A (very) brief history of neon signs in the German Democratic Republic featuring Leipzig’s iconic “Spoon Family”:
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.”
To mark the 23rd Day of German Unity on October 3rd, below you’ll find a story of one of the winners of the Wende. Bernd R. was a man I taught English to who had been the Director of a GDR pharmaceutical factory. During the upheavals of 1989/90, he managed the remarkable feat of saving this facility, and his own job. That, however, is only the beginning of this tale . . .
In 1999, I spent one year teaching English in “the Saxon metropolis” of Leipzig and its environs. One of the reasons I wanted to live and work in eastern Germany was to try and learn about the region and its history including, of course, the peaceful revolution that had begun there in 1989. Initially I had hoped to find work in Berlin, but when that didn’t work out, I ended up in Leipzig. It quickly became clear that this was the best thing that could have happened for “Little Paris” (Goethe’s famously label for the city) had been the home to the protests which toppled the Socialist Unity Party (SED) regime and was in many ways more representative of the GDR experience than East Berlin, the capital and administrative centre of the country, would have been.
During the first decades of the Cold War, space was one of the primary battle fields of the Cold War. When the Soviets managed to launch Sputnik 1, an artificial Earth satellite, on October 4, 1957, it caught the world by surprise (see CBS news report below). My mother-in-law, then in teacher’s training school in Quebec, Canada, tells me that the news was deeply unsettling and that it had an almost immediate impact on her studies: “We went from very little emphasis on science and math to much, much more almost immediately. If you couldn’t teach English or Social Studies, that wasn’t a huge problem, but from that point on, the instructors made sure that we were all up to snuff in Science and Math!” (Conversation with author, July 2018)
In the years that followed, the two super powers worked feverishly to eclipse one another in what become known as the “Space Race”. However when the Soviets were able to successfully to send the first man into space three and a half years later (Juri Gagarin on April 12, 1961), one would have been excused for thinking that the race had been run with the Reds taking the gold.
During these years, the race to space captivated the attention of people around the world and the GDR was no exception. As was the case elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc, the Soviet space program was used to underscore the validity of Communism’s science-based ideology and paeans to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of Soviet cosmonauts and space engineers were ubiquitous in the GDR press and arts.
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) . . .
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.
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.