This past May, I was able to visit Berlin and spent part of my time there exploring the area around People’s Park Friedrichshain and what was Lenin Square. This GDR-era still resonates strongly in this part of the former East Berlin, so join me as I go in search of these sites.
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.
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?
This week I want to begin shining a light on the militarization of East German society, a subject that I’ll return to from time to time in the coming weeks. Here I want to present a couple of items in my collection which are related to the Combat Groups of the Working Class (Kampfgruppen der Arbeiterklasse (KdA)), a volunteer, paramilitary organization formally under the control of the GDR’s Interior MInistry (and which contained the notorious State Security Service (Stasi). The Combat Groups were made up largely of male members of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) who were organized into units at their workplaces (factories, state offices, collective farms, etc. but not, interestingly, educational institutions). Like army reservists, Members of the Combat Groups of the Working Class (to use the official GDR jargon or Kaderwelsch) met after work or on weekends several times a year for uniformed combat training and exercises. I think my interest here stems from the contrast between how military preparedness seeped into so many aspects of East German life and the way in which this contrasts with my own lived experience in Canada.
“Die Internationale” as sung by members of the Combat Groups during the 1986 iteration of Groups’ annual parade in East Berlin (on the Karl-Marx Allee!)
Whenever I’m in Germany, I try to spend some time in places which evoke the former-East. With the passage of time, this has become increasingly difficult, but there’s one destination which has never failed to engage my powers of imagination: Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee. I think part of the reason is that the Allee today is quite dead, the relative calm allowing one to project one’s thoughts onto the scene without much competition from a contradictory present.
The Allee was in two phases between the early 1950s and mid-1960s and as a result the street manages to embody a significant chunk of the GDR’s architectural history and since it also served as the stage for some of the country’s most important events, there’s never a shortage of interesting things to observe and consider. (I’ve written a lengthy piece on the Allee’s history which includes a number of, if I do say so myself, fine pictures, so if you have have any interest in that angle on things, I’d encourage you to click here.)
Meissen Porcelain Tile
Meissen porcelain tile removed from Allee block during renovations – approx. 30 cm X 22 cm
Backside of tile
First up is an original Meissen porcelain tile removed from one of the Allee’s apartment blocks during the renovations which took place in the 1990s/early 2000s. The choice of Meissen porcelain for the facades of the Allee’s buildings was intended to underscore their status as “Workers’ Palaces”, however, the material proved ill-suited for the task at hand and by late-period GDR, falling tiles were a real hazard on the Allee. During renovations in the late 90s/early 00s, all the exterior tiles were removed a number of these were saved to be sold as a fundraiser (how I got mine) for a social service agency which operates the Cafe Sibylle, one of the few GDR-era businesses to have survived unification. Even if you’re not keen to acquire a porcelain tile from the Karl-Marx-Allee as a souvenir, it’s worth seeking out the cafe if you visit Berlin as they have lovely homemade cakes and a very good exhibit on the history of the Allee.
This week’s item is an Aufbaukarte or Construction Card issued as part of the GDR’s Nationales Aufbauwerk (NAW), the National Construction Project, which was called into life as part of efforts to clear East German cities from the destruction wrought by World War II. Construction Cards such as this one issued to a Ms. Johanna Goldberg, were used to keep track of the number of hours which individuals volunteered on NAW projects. Those who reached set milestones received pins and certificates of recognition at public ceremonies.
This piece is a new addition to my collection and I wanted to post on it as closer examination has raised a few interesting questions for me about the holder of the card. But before getting to those, allow me to give a thumbnail history of the NAW.
Trümmerfrau (Rubble Woman), a sculpture by Edmund Neutert from 1955 and which stands in front of the unused Lichtspieltheater der Jugend (Young People’s Film Theater) in Frankfurt/Oder (author’s photo)
Trümmerfrauen and The Immediate Post-War Years (1945-46)
The massive destruction wrought in German cities by World War II required considerable effort and time to undo. In the immediate post-war period, the occupying powers throughout Germany (that is, in both what would later come to be become East and West) ordered all able-bodied women between the ages of 15 and 50 to take part in the clearing of rubble and reclaiming useable building materials from the war-ruined cities and towns. While such heavy labour was not previously carried out by women in Germany, the demographic situation after the war made this necessary (There were 7 million more women than men out of a total population of approx. 77 million). Indeed, scenes of women doing this work became ubiquitious in German and international media to the point where the Trümmerfrau (Rubble Woman) has become one of the best known symbols of Germany in the immediate post-war period. Read More
Perry Friedman was a folksinger from western Canada who emigrated to the GDR in the late 1950s and went on to play an important role in the East German cultural scene by introducing the country to a number of folk music traditions – including their own.
I first came across Friedman’s name when I stumbled on his obituary in the German newspaper taz in the spring of 1995. The mention of a Canadian banjo player and young Communist who had settled in East Germany in the late 1950s struck me as too bizarre to be true. (To the tune of Sting’s “Englishman in New York”: I’m Canadian, a Communist Canadian, Playing banjo in East Berlin!)
Perry Friedman on the cover of the 1966 Amiga release Songs, Chansons und neue Lieder, a collection of songs by participants in the GDR’s Sing Movement
Intrigued, I began pursuing the story with an eye to writing a piece for publication in Canada. After some digging, I was able to track down some of his family and associates and I ended up speaking with his sister-in-law, Sylvia Friedman, a colleague from the CBC in the 1970s, Lorne Tulk, and exchanged letters with a relative of his mother’s second husband. These filled in some of the blanks, but Read More