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Wilhelms 27 05 18

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

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Roter Okt - Tuch

Souvenir scarf from “Festival of Red October”, ‘Capital of the GDR, October 1977’; note the signatures, a popular way for attendees to personalize their souvenir (photo: Jo Zarth).

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the “October Revolution” in Tsarist Russia, a date of particular importance on the East German calendar. As the Soviet Union’s most loyal ally, the GDR went to considerable lengths to demonstrate its fealty to the Communist cause and commemorating this event was a key part of that ritual.

On the 60th anniversary of “Red October” in 1977, the leaders of the German Democratic Republic, the revolution’s self-proclaimed German heirs, were not going to let occasion pass without giving it its proper. So from October 19-22, 1977, the country’s official youth organizations, the Free German Youth and Young Pioneers, held “The Festival of Red October” in East Berlin. The festival brought together tens of thousands of East German young people with 4,000 representatives of the Komsomol, the Soviet Union’s official youth organization, for for a full program of cultural events, showcases of their work and a review of past achievements.

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Luther Statue - Wittenberg Town Square - 1980

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?

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Kordula Striepecke receives her victor's medal at the 1983 GDR Championship in Zeitz (photo: Striepecke archive)

Kordula Striepecke receives her victor’s medal at the 1983 GDR Championship in Zeitz (photo: Striepecke archive)

To mark the start of the Olympic Games two weeks ago, I published part I of a look at the sporting career of  an elite-level GDR athtete Ms. Kordula Striepecke. Born in the GDR in 1963, Ms. Striepecke was identified as a promising athlete at a young age and pt. I of her story covers her first years as a competitive paddler through to her admission to the Sport School in Leipzig, on East Germany’s top level training centres for young athletes, in 1978-79. This post picks up at that point with the young Kordula believing that her dream of competing at an Olympic Games was coming nearer to her grasp. Read More

"How Bonn tricks us out of our cash" (extra 11 91, photo: R. Newson).

“How Bonn tricks us out of our cash” (extra 11 91, photo: R. Newson).

German unification brought major changes to the NBI (see last week’s post on the what was the GDR’s version of LIFE magazine). The magazine’s Party-owned publishing house, Berliner Verlag, was privatized and ultimately fell into the hands of West German publishing giant Gruner + Jahr in 1991. The company renamed the magazine extra and installed a new Editor-in-Chief who was charged with revamping NBI for the new times. Interestingly, the arrival of the new, West German ownership did not mean the wholesale dismissal of the East German staff as so was often the case in other workplaces at that time. From a distance, this decision seems bizarre given the reputation, well earned really, of East German journalism as little more than the PR arm of the Socialist Unity Party (SED). However, the decision reflected the new editor’s vision for the magazine which was intended to speak to the newly emerging eastern German middle class; for this to be credible, he argued, eastern Germans would need to be on staff and writing. Read More

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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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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