After being allies in World War II, the Soviet Union and the West soon resumed mutual hostilities. As part of the post-war agreement, the Soviets kept many former Nazi territories they’d won during the conflict. These agreements divided Europe between communist nations, part of the so-called Eastern Bloc, and capitalist countries. Winston Churchill called this division the ‘Iron Curtain‘, and things were very different on either side. Nowhere else was this clearer than Germany, which was divided between the Soviet Union and Allies through its capital, Berlin. Join us as we take a peep behind the Iron Curtain before 1989.
40. The Berlin Wall went up on 13th August, separating families who happened to be in different parts of the city
The Soviet Union tried to stop people from leaving the Eastern Bloc to live in non-communist places. From 1952, the Soviets tried to close the inner border between capitalist (West) Germany and communist (East) Germany. But there remained an emigration loophole in Berlin itself until August 1961. Many of the East’s most talented citizens left for the West. At midnight on August 13th, the Soviets closed this border crossing with barbed wire and troops. Over the coming days, they erected a concrete wall. People who happened to be on the wrong side at the time were permanently separated from their families.
39. East Germany was officially known as the German Democratic Republic
In 1949, the Soviet Union named its part of Germany Deutsche Demokratische Republik (‘German Democratic Republic‘, or GDR). The GDR was ruled by the Socialist Union Party of Germany (SED). This came from a merger of the German Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party of Germany. The SED had a difficult task: to marry German traditions to Soviet Communism. They also had to eliminate the relics of the Prussian aristocracy, and forge a new identity for 19 million citizens. Thus the SED tore down certain statues, monuments, and mansions, creating a strange new world.
To create the next generation of compliant citizens, children learned about communist ideology at a bewilderingly young age. Even at kindergarten, teachers discouraged individualism and creativity and encouraged group thinking. Rather than drawing animals, GDR children drew armed border guards. They didn’t sing nursery rhymes, they sang songs like ‘I Want to be a Volkspolizist (GDR policeman)’. Teachers punished disobedience harshly, to ensure lifelong respect for authority: punishments included not having any lunch. Kindergartens aimed to develop a ‘socialist personality’ in all children. However, on the plus side, GDR kindergartens didn’t cost parents anything, and provided free meals for children.
37. Recycling was a big business, and kids got paid for collecting litter
The GDR lacked raw materials, and so had a very sophisticated recycling system. The SED encouraged children to become ‘Young Pioneers’, and collect bottles, scrap metal, and paper. The Young Pioneers could exchange their hauls for money at recycling centers. The GDR used the exchanged items to make everything from cars to clothes. This had an unexpected environmental impact, and also encouraged children to act communally, simultaneously developing a socialist outlook. However, money seems to have been the chief motivation. When the payment system in 1990 after the Reunification of Germany, the intake of scavenged materials dropped 90%!
36. Lactating women could donate their breast milk to struggling mothers
One well-motivated GDR law saw women encouraged to donate their breast milk to special milk banks. This meant that mothers who couldn’t produce their own milk could feed their babies, and orphans got a supply. Every municipality – places with more than 50,000 inhabitants – had a milk bank. Donors received money for their milk, usually collected by bike. In 1989, East German women donated 200,000 liters of the stuff! However, although there are still milk banks worldwide today, the GDR’s didn’t have ways to check donated milk for disease. Many babies, inevitably, got infected, and some died.
35. The Soviet Union loved sports, and so East Germany became a surprising sporting powerhouse
The Soviet Union saw international sporting competitions as an important marketing opportunity. Soviet citizens winning medals and trophies made a good advert for socialism, both helping it spread and encouraging talented immigrants. Thus the GDR heavily subsidized sports clubs and tried to nurture sporting talents at a young age. This scheme proved very successful. East German football teams competed valiantly in European competitions, and the national team played at the 1974 World Cup. East German athletes also punched above their weight at the Olympics, taking a whopping 47 gold medals at Moscow 1980.
34. But GDR scientists (ahem) gave them a little helping hand…
Many countries didn’t recognize East Germany as a proper country, and they saw sport as a way to change that. But they were so keen to do well they plied athletes with performance-enhancing drugs. Doping, as it’s known, is still a big problem for sport, but rarely is it anything more than individual cheating. Doping in the GDR however was a state-wide imperative, and East Germany’s remarkable success in the Olympics has been attributed to it. Since the 1990s, people have demanded the record books be changed. Many East German athletes have also suffered long-term health problems.
33. The GDR censored movies and banned Grease for being too capitalist
Since East Germany had communism imposed upon it, the SED had to be very careful to ensure people accepted it. This meant criticism of the regime and Western ideologies and culture all had to be censored. Films, in particular, were very popular, and thus potentially very dangerous. They didn’t want people encouraged to think or act differently from their idea of a good communist citizen. The GDR banned foreign movies such as Grease for promoting capitalist ideologies, but allowed others closer to the socialist outlook. The SED even banned movies made in East Germany for criticizing the regime.
32. State atheism meant Jugendweihe ceremonies replaced Confirmation
For many years, German Christians celebrated Confirmation, a ceremony marking a significant development in a youngster’s relationship with God. Since the 19th century, non-religious families had celebrated a secular version marking a child’s coming of age at 14. When Eastern Germany became the GDR, these Jugendweihe (‘youth consecration’) ceremonies became an important political tool. The SED expected all GDR children to undertake a new, communist version. A year of lectures preceded the GDR Jugendweihe, and the ceremony involved a chest-thumping pledge of allegiance to the State. Each child also received a book of propaganda as a gift from the government.
Like film, popular music posed a threat to the integrity of the GDR. Unlike movies, unsuitable music could be heard in private on radios picking up stations from West Germany. Thus the SED tried to develop its own version of popular music to keep kids away from capitalist groups. The State invented its own dance-moves (seriously) and made all East German bands sing in German. This made it easier to censor and intended to avoid capitalist cultures becoming popular. Some bands were banned, but others which subtly hinted at dissatisfaction with the GDR such as Karat became very popular.
Native American culture had long been popular in Germany. German culture in the 18th and 19th centuries saw Native Americans as brave, plucky warriors whose fight for freedom mirrored their own. Historical re-enactors began portraying Native Americans in the 20th century, and the GDR wanted to capitalize on this enthusiasm. Conveniently, Karl Marx used Native Americans as an example of a society without private property in his foundational socialist writings. The SED closely monitored re-enactment societies to make sure they portrayed the Native American culture according to Marx’s interpretation. They also ensured the re-enactors portrayed white settlers as invading capitalists.
29. Lots of ‘Red Westerns’ were filmed, with Native Americans as the good guys and cowboys as the bad guys
The explosion in Western movies depicting cowboys fighting Native Americans in the mid-20th century also reached behind the Iron Curtain. East German filmmakers capitalized on widespread interest in Native American culture by making their own Westerns. Known as Ostern (‘eastern’) or Red Westerns, these films depicted cowboys as villains and Native Americans as heroes. The most celebrated example of the genre, 1966’s The Sons of Great Bear, which is still hailed as a masterpiece. The Sons of Great Bear and its ilk were distributed across the Eastern Bloc and even West Germany.
28. East Germans developed Vita Cola as an alternative to Coca-Cola
Western products such as Coca-Cola were in short supply and in high demand. The GDR thus produced its own alternative in 1957: Vita Cola. As well as rivaling the immortal symbol of US capitalism, Vita Cola wasn’t prohibitively expensive or hard to find. At its peak popularity, 200 factories in East Germany produced the drink. Sales collapsed with the Berlin Wall, but soon East Germans began to feel nostalgic for it. Today, Vita Cola still outsells Pepsi and Coca-Cola in East Germany. Vita Cola fans point to its less-sweet, more-citrusy flavour as a reason for its success.
Standing at 3.6 meters high in places, and always heavily guarded, crossing the Berlin Wall was no picnic. Around 5,000 people managed to, but that’s out more than 100,000 would-be escapees. Some people got lucky, others got creative. In 1979, two families got across in a hot air balloon. They got the idea from a documentary about balloons shown on GDR state television! Two groups of people got across in tunnels under it. Other remarkable successes include a tightrope walker, a floating air mattress sailed down a river, swimming, and a tank.
26. The GDR had the largest secret police network in the world, and its files on citizens cover 111km
To maintain order, the GDR had the Stasi, the world’s largest secret police network. It’s estimated 1 in 90 East Germans worked as informants, and the Stasi employed 91,000 people at its peak. The Stasi’s headquarters in Berlin encompassed 40 buildings. The SED imposed mass surveillance in the GDR, whittling out dissidents and imprisoning them with little evidence. The Stasi arrested 250,000 East Germans, and also carried out covert operations abroad. Historians are still reading through the Stasi’s files on ordinary people and will be for a long time. Surviving records fill an incredible 111km of shelf space.
25. East Germans were famous for their satirical jokes
To cope with being oppressed by such a miserable dictatorship, East Germans turned to humor. ‘How can you use a banana as a compass?’, goes one common joke. ‘Place a banana on the Berlin Wall, and the bitten end will point East!’ But telling, or even laughing at, political jokes could land you in prison for 4 years. The last sentence for making jokes saw 3 engineers imprisoned for chuckling together at breakfast. West Germany’s intelligence service even launched Operation GDR Joke, which collected and analyzed East German jokes for wider implications.
A rather more intentional ‘green’ policy in the GDR saw the creation of numerous public parks. These green spaces encouraged citizens to gather together and engage in communal activities. In a public park, everyone was equal except the authorities. They provided a visible expression of socialist ideals of shared property and resources. Meetings could be held there, and State-run activities for children. Parks are perhaps the most beneficial of all GDR legacies. Many can still be visited today, such as Ernst Thälmann Park in Berlin, which has a planetarium and swimming pool.
23. Jeans symbolized Western capitalism, which made them really popular
Even though jeans-pioneer Levi Strauss came from Southern Germany, the SED saw jeans as a revolting symbol of US capitalism. For them, nietenhosen (‘studded trousers’) represented rebellion, non-conformity and freedom, which the SED didn’t want in the GDR. Thus schools sent pupils wearing jeans home and dance halls refused entry to nietenhosen wearers. But this, of course, just made jeans more popular with young people! Western jeans such as Levis sold for a fortune on the black market, smuggled in from West Berlin. Eventually, in 1974 the GDR began producing its own uncomfortable and impractical jeans to meet demand.
22. The tiny village of Mödlareuth am Tannbach had its own mini Berlin Wall dividing it in half
Like Berlin, the unsuspecting village of Mödlareuth am Tannbach found itself divided by a wall separating East and West Germany. When the Allies divided Germany into occupation zones in 1949, the boundary between the GDR’s Thuringia and the West’s Bavaria ran straight through tiny Mödlareuth. Incredibly, rather than move the border slightly, the GDR built a great wall to keep its Mödlareuth citizens from Bavaria. The Americans nicknamed Mödlareuth ‘Little Berlin‘ as a result. Mödlareuth became a tourist attraction for West Germans wishing to see such a ridiculous monument to the GDR’s tyrannical rule.
21. Stamp collecting was one of the most popular hobbies
Philatelism – that’s stamp collecting to you and me – was all the rage in the GDR. The National Philatelist Association boasted 70,000 members: its replacement today has 60,000 throughout the whole country. Perhaps collecting stamps from around the world provided a rare window into places outside the GDR. The SED assumed everyone else loved stamps, and so printed 3,400 different designs before Germany reunified. These attractive stamps promoted East German achievements and key events, with an eye to stamp collectors outside the GDR. Some had deliberately limited runs to make them widely coveted by philatelists across the globe.
20. The GDR encouraged women to work and they got equal pay
The GDR was miles ahead of the curve when it came to feminism. Viewing the traditional domestic and maternal roles of women as a bourgeois ideology, the SED found an untapped workforce. Workplaces in the GDR had quotas for women employees, and the SED introduced free childcare to enable women to work. GDR law also dictated equal pay for women. This policy has left an important legacy. The gender pay gap in East Germany is still much smaller than in West Germany. In some East German cities today, women actually earn more on average than men.
19. TV chef Kurt Drummer had a show on East German television for 25 years
The SED closely controlled the television network in the GDR. It set up an institution called Deutscher Fernsehfunk (‘German Television Broadcasting’) to oversee content. Propaganda took up much of the broadcasting time. However, one of the most popular shows saw TV chef Kurt Drummer show people how to cook healthy, delicious meals. Between 1958 and 1983, Drummer presented nearly 650 episodes. At a time when available food had little variety, Drummer told people how to make the most of available ingredients. But after 25 years, even Drummer ran out of new ideas, and the show ended when he fell ill.
18. The Trabant car was so popular you could wait up to 15 years to get one
The GDR excelled at producing low-cost goods with questionable quality. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Trabant car. Incredibly, VEB Sachsenring made the Trabant’s shell from recycled plastic. Nicknamed the ‘cardboard racer’, the Trabant traveled slowly and made a lot of noise. They had no air conditioning, fuel gauge or indicator lights. Most were sold to East Germans, but VEB Sachsenring exported some outside the GDR. Since they had a state monopoly, the company didn’t bother to change the Trabant’s design. Demand never wavered: people joined waiting lists of 15 years to get a new one.
Soviet communism praised hard work and self-sacrifice. The GDR adopted these principles, and everyone had the right to a job. The SED proudly proclaimed the GDR had zero unemployment to the world, blaming capitalism for unemployment. People could be prosecuted for not having a job! In practice, though everyone had the right to a job, this wasn’t always the case. Many factories had too many workers with nothing for them to do. Some people simply slipped under the radar and had no work. Experts have deduced that despite their claims 15% of the GDR’s population didn’t have a job.
16. Religion wasn’t illegal, but the GDR did discourage it
Despite the Soviet Union’s state atheism policy, religion wasn’t illegal in the GDR. Initially, the authorities were openly hostile to religion, but eventually exercised a moderate approach to East Germans’ deep-rooted Christianity. The Church operated with relative autonomy, but the SED went to great lengths to discourage people. They set up secular alternatives, such as the Jugendweihe, and banned religious schools. Universities focused on scientific atheism. The Stasi also recruited informers from within the Church to keep an eye on congregations. The Church eventually learned to cooperate with the State, and membership of churches plummeted.
Much of East Germany lay in ruins after World War II. Thus in 1951, the SED launched the National Restoration Scheme to solve the housing crisis. They built Plattenbau, cheap blocks of flats made of prefabricated concrete slabs. Though a necessity, this also gave the socialist SED the perfect opportunity to make uniform homes for everyone. Though they solved the housing crisis, the GDR froze rent prices to ensure no one made a big profit. This seemed in favor of renters, but it actually meant essential repairs went undone, and some blocks had shared toilets and no hot water.
14. East German cinema produced some classic anti-fascist films
As well as Red Westerns, the East German film industry also made other types of film. As you might expect, GDR movies tended to be political and had to be State-approved. Despite these restrictions, the GDR produced some famous anti-fascism films hailed as classics to this day. Jacob the Liar (1974), set in Nazi-occupied Poland, ends tragically with the Jewish protagonists marching to the death camps. Five Cartridges (1960), set in the Spanish Civil War, also carries a poignant anti-fascist message. The East German film industry was very prolific, and made movies spanning almost every genre.
13. All men between 18 and 26 had to do 18 months of national service
Military service provided another means to keep people equal for the socialist SED. The GDR established its army, Nationale Volksarmee (‘National People’s Army’), in 1956. From 1962, all men aged between 18 and 26 had to serve 18 months in the military. Most had to work on the Inner German Border to stop civilians from escaping. In 1964, the SED passed a law allowing conscientious objectors to serve without bearing weapons. These people joined construction units called Baueinheiten, and worked on civilian building projects. Both types of conscripts had to live in barracks and wear uniforms.
12. Western goods were really expensive and had to be imported
Despite alternatives such as Vita Cola, western foodstuffs were still very much in demand. Better varieties of coffee and sugar, for example, could be purchased on the black market for exorbitant prices. Due to the foreign currency shortage, the SED established shops selling Western goods for foreign visitors which did not accept East German currency. GDR citizens were forbidden from holding foreign currency, and so could not use them. Eventually, the law changed and State-owned shops such as Intershop and Exquisit allowed East Germans to purchase expensive foreign goods. Stasi employees often worked undercover as cashiers to monitor shoppers.
11. Kids in the GDR went to school 6 days a week, and it started at 7 am
As well as indoctrinating kids, GDR schools also prepared them for a life of hard work. By today’s standards, the schools were draconian. A child’s school day started at 7 am and ended late afternoon. Lessons lasted 45 minutes, and aside from a short morning break and lunch, kids had no free time. Students also had to attend school on a Saturday, though with fewer lessons. The punishing school year lasted 38 weeks. Even in the holidays, the SED expected kids to attend ‘voluntary’ politicized activity days, where education continued.
After compulsory schooling, some students applied to technical colleges or universities. Officials judged applicants not only on their scholarly achievements but political attitudes – no doubt with the Stasi’s assistance. At both technical colleges and universities, the education offered to an applicant also depended on scholarship and politics. You could apply for one degree or training programme, and be offered a ‘more suitable’ one. Universities focused overwhelmingly on subjects useful to the State. Law, medicine, and engineering were amongst the most popular. The Stasi also had many informants at universities and kept a close eye on research projects and teaching.
9. Around 140 people died trying to get over the Wall
It’s hard to know for sure how many people died trying to escape across the Berlin Wall. Escapees knew the danger they faced, and the number of attempts bespeaks the desperate circumstances people faced in the GDR. Known victims range in age from 1 to 80. Some people committed suicide when they realized they’d failed. Most people died by accident when their attempts went wrong, but border guards shot about a third. The reunified Germany prosecuted several former soldiers for their actions in the 1990s. Today, a memorial to those who died trying to escape the GDR stands in Berlin.
Manufacturing formed an important part of the GDR’s economy. Goods were made as quickly and as cheaply as possible, relying upon economies of scale. The GDR exported these goods outside East Germany. To produce such vast quantities of items, huge factories went up all over the country. Notable exports included cameras, rifles, typewriters and, of course, the Trabant car. These goods relied upon their cheap price to be internationally competitive. Universities had close links to the manufacturing industry, and much research directly related to factory efficiency and techniques.
The SED took an interest in all economic areas, and made no exception for farming. They collectivized farms – that is, turned smaller autonomous interests into large-scale enterprises. The State even owned its own farms, known as Volkseigenes Gut (‘People-Owned Property’), which a director ran autocratically. Private farms were also collectivised and known as Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsgenossenschaften (‘Agricultural Production Cooperatives’). Though privately owned, these farms belonged to their owners only as long as they worked them. Along with State ownership, this measure ensured food production met the needs of the population. However, even with State-run agriculture food was often scarce.
6. Bathrooms at schools had no cubicles to encourage unity
Possibly the most unusual expression of equality in the GDR concerned school lavatories. In order (apparently) to ensure children saw each other as equal, toilets had no cubicles, and thus no privacy. Children simply had to get over their stage-fright to relieve themselves in front of classmates. This is intended to encourage children to avoid becoming too individualistic and learn to act collectively in all areas of life. Whether this proved successful or not, it’s certain the kids didn’t forget the experience in a hurry!
5. The Stasi ran a brutal prison called Hohenschönhausen
If the Stasi arrested you, you’d end up in their dreaded prison, Hohenschönhausen. Set up in 1951, conditions within the prison were notoriously appalling. Malnourished prisoners had no contact with anyone apart from their interrogators. Prison guards used to check regularly on inmates in order to disrupt their sleep. Accommodation included cells heated to an unbearable temperature, standing cells, freezing cold cells, and some where water torture took place. Most prisoners lived in isolation, but even when you had a cellmate, you couldn’t be certain whether they were informers. It’s no wonder people living in fear of Hohenschönhausen.
On a lighter note, most East German children read a comic called Mosaik. Set up to rival Western comics, Mosaik is still published today, 64 years after its first issue. Mosaik first followed the adventures of the Digedags, a socialist response to Mickey Mouse, then the Abrafaxe after 1975. The Abrafaxe went on adventures East German children couldn’t, and promoted a socialist German identity amongst their fans. However, Mosaik didn’t make this message too obvious, providing relief from the sort of tedious propaganda encountered at school. Through Mosaik, children also learned about science, geography and history.
3. The GDR accepted birth control and premarital sex as part of life
The GDR had a very liberal attitude towards sex. Unlike the more conservative West, East Germans saw premarital sex and the use of contraception as normal and acceptable. Women, in particular, reported having much happier romantic lives before the Reunification of Germany. This isn’t a coincidence. With employment for women and a simple divorce system, East German women had more freedom (ironically) in their personal lives. Women could leave bad or abusive relationships freely, without worrying about the economic impact. The decline of the Church’s influence in the GDR also eradicated the guilt surrounding sex.
2. The Berlin Wall literally fell on November, 9, 1989
In 1989, national financial difficulties, and the collapse of communist regimes nearby undermined the SED’s rule. People could finally speak out against the GDR and demand reforms. The SED panicked. At a press conference on November, 9 a GDR politician announced East Germans had unlimited free passage to West Germany, effective immediately. He’d meant citizens could apply to leave, but East Germans took him literally. A mob immediately forced unprepared soldiers to let them through the Berlin Wall. East and West Germans started demolishing the hated Wall that very night. Germany officially Reunified in 1990.
A surprising one to end our article. Germans are associated with nudity around the world, and naturism was especially popular in the GDR. When vacationing, East Germans were fond of enjoying the outdoors entirely naked. So many people enjoyed Freikörperkultur (‘Free Body Culture’), as it’s known in Germany, the SED couldn’t do anything about it. Like jeans, nudity became a quiet means of showing resistance against the State. Although Freikörperkultur predates the GDR, it’s still seen as more of an East German thing today. Keep an eye out for signs reading ‘FKK’ if you visit Germany…
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: