Monday, March 24, 2014

Berlin's DDR Museum Chronicles Life Under Communism in East Germany



Two-stroke, two cylinder Trabant Car from days of Communism in East Germany

I grew up during the Cold War and knew little of everyday life behind the Iron Curtain.  Information was hard to come by as propaganda dominated the Soviet block.  And the American press was happy to report of only hard times suffered by Eastern Europeans.  Yet, life went on - citizens worked, students were educated, couples married, and families vacationed.  Today, with photos, facts and displays, a wonderful, small museum in Berlin chronicles every day life under communism to the amazement of its many visitors.

On display at the DDR Museum was the most famous consumer product in East Germany.  The tiny 4 passenger  Trabant  had a two-stroke, two cylinder engine and used a plastic called auroplast to make the car lighter.  It was jokingly referred to as a “plastic racer” but could reach 60 mph.   The next joke concerned the length of time needed to take delivery of the car.  One should order the Trabant when the baby is born so that he/she will have a car when she leaves home for college.  In truth, this was not far off as the average wait was 16 years.  Drivers traveled with their own spare parts as they were expected to provide those to any auto repair shop.   It is ironic that America’s cars are just now using plastic in construction but our purpose is to improve gas mileage, not to cheapen the product.  An innovate entrepreneur in Berlin used our fascination with this car to collect and pain Trabants, and now rents them to tourists.  One pulled up in front of us at the East Side Gallery portion of the remaining Berlin Wall.   It was loud and barely held the two Americans inside. 

With a farmer father, I was particularly interested in the agricultural collectivization and proud the East German farmers did not capitulate easily to communal farms.  The government tried to entice them to join farm coops by providing seeds and modern machines.  When that failed, the army arrived to arrest resisting farmers and  secure the transfer.  By 1960, collectivization was complete.  On our farm in Plainview in that same year, my father was experimenting with growing potatoes, carrots, cabbage and onions in addition to the traditional wheat and cotton.  His farm was among the many American farms that were so efficient,  Russia had to buy wheat from us in 1972.

Inside East German homes in 1971, only 8% had telephones and 36% had toilets.  I thought this a misprint.  Yet, 18 years later in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, just 16% had telephones and 76% had toilets.  The government provided cheap food and prefab housing (an eleven story building could be built in 110 days) but no coffee.   To enhance this basic existence, East Germans became the biggest drinkers in the world.  In a year, an average person drank 286 bottles of beer and 23 bottles of schnapps, at a time when there were no purity laws for the beer.

Typical Living Room under Communism in East Germany
A typical living room was displayed and truthfully, it didn’t appear so different than the 50's style I grew up with.  Because the government chose the style, nothing changed in the next 40 years.  At first glance, there appeared to be a healthy number of media outlets - 39 newspapers, two TV channels and four radio stations but the government briefed the editors daily on what could be reported.  Music on the radio stations and nightclubs had to play 60% bands from East Germany and its socialist neighbors.  Discos circumvented this by playing only a fraction of the East German song before playing Western music.  

Forbidden Books in East Germany
The youth listened to rock and roll in churches even though the Stasi  (State Security Police) took pictures of them exiting the church.  The museum had an interrogation room and listening devices that the Stasi  used on their citizens.   East Germany also made extensive use of citizens spying on their neighbors, resulting in 250,000 political prisoners over the years. These were later “ransomed” to West Germany.

Some interesting details included a mass nudist movement in the country with much skinny dipping, explained  as one of the few ways East Germans could freely express themselves.  Young children had communal potty breaks at which none could leave until all were finished.  Pictures of tanks and soldiers were used to teach math.   Women were encouraged to have babies, enticed by free child care, credits on debt and generous maternity leave.  Travel was limited to the Eastern Block countries.  Russian was the second language taught.   The government decided what clothes were fashionable and could be worn.  And, there was a frank acknowledgment of steroid use on athletes in the 1970's.  

Photo of Berlin Wall at DDR Museum
Exiting the museum, one stood in front of a large photo of the Berlin Wall.   For a brief moment, I held my breath as I waited for the automatic doors to open.  We then walked into the booming Berlin of today.  What a contrast.  The air somehow felt freer.


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