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Halle-Neustadt from a series of stamps marking the GDR's 20th anniversary and depicting urban development undertaking since WWII.

Halle-Neustadt from a series of stamps marking the GDR’s 20th anniversary and depicting urban development undertaken since WWII.

I am a sucker for architect’s drawings and grand notions of urban design and these weaknesses go some ways to explaining my interest in the GDR. Here the Party leadership’s desire to create “socialist cities” for their subjects and the tabula rasa created by war-time destruction combined to ensure that the country saw more than its fair share of broad, sweeping plans intended to transform both its cityscapes and with them the social order of the Workers and Peasants State. I have several books of blueprints, models and artists renditions of new East German housing settlements with their symmetrical, pre-fab apartment slabs and smiling “socialist personalities” and I have to admit that I find the ordered rationality and modernist aesthetic of these designs very appealing.

Artist's rendering of a GDR housing project - note the ghostly inhabitants

Artist’s rendering of a GDR housing project – note the “ghostly” inhabitants

But as was the case elsewhere in East Germany, the chasm between the Schein und Sein (the image and the reality) was particularly wide in relation to GDR city planning. Where the sketches of new districts often showed streetcar lines whizzing residents from their outskirt locations into the thick of things and featured a main square containing shops, services, a library, theatre or restaurant and featuring an attractive fountain or some other piece of public art, the reality was rarely so nice. With the Party committed to solving the housing question by 1990, construction crews were under pressure to deliver living space, not the amenities that would have made these neighbourhoods more liveable. While residents were usually pleased to move into the relative comfort offered by their new flats, they often expressed real dissatisfaction with their lengthy commutes into town (most new districts were built on the outskirts of cities), and the lack of green space (landscaping often fell into the category of “luxury”) and shopping options in these areas.

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While recently observing the orgy of consumerism that are the Boxing Day (December 26th) sales here in Canada, I got to thinking and realized that, in a way, everyday was Boxing Day in the GDR. Admittedly, no 72-inch flat screen televisions were involved, but think about it: this was a place where consumers constantly had to line up for access to scarce goods. And if you were shopping for food staples, there were some amazing bargains to be had thanks to some very rigid price controls. (For everything else, however, supply was always an issue so it was kind of like the Boxing Day flyer which reads “Only four per store”. Maybe the GDR state motto should have been “Quantities are Limited”. Indeed, maybe the socialist planned economy inadvertently pioneered the “loss leader concept”: “Come for dirt cheap potatoes, then stay for the endlessly bright Communist future!”)

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First an admission: housewares are not, as you will see, a strength of my collection. However, this is fitting as they were not a particular strength of the East German economy either. Indeed, histories of everyday life in the GDR often point to the shortages of what Germans call the “thousand little things”, the items that are used to run a household or office on a daily basis (e.g. suspenders, coffee filters, bottle openers, paper clips, etc.). The improvisation and creativity required to cope with this situation were hallmarks of GDR society and most certainly part of the nostalgia some people have for their lives in the “Workers and Peasants State”.

That said, by East Bloc standards, East Germans were very well supplied with consumer goods. (This was not, of course, the standard of measure used by most East Germans (or their political masters) who tended to compare their lifestyle with that of their West German neighbours as propagated by Western media.) Indeed, in recent years many GDR consumer goods have become highly coveted collectors items. As you will quickly learn, I possess none of these.

For an English-language look into this world of collectable East German design items, visit this article and photo gallery from Spiegel Online, the web version of Germany’s most important news weekly. More information on the history of East German consumer goods is found on the page “Consumer Goods”.

My Collection

Egg cups in chicken shape, reproduction of Sonja Plastics’ “practical and hygienic” classic design

My collection includes a reproduction of one bona fide GDR design classic, a set of six plastic egg cups in chicken-shaped form. These egg cups first appeared in the wake of the GDR’s steps in the late 1950s to establish plastic production in the country as a means to improving the supply and quality of a wide variety of both industrial and consumer goods. The firm which produced this item, Sonja Plastics of Wolkenstein in the Ore Mountains region, was established prior to the GDR’s founding, survived both the Third Reich and Communist systems intact and is still in operation today.   Read More

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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