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
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
With the fall season rapidly approaching, so too is the anniversary of the Wende, the German term meaning “turn” which refers to the events in October and November of 1989 which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the GDR.
To mark this occasion, GDR Objectified is pleased to announce a Wende-themed contest, the winner of which will receive a copy of Leipziger Demontagebuch, a book published in the Saxon metropolis in 1990 which brings together hundreds of private photos of the demonstrations which brought East German state socialism to its knees along with a chronicle of events and a number of insightful essays (in German only!).
To learn how this piece of German history can be yours, read on . . . Read More
First-day issue postcard from Deutsche Post in honour of Reformation-era revolutionary “Thomas Müntzer” with an excerpt from Werner Tübke’s masterpiece, Early Bourgeois Revolution in Germany, as found in the Panorama Museum, Bad Frankenhausen.
From the outside, it looks like nothing so much an 80s-era sports arena that has been placed quixotically atop a small mountain in the Thuringian countryside. However, the Panorama Museum in Bad Frankenhausen is in fact one of the few manifestations of GDR cultural policy to have survived the transition to a unified Germany essentially intact. The museum houses one item, a massive panorama-style painting by East German painter Werner Tübke which bears the name Early Bourgeois Revolution in Germany (Frühbürgerliche Revolution in Deutschland). Measuring 123 m in length by 14 m high, this monumental work includes scenes from the German Peasants’ War, a series of uprisings that took place across German-speaking Central Europe between 1524 and 1526 and which leaders of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) were eager to present as an historical antecedent to their “Workers and Peasants’ State”. Indeed the clear ideological intent with which the Panorama Museum was created makes its continued existence all the more remarkable.
Panorama Museum above Bad Frankenhausen (Goertz Verlag, 1985).
With today marking the opening of the Rio Olympic Games, it seems an appropriate time to begin a series of posts on the sporting career of an elite athlete trained in the GDR, Ms. Kordula Striepecke, a world-class competitor in canoe slalom.
In the years that have followed the fall of the Berlin Wall the narrative that has emerged around East Germany’s sporting culture has tended to focus on the way in which the state socialist system relentlessly pursued sporting excellence, often at the expense of the health and well-being of the very athletes expected to deliver these results. In my discussions with Ms. Striepecke about her remarkable sporting career, both in the GDR and in the unified German team after 1990, I was interested to see they ways in which her experiences serve to both confirm and challenge the prevailing impressions of what the pursuit of elite sport involved in the German Democratic Republic.
I am grateful to Ms. Striepecke for her willingness to share her story with me and hope that you find it as enjoyable to read as I did to research and write.
Like dreams held by many East German citizens, the one at the centre of this week’s post was also born in front of a television set tuned to a West German channel. It was late summer 1972 and nine-year old Kordula Striepecke was transfixed by images she saw on the TV sitting in the living room of her family’s Erfurt apartment. On the screen were images of the Summer Olympics being held in neighboring West Germany, specifically, the canoe slalom event. As the competitors navigated their way through the white water course with skill and precision, a dream was born: “I immediately joined a club to start paddling and I collected every article I could find about the sport from the East German papers. And the wish to compete at an Olympic Games began to grow inside me.” (from Wendegeschichten nach 20 Jahren Wende / 20. Jahrestag des Mauerfalls by Kordula Striepecke)
Kordula Striepecke standing in front of Progress Erfurt’s boat house (photo: Striepecke archive)
This video of a match report on an GDR Oberliga football match from November 25, 1989 has been making the rounds for a while, and I thought I’d post it here with a translation of the moderation as it’s a nice little window into the social changes taking place in East German at that time.
The game in question between Lokomotive Leipzig, a team typically to be found at the top of the East German table (though not in this year) and BSG Stahl Eisenhüttenstadt, a weak sister of GDR football, at Stahl’s homeground, Ironworkers’ Stadium, just over two weeks after the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9th. Read More
During my year teaching English in Leipzig in 1999, the school I worked for held the contract for retraining groups of the long-term unemployed both in Leipzig itself and in Hartha, a town about 75 kilometres to the southeast. This was not a coveted gig as instruction began at 7:30 am, a starting time that meant one had to leave the city by 6:00 am the latest. As low man on the totem pole, I was assigned the Hartha gig shortly after my arrival in January. Though I grumbled at first, my assignment to “middle Saxony” turned out to be a blessing in disguise for there I was exposed to a completely different reality than the one I was experiencing in Leipzig. In Hartha the news reports about rural eastern Germany and aspects of GDR history came to life. Whether it was the “flight of the youth”, the rise of neo-Nazi youth culture or the rocky road on the way to the new economic order, Hartha offered perspectives that I couldn’t get in the city.
The video below is a portrait of the town that was shot by the film club at a Hartha elementary school in 1982. For scenes of town life, skip to the 1:30 mark. The film is remarkable for the candour of local residents. When asked what it is they like about their town, one answers, “About Hartha?! At the moment not much! There’s nothing to buy in the grocery store and you have to stand in long lines!.”
Today marks the 25th anniversary of the largest demonstration in the history of the GDR and another important milestone on the path to the toppling of the GDR’s one party state. The demonstration took place on East Berlin’s Alexanderplatz and attracted more than half a million protestors. The demo’s reach was extended by GDR television which broadcast the more than three hour long event live – including boos drawn by Party representatives – to every corner of the Republic.
“We were the people.” – a banner hung on the House of Teachers on East Berlin’s Alexanderplatz in 1999 to mark the Nov. 4th demo.
The demo was approved in the wake of the resignation of Erich Honecker, the head of the ruling Socialist Unity Party, on October 18th and featured a broad spectrum of GDR public figures calling for changes in “the better Germany”. These included civil rights activist Jens Reich, authors Christa Wolf and Stefan Heym, actor Ulrich Mühe (The Lives of Others), Markus Wolf, the recently retired head of the Stasi’s foreign espionage wing, and even Günter Schabowski, the Party boss who would somewhat unwittingly open the Berlin Wall a mere five days later. Read More
This post completes a series of entries on the life of Dr. Johanna Goldberg, a physician from the eastern German city of Schwedt. It is based on an autobiography written by Dr. Goldberg (Vom Prügelkind zur Ärztin/From Whipping Boy to Doctor) and a number of email exchanges I’ve had with her over the past year. I’ve chosen to present this biography in considerable detail as it illustrates a number of aspects of East German life very well.
For the first part of her biography, click here. You’ll find the second part here.
When last heard from Johanna, she had just graduated from medical school at Jena’s Friedrich Schiller University . . .
Working Life – Things Aren’t So Bad (Berka)
Central Clinic in Bad Berka where Johanna G. pursued her specialist training from 1961-1969 (photo: Tnemsoni, Wikicommons)
After her husband’s academic plans were derailed by his recurring TB, he decided to complete an apprenticeship program as a caregiver at a clinic in Bad Berka which specialized in treating severe TB cases. In order to be with her husband, Johanna decided to apply to complete training as a lung specialist at this same clinic. Once accepted here, Goldberg quickly distinguished herself and was invited by the Senior Doctor to complete a PhD qualification under his supervision. During the nine years the couple spent in Bad Berka, Goldberg completed both her specialists’ training and her PhD studies. And were that not enough, she also managed to bring into the world the couple’s first child, a son.
To mark the 23rd Day of German Unity on October 3rd, below you’ll find a story of one of the winners of the Wende. Bernd R. was a man I taught English to who had been the Director of a GDR pharmaceutical factory. During the upheavals of 1989/90, he managed the remarkable feat of saving this facility, and his own job. That, however, is only the beginning of this tale . . .
An Opportunist Knocks
In 1999, I spent one year teaching English in “the Saxon metropolis” of Leipzig and its environs. One of the reasons I wanted to live and work in eastern Germany was to try and learn about the region and its history including, of course, the peaceful revolution that had begun there in 1989. Initially I had hoped to find work in Berlin, but when that didn’t work out, I ended up in Leipzig. It quickly became clear that this was the best thing that could have happened for “Little Paris” (Goethe’s famously label for the city) had been the home to the protests which toppled the Socialist Unity Party (SED) regime and was in many ways more representative of the GDR experience than East Berlin, the capital and administrative centre of the country, would have been.
Goethe as GDR neon sign: “I praise my Leipzig, it is a small Paris” (photo: ed.)