Sputnik, Sputnik, kreise: a children’s song book from East Germany

While on the trail of Thomas Müntzer, we were staying in the old mill in the town of Allstedt (Saxony-Anhalt). At the foot of the stairs is a box of free books, some of them hailing from the time of the DDR. Rifling through the collection, we came across the following:

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Yes, it’s a book of young children’s songs, called Sputnik, Sputnik, Orbit. Published in 1964, the first section states clearly:

Lieder vom sozialistischen Aufbau in Stadt und Land, von den Helfern bei der Arbeit, von Kran un Bagger, von Traktor und Kombine, von den Berufen der Eltern, von den Soldaten unserer Volksarmee, von Auto, von Feuerwehr, Eisenbahn und Sputnik.

Wonderful! If only there were more books like that for young children today. Some of the songs include the Sputnik song:

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The long train of which the child’s father is the driver:

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And there is a special section for May Day, naturally one of a number of children’s festivals:

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Even a 1 May song for kiddies:

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A rich resource for songs to sing with my grandson!

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Alexanderplatz murals: the beauty of socialist realism

One of the most enjoyable parts of spending time in former and current communist countries is the way space is produced. I have tried to express this in my piece called “Berlin Epiphany.” Different modes of production and social formations produce space in tellingly distinct ways. Apart from architecture and spatial layout, you also find moments of glorious artwork. For instance, if you walk away from the commercial kitsch of Alexanderplatz in Berlin and look up and around, much of the communist era artwork is still to be found.

The first is a bronze mural depicting breakthroughs in space exploration and the birth of a new humanity:

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In a little more detail:

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Reaching to a new future:

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This one surrounds the Haus des Lehrers, and was designed by Walter Womacka, one of the most outstanding artists of the GDR: 

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Or in detail, where you find celebrations of nature and sensuality:

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Side by side with workers and engineers:

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Atomic research and the dove of peace:

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Children curious about science and nature:

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Around the corner it goes, encircling the building:

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Full of space age research, medicine and telecommunications:

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Art and industry:

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And then the next long side of the building:

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With sport and ethnic diversity:

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Brought together under the red flag:

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One thing …

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… leads to another:

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Say no to the denigration of East Germany

One of the things you notice after being in eastern Germany for a while is the continuous ideological warfare against the GDR. It happens at so many levels, from everyday conversation through to official policies by the government. One of the most pernicious is to suggest that communism is no different from fascism (thanks Hannah Arendt, you western liberal, for that one). And it happens because the sensibilities and traces of the GDR persist and refuse to disappear – including the Frei Deutsche Jugend. Indeed, it’s quite clear that the majority of the citizens of the GDR did not want to be overrun and colonised by West Germany. So the latest effort by the German government is to consider a ban on symbols from the GDR.

But you can do your little bit to indicate how many people are opposed to this measure by signing the online petition – here.

More on the resistance and persistence of the DDR

To follow on from a story elsewhere on ‘The Resistance and Persistence of the DDR‘, I have been pondering a few further items: the worker (grew up in the DDR) who was simply not accustomed to adversarial approaches in the workplace, even after his capitalist boss in the brave new Germany had swindled him of pay; the continuation of the Freie Deutsche Jugend (English too), especially in eastern Germany and through the schools (an eye-opening history is on their website).

But I’ve been on another trail:

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With the ideological war still going on between east Germany and west Germany, especially since the latter annexed the former and colonised it, the Trabi is often at the centre of it all. But what I find intriguing is how many of these simple, tough machines are still going. This one is the 601 S (Standard), made from 1963 to 1991. I found it in a side street in Bernstadt:

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And this lovely blue number is in the neighbouring village of Rennersdorf:

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Although it was a bit cold on the second visit:

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You will notice that these haven’t been restored or modified; just the basic, solid original build – with formidable acceleration and stability. That would make them anywhere up to 50 years old. Or slightly older, if we take a 600, built from 1962:

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That one was spotted in Herrnhut, chugging along with that characteristic two-stroke sound.

All the same, does anyone take this seriously? Do they really signal a sense that the DDR was a pretty good thing after all?

I wondered until I came across a late model 1100, again in Herrnhut:

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But what’s that on the left hand windscreen?

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Yes indeed, a DRR plate:

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Anyone for a White Easter?

I guess a white Easter is common if you live in the Antarctic or Arctic, or close by. But not in these parts. Here, in east Germany, it’s been snowing almost every day for a month.

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The forests remain decked out in the white stuff:

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Cross-country skiers are still doing their thing:

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Cycling is still for the foolhardy:

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This is supposed to be the time for easter eggs to hang on bushes, celebrating the stirrings of spring:

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But then again, why not make the most of the opportunity and make …

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… a snow bunny.

Suppressed for so long, spring should be an absolute riot.

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Made in the GDR

One of the (many) great things about being in the east of Germany is that the memory of the GDR is all about, especially in everyday life. Take the crockery:

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These remain preferred items. But why? Each item is made to the same dimensions as all the other items of the same type – cups, plates, bowls, jugs and what have you. They might have different decorations on them, but the dimensions are the same. Why? Obviously, it means that they all stack well, saving space. But more importantly, it indicates the futility of providing endless varieties in the the name of ‘choice’. Instead, come up with a design that is efficient, simple, and attractive. Once you have it, why would you change it?

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People hunt these items down for precisely that reason – in home, hotel, dormitory accommodation …

Stalin and the origins of West Germany and East Germany

How and why were the two Germanies divided after the Second World War? Was it because of Stalin’s aggressive policy to put under the Soviet yoke as much of Europe as possible? Was it a defensive act on the part of the occupying powers in western Germany against communist world domination, all of which was embodied in the ‘Berlin blockade’ of 1948-49?

Not quite. Let us go back to the Potsdam and Yalta conferences, where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed to three key items:

1. The four Ds: disarmament, demilitarisation, denazification and democratisation of Germany.

2. Reparations, vital for USSR’s recovery.

3. German unity.

And Stalin had even agreed to three occupation zones, with each symbolically represented in Berlin, despite it being deep in the Soviet zone. (How the French ever managed to get a shoe in was beyond many, since they had embraced the Nazis a little too enthusiastically.) This was despite the fact that the USSR had exerted by far the major effort and lost the most in winning the war.

How did these three items fare after the end of the war?

1. The four Ds. Only in the eastern, Soviet sector was there any significant progress on these items. The occupying forces in the western areas were too keen to rearm Germany, which already began by the early 1950s. They found ‘ex-’ Nazis willing participants in the anti-communist struggle, and they fostered pliant governments.

Of course, Stalin too favoured a government sympathetic to the USSR’s concerns, but he believed this would happen through popular groundswell.

2. Reparations. Soon enough, the occupying forces in the western zones reneged on the earlier agreements. The last thing the Anglo-Americans wanted was for significant resources, technology and money going to the USSR, so they stalled and blocked reparations from the west of Germany.

3. Unity. Stalin favoured political unity, the Anglo-Americans did not – this is perfectly clear from the increasingly rancorous discussions over what was to be done with Germany. Whenever Stalin or Molotov or other Soviet representatives pushed for a unified German government, the Anglo-Americans countered by arguing that the economic situation had to be addressed first. In other words, they wanted to axe reparations and keep Germany divided.

Why? The Americans and British could see that communist parties were becoming extremely popular, not only in Germany but across Europe. For his part, Stalin hoped that this ‘new democratic’ wave would continue in a united Germany and lead to a government favourably disposed to the USSR. In March 1948, Stalin urged the east German communists to draft a constitution for the whole of Germany as a beginning point for discussion with western politicians. He was even prepared for a non-socialist government as long as it was ‘democratic and peace-loving’. Yet he was realistic enough to see that the Americans in particular would not agree since it would threaten their desire to control western Europe. On that point he was correct: the Anglo-Americans were certainly not interested in such a united Germany, for then it would risk falling out of their control. So they preferred a divided Germany.

Events unfolded. In June 1948, the UK, France and USA issued a communiqué stating their intention to form a western German state. A few days later a new currency was introduced in the western zones. By the end of June, Stalin ordered restrictions on access to West Berlin. Despite all the western propaganda concerning the ‘Berlin blockade’, it was not a blockade. Air access was permitted the whole time, for the purpose of supplies. Stalin’s reason for the restrictions was simple: he wanted to get the former allies back to the negotiating table. As soon as they agreed, the restrictions were lifted in May 1949.

Despite clear Soviet desires for unity, the fours Ds and reparations, the Anglo-Americans were simply buying time. By this time NATO had already been formed. In September 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany was declared and the first formal meetings of government held. The east had no option but to respond with its own state soon afterwards.