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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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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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The GDR Objectified is pleased to have contributed a piece to the Sunday, November 9th edition of the Toronto Star on the remarkable career of East German hockey icon Dieter Frenzel. You can read this article at:
http://www.thestar.com/sports/hockey/2014/11/08/german_hockey_star_recalls_missing_shot_at_edmonton_oilers_glory.html

For more detail on Dieter Frenzel’s career, below the first of two blog posts on the subject that will appear on the blog over the coming days.

Dieter Frenzel in his Dynamo Berlin uniform.

Dieter Frenzel in his Dynamo Berlin uniform.

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In my last post, I started relating the life story of Dr. Johanna Goldberg, a retired physician from the eastern German city of Schwedt. The information found here is based on Dr. Goldberg’s autobiography Vom Prügelkind zur Ärztin (From Whipping Boy to Doctor) and a number of email exchanges I have had with her over the past year. I have decided to present her life in some detail as it illustrates a number of prominent themes of East German life in a remarkable way.

When we left the story, Johanna had just left behind the brutal foster family where she had spent her childhood to study at the Francke Foundations, a boarding school in the industrial city of Halle/Saale. Once here, she had immediately written to both her birth mother and grandmother in the hopes of establishing contact with her natural family . . .

The Francke Foundations in a photo from 1972 (photo: VH-Halle, Wikicommons).

The Francke Foundations in a photo from 1972 (photo: VH-Halle, Wikicommons).

As Johanna’s mother had emigrated to Denmark, a response from her took some time in coming, but the grandmother lived a short distance away in the town of Merseburg and soon Johanna was visiting there semi-regularly. During her first visit, Johanna’s relatives went to great pains to inform her “of all the ‘apparent’ sins of mother”, something that disturbed the girl greatly and caused her to reflect on whether “a person can be only bad and is he or she that for all time?” (pg 38)

When she questioned her grandmother about why she had stood aside and let Johanna be placed into foster care, the explanations were weak and unconvincing. First and foremost, the old woman referred to the counsel of her doctor who’d apparently pointed to Johanna’s bad eye and advised the grandmother that this indicated that the child would undoubtedly be mentally deficient (“blöd”). Johanna is appalled by this reasoning and particularly put off by the contradiction between her supposedly pious grandmother’s actions and religious beliefs: “That was too much hypocrisy for me!” (pg. 39)

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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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Most sports leagues have  a team that functions as a villain, a target for the antipathies of practically everyone who isn’t one of their fans. In baseball, the New York Yankees have worn the black hats, both literally and figuratively, since the 1970s when George Steinbrenner took over the team. In NFL football, the New England Patriots have attracted considerable scorn thanks to the their coach Bill Belichick, a man with the few scruples and even fewer social graces. In the hockey world, the 70s-era Philadelphia Flyers (aka “The Broad Street Bullies”) invited the disdain of practically every fan outside of the “City of Brotherly Love” for their successful redefinition of the sport to include a healthy dollop of Kubrickian ultraviolence.

A BFC wall calendar from 1985 purchased on my visit to East Berlin that spring. I think I got this at a kiosk in the Friedrichstrasse station (photo: author).

A BFC wall calendar from 1985 purchased on my visit to East Berlin that spring. I think I got this at a kiosk in the Friedrichstrasse station. It measures 56 X 41 cm. (photo: author).

Lists of sporting villains are constantly being revised (mainly in bars and on sports talk radio), but I would contend that all would be enriched through the inclusion of East Germany’s most reviled soccer team: Berlin Football Club Dynamo (BFC Dynamo). Read More

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