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One of the GDR’s most popular magazines was the weekly Neue Berliner Illustrierte (New Berlin Illustrated), a bright and colourful publication which, with its mixture of politics, portraits, social trends, sport and culture, resembled nothing so much as that iconic chronicler of American society and politics LIFE.

Issue #35 of the NBI in 1969 with a cover story on the construction of the "New Berlin" (photo: R. Newson)

Issue #35 of the NBI in 1969, the 20th anniversary of the GDR. The cover story focused on the construction of the “new, socialist Berlin” (photo: R. Newson).

NBI was older than the GDR itself, first appearing already in 1945 during the early months of the Soviet occupation. Over the years, the magazine enjoyed considerable popularity and by the end phase of the Workers and Peasants’ state, NBI had a weekly circulation of 800,000 issues. While such numbers are perhaps not the most reliable measure of popularity in a command economy (well, beyond a publication’s popularity with those in charge), the NBI “was sought after just like all other bright and glossy magazines in which there was less propaganda” (“Amboss oder Hammer sein” by Christoph Dieckmann, ZEIT, November 1, 1991). Read More

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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Communism as practiced in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc didn’t satisfy itself with aiming for the complete transformation of the societies under its control, but rather sought to create a new type of person as well. In the U.S.S.R., he/she was referred to as the “New Soviet Man” (or more pejoratively, Homo Sovieticus). In the GDR, the bar wasn’t raised quite so high and here the Party sought “only” to mold their citizens into so-called “socialist personalities.” One important part of this process was the Jugendweihe (literally “Youth Conscrecration”), a ritual marking the transition to responsible, socialist adulthood for 14-15 year old East Germans and the first time they were required to explicitly pledge their loyalty to the GDR  and its values.

Jugendweihe ceremony in the Hall of Culture of the Rheinsberg Nuclear Power Station, 1969 (photo: Bundesarchiv).

Jugendweihe ceremony in the Hall of Culture of the Rheinsberg Nuclear Power Station, March 1967 (photo: Bundesarchiv) – The stage backdrop reads: “Recognize the laws the world and its laws, Always side with the cause of Socialism, Live life sensibly and happily”.

The Jugendweihe had its roots in 19th c. German society and was conceived of by so-called “freethinkers” as an alternative to religious confirmation ceremonies. Participants completed a program of “morality-focused” instruction which was intended to introduce young adults to both the responsibilities of adulthood and the wonders of the world. The program culminated with a ceremony featuring a speech, pledge and the presentation of a book. During the Weimar Republic era, a number of left-oriented political organizations including the Social Democratic and Communist Parties began offering this instruction to its members. However, even, during this “golden age”, more than 95% of German youth continued to attend church-led confirmation courses. Read More

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