Teach Me About East Germany
March 10, 2010 2:42 PM   Subscribe

I want to know everything about East Germany (the GDR). What can you teach me?

I'm deeply interested in history, and I recently realized that I don't have any in-depth knowledge about the former DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik).

Basically, I was wondering if the community could help me become less ignorant of the DDR - I've done some rudimentary searches for information on my own but there seems to be a surprising lack of English-language research on the subject.

I'm looking for everything - literally everything - the good, the bad, the mundane, the significant. Do we have any former DDR citizens here? What was everyday life like? What about politics? Health care? Entertainment? Transportation? Coffee? Smoking? Technology?

My limited knowledge of the DDR has been very US-centric and when they covered East Germany at all, the schools I attended focused almost entirely on the negative aspects of the regime. I want to gain a more balanced perspective, however, from scholars, history enthusiasts, and people who actually experienced the DDR firsthand. So I'll take both the good and the bad. I'm extremely curious, and I'll thank and reward anyone who can help me broaden my understanding.

Note: I can speak/read German at a decent level, so German-language sources are not a problem.
posted by Despondent_Monkey to Law & Government (22 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I would start by reading Stasiland.
posted by SamuelBowman at 3:01 PM on March 10, 2010 [5 favorites]

From a tragicomedy perspective, there's "Goodbye Lenin": http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_Bye_Lenin!
posted by chengjih at 3:07 PM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

For biologists around the world, East Germany's Carl Zeiss Jena was a great source for inexpensive, research-grade microscope optical components. They sold their "aus Jena" gear for a fraction of what West Germany and Switzerland were selling their stuff at, for the same quality. It looked clunky and no-nonsense, along the lines of Soviet industrial design, but it was incredible glass for the price.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:09 PM on March 10, 2010

Yep, Stasiland by Anna Funder is the most fascinating text on GDR. I couldn't put it down! It is good to read it, then watch 'The Lives of Others'.
posted by honey-barbara at 3:25 PM on March 10, 2010

You might want to check out this thread, which has a lot of great suggestions about general books on German history.

I'll suggest, again, the book I suggested in there, Faust's Metropolis: A History of Berlin. While it's focused on the city, I remember there being a bunch in there about East Berlin.
posted by SNWidget at 3:37 PM on March 10, 2010

Also check out Das Leben der Anderen.

If you can read German, there will be a lot more resources available to you. If you get a chance to go to Berlin, Check out the DDR museum and the Stasi museum.

I have friends that grew up in the DDR, and friends that visited the DDR in the 80's. My friend Steffi was in the 5th grade at the time, living in Schwerin when the wall came down. She said that literally over night, her class started to empty out. A few days after the wall came down 2 kids were gone because their family split for the west. A week later, more than half of the class was gone.

When my buddy went to East Berlin in the 80's as part of a school trip, his class was given a pamphlet filled with advice of what not to do. Since they were forced by the East German authorities to purchase Ostmarks at a 1:1 exchange rate, they bought alcohol, cameras and fishing gear (Apparently the DDR fishing gear was really good) and then drank all the alcohol and got shitfaced at Alexanderplatz. Supposedly there are pictures of them at A-Platz decked out in fishing gear and drunk out of their minds.

A colleague of mine was a West German border guard in the late 60's, early 70's and has plenty of interesting stories to tell. Either he or a colleague of his was on patrol and took a piss in the bushes right on the border. This was before the border was really fortified. While he was pissing, he noticed a sparkle or flash in the trees more than a few meters away coming from the eastern side of the border. When he was finished, he went to his officer and told him what he saw. His army colleagues laughed because they knew it was a DDR guard with a telephoto lens taking pictures of him pissing in the bushes. Also before the border was heavily fortified, both sides would play pranks on each other, like sneaking across the border at night and turning their signs upside down, or sawing halfway through the legs of guard towers so that the next day, they would collapse.

Another acquaintance was 16 when the wall came down and was especially relieved because his brother escaped a few months earlier over the Hungry-Austrian border. The Stasi was questioning him and his family about where he was and who he knew and how did he plan it, etc. His father was a minister so he was under a bit more heavy surveillance and scrutiny.

Germans have the right to look into their files that were kept by the DDR and see wheat kind of information was collected about them. I've asked the few people I know that grew up in the DDR, if they have looked into their file or those of their parents and they all said that they don't want to. They are curious to know what was in there, but they don't want to know who in their circle of family and friends betrayed them and under what circumstances they were forced to do so. In some ways I find this to be a typical German way of dealing with the past. Just forget it and move on, I suppose, but the reasons they give and with knowing what the situation was like in the DDR, it kind of makes sense.
posted by chillmost at 4:08 PM on March 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Come to Berlin, you'll hear and see and read more than you can handle on the DDR.

Do a language course there and you may get a teacher who lived in the DDR and will tell you about how great it was to be finally free to speak and travel without resorting to dangerous tricks but how hard to adjust to life in a competitive society after living for so long with a guaranteed job from the government, guaranteed income, low rents, cheap products and lots of social welfare. They will tell you they switched from security without freedom to freedom without security, and of course if presented with that choice intelligent people will always rate freedom higher than security, but will regret that the two now seem harder and harder to reconcile, which was not what they'd envisioned for the future when that wall fell and everyone partied for days in the streets. Hence the 'ostalgia', misplaced, exaggerated, but understandable.

You'll be able to visit the stasi museums and former prisons where they'll give you very ordinary yet very shocking examples of how invasive the government control on citizens had become.

You can take a trip to the lakes north of Berlin where the big shots had their mansions and villas and resorts. You can just walk around the eastern area of the city and spot amazing remnants of the old era before they're all torn down to make place for yet more shopping centres or furniture retailers or discount supermarkets.

You can take a tram from Alexanderplatz into further north east and land in the areas now occupied by working class Germans and foreigners living in renovated buildings first erected in the DDR, just looking at them will tell you more about life in that country than reading any books. Or even the buildings along the former Stalinallee. Or around Alexanderplatz itself.

You'll visit the awesome Soviet war memorial to the thousands of Russian soldiers who died there fighting the nazis. You'll get to go to readings, conferences, films, events of all kinds about the DDR. You may befriend people who grew up in the DDR and will be more than eager to go on about it and how different it is now. You may hear that now that they have the right to many people are now requesting their 'Akten' from the Stasi archives to find out who was spying on them and are discovering years later that it was a neighbour they were friends with, a sister, a lover, and many other people prefer not to know this kind of thing years later.

You wouldn't even need to speak German to experience all this. Even a quick stay and a few vivid impressions are worth more than what you can read in books alone. At the very least it'll give you a more poignant understanding of what you'll then read in the books and see in the films. Some things from another past are hard to believe, or not as convincing, not as impressive, not as memorable, until you see and hear about them with your own eyes and ears, and see and feel around you the traces they left behind.

Hurry up though, there won't be much left of the most interesting non-museum stuff in the east in a few years, this city is building and renovating very fast.
posted by bitteschoen at 4:13 PM on March 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

ps - among the films I was going to suggest the same one chillmost mentioned above (seems we had a lot of similar suggestions in mind overall).

Das Leben der Anderen is a good movie but it is still more focused only on the Stasi-spying part of living in the DDR, which is what the West focused on a lot already (and there was some discussion on the level of realism of that portrayal), and it's focused on the lives of intellectuals, writers, people who were politically aware and critical already; it won't give you a picture of ordinary life for ordinary people.

It's just as if not more important to get an idea of how the average person, the workers, lived because that's the largest mass of people in any country. Can't think now of a single movie that captured that well but it's all scattered in lots of sources, books, documentaries, etc. Or you could even watch the tv of that era, there's a wealth of stuff that was produced in the DDR that's interesting, even through the filter of government control on tv you still get to see what the ordinary audiences saw. There could be something online, and I think the film museum in Berlin in Potsdamer Platz has archives of Eastern Germany production too (they do have a whole section dedicated to tv archives of programmes broadcast in Germany).

(not a criticism to the suggestion or the film itself, just saying, if you're starting from scratch, don't take that film as more representative than it is)
posted by bitteschoen at 4:40 PM on March 10, 2010

Read books by East-German authors. I recently took a course on literature from the DDR, and we read books by Christa Wolf, Monika Maron, Volker Braun, and Claudia Rusch, along with plays by Heiner Müller and Bertolt Brecht and various poems, songs, etc. (There are obviously other good authors from the period; those are simply the ones I'm personally familiar with.) Reading the literature, poetry, and drama of the period can help you put all the facts you learn elsewhere into place, and maybe help you imagine how it actually felt to live in the DDR.

Additionally, read up on the biographies of these authors: they're a microcosm of the East German intelligentsia, and the compromises they made to get their work out while remaining in the DDR (for the most part) are fascinating.
posted by ubersturm at 4:45 PM on March 10, 2010

The German Propaganda Archive has a section of translated stuff produced by the GDR.
posted by pseudonick at 4:46 PM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I recommend Kleines Land, grosse Mauer by David Ensikat. It's witty and entertaining.

I think das Leben der Anderen is an entertaining film, but take it with a heavy dose of historical salt. There are a ton of things that are inaccurate or heavily-dramatized for movie-goodness. Its also a film ABOUT the DDR, after it was already gone.

Check out real films made in the DDR! The Defa Film Library is the largest collection of DDR films in the United States. Depending on where you are, some films might be hard to track down, some more than others.

Arguably, most famous film out of the DDR is Die Legende von Paul und Paula. It was one of the first films in the DDR to use rock music -- The Puhdys!

Spur der Steine is (well, it's long for one thing) a great look at how politics invaded the workplace and the lives of employees, plus the post-war construction. It was banned after it came out.

Made the 80s - Solo Sunny. Sunny is a singer in a band, who dreams of real success. The film shows good scenes of the countryside, too. The DDR was into promoting the arts, and, since everyone was employed by the state, the government oversaw and regulated music groups. As a group you had to play in front of a panel in order to receive your Einstufung, which was your "employment card" as it were. (also, hilariously, you'd get graded from A-F, with a higher grade earning you more money.) You'd then travel from town to town playing in the Kulturhaeuser, which every town had for bands, theater, and various entertainment.

There was a lot of censorship in the lyrics and in the late 80s, youth worked really hard to slip in political grievances on the sly. For example: Dirk Zoellner's Kaefer auf'm Blatt. This clip is from the documentary fluestern und SCHREIEN -- also recommended.
posted by missmary6 at 5:13 PM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Poly Play - "The Poly Play videogame was Eastern Bloc's answer to the capitalist's Pac Man but resembles something more like on old-fashioned TV set in a tall wooden cabinet. Nevertheless, with up to eight games, a simple firing button and 8-way joystick, and a slot to take tokens rather than coins, the Poly Play is, in fact, less grim than it sounds."
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:22 PM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Zoo Station, by Ian Walker, is a first-person account about East Berlin in the 1980s. I picked up the book at a used bookstore in 1994 because I thought it looked interesting, and it was one of three books I took with me to Japan, and it's the only one of those books that I still own - Zoo Station has crossed the Pacific with me three time in three different moves.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:28 PM on March 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Timothy Garton Ash worked in the DDR as a journalist; in the 90s he wrote a book about looking into his own Stasi file (called, obviously enough, The File). Meant to be very good, though I haven't read it.

Visiting Berlin you can still really feel it. Bitteschoen is right, no doubt, but I don't know if they're going to bulldoze Karl-Marx-Allee or the Fernsehturm any time soon.

You may well be told, as you go around Berlin, that the DDR government always referred to the Wall as the 'Anti-Fascist Protection Wall'. Your guide may pause meaningfully to allow you and the rest of the group to consider what a ridiculous propagandistic fiction that was, on the part of a tyrannical communist government whose own practices would bear pretty sustained comparison with those of a fascist state. Your guide may also, as you follow the route of the Wall round to Potsdamer Platz, observe that the shiny new buildings there house such major enterprises of the former West Germany as Daimler-Benz. He is less likely to mention the Nazi-era history of those companies, or their smooth passage from fascism to democracy. The notion of the 'Anti-Fascist Protection Wall' is laughable. But it's not entirely false, especially in light of a 'reunification' that many East Germans experienced as a hostile takeover.
It seems to me now, 20 years on, that the relationship between ‘the two German states’ did indeed acquire the character of a cold civil war. It was not just the fact of their division that the two German populations disliked. They disliked each other. As time passed, two societies developed, each of which regarded the other with prim disapproval. One way to understand the tensions in unified Germany since 1990 is to remember the Reconstruction period after the American Civil War. The ‘victorious’ Wessis became the new carpetbaggers. Like Northerners in the defeated South, they swept over the humiliated Ossis, plundering the economy, abolishing an unlovely but familiar way of life, and leaving behind them deep-seated resentment that soon took political form.
(Neal Ascherson. Requires log-in, though.)

Also, another vote for Stasiland, which I have read.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 7:03 PM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another thing by Ascherson, not requiring a log-in this time--a review of Frederick Taylor's history of the Wall.

I presume there's stuff out there, especially in German, that is not about Berlin and the Wall!
posted by lapsangsouchong at 7:07 PM on March 10, 2010

Timothy Garton Ash is probably the best journalist and chronicler of the past 25 years.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:11 PM on March 10, 2010

Heh no they're not going to bulldoze the Karl-Marx-Alle or the tower, sorry I should have been clearer, what I meant by "interesting non-museum stuff" was mainly old decaying buildings still scattered around the eastern neighbourhoods - now very popular and constantly being renovated. Both industrial buildings (even older than DDR times too) or private buildings, there's many of them, without a name or a mention in the tourist guides, you just spot them walking around or even looking out from the trains.

Also for instance things like the old train stations, like, Ostkreuz, they're renovating it right now, the old part is still there in the meantime as they're building the new station, apparently they're going to preserve some of it for historic reasons but it will be completely different, it already is. Warschauer Strasse station will probably follow sometime soon and that's another big impressive one. It's interesting to see the difference in how they built these big stations between East and West.

Then for instance there's still an old DDR era amusement park, also abandoned and closed to the public, doesn't seem to be any plan to do anything about it (would take lots of money and there's some legal issue on the ownership still) but sooner or later that too will be gone inevitably.

The most famous example would also be the Palast der Republik, I came here a few years ago when it was still there and thought oh well I'll have time to visit it properly and in the meantime whoops, it's gone. (Yeah ok it was announced of course but the actual bulldozing happened while I was away).
posted by bitteschoen at 12:32 AM on March 11, 2010

I don't know if this has English subtitles, but there is a collection of documentaries called "Kontraste - Auf den Spuren einer Diktatur" It is a series of news reports about the DDR that were released during that time, during the final days and in the direct aftermath. It deals a lot with how people were labeled dissidents for the most banal of reasons, how many of the Stasi files were destroyed right before the reunion and other aspects of living in that society and how the Germans came came to terms with it all in the aftermath. Here is a short clip on Youtube, unfortunately without English subtitles.

Also interesting is Der Aufstand.
posted by chillmost at 1:46 AM on March 11, 2010

Also Metafilter's own pjern has a great flickr set of the Berlin Wall from when he was stationed in West Berlin in 1979.
posted by chillmost at 1:58 AM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

In the category of I-can't-believe-there's-a-wiki-page-for-that, how about some East German jokes?
posted by spamguy at 6:58 AM on March 11, 2010

I stayed with my mother's cousin's family in East Germany for a few days in August of 1989. Unfortunately, I was only 10 at the time, and didn't really have any idea what a big deal it was to have visited the DDR in August of 89 until the Wall came down a couple of months later.

The combination of just being a kid at the time and it having been 20 years ago and having only been there for a few days means my memories are hazy and probably not all that useful, but a few snippets that might be interesting:

- My cousin and her family were pretty fed up with the government by August 89. One sort of funny but also telling story: after us kids were put to bed, the adults would stay up late drinking and talking. One night, my cousin's husband started ranting about the government. His wife smiled apologetically, got up, and closed all the windows, presumably so no one would hear, even though they weren't all that close, physically, to their neighbors.

- My cousin's family seemed to live a pretty middle-class existence. They had a two-story house in a suburb of Halle, with a pool even! However, they did say that if you wanted a car, you had to get on a waiting list and it could take years.

- The cousin's teenage son was absolutely obsessed with this handheld baseball video game my brother had brought with him - he'd never seen anything like it and it didn't seem to leave his hands the whole time we were there. On my mom's urging, my brother gave it to him when we left and he was super-excited.

- The husband was this strapping, super-macho beer-loving guy who spent much of his free time hanging out at the local bowling alley. My dad went with him and said it was more like a men's-only hall than a bowling alley you'd find in the US - it was all men, and there was a lot of drinking. Not sure if that was a common thing.

- We ate a lot of beef, potatoes and cabbage.

I think the biggest thing was that, at least to my 10-year-old American eyes, their day-to-day life did not seem radically different from my life in Boston or from the lives of family we'd visited in West Germany.
posted by lunasol at 9:55 AM on March 11, 2010

When I was 26 I took my second trip to Europe, this time going as far east as Berlin. I rode a bus through the DDR north from Regensburg, and left, several days later, by a train west. Both of these were express, only a couple of stops. This was the summer of 1978, and on July 4th I joined a group of expectant tourists at Checkpoint Charlie, where, after filling out a form, showing the passport and waiting in line, we were allowed into East Berlin. You had to buy a certain amount of DDR marks on your way in, and you couldn’t easily (or legally) exchange your money once inside the Eastern sector. Unlike Deutschmarks, the Ostmark coins were lightweight, made of that aluminum blend some countries use for their smallest denominations. I walked around for several hours, mostly the Museum Insel and Unter den Linden, where I bought an ice cream from a street vendor. It was a bar between two thin waffle-cookies, the only kind available, vanilla only. Tasted good. Took a few photos, color film, but they look black-n-white – gray Trabbis in traffic. Wasn’t enough time, really – but another detail you might like was just how deserted it felt inside the wall on the West side, since business and residents had moved away. Back then there wasn’t any graffiti, either. One obvious difference, still visible today in the Eastern Länder and now spreading all over Berlin, is the pedestrian Ampelmännchen traffic signal.
posted by Rash at 2:33 PM on March 11, 2010

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