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Germany: Dresden Museum Remembers GDR

  • Jolyon Naegele

In Dresden, the capital of the eastern German state of Saxony, the municipal museum has been packed with visitors for months, thanks to an exhibit on life in communist East Germany. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele visited the exhibit, the most popular since the fall of communism, and spoke to its curator.

Dresden, Germany, 9 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The exhibition currently on view at Dresden's Municipal Museum, called "The Other Past, 40 Years of Life in the GDR," is not about nostalgia.

The exhibition does contain plenty of items sure to jog the memories of anyone who lived in or visited the German Democratic Republic (GDR). On display are outmoded consumer products and package designs, photographs of cheap cafeterias for the toiling masses, and a scale model of a development of concrete panel houses. There are period posters and uniforms of all sorts, ranging from a white leather traffic cop's coat to the uniform of the communist-run Free German Youth (FDJ) league.

The Dresden exhibition neither ignores the police state's influence nor dwells exclusively on it. Instead, as the curator of the exhibition, Friedrich Reichert, puts it, the exhibition is an attempt to offer a realistic, balanced assessment of everyday life in the GDR.

"The purpose of the exhibition is to show the life of an average citizen during the 40 years of the GDR, how one lived, someone who was neither a member of the SED [the ruling Socialist Unity Party] nor an opponent of the regime. That was 75 to 80 percent of the population -- the majority of the population lived this life."

One exhibition shows a typical discotheque of the mid-1980s. A museum guide tells a group of visiting high school students how the disc jockey had to be specially trained and had to meet a secret police agent each day to receive approval for the music to be played that night. Some 60 percent of the songs had to be from the GDR or allied Soviet bloc states. The disc jockey had to meet his supervisor again after the concert to report any changes in the program and to confirm that the ratio had been maintained.

Reichert explains that disc jockeys circumvented the rule by using Czechoslovak and Polish labels of Western hits and classifying them as socialist. The curator says the East German authorities were engaged in a constant battle to steer the youth away from Western pop music.

"Until the end of the 1960s, they tried to create something domestic to supplant the beat movement. And for the 50th anniversary of the [Bolshevik] October Revolution they founded an October Club that resulted in a 'song movement' of the [Free German Youth]. But it didn't work. Beat forced its way through. Then in the Honecker era, from 1971, they took a different tack and permitted the discotheques. But I have found a file from the Dresden Board of Education in response to the turnaround on discos ordering each school to organize a disco once a week -- of course under the direction of the FDJ. So through these FDJ discos they sought to seize control of pop music. But they never succeeded."

One of the more sobering items on show is a typical GDR bathroom, including a large, portable, zinc bathtub. Reichert notes that as of 1971 only 39 percent of GDR households had a built-in bathtub.

"The GDR party and state were always in a dilemma since the people looked to the West, compared their lot with the West and led their own lives. How these people lived, what they ate, what they could buy, was a highly political issue."

Between 1949, when the German Democratic Republic was formed in the Soviet occupation zone, and 1961, when it built the Berlin Wall, nearly 2.7 million East Germans fled or moved to the West. Even after the Wall was in place, from 1961 until 1989, more than 600,000 East Germans moved or fled to the West. A total of 775 East Germans died trying to reach the West between 1948 and 1989, of whom 177 were killed trying to cross over the Wall.

Nevertheless, the exhibition contains virtually no mention of the Berlin Wall or other elements of what in GDR parlance was known as the "anti-fascist protection barrier."

But the exhibition does contain a recreated office of the GDR Interior Ministry Registration and Passport Office, complete with an exit visa request form in a typewriter and a mannequin dressed in the uniform of a passport officer. Until 1989, Czechoslovakia and Hungary were virtually the only countries GDR citizens could visit without having to request an exit visa.

And it was through these two countries in the late summer and autumn of 1989 that tens of thousands of East Germans fled to the West. The massive outflow, combined with huge demonstrations nightly in towns and cities across East Germany, finally forced the communist authorities on November 9, 1989, to open the borders, relegating communist rule in Germany to the museums.