The Berlin Wall

German Democratic Republic Socialist utopia?

The times are a-changin' Art as protest

Fall of the Wall A people reunited

ITIN Social

  • Gerard Verbeek
  • Truus Gerritsen
  • Ans Hazenbrouck

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The Berlin Wall


German Democratic Republic

After the fall of the Third Reich Germany was left in pieces, literally and figuratively. The Allied forces divided Germany into four occupied zones. Whereas France, Britain and the United States worked in close cooperation, the Soviet Union was more guarded. Over a short number of years, the Soviet Union increased its hold over its sector of Germany; on the 7th of October 1949 a new state was founded: the German Democratic Republic. The new state was to become a socialist utopia, though in practice the foundation of the German Democratic Republic was followed by pseudo-democratic elections and societal purges. The Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED) was the only party left in power. In 1950 the Ministry for State Security, soon nicknamed the Stasi, was founded. Aided by this new and powerful tool of state control, the SED started the process of economic and cultural transformation, purging ‘bourgeois’ and ‘capitalist’ elements from society.

After the traumatic events of the Second World War, and a good amount of bribery in the form of cheap government credit for farmers and those incapacitated by the war, most Germans tacitly accepted the new rule of the SED. Others voted with their feet. As the historian Peter Grieder puts it: “During the first 12 years of its existence, the [German Democratic Republic’s] greatest export was its people.” More than 2,5 million Germans fled to western Germany between 1949 and 1961. To stop this exodus of its own citizens, the SED initiated the building of the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall: the Anti-Fascist Protection Wall, better known as the Berlin Wall.

In the late sixties and seventies, the SED managed to attain a modest level of economic growth. Workweeks became shorter and wages rose. The east-German welfare system was extensive and rents, prices and even holidays were subsidized by the government. Yet life behind the wall was not exactly rosy. The SED demanded loyalty to the socialist ideology and criticism of the state or society was not tolerated. Throughout the sixties and seventies the Stasi grew, infiltrating hospitals, schools and factories. Under Walter Ubricht, the Stasi employed some 45,000 people and is estimated to have had some 100,000 informers through the German Democratic Republic.

The times are a-changin'

After the war, German artists found themselves in a deep predicament. The realist art enforced by the Nazi’s was readily abandoned, but what was to come next? In the allied-occupied regions, many artists (re)turned to modernism and abstract art. In the east however, the SED preferred an art-style known as socialist realism, characterized by a realistic painting style, bold colours and explicit political messages. Artists such as Willi Sitte and Werner Tübke rose to prominence. The new artistic ideals of the German Democratic Republic were disseminated by state-controlled art academies such as the Akademie der Künste der DDR and by artist organisations such as Verband Bildender Künstler der DDR.

Yet try as the SED might, it never gained full control over the artistic expressions of its citizens. From an early date onwards, German artists in and outside of the German Democratic Republic produced works that were critical of the government and of the supposedly ideal society it claimed to have created. The highly abstract and tortured drawings of Gerhard Altenbourg or the not-so-flattering photographs of daily life in the German Democratic Republic by Ursula Arnold did not tow the party line. The work of such critical artists was suppressed and remained largely unknown within the German Democratic Republic. Even ‘establishment figures’ could get in trouble for creating works that did not follow SED ideology. Between 1965 and 1967 Werner Tübke created a cycle of drawing and paintings he called Lebenserinnerungen des Dr. jur. Schülze, incorporating scenes of torture, death and Nazi atrocities in a style highly reminiscent of such medieval masters as Pieter Brueghel and Hieronymus Bosch. Through his complex allegories and antiquated style, Tübke offered no easy answers on Germany’s recent history. The SED reaction was swift and harsh and Tübke nearly lost his position at the art academy in Leipzig.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the cultural climate opened up slightly. Loose networks of artist gathered in East-Berlin, Dresden and Chemnitz. Each of these networks expressed criticism of the political status qua and explored new artistic avenues, ranging from paintings and installations to ‘happenings’ and home-made journals. Within this new artistic outpouring, the ‘Autoperforationsartisten’ were particularly notorious. Micha Brendel, Else Gabriel, Via Lewandowsky and Rainer Görß were young artists from Dresden who used their own bodies and a variety of everyday utensils to express their discomfort with the authoritarian nature of the German Democratic Republic. They, and others like them, were closely monitored by the Stasi. At times the Stasi initiated elaborate psychological harassment campaigns against artists and other critics, such as in the case of writer and dissident Jürgen Fuchs. Some artists, such as rock band the Klaus Renft Combo, were simply told they were no longer acceptable and banned by the government.

Fall of the Wall

By the 1980’s, the Berlin Wall had come to stand for much more than just the division of a city. The concrete and wire construction symbolized the divide between East- and West-Germany and the Cold War itself. West Berlin became a haven for artists from all over the world. In 1984, having lived in the shadow of Wall for two years, Frenchman Thierry Noir decided to start decorating the wall with bright and colourful motifs. His example was soon followed by countless other artists, each in their own way mocking the Wall and the authoritarian regime behind it. From a symbol of repression, the Berlin Wall slowly turned into a symbol of opposition. The reasons behind the fall of the Berlin Wall are complex and span many years – from the lagging economic growth in many of the Eastern bloc nations to the decades of political repression. Yet the protests against the Wall and the SED-regime found its strongest expressions in art.

When David Bowie performed a concert close to the Wall in 1987, it led to rioting and protests in East Berlin. Anti-Wall sentiments were further bolstered when Bruce Springsteen, during a crowded concert in East Berlin, expressed the hope that the Wall would be torn down some day. Bowie and Springsteen were joined by countless German artists, activists and dissidents, who throughout the years contributed to a growing sense of resentment and protest. Tensions came to a boiling point in the autumn of 1989. Hungary opened its border with Austria in September 1989, which led thousands of East Germans to seek refuge. When Hungary prevented further travel of East Germans to the border, this quickly led to protests throughout the German Democratic Republic. On the 4th of November 1989, half a million people gather at Berlin’s Alexanderplatz to demand change. When Günter Schabowski famously misinterpreted his orders and declared that the borders of the German Democratic Republic were now opened, there was no going back. On the night of the 9th of November, countless Germans gathered on both sides of the Wall, completely overwhelming the guards. The hated Berlin Wall had lost its power. In the summer of 1990, the demolition of the Wall began; Germany was officially reunited on the 3th of October 1990.

After the fall of the Third Reich Germany was left in pieces, literally and figuratively. The Allied forces divided Germany into four occupied zones.



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