Life in East Germany: the cultural evolution behind the Iron Curtain
Amid the darkness of economic hardship and state-sponsored fear, East Germany could also be a society of opportunity and hope. Katja Hoyer explores why the black-and-white comparisons with West Germany do not tell the full story, and profiles some of the people who bring this full, complex picture to life
The warm summer air hummed with music and energy. Drums sent rhythmic undercurrents through the streets as young people danced, debated, sang and kissed. Alcohol flowed freely. Ideas were exchanged in dozens of languages as concerts, marches, floats, talks and spontaneous jam sessions combined to give the sense of a bustling festival.
This gathering of idealists and dreamers was held not at Woodstock or Glastonbury but in East Berlin, where 8 million people flocked between 28 July and 5 August 1973 to attend the 10th World Festival of Youth and Students. Its tagline: For Anti-Imperialist Solidarity, Peace and Friendship.
More than two decades had passed since East Germany, formally known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR), had been established on 7 October 1949 as a socialist counterpoint to its capitalist neighbour in the west, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), founded in May of the same year. During that time, the two German states had coexisted in tense competition, straddling the faultlines of the Cold War.
East and West Germany: evil versus good?
We like to think of the world around us in clear categories, and the divided Germany is no different. The west began to see the GDR and the FRG as black-and-white versions of Germany – a vision that lasts to this day. Where the West is portrayed as a functioning democracy with a prosperous and free society, the East is seen only as an oppressive dictatorship whose planned economy caused so much misery that people had to be walled in to make them stay.
One was good, the other evil – and any attempt to complicate the picture of the evil also throws up uncomfortable questions about the nature of good. For western observers, it is therefore as tempting to be as cynical about the 1973 Youth Festival today as it was at the time.
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A few days before it began, the West German political magazine Der Spiegel called the upcoming event a “propaganda show of Eastern European state communism”. The same outlet concluded in a 2008 feature that “a few little freedoms were granted – so that the great restrictions might fall into oblivion”.
The image of a summer of colour, noise and youthful exuberance jars uncomfortably with the more familiar vision of a grey, subdued and crumbling world unfolding behind the Iron Curtain, so it is explained away. The festival was an anomaly, a falsehood, at best a respite from the oppressive drudge that must have been the norm. But, as exploring the lives and stories of a diverse cast of characters reveals, the real story is much more complicated.
“I felt very close to the country at that moment”
Those heady days of music and debate in 1973 were widely remembered as an exciting time. Uwe Schmieder, who was 13, experienced the festival as if in a dream. He was technically not old enough to participate in events organised by the Free German Youth (Freie Deutsche Jugend; FDJ), the GDR’s mass organisation to which the vast majority of young people between the ages of 14 and 25 belonged.
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But his local group from the small town of Zeitz needed another drummer, so Uwe donned the FDJ’s cornflower-blue shirt and proudly beat his marching drum in the heart of East Germany’s capital. Uwe found the atmosphere “intoxicating,” recalling “the peace, friendship and the chants… I felt very close to the country at that moment”.
Many young East Germans felt the festival proved that the state in which they had grown up had arrived in the world. Just a few weeks later, on 18 September 1973, East Germany would be admitted into the United Nations alongside West Germany. The previous year, both states had already acknowledged each other’s sovereignty in the so-called Basic Treaty. By the end of the decade, the GDR had embassies in nearly 200 states. It seemed to have become a country like any other.
Founder of the state: Walter Ulbricht
As if to emphasise that a new era was dawning, the state’s founder and long-time leader Walter Ulbricht died at the age of 80, while the Youth Festival was under way. He was a communist of the old guard, who had experienced the calamitous first half of the 20th century. A carpenter by trade, he had fought in and against the First World War, taking part in the 1918 November Revolution that helped topple Germany’s monarchy.
During the 1920s, he became a rising star of the German Communist Party (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands; KPD) and one of its members of parliament. His heated verbal battles with the Nazis’ head of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, ended in brutal brawls between their followers – a dark sign of things to come.
As was the case with many fellow communists, Ulbricht had to flee Germany when Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933. Ulbricht spent the Second World War exiled in Moscow, where he survived Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s deadly political purges. That was no mean feat. Of the nine German members of the KPD’s politburo who had gone into exile in the Soviet Union, only two were still alive at the end of the war: Ulbricht and Wilhelm Pieck, who later became president of the GDR.
Of the nine German members of the KPD’s politburo who had gone into exile in the Soviet Union, only two were still alive at the end of the war
Ulbricht survived because he had proved his worth to Stalin, working tirelessly to undermine the German war effort. At the 1942–43 battle of Stalingrad, in which the men of Germany’s Sixth Army, freezing and starving to death, were surrounded by enemy troops, Ulbricht’s high-pitched voice had blared into their numb ears. Giant speakers had been rolled up to the front line so that Ulbricht could inform his compatriots that their fight was futile.
One of Stalin’s men sceptically supervised the proceedings, and as Nikita Khrushchev – then working as an intermediary between Stalin and his generals – chuckled at supper: “Well, Comrade Ulbricht, it doesn’t look as if you have earned your dinner tonight. No Germans have surrendered.” But Ulbricht had earned Stalin’s trust.
The division of Germany
Together with nine other men, he was deployed back to Germany on 30 April 1945, the day Hitler shot himself in his bunker beneath a ruined Berlin. It was Ulbricht’s taskforce that would attempt to raise a new and radically different country out of the smouldering ashes of the old. Stalin originally held him back, thinking it would be easier to exploit the resources of a neutral country that wasn’t his responsibility.
Once the two Germanies were set up as separate states in 1949, though, there was no going back. Ulbricht was allowed to fulfil his lifelong dream: to build socialism on German soil. Many Germans, particularly those of the younger generations, wholeheartedly bought into the idea of building a better country after the horrors of militarism and Nazism.
Regina Faustmann was 16 in 1951, and had already experienced her fair share of upheaval. Her father had died in 1945, leaving his wife to look after their three children just as the Red Army was advancing. Now it was time for Regina to roll up her sleeves. She began an apprenticeship as a chemical lab technician at a local tyre manufacturer. It was not what she had dreamed of doing with her life – she had wanted to become a seamstress, like many in her family before her – but that didn’t work out. She needed to help support the family.
At that point, a handsome young tyremaker named Günther entered Regina’s life. Together, they began to frequent the new theatres, dance clubs and cinemas that were springing up everywhere. Both had joined the newly established FDJ. Though a Catholic, Regina felt included in the wide range of activities on offer, which she undertook alongside her Protestant and non-religious peers, including those who had previously been enthusiastic Hitler Youth members.
There were social activities and music to enjoy, but also serious work to help rebuild Germany, including the collection of scrap metal. As she put it many decades later, it felt good to be part of a collective effort to “build the new young democracy we had been gifted”.
Yet, for all the younger generation’s enthusiasm and can-do spirit, the infant GDR struggled under its heavy reparations load. The Soviets had a habit of turning up unannounced at Regina’s tyre factory to confiscate the goods that had just been manufactured, which disrupted production schedules.
East German economic collapse
This kind of action played out all over East Germany. Reparations payments ranged from private looting and wanton vandalism to the abduction of specialists to the Soviet Union and the systematic dismantling of entire factories. By 1949, before the state had even been established, one third of the East German industrial economy had already vanished, and by 1953 the Soviets had officially taken reparations and compensation for occupation costs in excess of $15bn.
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The GDR had no chance to get on its feet. As living standards sank and the workload for ordinary people became unbearable, the forward-looking spirit of the early years shattered. At 17 years old, Heinz Just dragged himself every day to a dead-end job at the metal factory in Leipzig – but he’d had enough.
Operating three machines simultaneously in a shift system that included night work and irregular hours, he stared at his tax summary in December 1952 in grim resignation. He had earned 250 marks a month: just above minimum wage. This was not enough to move out of his parents’ house. As he later remembered with some bitterness, he didn’t even feel it was enough to get a girlfriend.
When East Germans sought dialogue with Ulbricht, he ignored them. Even as the workers of East Berlin began to protest on 16 June 1953, marching down the aptly named Stalinallee towards the government building where they demanded to speak with Ulbricht, the general secretary was still in denial. “But it’s raining,” he insisted. “That will disperse them.” It didn’t.
The next day, a general strike swept across the entire state, with one million people estimated to have taken part. Soviet troops were called in to pitilessly crush the uprising. The total number of deaths is still highly disputed, but historians estimate that at least 55 protesters were killed, including some executed for their part in the uprising. One of these was a 26-year-old metalworker called Alfred Diener, who had stood shoulder to shoulder with other citizens. On 18 June 1953, he was taken to Weimar and executed.
The general strike of 1953, the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the revolution that led to the fall of the wall in 1989 are often seen as the three key points on the spectrum of oppression and resistance that defined the GDR – and there is some truth to that. The GDR was no democracy, and its political tides were often dictated from above.
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From the beginning, a system of tight control was set up in line with the Soviet model. When the Ministry of State Security – better known as the Stasi – was founded in 1950, it was small. Yet it quickly began its ruthless work, with 35 prison cells in a four-storey brick building at Albrechtstraße 26 in Berlin. Within its walls, individuals including Kurt Müller, deputy leader of the KPD in West Germany, were interrogated under brutal conditions.
Rise of a “Stasiland”?
It didn’t help that Müller had been successful in rebuilding the KPD in the West, not only becoming its deputy leader but also getting elected as a communist member of parliament. Müller had become too successful at following his own, independent path to communism, and to make matters worse, someone had denounced him as having “diverting opinions”, claiming that “his character was not very good”.
Müller was lured under false pretences to the GDR via the still-open sector borders in Berlin, kept in horrific conditions designed to break him, then handed over to the Soviets, who sentenced him to 25 years of hard labour in Siberia. He was rescued by a deal the West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer made with Moscow, which saw German prisoners released in 1955 – but not till five long years after his capture.
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The Stasi continued to meddle in all aspects of life in East Germany, using its citizens to spy on one another. By the late 1980s, the organisation had a staggering 91,000 members. It is hardly surprising that the Stasi and its long-time leader Erich Mielke bore the brunt of the frustrations that erupted in 1989, and which culminated in the mass demonstrations that helped bring down the wall. Yet even this does not reduce the GDR to a mere “Stasiland”.
Timeline: East Germany, from division to unification
7 October 1949
East Germany is born: The German Democratic Republic is founded. Wilhelm Pieck becomes its president, Otto Grotewohl its minister-president. Real power lies with Walter Ulbricht, one of Grotewohl’s deputies and, from 1950, general secretary of the ruling party.
8 February 1950
State surveillance begins: The Ministry for State Security, known as the Stasi, is established. Acting as “Sword and Shield of the Party”, under long-term leader Erich Mielke it becomes one of the most comprehensive state security organisations ever.
17 June 1953
A nation explodes: A general strike against work conditions erupts into a national uprising involving around 1 million people. It is brutally crushed by Soviet forces. In the immediate aftermath, the government is forced to improve living standards.
14 May 1955
The east strikes back: Following West Germany’s integration into Nato on 6 May, a Soviet-led alliance, the “Warsaw Pact”, is set up. East Germany is a founding member.
13 August 1961
The wall rises: East German authorities close the border between East and West Berlin, and work on the Berlin Wall begins. Since 1949, 2.6 million people had left the GDR; now this is almost impossible.
1 March 1964
An icon is unveiled: The Trabant 601 is presented to the public and put into serial production. By 1988, nearly 2 million “Trabis” have been registered. It becomes an icon for the GDR as a whole.
3 May 1971
New leader, same story: Erich Honecker replaces Walter Ulbricht as leader of the GDR. Nearly two decades Ulbricht’s junior, Honecker initially seems set to usher in a period of liberalisation and change – but hopes for true reform are soon dashed.
28 July 1973
The GDR parties: The 10th World Festival of Youth and Students begins in East Berlin. Sometimes referred to as the “Woodstock of the east”, it brings 8 million visitors from 140 countries to the city.
26 August 1978
A nation reaches the stars: Forty-one-year-old East German cosmonaut Sigmund Jähn becomes the first German in space. Upon his return he is awarded the titles “Hero of the German Democratic Republic” and “Hero of the Soviet Union”.
11 March 1985
A new era dawns: Mikhail Gorbachev becomes leader of the Soviet Union. He ushers in domestic reforms and allows other Warsaw Pact nations to do the same, putting pressure on GDR officials to react to reform movements at home.
9 November 1989
The wall topples: The Berlin Wall falls. Honecker had stepped down in October, handing power to Egon Krenz, whose reforms prove too little, too late. Mass demonstrations turn into the “Peaceful Revolution” that brings down the wall.
3 October 1990
A nation is reunited: East and West Germany are officially reunified and become one nation for the first time since 1945. The day, dubbed “German Unity Day”, becomes an annual national public holiday.
Nearly three decades passed between the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and its fall in 1989, and East Germans did not spend them solely in dull suffering, awaiting liberation. Life went on – and, in many ways, even flourished. The GDR was a highly literate, highly skilled and highly politicised society, confident in its achievements and keen to move forward – the very ingredients that allowed East Germans to see beyond the narrow lines prescribed by censorship and the Stasi. They produced a rich cultural landscape spanning a diverse range of artforms.
Nearly three decades passed between the building of the Berlin Wall, and East Germans did not spend them solely in dull suffering
Take, for instance, Christa Wolf’s much-celebrated 1963 novel Der geteilte Himmel (“Divided Heaven”). It describes a young couple struggling to come to terms with the moral and economic realities of the GDR. Manfred flees to West Berlin just before the wall is built, while Rita – unhappy, yet also disillusioned with the materialistic west – tries unsuccessfully to convince him to return. She attempts suicide, and the story is told from her perspective as she wakes up in hospital.
Wolf was very open about the fact that the book was semi-autobiographical. Despite her overt and desperate criticism of the GDR and Germany’s division, it was a bestseller in the East. It was also widely read in West Germany and translated into many foreign languages.
Music in East Germany: influence of the West
Literature wasn’t the only medium that East Germans used to express themselves. Musically, too, the GDR developed distinct styles. Some were influenced by trends from the US and Britain: western music could be played in all settings, albeit only at a ratio of 60:40 in favour of music from socialist countries.
Western artists even played on state television, with Abba making an appearance on the popular entertainment show Ein Kessel Buntes (“A Kettle Full of Colour”) in 1974. East German musicians also produced their own style of popular music, known as “Ostrock”.
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One of the most successful bands was the Puhdys, which by 1989 had sold 20 million albums and gained an international following. Back in 1970, while still a small pub band covering western songs, they had been banned from performing, with a state official complaining that “the titles played by the ensemble were exclusively sung in ‘English’,” and that “some of the ‘songs’ on offer were served up with screams and inarticulate noises to an audience consisting mostly of teenagers who, whipped up by the music, carried out degenerate motions”.
When the Puhdys promised to write their own material in German, though, they were allowed to continue. Ironically, it was this censorship that forced the band to find their own style rather than simply copy western idols. In this instance, as in many others, GDR artists worked with and around censorship to produce new material. The Puhdys were among the bands performing at the 1973 Youth Festival.
Unlike the mass gatherings of 1953 and 1989, this event does not tend to be seen as seminal for the GDR, yet it is as much part of its story as the others. It speaks of a nation that had grown out of its shaky foundation years to develop the highest living standards in the communist world.
True, the GDR lagged behind the West in overall economic terms, but rent, food, public transport, childcare, healthcare and education were so heavily subsidised that the system took away the baseline concerns felt by many poorer people in western countries.
There was societal progress, too. Women were able and encouraged to work full time. People from working-class backgrounds were able to go to university or further their skills in trade and industry. All of this was set within a rigid ideological framework, yet there remained many niches for people to fill.
There was hope, creativity and positivity in 1973, yet that tends to be forgotten because it does not fit into the image we have of the vanished world behind the Iron Curtain. And in truth that year is just as atypical in the wider story of the GDR as 1953 or 1989. All three are extremes on a spectrum that saw the GDR oscillate between oppression and economic collapse at one end, and idealism and equality at the other. All represent elements of an East German kaleidoscope that featured all colours – not just shades of grey.
This article was first published in the May 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine