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: