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East German By Design

The ABCs of Communist Consumer Culture

Many in the West still think of communist East Germany as a consumer wasteland, devoid of attractive products. Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, SPIEGEL ONLINE takes stock of GDR department store shelves and, through archival material, uncovers a lost world.

By Hans Michael Kloth
Tuesday, 6/23/2009   01:52 PM

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in, SPIEGEL ONLINE's award-winning history portal.

The discrete directive to journalists was clear: "Don't do anything that might awaken people's needs." The edict from the German Democratic Republic's Socialist Unity Party was meant to help protect the people of the communist state from anything that could spark Western-style consumer desires.

Shopping sprees may be the norm in capitalist societies, since they boost demand in a supply-side economy. The economy of East Germany, however, became one of scarcity starting in the 1970s -- the GDR's citizens became increasingly sophisticated and began wanting more than the system could possibly supply. Necessities such as bicycles and washing machines were no longer enough -- leading the ruling party, the SED, to try and curb consumption.

Still, it's not as if East German store shelves were empty of products. The selection might not have been Macy's or Marks and Spencers -- and the products may have lacked the glossy packaging of their Western cousins -- but they existed nonetheless. Indeed, East Germany had its own brands -- they just happened to have a socialist spin. And until the Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago, East Germans lived a consumer world of their own.

Instead of Nivea, East Germans had Florena skin cream. You couldn't get a Sony radio, but you could get a Stern. And instead of a Mont Blanc fountain pens one would normally find in the West, residents on the other side of the Berlin Wall always had a Heiko to write with.

Just like any Western brand, East German products also had an identity, a history and an image that consumers associated with it. Given that it was an economy of scarcity, East Germans often had little or no choice in the selection of products they purchased. And when they did, they often showed a clear preference for trendier or more expensive products, doling out a little more for a slightly hipper cut of suit, a trendy radio cassette recorder or a coffee table.

East Germany's Design Police

As a communist country, though, "vogue" was an arbitrary term applied only to what the SED regime deemed acceptable. In one instance, for example, the state decreed a simple white vase as being "inartistic," and ordered that it be augmented with a floral pattern. A state Office of Design, created in 1972, served as the guardian of "product design in socialism." It's head served as a member of the East German government on the level of a state secretary -- essentially a senior ministry official.

In the early 1970s, the lively design culture that had emerged in the early years of East Germany fell under the ideological control of the state for good. It was a development which proved disastrous. "In no other place would design innovations that showed so much promise be curbed over ideological objections as in the socialist state economy," says Günter Höhne, the author of several books on East German design.

Still, despite the number of indescribably bad products made in the GDR -- most of which landed in the trash bin of history for good after 1989 -- there was also no lack of goods made by people who had at least a vague idea of good style and form.

They were the traces of a design culture that was held in high regard in the GDR until 1952 -- the year in which the SED chased Dutch Bauhaus artist Mart Stam away from his post as head of the Berlin-Weissensee College of Art.

By and large, though, eastern products -- big and gray as many were -- were cursed by the label "Made in the GDR." As foundlings today, they at best serve as decorations in student apartments in Berlin, where a trend of nostalgia for East Germany remains hip. Otherwise, they could be used as artefacts to promote the 1970s retro aesthetic.

Since the fall of the Wall in 1989, a handful of people have worked hard to collect and preserve artifacts representing East German products and everyday life in the communist country. One is Berlin-based cultural journalist Höhne; the other is the Daily Life Documentation Center of the GDR in the eastern German city of Eisenhüttenstadt, whose organizers have already managed to assemble 50,000 objects.

Such efforts were long dismissed as job-creation measures in eastern Germany, a depressed region that has suffered from mass joblessness since the fall of the Iron Curtain two decades ago. But the private initiatives actually create the basis for a fresh, sharpened view of a world of products that has since been lost and can never be recreated. Now, it is a lot easier to see the little bit of color that made the ubiquitous gray of East Germany a little less gray.

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