East German cities came by their reputations as grey, dingy and depressing places honestly. From the early 1960s onward, efforts by the GDR authorities to give their urban centres a “socialist face” often meant that the renovation or maintenance of historical buildings was neglected in favour of new construction using prefabricated blocks with little charm, character or colour. The approach left most East German cities looking rather generic and unattractive.This is not to say that no attention was given to the aesthetics of development, and one tool that city planners did turn to in an attempt to brighten up these city scapes was the neon sign. This post will examine the use of such signage in GDR-era Leipzig and also include a section from my Master’s thesis which looks at the restoration of Leipzig’s most famous neon, the Spoon Family.
The images above are taken from what was known as the “Sport Show”, a key element of 8 gymnastics and sport festivals held in the GDR between 1954 and 1987. For readers today, I imagine that these images recall first and foremost the so-called “Mass Games” which have been presented by the North Korean regime in the recent past. These events feature a cast of thousands performing carefully synchronized, highly choreographed displays of gymnastics, acting and music in honour of the hermit kingdom’s “Dear” and “Great” leaders.
While North Korea may be the country most closely associated with “Mass Games” today, it is interesting to note that this artistic medium has roots which extend back to early 19th century Germany and that its traditions were, as the photos above attest, continued on the GDR as well.
To get a sense of what “Mass Games” looked like in the East German context, check out this video below which features clips from the 1977 and 1987 GDR Gymnastics and Sport Festivals in Leipzig. As an added bonus, you’ll get to hear / read the recollections of a participant in one of these Sport Shows; her words give a clear insight into what role the festivals played in the propagation of the GDR’s official ideology.
Excerpt of 2009 film by Anna Hoetjes
I am among those who believe that the fate of the GDR was sealed on, not on November 9, 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but rather on October 9, 1989 when 70,000 East Germans overcame their fears to march peacefully through the streets of Leipzig to call for change in their country. Coming just two days after the brutal suppression of protests in Berlin during celebrations marking the state’s 40th birthday, Leipzigers ignored the ominous signs that a violent crackdown was imminent and asserted their agency with the chants “We Are the People!” and “We Are Staying Here!”, cries that must have sent shudders down the spines of Socialist Unity Party leaders as they sat in East Berlin receiving reports on the situation.
Below is a brief German-language report telling the story of October 9 in Leipzig. Even if you don’t speak the language, it is worth watching for the images of that night, a genuine turning point in world history:
At the centre of the Leipzig protests, were a small group of civil rights activists, the core of whom had been working to change the GDR for years. With resolve, persistence and creativity, these few individuals managed to change the world, theirs and ours and without their efforts, the East German regime would have undoubtedly remained in place. Given this, October 9th is an appropriate day to write, if only briefly, on one of the grassroots activists who has gone on to play a central role in the united Germany, Joachim Gauck. Read More
My most recent visit to Germany this past March began in a most memorable and, for me at least, distinctly German way. Immediately after landing in Frankfurt, I boarded an InterCity Express for Berlin. Just before our first station stop in Frankfurt proper, the train came to an unscheduled halt right next to an allotment garden colony (speaking of which, read my post on GDR allotment gardens by clicking here). Germany received an early spring this year and it was a glorious day: 25 C, sunny with the trees and gardens lush and green. As I sat at my window seat reading the paper, a movement in the corner of my eye caught my attention. I turned to see the high shrubs directly adjacent to the tracks rustling. A second later two hands emerged to pull the branches aside and when they did a 70-something gentleman (on this point I am perfectly clear), emerged, his shock of white hair only slightly contrasted by the even whiter tone of his pasty skin. All of his pasty skin in fact. And for the next 10-15 seconds those travellers with the fortune to have been gazing upon the garden colony were subject to a scene of full frontal nudity courtesy of this elderly man. His curiosity satisfied, he let go of the branches, turned and disappeared Yeti-like back into his plot, and my mind began formulating “Welcome to Germany” tourism posters featuring the image that had just burned itself into my brain.
Before I went to live in the eastern German city of Leipzig in 1999, I didn’t consider myself particularly prudish or uncomfortable with public nudity. If I had reflected upon this, however, I likely would’ve recalled a story from my youth that revealed some Ur-anxieties with the concept. I was probably eight and my younger brother about six when my parents announced that our family would be going to a retreat weekend at a monastery just outside our hometown of Saskatoon. My brother and I balked at the idea, a reaction that confused our parents. Why, they asked, did we not want to go? We answered it was because “a monastery is a place where people get undressed in front of each other.” I have no recollection where we got that idea from, but I do remember our distinct unease with the plan despite our parents’ assurances that nothing of the sort would happen there. (It didn’t, in fact, to my great relief we had a private room to ourselves!)
Years later, as a young adult, I thought such hang ups about public nudity were behind me, but that was likely because living in English speaking Canada, I was never confronted with any. Before relocating to Leipzig, I was aware that Freikörperkultur (FKK), “free body culture” or what in English would be known as naturism or nudism, enjoyed considerable popularity in Germany, particularly the former East, but it did not occur to me that I would encounter this cultural practice during my time there or that it would cause me any problems.
But encounter it I did. Read More
Tiananmen Square and the GDR
As I have followed the recent news coverage on the 25th anniversary of the massacre of peaceful student demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square at the hands of troops of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on June 4, 1989, it is important to recall that this event was not only a turning point in the development of Chinese society and polity, but also reverberated around the world – particularly through what was then known as the East Bloc and particularly in the German Democratic Republic.
A (very) brief history of neon signs in the German Democratic Republic featuring Leipzig’s iconic “Spoon Family”:
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.
“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.”