In four weeks time it’s the 26th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, a time of year when we get soaked in the tear-stained reminiscences hand picked for us by journalists, tales of people surging the border, finally able to buy glitter pens and bananas for the first time. Of course the revolution hadn’t been about glitter pens and bananas, as those who partook well know. But as always, the winners dictate the narrative, capitalism won out. And dishwashers and cars. Because real freedom is so much harder to write about.
So we rarely get to hear the voices of the other people, the normal people who were just getting on with their lives and hadn’t had the misfortune of being spied on by the Stasi. Who wanted a better type of socialism. A fair society where not only men and women were equal, but where new ideas were welcomed, reform embraced, instead of the atrophied stubbornly fearful reign of the “old grey men”.
So this is my tongue-in-cheek love letter to the GDR that I remember and the positive aspects of its legacy that no one in the press ever seems to talk about:
1.Feminism without having to say it
Equal rights for men and women were enshrined in the GDR constitution right from the get-go in 1949. Despite the government being run by men, when it came to work and play women were on a par, which was felt in every aspect of life. My favourite bit? All working women got a “Haushaltstag (household day), one extra day off a month to take at their discretion, for all those errands to be run during office hours. All the women I knew usually took it off when they wanted to go to the hairdresser or when they needed a day curled up in bed with a hot water bottle and a book.
- Body confidence
As a result of the general equality, and women working alongside men, they weren’t reduced to selling “their erotic capital”. Sure, women still wanted to be attractive just like everywhere, but they weren’t depending on that to get them through the day. It was very noticeable in the way women moved, worked, laughed, and danced. You know the saying “dance like nobody’s watching”? Well it seemed to me that that’s how everyone danced back then. Divorce rates were high, but so were marriage rates, mainly because women were financially independent, even if they had kids, so they didn’t have to stay with unwanted partners just to pay the bills.
3. Kind and sexy. GDR men.
Because of the lack of glossy magazines and absence of porn, and the emphasis on groups as sources of power rather than the cult of the individual, guys were too busy enjoying sports, dancing, working, helping in the house to worry too much about their brand of deodorant. They also grew up with working mothers (90% of women worked). The result was a generation of men who knew how to swing a broom, wield a washing up sponge, as well as repair a car, and who usually had a deep respect for their own mothers, who had lived through the war years. In my experience, this kind of upbringing instilled kindness and generosity toward women that was sorely missing in the macho world of “Loaded” and “GQ” that I grew up around.
Even now people visiting Berlin still marvel at the low rents (although in the meantime they are now often out of reach for students and young families, which for me is the definition that they are too high!). But those low rents didn’t magically arrive with the fall of the wall. Kohl didn’t sit there, rubbing his fat jowl thinking “Hey, instead of the fields of prosperity I promised, I’ll just make the rents low to make up for it.”
In the GDR basic necessities like food, clothes and housing, were covered by a fraction of the price paid in the West. To make up for that, so-called luxury goods carried a premium. Luckily political pressure to keep the rents low after the wall came down ensured that people with “old” rental contracts could remain in their flats and that prices rose only incrementally. I am lucky enough to have a rent half that of my neighbours thanks to those laws. There is even a new law forbidding landlords from transforming rented housing into private ownership, to slow down the real estate madness where foreign investors come and buy up all the flats, pricing low and mid income families out of the city.
5. Great recycling
The GDR was by no means a rich country, especially compared to West Germany which, instead of having to pay reparations for their war crimes like the GDR did to the Soviet Union, was heavily subsidized by the USA and the Marshall Plan, which invested the equivalent of $130 billion in current dollar value into the West.
So it stands to reason that they came up with some pretty state-of-the-art packaging and recycling systems. Milk came in plastic bags (the idea was taken on by the organic movement in Germany and is still going strong) and once they had done their duty, my aunt (and I imagine everyone else) would wash them out and use them to put our sandwiches in. All other liquids came in glass bottles that were diligently collected by kids like me and my cousins where we would trade them in for sweets or Russian ice cream at the local “Konsum”.
- Best watercolour paper EVER.
Because basic needs were covered and there weren’t many consumer items to spend your money on anyway (once you had a TV and a “Schrankwand” (a seventies style shelving system) you had reached the pinnacle of consumer glory) people had more time to spend having parties, swimming, cycling and mushrooming. My personal favourite hobby when I was in the GDR was painting, and the GDR had the best and cheapest watercolour paper I had ever seen. It was thick as your fingernail and each page was glued around three edges so it always stayed perfectly smooth, no matter how much water you used.
7. Free childcare for all.
As mentioned, 90% of women worked in the GDR and most women went back to work pretty soon after having kids. There was a certain societal pressure on women to return to work soon, and many kids were in “Krippe” ( babycare) from as young as 6 weeks. It was a stark contrast from the “back-to-the-kitchen” style policies in West Germany where most women were expected to stay at home with the kids till they went to school at six years old. I’d definitely be a fan of a middle way, but I am deeply grateful that having my kids in the former Eastern part of Berlin meant that there were still plenty of free Kindergartens where my kids could go (from age 1 and 2 respectively) so that I could continue my studies and get qualifications to allow me to get a decent job. I paid the equivalent of around 30 euros a month for full childcare, hot lunches included, and in my university there was even an extra room for students and their kids for napping, playing etc. Had I been in England with my children in the same period, I would’ve been destined for council housing and the dole. So I count my blessings every day.
There was also a law in the GDR that all kindergarten teachers had to have names ending with i (preferably Heidi or Moni but you could get away with being called Daggi, Steffi or Uschi) and also that you had a bust size minimum of double D so as better to hug the kids.* (*I might possibly have made that last bit up.)
8. Westerns where cowboys and indians get to be friends.
It’s a weird quirk of history but Germans in both West and East seemed to have a bit of an obsession with cowboys and Indians back in the seventies. Whereas the former would usually shoot the latter and be done with, in the GDR there was a strong anti-colonial tradition, and so a whole spate of films brimming with bromance between Gojko Mitic, a handsome Yugoslav actor who made his career out of his “exotic” looks, and Dean Reed the famous US actor who defected to the GDR, eternally cast in the role of cowboy with a heart of gold, were produced throughout the seventies.
9. Great murals
Sometimes my eyes still long for the calming cool of a row of grey facades with no advertising and no pink and yellow stucco. Just cool soft dove grey, brown grey, grey grey and peeling paint. But what really raises my spirits in the city is the sight of a beautiful mural. The GDR was covered in amazing murals, a few of which are still intact. Because of their political affinity to many Latin American countries, and the logical predilection of great muralists to make art in the public domain, , the GDR commissioned many murals.
The largest mosaic mural in Europe is still there in its full glory on the Haus des Lehrers, at Alexanderplatz, somewhat obscured by all the neon signage on the neighbouring buildings. It’s seven metres high, and 125 metres long and was made between 1962 and 1964. Classic Socialist Realism at its best, depicting a bright future and explaining the world in a way that, as a child, made me feel hopeful and enthusiastic about the future. I could imagine myself holding up that test tube with plastic googles on, or donning an astronaut’s suit to head for the moon, or gravely studying an architectural drawing before building houses.
- Anything is possible!
And last but not least I am grateful for all the fascinating and inspiring people I met before and after the Wall fell, who showed me that absolutely anything is possible, if you are not alone. Whether it is a revolutionary movement, or setting up your own theatre company, café, or world-shaking rock band, if you stop thinking about yourself for a while, but instead about what inspires you and others, finding common ground, if you see yourself as part of the main, then nothing can stop you!_______________________________________________________________________________________________________
Tip of the Month: This book is a brilliant fact-based narrative on the GDR, its culture, politics and historical background, up to and including the period after the fall of the wall. A must-read for anyone interested in the genuine GDR:
Stasi State or Socialist Paradise: The German Democratic Republic and What Became of it.
by Brunhild de la Motte and John Green
Really interesting account of a British woman’s experiences living in Dresden in the late eighties: https://thevieweast.wordpress.com/2014/02/14/paula-kirby-on-life-in-the-gdr/