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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Postcard from East Germany’s Interflug airline (Bild und Heimat, year unknown)
Front of blank postcard. These cost 1 Pfennig each (< 1 cent).
Back of blank postcard, a popular means of communication in a country where personal phones were rare.
Berlin – Stalinallee (later Karl-Marx-Allee) – (VEB Volkskunstverlag Reichenbach, 1954)
Berlin – German Sport Hall in Stalinallee (later Karl-Marx-Allee) – (VEB Volkskunstverlag Reichenbach, 1954). The first building erected in Stalinallee for the 3rd World Festival of Youth and Students in 1951, but torn down in 1971 due to poor construction methods.
Berlin TV Tower (Bild und Heimat, 1984)
Berlin – German State Opera (Bild und Heimat, 1984)
Berlin – Interhotel “Unter den Linden” with its iconic “Where to in Berlin?” sign on the roof; both since removed (Bild und Heimat, 1979)
Berlin – Capital of the GDR (1983)
Berlin – Red City Hall and Neptune Fountain (Bild und Heimat, 1985)
Berlin – The Milk Bar, one of the Palace of the Republic’s 13 restaurants and cafés (1976).
Berlin – Palace foyer with its distinctive “Glass Flower” sculpture (1977)
Berlin – 1. German State Opera, 2. Maria Church, 3. National Gallery (Bild und Heimat, 1985)
Berlin – Staircase leading to Palace’s main foyer. Note the many lights, inspiration for the nickname “Erich’s Lamp Shop” (1976).
Berlin – Building in the middle is a reconstruction of Berlin’s Ermeler House. It reopened on October 7, 1969 to mark the GDR’s 20th anniversary and contained one of the city’s few luxury category restaurants. (Bild und Heimat)
Berlin – Marzahn; This postcard presents Marzahn, an Berlin housing estate and the largest of its kind in the GDR (Bild und Heimat, 1989).
Leipzig – Saxon Square; since removed (reprint of 1975 postcard)
Berlin – Karl-Marx-Allee including the Kino International and Milch Mocha Eisbar (reprint of 1968 postcard)
Berlin – Bode Museum (Bild und Heimat, 1985)
Leipzig – Saxon Square; since removed to make way for Museum of Fine Arts (Bild und Heimat, 1986)
Berlin – Capital of the GDR (Bild und Heimat, 1987)
“Germany – united Fatherland”: note the view of Unter den Linden, the promenade in East Berlin in lower right. This west-facing image was likely taken from the roof of the Palace of the Republic. In GDR times the gaze would’ve been reversed to feature the Palace and TV Tower (Bild und Heimat, 1999)
Leipzig – Trabant 601 in front of Leipzig Opera; the banner reads “When we strengthen our Republic, We are strengthening Socialism” (reprint of 1975 postcard)
Leipzig – Main concert hall of New Gewandhaus (Bild und Heimat, 1985)
Leipzig’s Bruehl including the ‘Konsument’ department store in the foreground; all since removed (reprint of 1973 postcard)
Leipzig – Aerial View of City Centre (Bild und Heimat, 1986)
Sport Show of German Gymnastics and Sport Union, Leipzig, 1977 – “Always ready”, the slogan of the Young Pioneers, the GDR’s version of the Scouts (reprint of 1977 Bild und Heimat postcard)
Sport Show of the German Gymnastics and Sport Union, Leipzig, 1977 – “Strength and Courage” with the logo of the Dynamo, the Sportclub of the GDR’s ‘armed organs’ (reprint of 1977 Bild und Heimat postcard)
Sport Show of the German Gymnastics and Sport Union, Leipzig, 1977 – “Healthy and Happy” (reprint of 1977 Bild und Heimat postcard)
Leipzig – Apartment on Winter Garden Street (Bild und Heimat, 1986)
Leipzig – Old Stock Exchange (VEB Bild und Heimat Reichenbach, 1969)
Leipzig: Youth Tourist Hotel ‘Georg Schumann” in Leipzig (Bild und Heimat, Reichenbach, 1980).
Karl Marx Stadt’s Civic Centre (Bild und Heimat, 1980)
Karl-Marx Stadt – Karl Marx Strasse with view onto Interhotel (Bild und Heimat, 1980)
Cottbus – Train Station; alas, since renovated (reprint of 1980 postcard)
Hoyerswerda, the GDR’s second planned city – 1. Shopping District, 2. “Glückauf” Restaurant, 3. “Friendship” Restaurant, 4. Miners’ Lake (Bild u. Heimat, 1968)
The Interhotel in Gera (Bild u. Heimat, 1980)
Halle – Square named for Ernst Thälmann, leader of Weimar-era Communist Party murdered by Nazis in Buchenwald, with the House of Teachers (VEB Bild und Heimat Reichenbach, 1972)
Hand-painted spring motiv on a postcard from the 1960s
Dresden – Cinema and Fountains in Prague Street (reprint of 1962 postcard)
Dresden, its Baroque face largely obscured (Bild u. Heimat, 1978).
Saxon Switzerland, a mountainous region in southern Saxony which runs along the Czech border (AR Adam, 1976)
Eisenhüttenstadt: WK VI, Open Air Pool, Leninallee, Street of the Republic (Bild u. Heimat, 1978)
Eisenhüttenstadt: Greetings from E (Bild u. Heimat, 1978)
Eisenhüttenstadt: Leninallee (People’s Own Graphokopie, 1972)
Oberhof: Free German Trade Union Association’s Holiday House “Fritz Weineck” – since removed.
Oberhof: Ski jump circa 1980.
Oberhof: top left: Interhotel Panorama, Oberhof’s socialist landmark.
Oberhof: More scenes of pre-Ulbricht era
Oberhof: A large scale restaurant built in the late 1960s as part of efforts to give Oberhof a “socialist face”; Interhotel Panorama sits in the background.
Oberhof: The “Luisensitz” Holiday Home of the Free German Union Association, one of a number of family run hotels that were nationalized in 1950.
Oberhof: X marks the spot. circa 1980: “Had our coffee on the 11th floor of the Rennsteig”. Lovely view from up here!”
Oberhof in 1980 – clockwise from top left: Rennsteig Hotel, View of Hotel Panorama, ****, View from Rennsteig and “Fritz Heckert” Holiday Hotel.
Oberhof: Postcard from 1980 highlighting the socialist makeover of the town
Oberhof in 1980: “Beograd” Restaurant in the Interhotel Panorama.
Leisnig, a small town in western Saxony (Bild und Heimat, 1975)
Schwedt: Centrum, District Hospital, “Historical fountain” in Leninallee, Sculpture in Leninallee, Catholic Church, Wading Pool with Walrus Slide (Bild u. Heimat, 1988).
Schwedt: Centrum Department Store, “French” Church, WKI VI, Leninallee (Bild u. Heimat, 1978).
Schwedt: (top left) French Church and Pharmacy, (bottom left) HO-Grocery Store, (right side from top) House of Culture, View of City, Liberation Square (Bild u. Heimat 1981)
Schwedt: Marchlewski Ring, Sport Hall, Ernst-Thälmann-Street, Leninallee (Bild u. Heimat, 1973)
Schwedt: Leninallee (Bild und Heimat, 1980).
Schwedt: “Centra” restaurant with the sculpture “Lovers” in foreground (PK Verlag Mader, 1971).
Schwedt: Berlischiky Pavillion (former “French” Church), House of Culture, Leninallee with view of City Park, Park next to House of Culture (Bild u. Heimat, 1988).
Schwedt, a small town on Polish border transformed into an industrial centre and the GDR’s third ‘socialist city’ during the 60s/70s (Bild u. Heimat, 1965)
Schwedt: Centrum Department Store, District Hospital, Workers’ Hostel (Bild u. Heimat, 1978)
Eisenach: The Wartburg (Kunstanstalt Straub und Fischer, 1980)
Eisenach: The Wartburg (Bild und Heimat, 1975)
Eisenach: Wartburg, Hotel (Bild und Heimat, 1975)
Eisenach: The Wartburg (Kunstanstalt Straub und Fischer, 1980)
The Wartburg in Eisenach incl. Donkey Station at lower right (Auslese Bild Verlag, 1980)
Eisenach: Palace at the Wartburg (Bild und Heimat, 1975)
Eisenach: Luther House (VEB Foto-Verlag, 1978)
Eisenach: the Bach Monument (Auslese – Bild Verlag, 1975)
Eisenach incl. city view and Bach monument (Kunstanstalt Straub und Fischer, 1980)
Eisenach: Luther House, Wartburg, Luther Monument, Luther’s Room at Wartburg (Kunstanstalt Straub und Fischer, 1980)
Eisenach incl. Market Square (Kunstanstalt Straub und Fischer, 1980)
Eisenach: The Wartburg (Kunstanstalt Straub and Fischer, 1980)
Eisenach: Wartburg and more (VEB Foto-Verlag, 1979)
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.
Karl Marx Stadt’s Civic Centre (Bild und Heimat, 1980)
The reverse of card pictured left: “Can you please come to my place on Monday, February 7th?” – a postcard sent within Karl Marx Stadt to set up a visit between two friends.
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.