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On August 13, 1961, 55 years today, East Germany erected the Berlin Wall. At least 138 individuals died at the Wall during its more than 28 years of existence, most of them East Germans seeking to flee “real existing socialism”. Approximately half of these deaths occurred in the first five years after the Wall’s construction in the period before the GDR was able to refine the fortifications to a point where escape became virtually impossible.

While the construction of the Wall turned the flood of East German citizens fleeing West via Berlin to a trickle, in the early years of the barrier, many desperate individuals tried to escape from East to West across what was in places still a semi-porous border. At times these escape attempts escalated into open confrontations between East German border guards and West Berlin police, sometimes accompanied by an exchange of gunfire. One result of this was that the atmosphere in the newly divided city was highly charged. This was most certainly the case on Sunday, May 27, 1962.

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Plastic pin produced for participants in the Spartakiade of the Combat Groups of the Working Class in Halle / Saale in 1973 (photo: Jo Zarth).

Plastic pin produced for participants in the Spartakiade of the Combat Groups of the Working Class in Halle / Saale in 1973 (photo: Jo Zarth).

One of the distinguishing features of state socialism in the GDR was its use of awards, medals and commendations as a means of acknowledging and encouraging its citizenry along the ‘correct path’. Such items were distributed in workplaces, at schools and in all manner of social settings and as a result are still floating about in considerable numbers. In the early years after German unification, these items were everywhere in the former-East, and the seemingly exotic bits of socialist kitsch were eagerly snapped up by tourists as souvenirs. (Indeed, these things were so popular at one point that in the mid-late 90s it was not unusual to encounter knock-off versions for sale at some major tourist attractions like the Reichstag in Berlin.) While most of the object presented here are not particularly rare, they warrant a closer look as they do provide an interesting window into an East German society that has almost completely vanished.

This post presents my collection of such items. I got a few of mine from hawkers set up near the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate or at flea markets in Leipzig and Berlin in the mid-90s, but most were passed on to me by friends clearing out their parents’ attics. As a result, I’m fairly confident that most of my stuff is authentic, but should the eagle-eyed among you spot any fakes in here, please do let me know!

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To understand the lay of the land in footballing terms in the “Berlin – Capital of the German Democratic Republic”, it is helpful – appropriately enough – to take a dialectical approach. On the one end of spectrum, you had Berlin Football Club “Dynamo” (BFC), the country’s most successful, and despised, team thanks in large part its “sponsorship” by the state’s security organs including the notorious secret police the Stasi. (For an overview on BFC, see my earlier post on the club and its history here.) BFC’s opposite, in every sense, was 1. FC Union Berlin, a team with strong, genuine working class roots and a level of fan support unparalleled in the East.

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This week’s post will wrap up my examination of the lives of Benno and Christel B., two GDR citizens from what has been labelled the Aufbaugeneration (“Construction Generation”), a cohort born between 1920-1935 which made up a significant chunk of the socialist regime’s loyal supporters. (For previous entries on this subject, see Part 1 and Part 2.) By considering a number of items and documents which once belonged to the couple I hope to illustrate a number of storylines from the GDR’s history. Here I’ll focus on the life of Benno B. after he and his wife Christel made the fateful decision to leave their Heimat northeast of Berlin for Hoyerswerda, the GDR’s second “socialist city” which sat in the relative isolation of the Lausitz, the country’s brown-coal mining region.

Plaster of paris bust of V.I. Lenin presented to Benno B., most likely in 1970 during the so-called "Lenin Year" which marked the 100th anniversary of the philosopher's birth (photo: R. Newson).

Plaster of paris bust of V.I. Lenin presented to Benno B., most likely in 1970 during the so-called “Lenin Year” which marked the 100th anniversary of the philosopher’s birth. (photo: R. Newson).

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This week’s post will continue examining a number of items which once belonged to Benno and Christel B., two Party loyalists from the socialist city of Hoyerswerda. Last week’s post parsed the the life of Christel B., a task made possible thanks largely to a short biography which she submitted in 1972 to some sort of Party office. This document provided considerable detail on Christel’s activities up to 1972, however, my collection of materials unfortunately sheds little light on her life after this point.

In the case of Christel’s husband Benno, the situation is reversed. It is his early years which remain opaque, while a collection papers from his time working at Hoyerswerda’s Combine “Black Pump” as both a functionary of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) and a senior member of his plant’s Combat Group give a fairly clear sense of his life from 1959 onwards.

Benno B.’s Early Years: What We Know, What We Can Surmise

Included in the materials I acquired on Benno and Christel B. were a number of evaluations done of Benno by various Party bodies between 1965 and 1982. These documents include details on Benno’s background and form the basis of the biography which I piece together here.

The only information that can be gleaned about Benno B.’s life before the end of World War II is that he was born in Liepe District Angersmünde “to a family of workers” (Evaluation by Party Secretary Zirz from Jan. 16, 1967, pg 1.) on July 14, 1921, an area just to the north of the Bad Freienwalde/ Eberswalde area from where his future spouse, Christel, was raised. The various documents contain no information on his youth which is not that surprising, but they are also silent on his activities during World War II. This strikes me as remarkable since It Benno B. would have been a healthy young man of fighting age during the period and it seems unimaginable that he could have escaped being mobilized into the German Wehrmacht for at least some of this time.

(photo: R. Newson)

Evaluation of Benno B. done by the First Secretary of the SED Basic Organization at Combine “Black Pump” as part of attempts to have Benno accepted to the District Party School in 1967 (photo: R. Newson).

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Weltfestspiele - Logo

The GDR’s leaders were very sensitive about how their country was perceived internationally. Seen by many as a rump state and proxy of the Soviet Union, East German leaders took great pains to assert their legitimacy whenever and however they could. These efforts increased in 1971 with the ascension of Erich Honecker to the positions of First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) and Chair of State Council. Under Honecker, East Germany pursued international recognition through a variety of means including diplomacy (e.g. supplying aid to Third World countries, applying for and receiving member status at the United Nations (1973), signing the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe at Helsinki (1975)) and sport (by pouring huge amounts of money (and anabolic steroids) into the country’s Olympic programs to support the country’s “diplomats in training suits”). Another way the GDR attempted to massage its international image was by hosting the 10th iteration of the World Festival of Youth and Students in East Berlin in the summer of 1973, an event that has come to be known by some as the “Red Woodstock”.

Commemorative beer stein given to a family which hosted a billet in their apartment on Berlin's Leninplatz during the festival.

Commemorative beer stein given to a family which hosted a billet in their apartment on Berlin’s Leninplatz during the festival.

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This week’s post picks up where I left off last week and examines the contents of a pair of house books I’ve acquired for two different apartment blocks in the Berlin neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg. It’s remarkable the way in which a number of facets of GDR history can be gleaned from the entries found in each of these documents . . .

Christburger Strasse 28
The credits for the house book at Christburger Strasse 28 identifying Käthe Gipson as its keeper
The credits for the house book at Christburger Strasse 28 identifying Käthe Gipson as its keeper

The house book for Christburger Strasse 28 was started on June 12, 1959 by tenant Käthe Gipson and kept by her through to November 1, 1983. Wrapped in brown kraft paper, its cover was updated at some point as the GDR emblem found here has been pasted on, presumably overtop of the original state emblem which appeared on those house books issued in the early 1950s. It includes a few pages of entries for permanent residents of the address at the front of the book and separate sections for both foreign and GDR visitors. From the markings, it appears that the local Community Police Officer monitored the book on a regular basis through to 1967, but there is nothing to suggest that the book was controlled at any point after this. Despite this, however, Mrs. Gipson continued to fill it out conscientiously including all the details called for by law. Read More

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