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Sandman doll with bag

Sandman doll with his bag of sand, 25 cm (photo: J. Zarth).

Surveying the landscape of post-unification German culture, it is hard to find many examples of cultural products from the GDR-era which still have a place in the new Germany.

In fact, I can only come up with two: the Sandmännchen, the subject of today’s post, and the Ampelmännchen, the distinctively East German pedestrian crossing lights. (ed. note: I find it rather remarkable that Ampelmännchen survived given that its design was inspired by a photo of the GDR’s Panama hat loving leader Erich Honecker. Considering the thoroughness with which remnants of the SED dictatorship were erased from the eastern German public space in the 1990s, how this escaped attention baffles me still today. But I digress . . .)
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In the twenty five years that have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of the two German states, little of what might reasonably be labeled “East German” has survived to find its place as part of joint German culture. There’s the distinctive and almost-Disneyesque Ampelmännchen found on pedestrian signals in the former-East, a whimsical and certainly far less business-like figure than its striding western counterpart. Beyond that, however, I am able to think of only one other example of a GDR product that has managed to rise above its “socialist taint” to assume place in the collective culture and that would be the Berlin television tower.

Berlin TV Tower (Bild und Heimat, 1984)

Postcard of Berlin TV Tower (Bild und Heimat, 1984)

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The completion of the Palace of the Republic in April 1976 marked the end of the largest prestige project in GDR history. The building costs were officially 485 million East Marks, though internal figures presented to the Minister of Construction increased the sum to 800 million. Other sources have put the total price tag closer to 1 billion Marks. Regardless of this, the money spent was considerable for a country the size of the GDR and the project had significant impact on the country’s finances. Its prioritization also created significant resentment in the “provinces” as many resources (incl. materials and construction crews) were redirected to the capital to ensure this job was completed on time.

For the Party, however, there was a feeling of a job well done. To mark the opening of the Palace, the GDR Post issued a stamp featuring the image of the finished Palace and a construction worker. This stamp also incorporated mention of the 9th Party Congress of the SED which took place there in May 1976.

Stamp issued by GDR Postal Service to commemorate the opening of the Palace in April 1976 and the SED's IX Party Congress held there the next month.

Stamp issued by GDR Postal Service to commemorate the opening of the Palace in April 1976 and the SED’s IX Party Congress held there the next month.

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My pair of mocha cups (see below) were the gift of a friend whose father, a native Berliner who always kept a suitcase in the city, as the song goes (lyrics in English here). Where he got them from, I’m not sure, but they apparently appeared on the scene in the early 1990s and were likely from the Palace’s Espresso und Moccabar.

Mocha cup and saucer from the Palace of the Republic

The ‘Coffee Crisis’ of 1977 and the Palace of the Republic
East Germans loved their coffee. By the 1970s, they were spending the equivalent of 3.3 billion East German marks a year on it, almost as much as they spent on furniture and more than double that used for shoes. Read More

In building and outfitting the Palace of the Republic, the Socialist Unity Party (SED) spared little expense. Intended to showcase the GDR and its version of “real existing socialism”, the Palace’s interior design can be seen as a kind of “wish fulfillment” of the version of socialism which SED bosses wished to show the world. The materials used were of high quality, for example, white Swedish marble was used for the floors throughout the main public areas and the hundreds of custom light fixtures used in the main foyer gave an impression of opulence to be found nowhere else in the GDR.

In addition, the Palace received a complete branding treatment and attention was paid to ensure that each of the component institutions housed in the building adhered to an aesthetic master plan. In practice this meant that a specially-designed Palace logo was found throughout the building, something that was especially true in the Palace’s 13 cafés and restaurants. In these the cutlery, glassware and place settings were all custom-made and featured the distinctive PdR logo (see below).

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One of the interesting things about East German consumer culture is that it tended to produce a GDR pendant to most popular West German or Western items. For instance, a hamburger, could not, for obvious reasons, be referred to as such, so the East German version was christened Grilleta. The hot dog, or if one wishes to be provocative, frankfurter, was known as a Kettwurst (‘chain sausage’ in reference to it being produced in links). Jeans became ‘rivet pants’ (Niethosen).

In the world of children’s toys, the GDR responded to the popularlty of Lego™ building blocks by commissioning the People’s Own Plastics Manufacturing plant in Gotha to develop a similar product in the late 1960s. The East German version of this toy was given the name Formo Building Blocks and went on to be produced through to the end of the GDR in the 1990.

Interestingly, Formo produced packages of building blocks in various shapes and sizes and did not typically sell blocks as part of a set. The one exception to this practice was its set of the Palace of the Republic (PdR) which was available for purchase only at the Palace itself as a souvenir.

Formo building set for Palace of the Republic as sold there (note the state emblem over the entrance visible in enlarged version)

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