on this subject) This was only two short years after German authorities had caved to several days of anti-foreigner pogroms by neo-Nazis and their sympathizers and removed all former-GDR guests workers and refugee seekers from the town. Neo-Nazis subsequently declared Hoy a “national liberated zone” (German: national befreite Zone) and the town became synonymous with the wave of xenophobia and violence that surfaced in the early years after German unification.

The mind boggled. Read More

"Reconstruction East": Marcus Funck and John Paul Kleiner in Frankfurt/Oder, October 2008 (photo: author).

“Reconstruction East”: Marcus Funck and John Paul Kleiner in Frankfurt/Oder, October 2008 (photo: author).

My 2006 visit to Hoyerswerda is one the most memorable experiences I’ve had in the former-East, so when the opportunity to return presented itself, I jumped at the chance. In my role as Coordinator of the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies at Toronto’s York University, I was able to co-organize a study tour of Canadian graduate students to the “new German states” with my friend and colleague Dr. Marcus Funck in the fall of 2008. The tour itinerary looked at the impact of German unification from a variety of disciplinary perspectives and incorporated visits with a number of my previous contacts. From the beginning, it was clear to both Marcus and myself that Hoyerswerda should be included in our plans and what follows here is my diary entry documenting the beautiful sunny day our group visited Hoy in October 2008:

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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

In January 1989, lured by the poetry of Wim Wenders’ classic film Wings of Desire and the tragic melancholy of Berlin’s division, my younger self headed to Berlin (for two months of German instruction at the Goethe-Institut just off the West’s main drag, the Kurfürstendamm. The weather was dark, damp and grey and most mornings my classmates and I made our way to the school under a blanket of what we all took to be fog. One morning during our break, our teacher overheard us discussing how it was that landlocked Berlin had such wonderful fog. A native Berliner, teacher proceeded to inform us that those grey clouds were, in fact, smog, specifically, a by-product of the coal ovens many Berliners used to heat their flats. “Had we not noticed the acrid smell in the air?”, she wondered somewhat perplexed. “That was the stink of brown coal briquettes”, she told us,  “and a symptom of a massive environmental problem!” And so I was introduced to brown coal (otherwise known as lignite) . . .

Two chimney sweeps' bicycles parked in East Berlin circa 1993 (photo: B. Newson).

Two chimney sweeps’ bicycles parked in East Berlin circa 1993; note the bullet holes from WW II still unrepaired in the wall behind the bikes (photo: B. Newson).

As we explored the city over the following weeks, we began to notice ceramic-tiled coal oven in cafes and bars, usually in poorer districts, usually standing off in a corner of the room, emitting a lovely warmth into the room and a cloud of pollution into the air outside. When asked about the ovens, the locals would either decry the environmental cost of their use or praise the “gemütlich” (“cozy”) quality of the heat. Not surprisingly, the situation was no different on the East side of the Wall with the tenements of the old working class districts of Prenzlauer Berg, Lichtenberg and Mitte heated largely by identical brown coal ovens.

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This week’s post will wrap up my examination of the lives of Benno and Christel B., two GDR citizens from what has been labelled the Aufbaugeneration (“Construction Generation”), a cohort born between 1920-1935 which made up a significant chunk of the socialist regime’s loyal supporters. (For previous entries on this subject, see Part 1 and Part 2.) By considering a number of items and documents which once belonged to the couple I hope to illustrate a number of storylines from the GDR’s history. Here I’ll focus on the life of Benno B. after he and his wife Christel made the fateful decision to leave their Heimat northeast of Berlin for Hoyerswerda, the GDR’s second “socialist city” which sat in the relative isolation of the Lausitz, the country’s brown-coal mining region.

Plaster of paris bust of V.I. Lenin presented to Benno B., most likely in 1970 during the so-called "Lenin Year" which marked the 100th anniversary of the philosopher's birth (photo: R. Newson).

Plaster of paris bust of V.I. Lenin presented to Benno B., most likely in 1970 during the so-called “Lenin Year” which marked the 100th anniversary of the philosopher’s birth. (photo: R. Newson).

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Some time ago I came across an eBay listing for a collection of certificates, awards, pins and various other relics of a life lived as a loyal citizen of the GDR. This was not that unusual as eBay is flooded with this stuff, but what made this listing intriguing was that it was claimed that the items being auctioned all belonged to one person. Interest piqued, I made a bid and was lucky enough to win out. While making shipping arrangements with the seller, I asked whether he had any information on the individual to whom all these things had belonged. “Yeah, I’ve got a couple of reports, a CV and some other stuff lying around. You want me to throw these in the box?” Uh, yeah, I did.

When the package arrived a number of weeks later, I began sorting through my purchases and was astounded by what I discovered. These items had belonged to a couple each of whom were born in the 1920s and so members of the Aufbaugeneration, or “Construction Generation”, which formed the nucleus of the regimes’ supporters. The documents which had been sent included a biography of the wife written in 1972 along with a number of evaluations the husband, a Party functionary, done by various Party organizations. The more I read and sifted through the box, the more I came to see that these items spoke not only of this couple’s experiences but could function as representative of the lives of a much wider section of East German society.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be telling the story of this couple to the extent that my items allow it, and I hope that you find it as interesting as I do.

 

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East Germans seem to have had a thing for postcards. While an exact figure is impossible to determine, during its roughly forty years of existence, it is estimated that the GDR generated well over 350,000 (!) unique postcards, a rather remarkable number for a country which was never the most popular tourist destination (https://www.ddr-postkarten-museum.de/). 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.

Here’s where things stand now, organized by the GDR’s own administrative districts.

Berlin – Capital of the German Democratic Republic

Cottbus District

Dresden District

Erfurt District

Frankfurt (Oder) District

Gera District

Halle District

Karl-Marx-Stadt District

Leipzig District

Magdeburg District

Neubrandenburg District

Potsdam District

Rostock District

Suhl District

Schwerin District

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,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.

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.

The reverse of card pictured left: “Can you please come to my place on Monday, February 7th?” – a postcard sent within Karl Marx Stadt to set up a visit between two friends.

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.

Motifs
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:

http://www.portal-schwedt.de/stadtportrait/bildervonschwedt/ddransichtskarten/index.html

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.

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