This is What Life was Like in Communist East Germany
This is What Life was Like in Communist East Germany

This is What Life was Like in Communist East Germany

Tim Flight - December 18, 2019

This is What Life was Like in Communist East Germany
A 1963 Trabant on display. Wikimedia Commons

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.

This is What Life was Like in Communist East Germany
Chemical plant workers in Ammendorf, 1975. BJP

17. Everyone had the right to a job

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.

This is What Life was Like in Communist East Germany
A wedding in Uckermark, 1974. BJP

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.

This is What Life was Like in Communist East Germany
A typical living room in East Berlin. Awesome Berlin

15. GDR flats were uniform and functional

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.

This is What Life was Like in Communist East Germany
Still from the 1975 Holocaust film, Jacob the Liar. Microsoft

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.

This is What Life was Like in Communist East Germany
GDR Border Troops, 1979. Wikimedia Commons

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.

This is What Life was Like in Communist East Germany
Bananas and other exotic fruits sold for high prices. Cosmos

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.

This is What Life was Like in Communist East Germany
East German first-graders, 1977. CNN

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.

This is What Life was Like in Communist East Germany
Humboldt University, pictured here in 1950, had its curriculum restricted by the GDR. Wikimedia Commons

10. Universities focused on specific subjects

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.

This is What Life was Like in Communist East Germany
Hans Conrad Schumann, an East German soldier, leaps over a barbed wire barricade to rejoin his family in West Berlin in August 1961. The Guardian

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.

This is What Life was Like in Communist East Germany
A cement works looming over Deuna, 1976. BJP

8. The manufacturing industry was massive

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.

This is What Life was Like in Communist East Germany
Forestry workers in Uckermark, 1987. BJP

7. Agriculture was collectivized

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.

This is What Life was Like in Communist East Germany
Lavatories without cubicles, as seen in East German schools. Factinate

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!

This is What Life was Like in Communist East Germany
Hohenschönhausen, near Berlin, as it looks today. Wikimedia Commons

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.

This is What Life was Like in Communist East Germany
An edition of Mosaik from January 1976. Roman und Comicladen

4. East German kids loved a comic called Mosaik

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.

This is What Life was Like in Communist East Germany
A copy of Sibylle, a GDR magazine aimed at women, from the 1980s. Vestoj

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.

This is What Life was Like in Communist East Germany
West Berliners attempt to smash through the Berlin Wall, 1989. The Guardian

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.

This is What Life was Like in Communist East Germany
An empty nudist beach in Germany. CityLab

1. East Germans loved getting naked

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:

Sourcing Journal – How Jeans Became A Symbol of Youth Empowerment During the Cold War

Berlino Schule – Kurt Drummer: The Most Followed Chef By DDR Housewives

History – Why Stalin Tried to Stamp Out Religion in the Soviet Union

Associate Press – History On Screen: East Germany Through Its Filmmakers’ Eyes

Wired – House of Horror: Inside the Infamous Stasi Prison

CNN – Nudity In Germany: Here’s The Naked Truth

DPA International – What’s Causing the Decline In Germany’s Fabled Nude Culture?

Betts, Paul. Within Walls: Private Life in the German Democratic Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Fulbrook, Mary, ed. Becoming East German: Socialist Structures and Sensibilities after Hitler. New York: Berghahn, 2013.

Gieseke, Jens. The History of the Stasi: East Germany’s Secret Police, 1945-1990. New York: Berghahn, 2014.

Grieder, Peter. The German Democratic Republic. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Vaizey, Hester. Born in the GDR: Life in the Shadow of the Wall. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

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