Friedmut and Gundula Wilhelm, May 27, 2018 (photo: author)
When asked to characterize his approach to dealing with Communist authorities, Friedmut Wilhelm, a retired Lutheran pastor who largely grew up in the German Democratic Republic and served parishes there from 1966 to 1979, is matter of fact: “We simply refused to play the game by their rules.” (Interview between author and Friedmut Wilhelm, September 5, 2017).
It’s a telling remark and one that I would contend is the key to understanding how the Lutheran Church in the GDR persisted in the face of forty plus years of hostile rule by the Socialist Unity Party (SED). This post is based on three interviews I conducted with Friedmut Wilhelm and his wife Gundula over the past number of months and it relates experiences they had as a clergy couple in rural East Germany between 1966 and 1979. While the Wilhelms’ story is theirs alone, I suggest that it is an example of the church’s – or more accurately, some of its clergy’s – dogged determination to maintain independence from direct state control, an attitude which allowed the Lutheran Church to help facilitate the peaceful revolution of 1989 which brought an end to both the GDR’s state socialism and the Cold War. Read More
My copy of the East German pressing of Depeche Mode’s Greatest Hits album which state’s Amiga label in 1987 (photo: author).
In 1988, it was clear to both East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) and its official youth organization, the Free German Youth (FDJ), that the country’s youth were being lost to the “real existing socialist project”. Searching for a means to address this, the FDJ reached for a solution which would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier and started booking major western pop stars for concerts in East Berlin in the hope that the organization might burnish its image by basking in some reflected glory. Many of the bookings made as part of this project including Bruce Springsteen, Bryan Adams and Joe Cocker made sense on one level as the acts’ blue-collar, working class images dovetailed somewhat with the GDR’s official ideology.
But Depeche Mode? How did the FDJ justify having the British synth-pop stars headline the organization’s birthday concert at East Berlin’s Werner Seelenbinder Hall on March 7, 1988? Read More
One could argue that no one defined the face of “Berlin – Capital of the German Democratic Republic” more than visual artist Walter Womacka (1925 – 2010). A favourite of GDR leader Walter Ulbricht during the mid- to late-1960s during which East Berlin received much of its socialist makeover, Womacka was a key protagonist in the GDR’s “Kunst am Bau” (literally “art on building”) movement. This sought to ideologically mark East German cityscapes through large-scale, agit-prop artworks and Womacka’s creations graced a number of prominent buildings in the East German capital.
Eastern side of Walter Womacka’s 1964 mosaic “Our Life” on Berlin’s House of Teachers building (photo: M. Bomke).
Interestingly, more 28 years after the fall of the Wall, many of Womacka’s works remain intact and have even found a place in the iconography of present day Berlin. Given the ideologically charged debates around the legacy of much GDR-commissioned public art in the years following German unification in 1990, this was by no means a certainty. I think the reason for this lies in the way Womacka combined the aesthetic language of socialist realism with elements of folk art, an approach which allows many viewers to overlook the overtly propagandistic of much of his public art. Read More
Statue of Martin Luther, Wittenberg Town Square, spring 1980 (photo: D. Hendricksen)
As today is Reformation Day, it seems an appropriate moment to turn our attentions to the GDR’s relationship to Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), the German theologian generally credited with having been one of the key figures in setting this transformative process in motion.
“Grave digger of the nation”, “servant of the princes”: these were but two of the epithets popularly directed at Luther by East German ideologues and cultural leaders, at least in country’s early years. Hewing close to a Marxist-Leninist reading of German history, GDR historians understood Luther as the “seed of the German misery” which would later blossom into fully formed disaster with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.
While this position softened somewhat by the mid-1970s and some of Luther’s contributions to German culture came to be grudgingly acknowledged by the Socialist Unity Party (SED) apparat, the reformer remained nevertheless an ambivalent figure in East German cultural life. That is, until 1980 when East German leader Erich Honecker labelled the medieval monk “one of the greatest sons of the German people.” (pg. 3. Berliner Zeitung, June 14-15, 1980) It was a reassessment which caught many, in particular his SED comrades, off guard.
What was behind this change and what were the results?
Bust of Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of Soviet Communist Party during the Wende period in the GDR (photo: author)
It was embarrassing to his East German hosts: every time Mikhail Gorbachev, head of the Soviet Communist Party and guest of honour at the GDR’s 40th anniversary celebrations in East Berlin in early October 1989, set foot in public, GDR citizens would inevitably begin chanting his name: “Gorbi! Gorbi!” Particularly bold ones even cried out “Gorbi save us!” Add to this Gorbachev’s public chiding of his Socialist Unity Party (SED) allies for their reluctance to implement meaningful reform of their version of “real existing socialism” (“Danger only lies in wait for those who do not react to life!”) and its safe to say the party did not unfold as the Party had hoped. Read More
“No more fig leaves” – photo from front page of Junge Welt, Nov. 7, 1989.
As the fall of 1989 progressed and the Socialist Unity Party’s (SED) grip on power began to loosen, many of the Party’s more than 2 million members watched in disbelief as the socialist project crumbled before them. One window onto the myriad of reactions that these developments gave rise to is found in the newspapers under SED direct control. Junge Welt (Young World) was the organ of the GDR’s youth organization, the Free German Youth (FDJ), and with 1.4 million copies printed, it was the country’s largest circulation daily. My collection includes this paper’s November 7, 1989 edition, and it provides an amazing reflection of the disintegration of state socialism in the GDR just before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Anvil desk ornament produced to mark the GDR’s 25th anniversary on October 7, 1974 (photo: Jo Zarth).
On this date in 1974, the GDR marked its 25th anniversary. The item featured in this post is a miniature anvil featuring this date (7 X 1974) which was produced as a memento to mark this occasion. The GDR was always keen on celebrating itself (who else was going to do it?!) and this sort of thing was distributed as a token of appreciation to Party loyalists.
But What Does It All Mean?