Heisse Sommer (Hot Summer)

November 9, 2017

If America led the way with ‘teenpics’, Europe eventually caught up with musical comedies aimed squarely at the youth market. In 1963, Cliff Richard and friends drove a red double-decker bus across Europe.

East Germany caught up five years later with its own vehicle for stars Chris Doerk and Frank Schoebel. The film is interesting in its depiction of gender differences and burgeoning adolescent sexuality. It is relentlessly upbeat and tongue-in-cheek.



Young Christians (Junge Gemeinde)

November 9, 2017

Each Protestant parish had its own local youth group. Leaders came together at church retreats. They tried to bolster the sense of community in spite of the state’s aggressive pursuit of atheism. In rural communities, there was still enough critical mass for young people to choose confirmation over Jugendweihe. Many Christians still felt isolated and unloved in the GDR.

Although thoroughly respectable, Christian youth culture – ‘the happy youth life’ provided by pastors – was condemned by the Communists because it contradicted and acted as competition for the official youth culture provided by the Free German Youth (or FDJ). In the Spring of 1953, the Communist leadership embarked on a campaign designed to ‘liquidate’ the Junge Gemeinde or ‘young community’ as the Christian youth organization was known. Church retreats (or ‘training camps’) were raided by the police and Christians were ‘exposed’ at public meetings and ‘Western agents’ were expelled from schools and the official youth organization.


Junge Gemeinde

These boards fell foul of the Communist ideology of the time because they preached love, not hatred of enemies.


In a newspaper article with the headline ‘Junge Gemeinde – Cover Organization commissioned by the USA’, members of the Christian youth organization were variously accused of being fascist, racist, dirty, unhygienic, criminal and potentially sexually deviant. The newspaper set out to explain ‘How young people are incited to commit crimes through the misuse of religious feelings’.

Moral Panic 1965

November 9, 2017

Premier Walter Ulbricht liked to believe that his love of sport made him youthful and energetic. He believed that he could thereby understand youth and their particular approach to life.

Ulbricht jung







In 1963, with much fanfare, Ulbricht launched a new period of reform and relaxation. After the heightened tension surrounding the building of the Berlin Wall, he promised a more thoughtful and understanding approach to young people and their special needs. Famously, he argued that the regime would no longer interfere in how people danced or dated. The regime seemed to be positioning itself in the guise of ‘kind, generous uncle’, criticizing the outdated and insensitive prejudices of the older generation. Few young people actually read the youth communique. Nevertheless, the whole of society enjoyed the sense of relief and release of pressure.


youth communique








Unfortunately for the regime, their period of relaxation coincided with the rise of Beat music. The four mop tops from Liverpool seemed to revolutionize popular music and sparked a wave of ‘Beatlemania’ that washed over into the GDR. As young people across the globe became increasingly gripped by John, Paul, George and Ringo, youngsters in the GDR demanded the same right to enjoy the infectious new sound.


Large numbers of working-class youths in East Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden had the same idea: to buy guitars and form a band. Throughout the Eastern Bloc, young people formed groups emulating the Beatles, their clothing and haircuts together with loud renditions of their most popular tunes. Many of these groups sang cover versions of Beatles and Stones hits in broken English. They gave themselves English-sounding names like Die Butler. Their sound systems were rudimentary, but they played to great acclamation in work canteens and other venues. Although amateurs, they welcomed the money gained by selling tickets. While some groups competed with one another for who was closest to the original, others up for problems with amplifiers and equipment with dramatic stage performances.

singing the dream

Some of the groups tried to please their fans by playing in a wilder and more dramatic way. The most extreme were the Guitar Men from Leipzig. Behind the scenes, in Berlin, Erich Honecker was working to undermine the reform project. He began collecting information on the Beat scene and compiling a dossier on so-called ‘Beat excesses’. Eventually, he had enough dirt to launch a full-scale media-driven moral panic, centred on Beat. Beat musicians were not just loud and uncouth, they were shaggy, dirty and promiscuous. The English names were taken as a sign of decadence and corruption that had to be ruthlessly repressed.

Guitar Men band


Amateur Gammler


Beat Cartoon: ‘Success’


Attempts to modernize and liberalize the GDR were cut short by the explosion in popularity of ‘Beat music’. Breaking with the reform endeavour, Honecker was determined to force all amateur Beat groups to register and submit to testing by cultural officials hostile to Beat. When this planned censorship became clear, Beat fans organized a protest in central Leipzig.

Beat Freunde

Fans daubed graffiti on windows and left notes suggesting that they were ready to carry on protesting.

Polizei machtlos

Beat protest

The police deployed truncheons, bayonets, sub-machine guns, dogs and water cannon to deal with the unarmed protestors. Those arrested were forcibly shaved and sent to do hard labour in the brown coal mines still clothed in their Beat costumes. Ironically, given their later flirtation with eastern philosophy and pacifism, East Gerrman newspapers printed compared the Beat protestors and their idols, the Beatles, to the American forces in Vietnam.

Beatles with guns

aggressive Beatles

The caption read: “The psychological warfare of the imperialist states also uses the Beatles in order to suggest the image of the Ranger. Significantly, this picture was found on Leipzig youth.” The local newspaper also printed pictures of the tattoos found on some of those arrested:


East German Dating Rituals

November 9, 2017

The 1950s was the age of the expert and of etiquette books (in East and West). Building a new society meant challenging certain norms. Books tried to chart a course between respecting tradition and embracing the future, stressing what was important and valuable in the here and now. In the USA, this was the era of dating etiquette films. The technology in the GDR was less far advanced, but nevertheless suggested that mores were changing as gender relations became looser and less rigid.

couples flirting and smoking









In the 1950s and 1960s, young couples were expected to demonstrate their savoir faire by dressing up to go to the cinema. They would be judged by neighbours, acquaintances and passers-by on their grace and deportment.

young lady









Young or old, the aim was to be as sophisticated and grown up as possible. By being well turned out, one could attract and keep a mate. The aim was to find a partner for life. How he or she behaved on dates was a good indication of what they would be like in later, married life. Body language and comportment was an important indicator of values and respectability.


For their part, teenagers wanted to appear more grown up so they embraced lipstick and cigarettes.

suave debonaire









Too much ostentation was seen as bourgeois and decadent. East German girls should rely on their natural beauty. They did not need to augment it with trinkets and baubles.

too many baubles









Although living in a dictatorship, politics was not necessarily highest on young people’s list of priorities. Like adolescents elsewhere, they got caught up in romance and relationships; they dreamed and flirted; they got jealous or were unfaithful; they fought and madeup.









Manners were an important indication of respect for the opposite sex. Socially adept, ambitious, confident people with good prospects practised self-restraint and delayed gratification. Although the regime valued workers in an abstract way, their ruder, more uncouth culture did not fit with the norms being presented as natural, normal and universal.















Bau auf, mach mit, hau ab!

October 1, 2017
Wir bauen auf

We’re rebuilding!

Bau auf, mach mit, hau ab‘ was the excellently succinct, slightly cheeky and vividly colloquial title of Bernd Lindner’s 2000 book, published by Leske & Budrich. In English, it roughly translates as Join in, Take part in Reconstruction, Then Leg it. The subject of the book is youth generations in the GDR. Lindner’s background was as a sociologist at the Central Institute for Youth Research in Leipzig. The first two imperatives reflect official propaganda, stressing youth’s energy and enthusiasm, and how it could be harnessed for the creation of communism. Unfortunately, however, the conditions in 1945 were not propitious for rapid growth so much energy was spent restoring and reestablishing what had been destroyed in WW2. The planned economy proved less productive and effective than it had been hoped, so despite the input of huge resources and manpower, the fruits of communism were slow to materialize. Before 1961, about three million citizens saw which way the wind was blowing and opted for escape. This level of Republikflucht (the name given to the ‘crime’ of emigrating) was particularly high among skilled cadres and recent graduates. Grammar school pupils sometimes engaged in resistance to ensure that they had a ‘leaving certificate’ for the West.

radio geeks

In some cases, the CIA and West German industrialists deliberately targeted high value East German experts, ‘headhunting’ them ruthlessly. The GDR authorities felt aggrieved that they were spending such significant resources educating people who ended up turning their backs on their Heimat and going to work for the enemy. Ordinary East Germans were powering the West German economic miracle. While the population lacked basic necessities, and the few luxuries had to be sent for export, the East German state was in effect subsidizing its rival’s growth.

The rapid shift from positive exhortations to the imperative to make themselves scarce, by ‘getting lost’, suggests the knife-edge of division ordinary citizens had to navigate. Many acted like model citizens – dutiful, obedient and politically enlightened – right up to the moment when they fled. Then they immediately revealed themselves to be died-in-the-wool, ‘better dead than red’ anticommunists. By crushing freedom of speech and association, the regime added powerful push factors to the pull of favourable economic conditions in the West. State interference in small business, private industry and agriculture seemed deliberately designed to cause the middle classes to flee. The regime was essentially telling them to get lost and make haste doing so.

Berlin 1961

Desperate flight 1961

Even after the bolthole of West Berlin was closed and the wall constructed, a minority of young people continued trying to flee. Most were picked up on the way to the border area. Some got as far as making crude maps and assembling tools like wire cutters, ropes and compasses. Of those who made it close to the border itself, they were easily caught. Automatic sensors and dogs gave them away. A few made it all the way across the several obstacles; estimates vary, but it seems over a thousand were cut down by bullets while traversing the death strip. East Germany remained defined by the wall that was necessary to hold it together. It shored itself up, but at the expense of its legitimacy. Citizens remained conflicted and divided. Their loyalty was partial, often feigned and at best conditional. The temptation to leave the GDR in the lurch remained important. The government continued to be defined by its need to imprison its population.

Between utopia and dystopia: where is the real GDR?

October 1, 2017
Treptow Denkmal

Soviet war memorial, Treptow

The GDR presents significant problems for researchers, particularly those who never lived there. On the one hand, are problems of evidence and sources. Which can we trust more (archival, oral history, survey data, popular culture)? Does it matter that many sources were created under the dictatorial conditions of an invasive and manipulative state? If most sources are top-down, reflecting regime preoccupations, how do we bring the people back in?

surviving Stalinist architecture

Stalinallee after the Wende

In roughly 1998 my Berlin landlady invited me to a book reading by Markus Wolf in the synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse. Together we lived in a high-rise flat in the Bonzenviertel, overlooking the Internationale cinema on Karl-Marx Allee. Frau M.-H. had worked in GDR television and been married to a high-ranking Wehrmacht officer who became a communist in Soviet POW camp and joined the party for Nazis, the NDPD. Preferring to do my washing rather than risk me breaking her machine, we fell into something of a Mutti-Söhnchen relationship. She liked to hold forth about life in the GDR and I loved to listen. Sometimes we argued about something or other. But generally we got along OK. She showed me the family album where most of the older pictures had holes in them (where the swastikas had been). She told me lots about her relationships, her family, her work, politics and popular culture. She dredged up old rumours and jokes, suggesting entirely ingenuously that Erich Honecker had had a boat load of virgins from Dresden moored on the Spree. Living with such a character, I felt slightly more like Christopher Isherwood.

She went along to the reading expecting to experience full-blooded hatred for Wolf. When the introducer read out some of Wolf’s greatest post-Wende accomplishments, she hissed ‘Don’t forget the cookbook.’ Nevertheless, by the end of his talk, even she was charmed by the handsome former spy. ‘The Man with no Face’ was witty and urbane; he told a good story. Above all, he talked about how he had become enamoured with Soviet communism and how that intersected with his German-Jewish identity. It was difficult to dislike him, even when he complained about some of the hardships he had faced: “You get a plastic plate with breakfast on it at 7 a.m.,” he writes with distaste of imprisonment. “Three pieces of margarine, three pieces of bread, a triangular piece of cheese and a cup of imitation coffee, same as the other prisoners.”

Frau M.-H. was a brilliant if erratic and idiosyncratic source. She was a brilliant networker, managing to mix insight and charm. She opened a window that otherwise would have been closed, but sometimes she was prone to conspiracy stories, particularly related to nonwhites who were moving slowly into her area. She hated the GDR, but she continued to enjoy some of the privileges of having belonged (albeit tenuously) to the elite.

antifaschistische Monument

Monument to victims and resisters of fascism


Thalmann monument








Sources are one problem. As an outsider, there are also issues of tone to consider. Many insider accounts (whether pro or contra) tend to be heavily earnest. People close to the position of Neues Deutschland cannot stomach any criticism of what (in their minds) was an almost perfect society free of unemployment, sexism, crime and drugs. Those who endured Stasi prison or who lost loved ones through the wall or other forms of oppression are perplexed and bewildered by research on quirky and obscure pop-cultural themes or (even worse) arguments about the GDR’s normalisation. As Damian Mac con Uladh argues, “neither the image of the GDR as a peace-loving, socialist state (as cultivated by its apologists) nor as a massive concentration camp (as painted by its most ardent detractors) corresponds to the subjective experiences of many of its citizens.” [Mac con Uladh, ‘Guests’, 9.] The reality of life lay somewhere between these two poles.

Some younger researchers find it difficult to take off the lens of Ostalgie. While it might be fun to eat solanka with vita cola in a GDR-themed restaurant or to drive a Trabi (badly) in East Berlin, as I saw one Chinese tourist doing, there is also something cloying and wilfully obtuse about embracing other people’s nostalgia. Ostalgie first developed as a kind of Abwehr reaction; it contains both positive and negative features. In some ways, it is a celebration of otherness and a siding with the underdog. But there is also an ‘ourselves alone’ quality to it, in which serious researchers, particularly outsiders, are unwelcome.

We can both recognize the unusual, off-the-wall and fun aspects of youth in the GDR and, at the same time, see how damage was done. In my own research, I found that normal adolescent cheeky and rebellious behaviour carried on up to a point, until it was suddenly ruthlessly and viciously repressed. As one of my students put it, the GDR was like a coach accident on the way to the seaside. The fun and games were wonderful right up to the plunge off the cliff. Whether it was Halbstarken or Oberschüler, there were elements of lightness and effervescence, but they were then largely crushed by the weight and psychological violence of a dystopian dictatorship.

My research looks at popular cultures through the lens of the cold war.

Keeping these two aspects of GDR history in mind is a struggle. In various publications, Stefan Wolle has attempted to do both: to explore how everyday life converged and diverged from the would-be utopian dictatorship. It is interesting that some utopian thinkers believed that they could merge communism with jazz (Reginald Rudorf). Or that they could create a fully functioning nudist mass organisation (Heinz Bachmann). Just imagine the 1st May parades! Some, like former Nazi Rudolf Neubert, wanted to generate a whole new sexuality for the GDR, based on his own hangups and predilections. With shades of Mao’s cultural revolution, maverick journalist and social reformer Kurt Turba tried to create a form of ‘socialist cheekiness’, in which young people would hold their elders (including party functionaries) to account. Nevertheless, even during reform periods when such ideas bubbled to the surface, the dictatorship was always lurking in the background ready to pounce. Many young men had a period of rebellion that they were forced to relinquish when they did military service. Some forms of conformity were inescapable; they experienced the naked power of the state at first hand.

between the stools

Youth and Foreigners

September 30, 2017

Partly because of its ethos of proletarian internationalism, partly out of sheer need for manpower, the GDR regime invited foreigners to come and live, work and study in the GDR. Foreign students were more privileged than their German counterparts. Many could travel freely (including to West Germany and West Berlin). This made them useful as sources of fashion and authentic pop-cultural artefacts like records or copies of the trashy teenage pop culture magazine Bravo. The general population looked down on students, but especially foreign ones, who were seen as lazy and dissolute gentlemen scholars, too lazy for real work.

Damian Mac con Uladh stresses the variations in foreigners’ circumstances and experiences. “International students occupied a higher status, achieved greater linguistic competence, and enjoyed more privileges than contract workers, who increasingly represented a form of sub-proletariat in the factories.” [Mac con Uladh, ‘Guests’, 216] Piesche expresses a similar emphasis on differentiation: “People from Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia, and Iraq mostly came to study. In contrast, people from Angola, Mozambique, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Vietnam, and Cuba went into socialist production and started—according to the economic needs of the GDR—an apprenticeship in labor.” [Piesche, 41] There were about 180,000 foreign workers at the beginning of the 1980s. They made up about 1.2% of the population. Their home countries got a significant slice of their earnings. They were expected to work for a few years and then return home. Some had relatively good conditions; others sweated and toiled in a position of relative marginality, far from the centres of culture and consumption.

In some factories, East Germans worked alongside foreign guest workers, but often their production area and shifts would be different so there would be little interaction. In other words, they would see them from afar rather than establishing friendly relations. To some extent the lack of interaction was preprogrammed. Foreigners had to live in special barracks, where their comings and goings could be closely watched and controlled. The administrators tasked with overseeing them were unashamedly termed Ausländerkontrolle. Often they had very restrictive contracts so that a country could only send men or women. Neither the home country or the GDR put great weight on them learning the language. If guest workers became pregnant, they were supposed to have an abortion or be sent back home in disgrace. Contacts with Cuba, Vietnam, Mozambique, and Zambia threatened immediate deportation in the case of pregnancy. These unfair and unequal terms remained in force until 1989). The regime tried to dictate conditions of recreation, cultural expression and socialisation and sought to avoid large concentrations of foreigners in any one place. Piesche argues that this amounts to a ‘socialism of difference… with all its racist stereotypes’. [39] Nevertheless, Mac con Uladh suggests that many depictions overemphasize the racism, ignoring positive features of migrant life and painting a picture of unremitting misery. They are teleological in seeking to explain the post-Wende upsurge in right-wing extremism. They are exposés rather than neutral and objective academic studies. [11] “Despite all the problems involved in living in the GDR, such as overcrowded accommodation, difficult working conditions, racism, and attempts at control, workers sought to take advantage of the positive sides of what it had to offer.” [217]

As a result of this mixture of privilege and seclusion/exclusion, there developed a certain resentment amongst the population. After 1961, East Germans could not visit the world outside, yet these foreigners were free to come and enjoy all the fruits of socialism. As Jarvis Cocker suggests, nobody likes a tourist, particularly if they are only temporarily slumming it. Some of the foreign apprentices could come and go as they pleased and earned extra money by smuggling. For ordinary, not particularly educated East Germans, the foreigners seemed to be rubbing their noses in it. Why were they paying solidarity payments for Third World countries so that the sons and daughters of the elite could live like kings and queens in the GDR? At times, the East German government deliberately fanned the flames by exacerbating hostility and using foreigners as a scapegoat. “The leaders of the GDR liked to blame foreigners themselves as the cause of racism and xenophobia, claiming that their cultural differences and unwillingness to integrate into GDR society were responsible for social tension.” [Piesche, 43]

Regime supportive individuals strongly bought into the ideology of internationalism. They were inspired by the tales of bold resistance to US imperialism. They romanticised the foreigners and idolised them as heroes. But this only reinforced the belief that the foreigners were socialist puppets, who willingly did the regime’s bidding.

The presence of young foreign men created problems of sexual competition when they danced with or had relationships with East German girls. For ordinary workers, their foreign allure and western cash were unfair advantages. In the 1980s, fights between the various different subcultures and groups of foreign men were common – so there was blood on the dance floor and altercations on public transport. Foreigners, especially Cubans, had different styles of dancing and this could lead to misunderstandings. Rumours that certain groups fought back and carried knives for protection was seen as devious and unGerman.

dirty dancingTo a large extent, such conflicts resulted from a sexual competition many East German men felt was unfair. For them, the foreigners were “overpaid, oversexed and over here. The foreigners took advantage of things like access to western money and artefacts to lord it over the indigenous population. They exploited their exotic dark skins, more fluid dancing and air of mystery to woo naive German girls, whose fellow countrymen (mostly sexist men) saw as fickle and easily led. How dare they have relationships with German girls when ‘theirs’ remained largely off limits? This disparity was particularly glaring with Algeria tending only to send young men. These dark-skinned young men developed reputations as persistent, insistent lotharios. At home, they were strictly controlled by a web of family and neighbourly surveillance. In East Germany, they had money in their pockets and were relatively free. Rumours spread that the Algerians (as a group) were sexually aggressive and that no woman was safe. Adding to anxieties and notions of correct norms being infringed, they dared to strike over pay and conditions.

In the minds of many ordinary citizens, the foreigners were trying to lure innocent girls onto the rocks, by impregnating them with nonwhite children. Antifascist propaganda and education had not rid the population (or leading communists) of their visceral anxieties about miscegenation. Fear and hostility to foreigners united East Germans – from different ages, social backgrounds and with different political views – in a way that no other issue did. “For a considerable section of the East German population (regardless of age, gender, or proximity to the regime), binational contacts, romances and relationships were something sinister and abnormal and the result of any number of ulterior motives but rarely of the attraction or love of two individuals.” [Mac con Uladh, 154] After the Wende, it seemed clear to many observers that such fears and repressive attitudes were a hangover from Nazism. The officially prescribed antifascism focused on heroic communists rather than the widespread complicity of the population in racial discrimination. Communist officials felt that they were acting with the full approval of the people when they hamstrung transnational love affairs and tied up interethnic relationships with swathes of heartless red tape. However, such hostility could not alter the fact that forbidden fruit tastes sweeter. Although berated or admonished by teachers, officials and strangers in the street, animosity could make a love affair appear more intoxicating, risky and dangerous.

Those who suffered most from the effects of taboos surrounding interethnic relationships were the children. A small, but highly visible Black East German minority began to develop in the GDR in the early 1960s. Often black children in the GDR grew up without their fathers. Fearing ‘miscegenation’, the state had little interest in keeping the families together and expelled male foreigners who conceived children or forced women to have abortions. In preventing such unions, officials tended to deploy paternalistic arguments that “East Germans, particularly women, needed to be protected from foreigners for moral and political reasons”. [Mac con Uladh, 156] Doing its best to disrupt cross-cultural relationships and prevent mixed marriages, the state forced this minority of “East German women into single motherhood” and deprived children of contact with one of their biological parents. [Mac con Uladh, 218] Difficulties in communications meant that once the father left the GDR, he was largely lost. Even if they had been able to leave the GDR, which they were not, children would have little chance of finding their other biological parent. The implacable cruelty caused immense pain and needless suffering. There were cases of foreigners reacting to impending separation through deportation with suicide. ‘In strangling the few examples of actually-existing multiculturalism, the policies of the state conferred legitimacy to racist attitudes already festering among the population by stigmatising binational relationships and “miscegenation” even further’ [218] As a result, Afrogerman and other nonwhite GDR citizens often grew up very isolated. Although they were markedly different, they knew very little of their father’s culture and often had no contact to his wider family.

“The study undertaken by Jeanette Sumalgy showed that 48 percent of these children grew up with their natural mother and an adoptive father. Almost 18 percent had only their natural mother, while roughly the same percentage had an adoptive father and an adoptive mother. Four percent grew up with their German grandmother, and only 13 percent with both of their natural parents, one black and one white.” [Piesche, 45]

Their mothers, seen as tainted by the wider neighbourhood, had to struggle to bring up these children on their own. There was little official attempt by officials to help them so black teens grew up alone and adrift, faced with serious problems of integration and confronted with everyday racism. ‘They spoke German, had German names, and usually lived in white German families and shared everyday German life.’ [Piesche, 39]

Kathrin Schmidt’s novel Die Gunnar-Lennefsen-Expedition (Köln: Kiepenheuer, 1998) captures the atmosphere of suspicion and hostility, though struggles to escape its logic: “In schools children were soon encouraged to be very frightened of foreigners, especially of dark men from Algeria, who shopped in Intershops and stalked blond women, if the teacher was to be believed. And who didn’t! In fact, it was the Algerian men who dared to enter the local women, leaving little brown children behind in growing numbers.” Piesche argues that official East German literature often contained racist imagery and notions.


Education, media and culture fetishized Germanness and normalized whiteness. As a consequence of the widespread hostility, even committed communists, who had come to the GDR seeing it as a socialist idyll, found the closed-in atmosphere of suspicion and hostility difficult to bear. Every marginalized group which did not fit the norm – from foreigners and the disabled to punks and Grufties – recounted run-ins with the general public, who criticised them, their clothing and behaviour. It seems that people were continually telling others to behave ‘properly’, i.e. according to prevailing norms, based on traditional values. Mac con Uladh puts this neutrally: ‘Without being requested to do by those in authority, many “normal” East Germans saw it as their duty to ensure that foreigners behaved in a particular way.’ [Mac con Uladh, 219] Like the punks, ethnic minorities (including Jews) grew tired of the whispered threats and suggestions that they should be gassed.

This barely concealed hostility and intolerance erupted into widespread persecution and violence after the Wende. Neonazism was so present in some areas that they seemed like no-go areas for foreigners and left-wingers. Some, like Dr Christian Pfeiffer, see this as an expression of authoritarian education. Others see it as a failure to deal properly with the Nazi past. Nevertheless the causes are multiple and complex. The regime did tend to blame outside forces for its problems. Pupils were taught to hate imperialists. Some simply reversed the message and hated nonwhite people. The GDR suffered from a deficit in pluralism, tolerance and free speech. There were few opportunities for raising such issues in public. Rumours and conspiracy theories helped to spread racist notions. Because they took place under the surface, they were difficult to combat, even if the regime had wanted to. Some foreigners behaved very badly and were taken as emblematic for the rest. Cuban men, for example, looked for relationships with East German women, but sought to prevent Cuban women from doing the same. In some cases, they responded to attacks with indiscriminate vigilante assaults of their own. [Mac con Uladh, 181, 147] Some individuals were exploitative or abusive, but these defects were taken as representative of all foreigners. The latter found themselves “über einen Kamm geschert und in einen Topf geworfen.”

See Damian Mac con Uladh’s thesis: ‘Guests of the socialist nation? Foreign students and workers in the GDR, 1949-1990’ (University College London, 2005)

See also Peggy Piesche, ‘Black and German? East German Adolescents before 1989: A retrospective view of a “non-existent issue” in the GDR in Leslie A. Adelson (ed.), The Cultural After-Life of East Germany: New Transnational Perspectives (2002), 37-59.

West Meets East, ed. Sabine Kriechhammer-Yagmur and Brigitte Pross-Klapproth (Frankfurt: IAF, 1991).

Schwarz-Weiße Zeiten: AusländerInnen in Ostdeutschland vor und nach der Wende. Erfahrungen der Vertragsarbeiter aus Mosambik.trice Poutrus, Jan Behrends, and Dennis Kuck, ‘Historische Untersuchungen der Fremdenfeindlichkeit in den neuen Bundesländern’, Das Parlament [Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, Beilage] 39 (2000): 15-21.

Irene Runge, Ausland DDR: Fremdenhass (Berlin: Dietz, 1990).

Jeanette Sumalgy, „Afro-deutsche Jugendliche im Schulsystem der ehemaligen DDR – unter Berücksichtigung ihrer bi-nationalen Familiensituation und die Bedeutung für ihre weitere Lebensplanung,“ Diplomarbeit, Katholische Fachhochschule Berlin, 1996.

Offene Jugendarbeit

September 30, 2017

Although their members overwhelmingly came from working-class backgrounds and neighbourhoods, street gangsnevertheless contradicted and undermined the official blueprint for youth. At first, the churches had no interest in these marginal and potentially deviant groups of ungodly youth. They saw them as non-respectable and a nuisance. Nevertheless, over time the churches began to reach out to them and to try to missionize among them.

Reaching out to youth had begun with the first ever jazz concert in any German church. This took place in the Marktkirche in Halle in 1956, attracting national attention. Not all of it was positive. Some felt that these alien, African-American rhythms were desecrating a holy and spiritual space. Many older Christians had not made a mental break with the Nazi (and pre-Nazi) past. They viewed young people (with their weird clothing and haircuts and loud, unfamiliar music) with suspicion (similar to many conservative Christians in West Germany. Theo Lehmann’s pastor father Arno had been a missionary in south India. He was ready to reach out to youth, in the same way he would a foreign, alien tribe. For Siegfried Schimidt-Joos, this stance was amazingly courageous and forward-thinking: “Ganz sicher hatte es damals einer derart mutigen, unorthodoxen und weltoffenen Persönlichkeit bedurft, um die Kirche in der DDR für ‘Negermusik’ zu öffnen.”

Theo remembers: “Das waren atmosphärische, himmlische Klänge, die da von der Empore runterkamen”. The LDZ (Liberal Democratic) newspaper (16.10.1956) was less convinced: “Bei zahlreichen älteren Hörern gab es völlig verständnislose, ja entsetzte Gesichter während sich ein großer Teil jüngerer Besucher auch auf der Kirchenbank gewisser rhythmischer Zuckungen nicht zu enthalten vermochte.” Jazz was generally seen by older Germans not only as foreign but corrupting and decadent. On no account could they see any affinity with Afro-Americans and their culture. Thoe Lehmann remembers encounters with GDR border guards who found his love of Louis Armstrong strange and offensive. Allowing jazz was a way of modernizing the church and making it more accessible. He found the existing services far too traditional with complex liturgies and old-fashioned formulations. He thought that music was a better expression of spirituality. He was convinced that what was possible in American churches could work in Germany too.

Walter Schilling pioneered ‘open youth work’ for the Evangelical Church in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The very first contacts with disgruntled, othered youth came in Leipzig in the mid-1960s. The pastor of the Thomas Church reached out to the gang of Beat fans who gathered on a nearby street corner. He invited them to come in out of the rain and the cold, not least of official state hostility. He began talking to them and quickly found out that they had a lot of problems and issues. In the 1970s, the Evangelical Church began allowing highly popular Blues concerts and even festivals on its grounds.

In contrast to earlier church youth work, participants in ‘open youth work’ did not have to regularly attend church or even be Christians. Influenced by similar trends in the West, the youth pastors tried to find ways of helping young people with problems get their lives back on track. They might have serious problems at home – abusive, alcoholic parents, or ones simply unable to understand and connect to them. For the pastors, there was a strong focus on building up their confidence and allowing them to be reintegrated as useful members of society, even if they had been labelled rebellious, deviant or even criminal. Using present-day buzzwords, Dirk Moldt calls this ’empowerment’ or ‘resocialization’. Amid difficult circumstances, it was a true expression of brotherly love. Theo Lehmann wrote his own gospel songs in German. ‘Freiheit wird dann sein’ included the lyrics: “Kein Leid und keine Mauer; kein Schmerz und keine Trauer.” He saw the pursuit of freedom (both in the afterlife and in everyday life) as completely intertwined, and articulated by the music of the slaves that came from America.

Not every disgruntled GDR teenager appreciated the youth pastors’ efforts. For some, the churches remained too preachy and goody-goody – they were scheinheilige, overly fromm or saint ni touche. A breakaway faction of open youth work came to the realization that it was of no use reintegrating young people into a society that was, in essence, poisoning and destroying them. Above all, they stressed the ways in which the state was manipulating and damaging adolescents, by forcing them to cram soul-destroying ideology, in the same way that it was physically polluting their environment with dirty and outdated industrial technology. These feelings found a focus in the refusal of young Christians and other pacifists to undertake military service. They stressed the importance of unforced creative learning, giving young people a space to think for themselves. The focus shifted from changing individuals to fit society to changing society to make it more accepting and tolerant of individual nonconformity. This move was not necessarily popular with the church functionaries, who owed their position to the maintenance of good relations with the state. They shared the communists’ distrust of long hair and ‘decadent’ sexuality. The grass-roots experimentation went too far for some in the church. One youth pastor took the shocking decision of allowing the teenagers he was trying to bring in to smoke in church.

For Dirk Moldt, the closed society created so many problems that the problems were simply lying around on the streets, desperate for someone to pay them attention. Together, thanks to the limited free room allowed to the churches by the state, they were allowed to create small islands of exception within the GDR, where young people were relatively free to express themselves.

Although enthusiastic and ambitious, youth pastors also found their own personal limits. Some could work with long-hairs but found punks and skinheads too much. Others found it difficult to stop trying to help. In the post-Wende period, Diakon Michael Heinisch continued to work with neo-Nazis in Lichtenberg even when it was clear that they were continuing to commit serious crimes. He argued that his purpose was to teach them “was man außer Saufen und Zuschlagen sonst noch so auf der Welt machen kann”. In the difficult and very violent period, Heinisch rated success as “wenn einer mehr Sätze sprechen kann als vor drei Jahren, wenn einer schnorrende Punks auf der Straße sieht und da nicht mit ungebremstem Haß dazwischengeht, wenn einer brennende Asylantenheime im Fernseher sieht und sagt: ,Da hätte ich vor zwei Jahren auch mitgemacht.” Nevertheless others, including the neo-Nazis themselves, saw his success as illusory. Ingo Hasselbach, a leading extremist hate preacher, who eventually broke with the scene, saw Heinisch as naive and easily used.

In the early 1980s, young homosexuals joined the church ‘Offene Jugendarbeit’ groups. In 1982 Eduard Stapels organized an Arbeitskreis Homosexualität in the Evangelischen Studentengemeinde in Leipzig. However, their appearance at church festivals led to vociferous inner-church discussions. For many in the older generation, it was a bridge too far. They found that this porous acceptance of non-Christian youth groups was leading to an undermining and subversion of religious values. Further demonstrations by homosexuals were banned, to the relief of the state. Feeling stifled and muzzled by the church, homosexuals and lesbians formed their own, independent groups. A prominent example was the Rosa-Linde Club in Leipzig.

Besondere Vorkommnisse (Unusual incidents)

September 28, 2017

The Communist rulers of East Germany had a blueprint for youth which saw young people as the future ‘builders of socialism’. Any interests or activities which hampered or got in the way of the correct development of a socialist class consciousness were proscribed and punished during campaigns of vilification and persecution. These occurred sporadically during the 1950s, but with an open border, the regime could only partially repress its opponents. The building of the Berlin Wall greatly increased the opportunities for tightly controlling and shaping society.

The authorities’ immediate response to the Anklam incident (of September 1961) was to institute sharper surveillance of individual schools. Any ‘unusual incidents’ (besondere Vorkommnisse) had to be reported upwards. “Es darf nicht geduldet werden, daß Anzeichen von Feindarbeit vertuscht, beschönigt oder verkleistert werden.” [‘Beschluß “Lehren aus Anklam” vom 13.Okt.1961’] “Einzelne alarmierende Vorkommnisse machen auch sichtbar, daß an einer ganzen Anzahl Schulen und teilweise in ganzen Bezirken seit Jahren in grober Weise die Prinzipien der Kaderpolitik verletzt werden.” [Brief von Margot Honecker an alle Kreisschulräte und Bezirksschulräte der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik 9.5.1967] Honecker argued that this laxity and lack of rigour facilitated the work of the class enemy. Tolerant, open-minded attitudes by teachers were dismissed as ‘kleinbürgerlicher akademischer Dunkel’. They were to be ruthlessly combated.

Reports were to cover the following information:

  • Name und Funktion des Meldenden
  • Zeitpunkt des Vorkommnisses
  • Art und Umfang des Vorkommnisses (Anzahl der betroffenen Personen, entstandener Schaden und andere Auswirkungen)
  • genaue Angabe des Ereignisortes
  • Ursachen des Vorkommnisses

The most serious ‘Verfassungsfeindliche Handlungen’ were summarized as:

  • Auftreten bzw. Verbreitung von faschistisches Gedankengut
  • Bekundung von Glaubens‑, Rassen‑ und Völkerhaß
  • Handlungen, die die Freiheit und Würde des Menschen verletzen (Rowdytum, Kindesmißhandlungen und ‑entführungen, Sittlichkeitsdelikte)
  • andere schwerwiegende Gesetzesverletzungen (Brandstiftung, Diebstahl, Einbrüche, Rauschgift, illegaler Waffenbesitz u.a.

A report from 1984 listed the following serious incidents:

  • Versuchtes und illegales Verlassen der DDR
  • Anträge auf Übersiedlung in die BRD
  • Politische Provokationen und Rowdytum
  • Selbstmordversuche, Selbstmorde
  • Mordversuche, Mord
  • Unfälle, einschließlich Brände und Brandlegung durch Schüler
  • Einbrüche und Diebstähle in Volksbildungseinrichtungen

In 4 cases there were, ‘Waffen‑ und Munitionsfunde und Herstellung von Sprengkörpern mit Verletzungen’; 2 ‘Massenerkrankungen und 1 Fall, bei dem mehrere Kinder und Erwachsene von einem tollwütigen Hund gebissen wurden’. One pupil tried to set fire to his school.

Special incidents ranged from pranks and stunts to serious ‘crimes’: truancy; ‘gallivanting around (Herumtreiberei) by girls; insufficient work ethic; stealing; excessive smoking and drinking; running away and attempted flight from the republic (Republikflucht); drink driving by teachers; pupils bullying one another; teachers hitting pupils; serious accidents involving loss of limbs or eyes; rape and sexual abuse; suicide. Sometimes ‘Einsatzbereitschaft and Parteilichkeit’ were seen as saving graces in cases where educators had beaten up children in their care. Similar activities are likely to have been recorded and dealt with in a similar way in democratic societies.

Runaways from children’s homes often tried to commit Republikflucht. A 1985 report mentioned two pupils who tried to cross the Spree: ‘beide haben Leistungsprobleme und es gibt Spannungen zwischen Eltern und Schülern’. Some pupils stole from their parents before trying to flee the GDR. One left a note saying ‘Wir sind abgehauen, außerhalb unserer Republik.’

In the 1970s, the GDR education authorities tried to distinguish and demarcate the GDR as clearly as possible from the Federal Republic. However, many pupils failed to take in the correct ideological message. They could condemn American excesses but see what that had to do with liking Western pop: “Sie lehnen die Imperialismus im allgemein ab, haben aber Schwierigkeiten, die Rolle des BRD‑Imperialismus so klar herauszustellen.”

Continued, overfamiliar relations with the enemy included: not recognizing the ‘fascist character’ of the West German state; expressing an interest in learning English; listening to the hit parade on Radio Luxembourg or other so-called ‘NATO broadcasters’; writing to Deutschlandfunk with requests (Schlagerwünschen); voting for western pop songs in West German surveys; consuming Western chewing gum. Pupils argued repeatedly that ‘Musik hat nichts mit Politik zu tun.’

Some of these themes crop up in the DEFA film Die Glatzkopfbande. Using police files, the filmmakers suggested the crime of ‘rowdyism’ could start with popular culture but end with severe ideological deviation. The gang leader, King, is a former Foreign Legionary, who leads his gang of misfits (from dysfunctional families) on a path of excess and violence. Ironically, long before the arrival of skinhead culture in the GDR, the film depicts a band of shaven-headed male youths running amok. The original incident, on which the film was based, actually concerned a group of rockers on the Baltic coast in 1961.

King, Foreign Legionary

Some of the pupils’ activities speak to a longing or yearning (Sehnsucht) to escape and leave the GDR, at least mentally for fleeting moments: corresponding with foreign pen friends; writing to serving foreign legionaries; having sex with exotic, especially dark-skinned foreigners; imitating series they had watched on western television; expressing their own opinions freely (including in anonymous surveys); creating their own samizdat pornography; getting engaged to a West German.

To its chagrin, the regime was forced to admit that they had not reached (i.e. rigorously controlled) every teacher. Even in the 1970s, there were isolated cases of teachers and/or pupils being recorded as attending church or religious retreats or having children who were pastors. Parents and pupils increasingly insisted on their human rights in relation to the Helsinki agreements. They resisted atheistic components of the curriculum and refused to sing the second verse of the Internationale, even though this brought highly negative consequences, like non-selection for university. A small hardcore of Christians demonstratively failed to take part in military education (Wehrunterricht).

Pupils’ lack of respect for excessive and heavy-handed ideological indoctrination blurred into serious political opposition: anti-regime graffiti; neo-Nazi statements; scrawling of swastikas and singing of the Horst-Wessel-Lied; saying ‘Heil Hitler’ and celebrating his birthday; calling the daughter of Stasi officers a Jewess; destroying pictures of regime leaders; writing that they hoped Erich Honecker died a miserable death; filling out death notices for teachers; burning the GDR flag; rowdyism.

In one particularly disastrous school trip to Buchenwald, a pupil interrupted the talk given by a concentration camp survivor. Finding his presentation funny, the pupil said he seemed on the verge of tears. Running away from the rest of the group, he was seen to spit on the monument to the victims. He then took the flowers they had brought and threw them over a wall, suggesting that the survivors ‘get over it’.

In the film Sonnenallee, a school pupil changes the slogan ‘Vorhut der Arbeiterklasse’ [Vanguard of the Working Class] to ‘Vorhaut der Arbeiterklasse’ [Foreskin of the Working Class]. Such jokes or provocative comments were common, showing that pupils were still aware of alternatives and competed to amuse or shock their schoolmates. A calendar commemorating the death of a leading comrade was marked with “gut so”. The Day of the People’s Police was dubbed “Tag der Bullen”. A picture of Soviet leader Gromyko was addended with ‘slut (Schlampe)’. An image of Wilhelm Pieck had added: “Unter der roten Fahne fett geworden”.

Sometimes pupils asked genuine but difficult questions: like why, if the economy was so good, there was no meat, pepper or mustard? One pupil opined that ‘Russisch ist das sinnloseste Fach der Welt.’ Asked how much they studied Russian outside of class, a pupil wrote ‘Hallo, das ist ein Witz.’ Told that a Soviet sportsman had continued running with a broken leg, a pupil at another school remarked that ‘The Russians are capable of anything!’ Asked to repeat his statement, he did, adding that they were stupid and inferior people. In another school, pupils wrote ‘Junge Pioniere lieben den Krieg’. Some pupils continued to question the realism of socialist adventure literature. Teachers were routinely accused of justifying or trivializing such acts.

Each case conceals a small mountain of paperwork and stress. Fellow pupils would be questioned, suspicions raised about fellow teachers. Parents would be telephoned at their workplaces and required to come to a meeting with the headmaster and party secretary. They would be hauled over the coals, with the educators seeking to find evidence of their failings as parents. The files reveal the process by which the smallest signs of insubordination and rebelliousness were ruthlessly crushed. Some people see these educative measures as more oppressive than Stasi spying. Most people only learned about the level of betrayal by friends and family after the Wende. With ‘unusual incidents’, it was straightaway clear that other people were critiquing them and presenting them in a bad light in order t protect themselves or to get ahead. Dictatorship merged with punctiliousness to create an extreme case of micromanagment. The resilience and irrepressible humour is evident, but also the oppressive backstabbing and pointing of fingers. What is also clear is how Nazi symbols, poses and ideological fragments developed as the most potent and effective way of getting back at the state. Pupils may have begun using them ironically or ambivalently, but quickly came to see them as the best way of getting under the communists’ armour-plated skins.

Stasi auf dem Schulhof

September 28, 2017

young agitators

Although they only made up a small percentage of the overall figure, the East German State Security Ministry (MfS or Stasi) was interested in recruiting young people both as agents (known as or IMs) and as future officers. There was no principled opposition to using teenagers even for honey trap operations. Schools were not in any sense protected realms, immune from surveillance. Rather, they operated in tandem with the ‘the firm (die Firma)’, altering themselves to fit its needs. Headteachers thought of their own careers and generally cooperated fully. Margot Honecker’s policy of recording every and any unusual incident helped the Stasi in pinpointing individuals susceptible to influence or pressure. Teenage pupils were more susceptible to influence because their entire schooling prepared them to try their hardest to be acceptable to socialist society. The rewards for conformity were so blatant that, mentally, agreeing to covert activities in return for personal advancement was not a great leap. Except for the small minority of morally upstanding individuals, everyone was already tainted and corrupted by complicity to some degree.

Pioneer girl in uniformAlthough limited in terms of numbers (probably a few thousand), the degree to which the East German secret police took advantage of human frailties is nevertheless striking. In some cases, the agency exploited vulnerable, marginal teenagers and used them to spy on their fellow pupils. The officers used all their powers of seduction to manipulate their susceptible and weak targets. Often just an adult taking an interest in them and their situation was enough to win teenagers with problems. The process could be described as akin to grooming. The underage children were made to feel special, for once valued and respected. Their denunciations were justified as helping and protecting the state. Often they were suffering emotionally and were otherwise starved of attention. Stasi officers were specially selected to appear kind, understanding and avuncular. They created an atmosphere of dependence and fear, but one it was difficult to escape.

The Stasi offered them a lifeline, but at great personal cost. They might ask them to spy on fellow pupils. In some cases, they were even asked to spy on their best friends, own parents or siblings. Today, many of them are wracked by guilt about what they were required to do. This manipulation at a young age can be seen as a form of abuse. Looking back, they feel psychologically violated through an intensive and deliberate process of manipulation and distortion. There was little that such marginalized adolescents could do to defend themselves. Like victims of other abuse, they often blame themselves. They feel that they must have been weak in being unable to resist.

Kertin Voss was recruited while a pupil at a GDR boarding school. She was targeted for speaking too openly about western music at the age of 17. The school facilitated the Stasi’s approach, providing them with all the information that had on her. This included self-assessments she had been obliged to write as a normal part of her schooling. They rated her as inconspicuous and able to make friends easily. Fearing for her Abitur (the school leaving exam), and with it access to higher education, she agreed to spy on her fellow pupils. Reading her file, she was struck by the level of interest they showed in banal ‘pubescent tittle-tattle’. With hindsight, she reckons it was used to mess up people’s careers and thereby to impinge on their lives. The breaking point came when they asked her to sleep with the son of people they suspected of planning an escape. The documentary makers suggest it caused a deep rift in her sense of self and a lasting sense of shame. Repression seems easier than confronting the past, but nevertheless it bubbles to the surface.

Members of youth subcultures, particularly punks, were blackmailed into cooperating and spying on their friends. Erich Mielke promised absolute repression of young people he saw as the scum of socialist society. He vowed to use the Stasi to eradicate them. When such approaches were made, there seemed like little chance of avoiding or escaping cooperation. The psychological pressure to denounce was immense. The state was all powerful; individual candidates were too weak to resist. Some were as young as fourteen. The Stasi could threaten prison, children’s home or unemployment for their parents. For older targets, it could threaten military service or the blocking of career opportunities. As well as informers, the Stasi also employed Zersetzung. By spreading suspicion about who was an informant, they wanted to create ‘fragmentation, paralysis, disorganization, and isolation’. The goal was to spread fear, mistrust and suspicion. Even long after the Wende, the suspicions and conflicts they generated remain. Without reading their Stasi files, and thereby dredging up the past warts and all, it is difficult for old friends from the scene to trust each other entirely.

For their part, punk band Namenlos compared the MfS to the SS in their texts.

The Stasi was particularly interested in infiltrating alternative youth clubs and social work organized by the churches. The pressure of continuing to harm friends and family was immense. Seeing no way out of his situation, Marko H. let himself be run over by a tram.

Klaus Behnke is a psychologist, who treats adults who were misused by the Stasi as adolescents. He argues that the inner conflict often led to severe mental illness. The existence of espionage in the classroom suggests what Hannah Arendt called the ‘banality of evil’. The trauma of this early misuse and betrayal of close friends left deep scars. Nevertheless he sees the Stasi as just one part of a global, perverted system. For him it reflected the regime’s paranoia, based on the realization of how hated it was.

The Stasi favoured the most ideologically irreproachable candidates from regime-supportive families. The best officers, in their eyes, were completely separate from the West and refused to watch or listen to western media. For promising future chekists, the Ministry ran special children’s camps, where children were trained for combat and covert warfare. These took place under the banner of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first head of the Soviet Cheka. The young Chekists learned basic tradecraft as well as how to handle miniature tanks.

The young Protestant Junge Gemeinde had the slogan: “Selig der Mensch, der seinem Bruder nicht nachspioniert und seinen Schulkameraden nicht denunziert.” Not everyone had the moral strength and resilience to do so. Youth pastor Walter Schilling is more accepting, arguing that everyone makes irreparable mistakes, whether the consequences are big or small. In reunited Germany, “Barmherzigkeit führt über den bitteren Weg der Erkenntnis”. Nevertheless, he insists that, in the end, mercy and forgiveness are essential.

As Grit Poppe argues, “Es ist ja so, dass viele hammerharte Geschichten auf der Straße liegen. … Es geht ja in die Seele der Betroffenen hinein, die sind bis heute traumatisiert. … Es ist einfach was, was raus muss. Nach 25 Jahren wird es Zeit, die Geschichten der Opfer auch zu erzählen.”