In our previous post on the Chemical Works at Leuna and Buna, the focus was very much on the political and economic history of those sites. But what was working life like for the nearly 50,000 East German workers who were employed at these works (28,000 at Leuna, 18,000 at Buna)? In this post, I’ll speak to someone who did just that in the hopes of getting a glimpse into the life of a blue collar worker in the “Workers and Peasants State”.
Whenever I think of Leuna and Buna, two of the GDR’s largest chemical production facilities, I am reminded of a pivotal scene in Mike Nichol’s iconic 1967 film “The Graduate”. In it, Dustin Hoffman’s character Ben, a recent college graduate struggling to figure out his place in the world, is taken aside at a party by Mr. McGuire, a man of his father’s generation who wishes to impart some wisdom to the young man:
“I just want to say one word to you,” the older man begins earnestly. “Just one word. Are you listening?”
“Yes sir,” responds Ben.
When Mr. McGuire is sure that he has the younger man’s attention, he finally speaks: “Plastics.”
What, you may be asking, does this have to do with two East German industrial facilities? Well, imagine Walter Ulbricht in the role of Mr. McGuire while the the East German populace is Ben. The pitch takes place not at a cocktail party in mod, 60s-era California bungalow, but rather nine years earlier at the “GDR Chemical Conference” taking place at the Leuna Works (GDR, always at the vanguard of progress! –ed.). For it is here that SED leader Ulbricht articulated the Party’s vision for the GDR’s economic future which famously included the promise that “chemistry brings bread, prosperity and beauty”. This dream of better living through chemistry represented a broadening of the GDR’s economic focus to include not just Stalinist-style heavy industry (e.g. steel and machine building) but also the quickly emerging petrochemical chemical industry, a move which represented a big gamble. Read More
In May 2019, The GDR Objectified ventured to Berlin’s Friedrichshain district to seek out the building housing Neues Deutschland (New Germany), a left-wing daily newspaper founded as the official organ of the GDR’s ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED). Join us as we seek out remnants of the East German past on site and explore the paper’s history.
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.
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
Anyone with an interest in the GDR quickly encounters mention of Marzahn, a massive housing estate located on the northeastern edge of the East German capital Berlin. Made up of approximately 60,000 prefabricated concrete apartment units housed largely in high rise tower blocks, Marzahn was built over approximately fifteen years beginning in the mid-1970s to provide modern housing options for tens of thousands of East Berliners. Supporters of the socialist system saw the district as concrete evidence (I couldn’t resist!) of the state’s commitments to its citizens’ welfare and a tangible example of what the socialism could achieve. For critics, however, Marzahn’s seemingly endless blocks of anonymous, monotonous apartment blocks recalled the sort of dystopian world conjured up George Orwell in his totalitarian critique 1984.
While I didn’t get to Marzahn during the GDR era, I’ve had the chance to visit a view times over the past twenty years or so and been able to see first hand some of the remarkable changes that it has undergone since reunification in 1990. Before turning to my impressions, however, allow me to present a brief history of the district.
Marzahn: Heaven or Hell?
It must be the grip that winter has had on us here in Toronto, but I recently began to troll around for a seasonally appropriate theme to post on. I quickly decided to write on Oberhof, a small town in the upper reaches of the Thüringian Forest which has achieved a certain profile as a winter sport site. I’d encountered Oberhof in my reading in its role as the training headquarters for many of the GDR’s elite winter sport athletes including its bobsledders, lugers, cross-country skiers, biathletes and ski jumpers, but I had heard that it was a beloved holiday destination as well. However, when I started digging, I was amazed to find the extent to which the history of this small town distilled so many of the developments which characterized GDR-era.
Oberhof found its way on to the radar of the East German leadership even before the state itself was founded. This was due in large part to the fact that one of the leader’s of Socialist Unity Party (SED), Walter Ulbricht, had come to know Oberhof during the Weimar period when he had led the German Communist Party in the region. A dedicated exerciser, Ulbricht particularly enjoyed hiking and skiing the area’s trails. When authorities decided to host a Winter Sport Championships in the Soviet Zone of Occupation in January of 1949, Oberhof was selected to host the event, the success of which apparently demonstrated to Ulbricht how sport might be instrumentalized as a means of cementing his and the SED’s popularity. Read More
Last year while searching eBay for potential new acquisitions to my collection of GDR ephemera, I came across some used school notebooks, a rather unusual find but one which had me excited as I’m always on the lookout for items which have a clear personal angle. When they arrived, I discovered that the notebooks were from 1970 and had belonged to a grade 1 girl with the rather distinctive name of Kordula Striepecke. While the notebooks for her mathematics and German class were unrevealing, young Kordula’s notebook for Heimatkunde, a sort of introduction to civics, told a rather interesting story.