Wednesday, 06 November 2019 09:56

Socially engaged, internationalist and critical: the destruction of GDR culture since reunification

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Socially engaged, internationalist and critical: the destruction of GDR culture since reunification

John Green discusses the obliteration of GDR culture since reunification. The mosaic is in Eisenhüttenstadt, and is by Walter Womacka

This month sees the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, leading a year later to the annexation of the former German Democratic Republic by the Federal Republic. I use the term ‘annexation’ intentionally because despite the people of the former GDR voting in their majority for a unified Germany, what they got was a de facto takeover by the west.

In his recent book ‘The New Faces of Fascism’, Professor Enzo Traverso of Cornell University uses this term unequivocally. He writes that ‘The annexation of the former German Democratic Republic was conceived of as a political, economic and cultural process that inevitably implied the demolition of antifascism …’ Despite the passage of three decades, the territory of the former GDR is in many ways still very different from the former Federal Republic.

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Hollensturz in Vietnam by Willi Sitte. Photo by Bob Ramsak / piran café

One might have the impression from the numerous depictions of the GDR in the western media that it was a country characterised by oppression, lack of freedom and a grey, monotonous daily life for its citizens. That it was in fact a country with a relatively high standard of living, with a flourishing industry and a vibrant cultural environment is redacted from the mainstream narrative.

Despite the fact that both postwar German republics were formed as a result of the partition by the Second World War Allies of a unified German nation, there developed in the eastern part a specific and separate culture and way of life, based on socialist principles, even if the system could be characterised as ‘state socialism’ and authoritarian in many of its aspects. Against all the odds the GDR – based on only a third of Germany as a whole and the least industrially developed part, with very few raw materials – managed to build a second German culture based on a clear break with the country’s fascist past and firmly rooted in Germany’s communist and internationalist traditions.

In any state there will always be a tension and sometimes conflict between artists and state institutions and official ideology. And in this the GDR was no different from most other countries, but art and culture were taken seriously by everyone; they were not marginal to people’s lives. The country had a lively book publishing industry, there were theatres and concert halls in even smaller towns, there was a thriving film industry and art scene. Financial support and encouragement were given to amateur art groups, often located in or near people’s workplaces.

The four-yearly GDR art exhibition in Dresden, at which a huge array of contemporary art works were exhibited, was a great draw for visitors from all over the country. There were often animated and fiery discussions about certain of the works exhibited. ‘Socialist realist’ art was the form that was officially sanctioned and encouraged but this was a somewhat elastic concept. Most artists were happy to paint and sculpt in a realist manner but interpreted the world in their own unique way. There were those who preferred to explore abstraction and they got a raw deal in terms of being able to exhibit and survive economically. It is only now, belatedly, that GDR art is slowly being recognised as interesting in its own right and worth exhibiting, even if most selections dwell overmuch on the so-called ‘dissident’ aspect.

The GDR produced its own home-grown song movement with a whole number of groups and individual singers who developed a recognisable ‘GDR style’: socially engaged, internationalist and also critical. Sometimes, as with Wolf Biermann, the critical element went too far for the powers that be and he was banned from publicly performing, before being expelled from the country, but most managed to find a niche and steer clear of official sanction. There was a large annual festival of political song which brought together musicians from around the world, like Pete Seeger from the USA, Inti Illimani and Quilapayun from Chile, Leon Gieco from Argentina and the Sands Family from Ireland, among many others.

What overwhelmingly characterised GDR art and culture was that it was viewed by everyone as an integral part of society, and for artists being engaged as well as critical were taken as given. Broad sections of the population were actively engaged in the arts, either as participants or as audiences and readers. Schools and workplaces organised regular trips to the theatre, concerts, cultural events and exhibitions and these were invariably subsidised by the state.

This unique integration of art, artists and society which is only really possible under a socialist system, came to an end with the demise of the GDR. And although the Federal Republic provides generous support for the arts – in contrast to the UK – they are very much linked to the capitalist structures within which they operate and are often very elitist.

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Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, by Bertolt Brecht

While the ruling SED party and GDR government were certainly over-controlling in terms of their cultural policies and over-fearful of what they viewed as potentially negative western influences and anti-socialist activity, they did actively and generously encourage and support the development of an artistic environment that was socially engaged, integrated and committed to humanitarian aims. That legacy has been lost.

Following unification in 1990, almost all GDR industries were very quickly dismantled or taken over by West German firms, and all GDR institutions (e.g. universities, theatres, museums etc.), if not closed, had new managers imposed on them. Most of the staff in GDR universities, colleges and schools, as well as in local and national government, found themselves out of a job or demoted.

The GDR’s media – television, radio and publishing houses – were all closed. Former co-operative and state farms were also closed down. With this total dismantling of the GDR’s infrastructure, people were obliged to migrate to the west to find work, particularly younger people. This left whole areas of the territory virtually devoid of a younger generation. Still today, wages are still lower in the east, as are pensions. The promised affluence has benefited very few and the wealth gap between the population in the former GDR and that of the Federal Republic remains large.

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Werner Tübke, History of the German labour movement II, 1961

The imposition of the federal German system on the East has also meant the obliteration of a specific GDR culture. Since unification, the German Federal government and media have attempted to deny anything positive about the GDR, and have deliberately conflated what they call ‘the two totalitarianisms’ i.e. nazism and communism. In doing so, they avow that this time they are determined to undertake a proper reckoning with the GDR and expose its totalitarian essence (implicitly recognising that they had not done this properly with Germany’s Nazi past). Most cultural representations of the GDR have also been eradicated or hidden.

In the concerted attempt to demonise the system and life in the GDR, there have been a plethora of horror stories – virtually all written by western pundits who never experienced the GDR first hand. The most notorious is the much-hyped book ‘Stasiland’ by the Australian Anna Funder, who visited the GDR for a few days as a tourist and returned there after unification to interview people who were ‘victims’ of the regime. Her book is littered with factual inaccuracie,s and reveals an abysmal ignorance of what life was really like in the country, but it is widely seen as the must-read book about the GDR.

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The Architects, a film by Peter Kahane. Photo by DEFA

In the cinema, the much-lauded ‘The Life of Others’ by the West German aristocrat, Florian Henckel von Donnersmark was a well-crafted thriller – but a total caricature. His portrayal of GDR artists as subject to Stasi control and at the mercy of arbitrary state coercion was a fantasy, but it perfectly fitted the narrative that the West German elite wished to promote. He spoke to Christoph Hein before making the film, wanting to utilise his experience as a writer who had certainly had his run-ins with GDR state censorship – but Hein himself later distanced himself from the film, and said it bore little relationship to reality.

GDR writers, film-makers and theatre directors have almost all been blacklisted, and have not been given the opportunity of reflecting their own assessments of GDR reality. This is all part of a concerted campaign to erase any positive vestige of GDR culture from the historical narrative.


The most egregious example of the destruction of GDR culture was the controversial demolition of the Palace of the Republic in the centre of Berlin. This modern building symbolised more than any other the confidence, forward-looking attitude and strength of the GDR. The building not only housed the GDR parliament but contained a theatre, concert halls, cafes and restaurants which were much used by the city’s population.

Of course, the two parts of the formerly divided Germany will eventually coalesce, and memories of the GDR are already fading as new generations come along. However, it would be a historical travesty if the many positive sides of the GDR experience and the contribution it made to the world were to be totally obliterated. It would be even worse if this experience and contribution were equated with the Nazi atrocities of genocide and fomenting world war, as part of the same ‘totalitarianism’.

Stasi State or Socialist Paradise? The German Democratic Republic and What Became of It by John Green and Brunhild de la Motte is available from Artery Publications at £10.

Read 4510 times Last modified on Monday, 18 November 2019 12:19
John Green

John Green is a journalist and broadcaster. He has authored and edited several books and anthologies on a wide range of subjects including political biographies, labour history, poetry, natural history and environmental affairs.