The Brigade Diary is one of the most interesting items that testifies to working life in the GDR. These books were kept by “Brigades”, the work units created in the late 1950s as part of the program of “Socialist Competition” which was intended to increase efficiency in East German workplaces by having groups of workers compete with one another. The Brigades were supposed to foster a lived socialist culture both at and outside of work and the Brigade Diaries were to serve as a repository for information on a Brigades’ working and social activities.
As originally conceived, the Brigade Diaries were supposed to provide an outlet for workers’ creativity and typically included reports on a collective’s activity, but could also contain drawings, collages and more creative writings. The form a Diary varied from Brigade to Brigade, but many were perfunctory in content and simply kept to satisfy the representative of the Free German Trade Union Associaion (FDGB) charged with vetting these books on a regular basis.
Recently I acquired a Brigade Diary for my collection which was produced by the Brigade “World Peace” at the People’s Own Brown Coal Power Plant in Bitterfeld during the years from 1984 through to early 1989. This Diary is by no means as elaborate as some I’ve seen, but does include 18 reports of varying lengths and quality and manages to produce a narrative illustrating aspects of both the place of its production and the lives of several of the workers who contributed to it. Read More
One of the interesting things about writing this blog has been the way my assumptions about the “Workers and Peasants State” have been challenged from time to time and this week’s post is a fine example. In it I’m going to look at responses to a “job wanted” ad placed in the Berliner Zeitung newspaper by an unidentified female resident of East Berlin on February 12, 1980 as I think these contradict a number of stereotypes that many of us in the West hold about how labour was (or wasn’t) organized in the GDR and the degree of autonomy which individual workers had within East Germany’s planned economic system.
The letters I’ll be looking at here were supplied to me by a friend (thanks Uli!) who acquired them a number of years ago while living on Berlin’s Karl-Marx Allee. When he mentioned these documents and their contents, I was more than a little surprised as the idea that GDR workers advertised their labour in the pages of one of the country’s mass circulation dailies suggested that the country’s labour market took forms that seemed at odds with my understanding of the rigidities of the GDR’s centrally-planned economy. How was it, in a system, where a central office literally dictated the number of ingots a foundry produced or how many university spaces were to be opened in Slavic studies, that an individual worker could hang up his/her sign and see what the market would bear?
Whenever I’m in Germany, I try to spend some time in places which evoke the former-East. With the passage of time, this has become increasingly difficult, but there’s one destination which has never failed to engage my powers of imagination: Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee. I think part of the reason is that the Allee today is quite dead, the relative calm allowing one to project one’s thoughts onto the scene without much competition from a contradictory present.
The Allee was in two phases between the early 1950s and mid-1960s and as a result the street manages to embody a significant chunk of the GDR’s architectural history and since it also served as the stage for some of the country’s most important events, there’s never a shortage of interesting things to observe and consider. (I’ve written a lengthy piece on the Allee’s history which includes a number of, if I do say so myself, fine pictures, so if you have have any interest in that angle on things, I’d encourage you to click here.)
Meissen Porcelain Tile
First up is an original Meissen porcelain tile removed from one of the Allee’s apartment blocks during the renovations which took place in the 1990s/early 2000s. The choice of Meissen porcelain for the facades of the Allee’s buildings was intended to underscore their status as “Workers’ Palaces”, however, the material proved ill-suited for the task at hand and by late-period GDR, falling tiles were a real hazard on the Allee. During renovations in the late 90s/early 00s, all the exterior tiles were removed a number of these were saved to be sold as a fundraiser (how I got mine) for a social service agency which operates the Cafe Sibylle, one of the few GDR-era businesses to have survived unification. Even if you’re not keen to acquire a porcelain tile from the Karl-Marx-Allee as a souvenir, it’s worth seeking out the cafe if you visit Berlin as they have lovely homemade cakes and a very good exhibit on the history of the Allee.