Culture of East Germany

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Eastern German reenacters at an Indianistikmeeting in Schwerin, 1982, the popular image of Native Americans made Indian living history quite popular in communist Eastern Germany
Public nudist area at Müggelsee, Ostberlin (1989)

The culture of East Germany varied throughout the years due to the political and historical events that took place in the 20th century, especially as a result of Nazism and Communism. A reflection on the history of arts and culture in East Germany reveals complex relationships between artists and the state, between oppositional and conformist art. In four decades, East Germany developed a distinct culture and produced works of literature, film, visual arts, music, and theatre of international acclaim. Popular culture specialities included among others a high popularity of nudism in Eastern Germany.[1]

Socialist Realism[edit]

In the 1950s the officially encouraged form of art was known as 'Socialist Realism'. This was intended to depict everyday life under Socialism in a way that showed the benefits of living and working in East Germany.


Any text published in the GDR was governmentally controlled.


The main newspaper was Neues Deutschland, the official newspaper of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). The official newspaper of the Free German Youth was Junge Welt.

Das Magazin survived the unification of Germany.[2]

Soviet Sputnik in German was too liberal for GDR in 1988.[3]


Pop and rock[edit]

Rock bands were expected to sing in German only. This seemed a logical constraint to party leaders but was somewhat unpopular amongst young people. Another problem for the authorities was having to check song texts very carefully for anti-state tendencies. The band Renft, for example, fell foul of the authorities, which eventually led to its being banned and disbanded.[4]

The Puhdys, Stern-Combo Meißen and Karat were popular mainstream bands, managing to hint at critical thoughts in their lyrics without being explicit. Like other mainstream acts, they appeared in youth magazines such as Neues Leben and Das Magazin. Frank Schöbel was very successful.

Nina Hagen published her first hit Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen in 1974 and emigrated. Veronika Fischer emigrated in 1981.

Influences from the West were heard everywhere, because TV and radio that came from the Klassenfeind (enemy of the working class) could be received in many parts of the east, too (an exception being the area around Dresden, with its geographically disadvantageous position in the Elbe valley, giving it the nickname of “Valley of the Clueless” despite some Western radio being available). The Western influence led to the formation of more "underground" groups with a decisively western-oriented sound. Two such bands were Die Skeptiker, as well as Feeling B.


Several prestigious ensembles had roots in the pre-War period. Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra was led by Kurt Masur since 1970. The Staatskapelle Dresden was led by Herbert Blomstedt since 1975.

Johann Sebastian Bach[edit]

On a more traditional level, the East German government celebrated the fact that Johann Sebastian Bach was born in East German territory, and spent a great deal of money converting his house in Eisenach into a museum of his life, which, among other things, included more than 300 instruments from Bach's life. In 1980 this museum received more than 70,000 visitors.

In Leipzig, an enormous archive with recordings of all of Bach's music was compiled, along with many historical documents and letters both to and from him. Werner Neumann founded the Bach-Archiv Leipzig in 1950.

Every second year, school children from across East Germany gathered for a Bach competition held in East Berlin. Every four years an international Bach competition for keyboard and strings was held.

Thomanerchor registered a number of Bach's works.

Visual art[edit]

Artists were members of the Communist Verband Bildender Künstler der DDR.

Visual propaganda[edit]

Marx and Engels in Berlin

Political propaganda shaped GDR - monuments of Communist leaders including Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, banners with political slogans.

Feminist art[edit]

Critical feminist artists were Gabriele Stötzer, Tina Bara, Cornelia Schleime, Doris Ziegler, Mita Schamal, Karla Woisnitza, Christine Schlegel, Else Gabriel, Yana Milev, Angela Hampel, Gundula Schulze Eldowy, Janet Grau.[5][6]

Political manifestations and secular ceremonies[edit]

International Workers' Day was obligatory for millions. The Tag der Republik (the Day of the Republic), 7 October, was the anniversary of the creation of the GDR.

The Jugendweihe was a secular coming-of-age ceremony which replaced Lutheran Confirmation.


Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, from the Spree river

East German theatre was strongly dominated in its early years by Bertolt Brecht, who brought back a lot of artists from the antifascist resistance and reopened Theater am Schiffbauerdamm with his Berliner Ensemble. On the other side some streams tried to establish "Pure Workers Theatre", played by workers and performing plays about workers.

After Brecht died, there was a lot of conflict between the artists and the family (around Helene Weigel) about the Brecht heritage. Heinz Kahlau, Slatan Dudow, Erwin Geschonneck, Erwin Strittmatter, Peter Hacks, Benno Besson, Peter Palitzsch and Ekkehard Schall are counted among Brecht's scholars and followers. In the 1950s the Swiss Benno Besson had success with "The Dragon" by Jewgenij Schwarz. As a result, he travelled with Deutsches Theater around Europe and Asia (and also in Japan). He became the Intendant at Volksbühne in the 1960s and often worked with Heiner Müller.

Because of censorship, many artists left the GDR from 1975 onwards. A parallel development was that some artists moved out to small city theatres, to create theatre beyond Berlin. For example, Peter Sodann founded the Neues Theater in Halle/Saale and Frank Castorf worked at a theatre in Anklam. Theatre and Cabaret had a very important status for the people in the GDR and it was a very active and dynamic scene. This was the cause of some contention with the state. Benno Besson was quoted as saying about the relationship between cabaret and the state: "At least they took us seriously."


In East Germany the movie industry was very active. Besides folk movies, the East German movie industry became known worldwide for its productions, especially for its children's movies (Das kalte Herz and cinematic versions of the Grimms' fairy tales, and also modern productions like Das Schulgespenst).

Movies about the persecution of Jews in the Third Reich, such as Jakob der Lügner, and the resistance against fascism, such as Fünf Patronenhülsen, (both directed by Frank Beyer), became internationally famous. Movies about problems of daily life like Die Legende von Paul und Paula (directed by Heiner Carow) or Solo Sunny (directed by Konrad Wolf and Wolfgang Kohlhaase) were also very popular.

Red Westerns were also made, in which American Indians often took the role of the displaced people. Gojko Mitić is the most famous actor in this role; he often played the righteous, kindhearted and charming Chief (Die Söhne der Großen Bärin directed by Josef Mach). He became an honorary chief of the Sioux nation, when he visited the United States of America in the 1990s and the accompanying television crew showed the Sioux one of his movies.

Because of censorship a number of movies were forbidden at this time, and only shown after the reunification of Germany in 1990. Examples are Traces of Stones (directed by Frank Beyer) and Der geteilte Himmel (directed by Konrad Wolf).

East German cinemas screened domestic productions, Czech, Polish, and other Eastern European productions and some Hollywood movies, although the number of the latter was limited due to the cost of purchasing the licences. Movies which represented or glorified a capitalistic ideology were not shown. For example, Grease was not shown but One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was. Comedies were popular, such as the Danish Olsen Gang or movies with the French comedian Louis de Funès.


Penetration of West German TV reception (grey) in East Germany for channel ARD. Areas with no reception (black) were jokingly referred to as "Valley of the Clueless" (Tal der Ahnungslosen), while ARD was said to stand for "Außer (except) Rügen und Dresden"

There were two nationwide state TV stations, DFF1 and DFF2.[7] After the fall of the Iron Curtain, these were gradually merged into the structures of the Federal Republic's public broadcasting system, being followed up by Länder-based regional stations like the MDR and the RBB.

As the arrangement of aerial antennae on roofs differed depending on whether TV-owners watched one of these channels or one from Western Germany[dubious ], especially during the 1950s and 1960s, viewers of Western TV were prone to denunciation by patriotic neighbours or FDJ members. However, by the 1980s the authorities were largely resigned to the presence of Western broadcasts and even tolerated the existence of communal antennas and cable systems carrying both DFF and Western channels.

The DEFA was one of the largest TV production companies within German language borders and produced work that occasionally dared to feature covert criticism of the establishment.[citation needed]

Material Culture[edit]

The material culture of the GDR is the primary focus of Ostalgie (a combination of "Ost" (East) and "Nostalgie" (nostalgia)).


The GDR's economy produced a whole series of consumer goods and associated consumerist practices different from both West German and Soviet bloc cultures. A consumerist culture developed with (in contrast to the West relatively clear-cut) prestige allocations according to consumerist practices.


Prager Straße in Dresden in 1972

Sharing some elements with Stalinist grandiosity, GDR architecture blends into the regionally different styles of post-war city-building of the world: Plattenbau suburbs were more a rule than an exception and there was a heavy reliance on the aesthetics of the atomic age, featuring a tendency against edges and corners as a semi-conscious attempt to do away with rectangular shapes from Nazism, without much devaluating its likenesses in Stalinist architecture. Still, it was after the Stalinist era, otherwise than in the other Eastern Bloc countries, aestetically same as in the West.

One buzzword often heard in this context is Socialist Classicism, while the Western reference to the same phenomenon is Stalinist architecture. In the GDR its representative building tendencies were sometimes referred to as „stalinistischer Zuckerbäckerstil“ (roughly: "Stalinist Confectioner Style") or „Stalingotik“ (Stalinist Gothic), unofficially.

Notable examples of GDR architecture are / were:

East German leaflet, fired across the inner German border.

GDR jokes[edit]

With widespread censorship of literature, the media and the arts, political jokes were one of the main outlets for criticism of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). After reunification, these became known as DDR-Witze (GDR jokes). Political jokes of this form have almost disappeared since reunification as they no longer play the same subversive role, being replaced by open democratic debate, political cartoons and satire.

The GDR citizens had a special term for referring to some of the more critical jokes as five-year-jokes (i.e., three years prison for the one telling it and two for all who listen and laugh). There is also a morphological reference to "five-year-plan" - in a way, talking about a five-year-joke was a "meta-joke".

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