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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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A Trabant P601, the most popular model of the vehicle (photo: D. Currie).

A Trabant P601, the most popular model of the vehicle (photo: D. Currie).

One of the icons of the GDR is undoubtedly the Trabant, a four-seat car with a two-stroke engine that was the country’s own “Volkswagen” and with which East Germans had a strange love/hate relationship. Over 3.7 million of these vehicles were produced in the Saxon city of Zwickau between the mid-1950s and 1991 and most of these found a home with a GDR family. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, images of long lines of Trabis waiting at border crossings helped make this strange looking automobile famous the world over.

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