Happy Intergalactic Holidays from the USSR



While perusing the museum catalog searching for holiday inspiration, I stumbled upon a beautiful set of Christmas ornaments from the former Soviet Union. But, because open religious practice was often frowned upon, I suppose they aren’t technically Christmas ornaments; holiday decorations sanctioned by the USSR remained secular. Article 58 of the RSFSR Penal Code was put into effect on February 25th, 1927, and it stated that having a Christmas Tree would make the owner sympathetic with capitalism. However, Christmas decorations and ornaments were still in production under a nationalist guise.

These precious hand-painted glass ornaments feature stars with the unmistakable hammer and sickle, cheery little cosmonauts, and what appears to be some sort of spacecraft labeled “CCCP.” Perhaps analogous with the Soviet Space Program’s intergalactic ballistic missile in 1957 or the launch of Sputnik I, these tree decorations show the cultural support and excitement for space exploration.

I admired the shiny decorations all neatly packaged in their archival styrofoam homes, but I also imagined them hanging on the bows of sparse Christmas trees in Soviet homes, in situ. To see for myself, I decked out a tiny Christmas tree with the delicate artifacts, carefully adhering them to the wee branches. The result, as you can see, is a charmingly dwarfed replica of what might have been a Soviet-era Christmas tree. Now it just needs some presents beneath. Wrap up that Stalin action figure with a big red bow and leave out some cookies and milk for Ded Moroz!

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Cold War Cruisin’

by Sarah DavisIMG_0779

Cruise ships are important to The Wende Museum because some argue that one in particular was the locale of the Cold War’s end. George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev enjoyed luxurious meals and breath-taking views of the Mediterranean as they discussed the lifting of the Iron Curtain on board the MS Maxim Gorkiy. Many historians point to this, the Malta Summit, as the beginning of the “thaw,” though no official documents were signed.

Aside from MS Maxim Gorkiy’s political significance, taking a cruise was a popular vacation option for those in the East. Even in the face of constant political tension, leisure culture stayed strong in the east and the west. Americans traveled abroad, perhaps to uphold the values of freedom and capitalism.¹ But the GDR and the USSR both placed tough restrictions on travelers. All travel plans of GDR residents had to be monitored through the Reisebüro der DDR, a state travel organization that controlled local hotels and corresponded with travel agencies in foreign countries. Here’s a Socialist-friendly packing list to help you plan for your Cold War-era cruise.


Passport. As an obedient Soviet comrade like this young woman, you had to have your passport on you at all times, even at home in the USSR. If stopped, lacking a passport might lead officials to suspect you were a criminal, an anti-socialist, or a peasant fugitive trying to escape the commune. Nothing ruins a lovely cruise faster than getting thrown in the brig.


Camera. You will want to preserve all of your memories on film. Who knows, someday your photographs might be admired by thousands behind glass in a museum. With its unique East German design, the Pentacon K-16 camera is a great option for your voyage. Lightweight and compact, the Pentacon has a flash that will come handy in the dim lighting of the cabin. Say Käse!


Toiletries. Keep them dry! These colorful plastic soap and toothbrush cases were manufactured by Sonja, a ubiquitous East German plastic manufacturer that still exists today. You will need one for soap and one for your toothbrush so you can smell fresh as you flash your pearly whites. There is no doubt you’ll be doing a lot of smiling.


Hat. Protect your skin from the unforgiving Baltic sun with this stylish baseball cap. Broadcast your support for Kombinat VEB Fahrzeugelektrik, East German electric company extraordinaire, as you bask in the light. It’s crafted to the highest standard from the finest polyester.


Light reading. Brush up on your fussball technique with this handy copy of Die Taktik des Fußballspiels. Just because you’re at sea doesn’t mean you can’t be constantly improving your game. You have to be ready for the ‘76 Summer Olympics.


Luggage. All of these essentials need to go somewhere. This suitcase commemorating the tenth congress of the FDJ in Berlin in 1976 is a perfect fit. It depicts a the eye-catching stylized FDJ logo and a band of colorful stripes that will make you the envy of every socialist on board.

Now you’re set to contemplate the Competing Utopias of capitalism while the crisp ocean breeze blows through your hair. Or you can forget about it all together because this is, after all, a vacation.

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Cold War Siren Saved!

by Kelsey Picken and Joseph Harper

SirenUntil the end of 2013, a Cold War era siren stood to alert local citizens of nuclear attack at the corner of Sixth Street and Mills Avenue in Claremont, California. Although no longer in use, the siren remained “hidden in plain sight” on the Claremont Colleges campus.

During the recent landscaping renovation of Claremont McKenna College, the siren was removed and transported to a storage yard, where it was left without any clear plans for its future. Attached to a pole measuring 32 feet in length and weighing more than a ton, the only plan for the siren was to have it remain lying on its side out of public view.

Joseph Harper and Kelsey Picken, co-founders of the Cold War: L.A.website, noticed that the siren was missing from its original location and quickly tracked it down. Brian Worley, Facilities Director at Claremont McKenna College, provided the information needed to come up with a proposal to move the siren from the storage yard to a new home at The Wende Museum in Culver City. With the assistance of Professor Joshua Goode, Chair of the History and Museum Studies programs at Claremont Graduate University, the proposal was quickly approved by the college and the city. Coordinating the efforts between CMC, CGU, the City of Claremont, and The Wende Museum, Mr. Worley played an integral part in ensuring the success of the project and overseeing transportation of the siren the 45 miles across Los Angeles County to its new home. The Wende Museum plans to mount the siren in an upright position at their new armory headquarters, which will open in 2015. In the meantime, it currently is stored in the back loading area of the building site where it can be viewed from the street.

The importance of this project for Cold War: L.A., The Wende Museum, the Claremont Colleges, and the siren itself, is tremendous. Collaborations such as these generate opportunities to save, restore, and protect history. According to Dr. Goode, “This project and its entire trajectory represent exactly the kind of research that we aim for in Museum Studies and at CGU more broadly… [T]hrough the initiative of our students, a class project became a partnered project with CGU working with our five College colleagues, the City of Claremont and The Wende Museum to benefit the Los Angeles community writ large. It will serve as a shining example of the work we do in Museum Studies thanks to two very insightful students.” For the creators of ColdWarLA.com, it is their hope that projects such as these will bring more awareness to the everlasting history and artifacts within and around the City of Los Angeles, as well as the state of California.

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Hungarian Communism and the Revision of History

George Orwell stated in his novel 1984 “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” While it may seem that the immediate past is impossible to revise, most of history is open to interpretation. Most Americans know that Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese on December 7, 1941, but how this attack played out and what prompted it, is constantly reconsidered by historians. Now imagine an event has knowingly been written about to fit a particular historical perspective. Furthermore, multiple alterations and manipulated documents have been used to create a fictional history. This is the problem with Cold War history.  There are known historical episodes, such as the Hungarian Revolutions of 1919 and 1956 that received particular interpretations by the Soviets in the late 1950’s. An additional problem is the purging of historical facts and eventual restoration.  Nevertheless, these historical revisions recount political opinion at a given time and can assist in dating artwork and artifacts. If a work of art, for example, shows an image of a person who was politically rehabilitated the work must come from a subsequent time period.

The deliberate recreation of history, however, is what drew my attention to two portfolios in The Wende Museum’s collection. The two portfolios deal with the 1956 Hungarian revolution and the history of communism in Hungary respectively. Both demonstrate how this constant revision of history erodes the actual events they depict to create mere fiction in the mind of the viewer.  While the portfolio about the 1956 Revolution portrays events that now are known to have never occurred, the portfolio also includes exaggerated depictions of real events.  The portfolio of communism in Hungary demonstrates how this changing history becomes problematic when political realities change over time.

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 changed the way the West viewed Eastern Europe and shaped the way Hungarian history would be viewed.  The Hungarian Revolution began on October 23, 1956 with a demonstration in Budapest that led to the takeover of the Communist-run radio station and the destruction of a monumental statue of Stalin.  During the following12 days, the Hungarian Communist Government would change leaders–Imre Nagy would take power from Ernő Gerő who was a close ally of Mátyás Rákosi- and attempt to become a neutral country in the growing Cold War.  On November 4, Hungarian neutrality would end when Soviet tanks entered Budapest and began to put down the revolution[1]. Even with these verifiable facts, questions of Western involvement and the goals of the revolution still arise.  It is thought that the West might have unintentionally encouraged the Hungarian Revolutionaries through Radio Free Europe, which had been calling for the people to rise up and over throw their communist oppressors, but in no way supplied material support besides food. The West had hoped to provide diplomatic assistance through the United Nations but this occurred too late in the revolution[2]. The goals of the revolution varied depending upon which group is being discussed.  For longstanding members of the Communist Party who supported the revolution, the goal was to create a Hungarian form of Communism, for some it was removal of all Soviet influence and for others the removal of Communism.  It is because of these differences the Communist headquarters in Budapest would be burned and functionaries killed even while the revolution was being supported by some communists.  These differences show that the 1956 Revolution was not united in purpose, however the 1956 portfolio ignored these issues and presented the revolution as a unified western anti-communist plot.

Figure 1

In the woodcut titled “Western Assistance” (see Figure 1) a group of men are unpacking boxes that have the German word for canned on the side, but guns are actually being pulled from the crate. Events such as this never happened during  the revolution.  The Hungarian revolutionaries received a majortity of their weapons from the Hungarian Army, which overwhelmingly sided with the revolution. By showing weapons being received from the West, the revisions absolve the army of supporting the revolution and also show the revolution as a Western conspiracy. By doing this the artist is able to delegitimize those Hungarians who fought in the revolution not as true freedom fighters but as members of the western conspiracy.  This print is juxtaposed with other prints in the portfolio of events that did take place.  “Avos” (see Figure 2) depicts a man being shot in the street because he was thought to be a member of the secret police.   Murders such as this transpired during the revolution. By including an incident that a majority of people knew about gives the revisions an air of reality. Also this image is able to present a unified narrative of the revolution.  Instead of unconnected events these incidents prove a Western or Fascist conspiracy.  Even the burning of Russian books by Lenin, Marx, Stalin and others from a Russian owned book store on the first day, were not proof of anti-Russian feeling, but rather conclusive proof of a Fascist conspiracy[3].

Figure 2

Through the rewriting of history Hungarian and Soviet Communists hoped to convince the Hungarian public and communists abroad that 1956 was not a popular revolution but a Fascist counter-revolution.  In order for 1956 to be a fascist counter-revolution communists needed to show that such an event had occurred before.  Revisions had to move beyond the events of 1956 and look back to the beginnings of communism in Hungary. In creating a unified narrative of communist triumph followed by counter re-evaluation, special attention had to be placed on the first Hungarian Communist government of 1919, the Hungarian Soviet Republic, and the “White Terror” that followed its collapse.  By linking the 1949 communist government to the 1919 government, the post 1956 government would then be able to link the 1956 revolution to the “White Terror” of 1919 and its results.

Figure 3

One of the problems prior to 1956 in discussing the Hungarian Soviet Republic was its political status.  In the 1930’s, members of the Hungarian Communist Party, including Béla Kun who was considered the leader of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, were purged from the communist party by Stalin.  Consequently, the Hungarian Soviet Republic was rarely talked about prior to Béla Kun’s political rehabilitation in 1956. Péter Apor points out that “between 1957 and 1962 twenty-four monographs and collective volumes were issued on various aspects of the dictatorship of the proletariat in 1919, in the two years longer period between 1949 and 1956 only eight volumes appeared within the field.[4]” With this renewed interest special importance was placed on 1919 government and its popularity.  In “Great Assembly before the parliament on 23 March 1919 on the occasion of the proclamation of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Béla Kun speaker,” (See Figure 3) a crowd of spectators gathers to see the beginning of the new communist era. This image does not reveal aspects of the Hungarian Soviet Republic.  One aspect that is covered up is the reason for the communist’s early success. The communists promised to restore Hungarian lands that had been taken during the peace negotiations at the end of World War I.  Thus, support for the communist government arose because of nationalism.  By showing the government to be popular, the print narrative helped explain away its collapse after 133 days.  The 1919 government fell due to a “Red Terror” that was carried out following an attempted coup.  The “Red Terror” attempted to secure the control of the communist government and also remove the leaders of the growing opposition.  Another factor in the fall was the Romanian invasion and occupation of Budapest. This collapse caused a power vacuum that allowed partisan groups to carry out a “White Terror.” During the “White Terror” communists and those considered enemies of the people were killed, including large numbers of Jews.  During this period, Miklós Horthy became regent and Hungary returned to a parliamentary form of government, putting an end to the “White Terror”.  The downfall of the 1919 government because of a “Fascist counter-revolution” became an important connection for the new post-1956 Communist government to make. In order to make this connection, Hungarian communists had to show that the ruling government from 1919 to 1945 was a Fascist dictatorship.

Figure 4

The suggestion that Hungary was dominated by Fascism exaggerated the role of the Hungarian Arrow Cross party, the equivalent to the Nazi party. In “Unity against Fascist Attack” (see Figure 4) Arrow Cross members are shown attacking and being beaten back by members of the Social Democrats, an ally of the Communist Party.  The Arrow Cross did take power in Hungary but only in the last six months of Hungarian involvement in World War II.  This occurred because Horthy signed a ceasefire with the Soviet Union, which prompted Hitler to replace Horthy.  Prior to that the Arrow Cross Party was at odds with the Hungarian Government and the leaders at one point were placed in prison. The re-creation of the Horthy government as a Fascist dictatorship would be used to scare the Hungarian public about the possible consequences had the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 succeeded.

– Daniel Puffpaff, Research Intern

[1] For further reading I would suggest Sebestyen, Victor. Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. New York: Random House, 2006 and also Applebaum, Anne. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956. New York: Doubleday, 2012.

[2] The collection Foreign Relation of the United States 1955-1957 Volume XXV, Eastern Europe contains several documents that deal with the US response to the Hungarian Revolution.

[3] The book The Truth about Hungary: facts and eyewitness accounts by A Belokon and V Totstikov shows an image of the book burning and has the caption “In Germany, too, fascism began with burning books.”

[4] The writing is found at http://ganymedes.lib.unideb.hu:8080/dea/bitstream/2437/89593/5/ertekezes.pdf  on page 11 of the PDF.

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Volunteer Profile: John Ahouse

JAhouseFor the first in an occasional series profiling staff, volunteers, and friends of the Wende, we spent some time with Special Collections Curator John Ahouse.

Perhaps unbeknownst to his colleagues, who revere his deep knowledge of Cold War history, John made his mark with a study of American writer and social reformer Upton Sinclair, assembling a significant collection of some 400 books and related archives and publishing a bibliography. In a major gift to a teaching institution, John has just donated his collection to California State University Dominguez Hills, where it is currently on display.

How did an Upton Sinclair scholar become our resident expert in East German history? John’s relationship to the subject of “die Wende” long predates his association with the Wende Museum. He first traveled to Berlin on a post-graduate fellowship in 1958, three years before the construction of the Berlin Wall. John’s service with the Army Security Agency brought him back to West Berlin as the Cold War intensified in the early 1960s. He worked on audio surveillance of the GDR from Tempelhof Airport, which a dozen years earlier had served as the landing strip for the renowned Berlin Airlift. Civilian work as a translator kept John in Berlin for several more years, after which he returned to the States and earned master’s degrees in linguistics and library science.

With his thirty-year career as a librarian behind him, including stints at Cal State University Long Beach and most recently in rare books and archives at USC, John revisited his early interest in German language and culture when he joined the Wende Museum in 2006. Shortly thereafter, he accompanied museum director Justin Jampol to Berlin, where they conducted historical witness interviews with four people whose lives had been profoundly affected by the Wall. You can view these interviews online wendemuseum.org or at the interactive display monitor in the Wende’s Facing the Wall exhibition. John’s vital participation in this project helped launch the Wende’s growing collection of historical witness interviews, which most recently documented the stories of Soviet Jewish immigrants to Los Angeles.

John has contributed scholarly research on our materials and aspects of East German cultural life for the forthcoming book on the Wende’s East German collection from TASCHEN Books, as well as assembling a reference volume on state-sponsored painting in East Germany, a subject often neglected in art historical scholarship. John also interacts closely with scholars, interns, and foreign students who come to work with the Wende’s collection. We are in the process of establishing an endowment fund in John’s name to support student internships at The Wende Museum.

If you haven’t had a chance to meet John, we urge you to join the fascinating tours he leads on Fridays at 11:30am and 2pm. Tours are free and open to the public.

You can read his biography of Upton Sinclair at the Wende’s library, or purchase it yourself at Amazon.com.

– Kate Dollenmayer, Audiovisual Archivist

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“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him”

– John F. Kennedy

Above all the Cold War was fought at the cultural front. To think of culture, especially the fine arts, as a front or even as a weapon that transports and exports ideological ideas and is used to reinforce propaganda, certainly wasn’t invented during the Cold War, but assumed proportions that were without equal.

The cultural war flared up in postwar Germany and Austria. The goal was not only to prevent the resurgence of Nazism and Fascism, but especially to bind Germany to the West or to the East. Both, the Soviet Union and the United States were highly aware of the symbiosis between political and cultural connections. So it isn’t surprising that the first years of the Cold War, from 1950-55, were mainly characterized by the linkage of aesthetic rejection and enemy stereotypes.[1]  Further, lots of money was spent, institutions founded and programs established to spread or control culture and art. To name just two different approaches: In the East the Artist Association of the GDR (Verband Bildender Künstler der DDR) was founded in 1950, which paved the way for state commissioned art[2], and in the West the Emergency Fund for International Affairs was established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954[3] to demonstrate the “superiority of the products and cultural values of [America’s] system of free enterprise”[4].

The famous discussion of what is considered art became attached to a political component. Abstract art was a synonym for free art, the art of the West, THE postwar aesthetic. That this was also due to the subversive activity of the CIA is often forgotten.[5]

Socialist Realism became the art of the Socialist workers, the Communists – or as seen in the West, the art of totalitarian states and therefore no art at all. Artists who did not meet the party line were oppressed or even persecuted.[6]

The Cold War era was characterized by fear that dwindled into paranoia. The constant anxiety of infiltration by the enemy, gave cultural exchange a tension and meaning that is hard to reconstruct today. A picture, an exhibition, a theatrical play or musical suddenly could represent a regime or be misused by the opponent for propaganda needs. Therefore, not only the opponent’s art was feared to undermine society, but it was also the artist and his art production that was carefully chosen, before being shown abroad.

When Everyman Opera Inc. toured Western Europe from 1952-56, performing Porgy and Bess, they were at first generously supported by the US government ($707,000 + transportation).[7] The support ended, however, when they were invited to perform in the Soviet Union, because the American government feared they would have to provide visas to Soviet artists in return.[8] Further it was not foreseen that the performance would be a success. The socio-critical plot of the opera, addressing slavery in the United States, one of the most sensitive topics in American history, could have been easily exploited for Soviet propaganda.[9] None of this happened. The critics were mostly positive, and the first American performance in Russia since the founding of the Soviet Union, must be considered a huge success.[10]


An example of how things could have developed differently, would be the reception to Annie Get Your Gun in the German Democratic Republic’s (GDR) daily newspaper Neues Deutschland in 1950. The heading of the article read “Warmongering with sex-appeal, ” and described Betty Hutton as a “grinning beast”.[11]


But the paranoia and the agitation against everything not meeting the party line in the GDR, didn’t stop at American productions. It also affected the GDR’s own poetic figurehead Bertolt Brecht. Although he was a professed communist and voluntarily moved to the Soviet Occupation Zone when he returned from exile in the U.S. after the war, he was censored and criticized by the authority. They deeply distrusted him and his self elaborated “epical theater” (later “dialectical theater”) was rejected. [12]  His “Threepenny Opera” was called an apotheosis, with a lack of class-conscious statements and exemplary characters.[13] The turning point came in 1955 when Brecht was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in Moscow. Only then did the GDR fully accept him as a state-poet.[14] He died one year later at the age of 58. True to the motto “only a dead poet is a good poet,” the GDR government exploited Brecht and his work for their purposes. Brecht had never allowed himself to fully criticize the GDR, although he was more than disappointed by the lacking revolutionary vigor of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) and did not agree with the official party line.[15]


Nevertheless, I think the case of Brecht is somehow sad. His personal fate is unique, yet also exemplary and descriptive for the time. A lot of artists who truly believed in the communist ideology shared Brecht’s fate, which is only proof to how little the existing Socialist states had in common with the ideas they claimed to stand for. This should be kept in mind and is sometimes forgotten in the nostalgic reminiscences of today known in German as: “Ostalgie.”

The success of Porgy and Bess, however, shows that culture and fine arts can be understood and appreciated everywhere. Even in a time when fine arts were used as weapons and propaganda there also was understanding and interest. Culture is something humankind has in common not something that divides us.

Felicia Grudzien

[1]Cf. Bollenbeck, Georg “Tradition, Avantgarde, Reaktion. Deutsche Kontroversen um die kulturelle Moderne 1880-1945,” Frankfurt a.M.: S. Fischer, 1999, p. 349. In accord with: Schröter, Kathleen “Zur Rezeption ostdeutscher Kunst seit 1945,” accessed: 3/24/2014, http://www.bildatlas-ddr-kunst.de/knowledge/39
[2] Pätzke, Hartmut: Von “Auftragskunst” bis “Zentrum für Kunstausstellungen”. Lexikon zur Kunst und Kunstpolitik in der DDR. Ed. Blume, Eugen and März, Roland: “Kunst in der DDR. Eine Retrospektive der Nationalgalerie.” Berlin: G+H, 2003. p. 328. Accessed: 3/24/2014. http://www.bildatlas-ddr-kunst.de/glossary/72
[3] Noonan, Ellen “The strange career of Porgy and Bess – Race, culture, and America’s most famous Opera,” Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Google books. Accessed: 2/5/2014, http://books.google.com/books?id=y5zT5VeF_EsC&pg=PA196&lpg=PA196&dq=porgy+and+bess+Poland&source=bl&ots=X2hCdxJl0e&sig=jsboo2pv_f4pTOQ7Gu51z5dpyRA&hl=en&sa=X&ei=xbHyUqq-A4jioATHjoHICA&ved=0CE4Q6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=porgy%20and%20bess%20Poland&f=false
[4] United States “Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954 Volume II, Part 2, National Security Affairs, Document 363 – The President to the President of the Senate,” by Dwight D. Eisenhower, Washingtion, July 27, 1954, accessed: 2/10/2014, available at: https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1952-54v02p2/d363
[5] Beaucamp, Eduard Der Bilderstreit, ed.: Rehberg, Karl-Siegbert and Schmidt, Hans-Werner: “60 40 20 – Kunst in Leipzig seit 1949,” Leipzig: E.A. Seemann, 2009. p. 256-261. Accessed: 3/24/2014,   http://www.bildatlas-ddr-kunst.de/knowledge/48
[6] Cf. Ibid.
[7] Noonan, Ellen “The strange career of Porgy and Bess – Race, culture, and America’s most famous Opera,” Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Google books. Accessed: 2/5/2014, http://books.google.com/books?id=y5zT5VeF_EsC&pg=PA196&lpg=PA196&dq=porgy+and+bess+Poland&source=bl&ots=X2hCdxJl0e&sig=jsboo2pv_f4pTOQ7Gu51z5dpyRA&hl=en&sa=X&ei=xbHyUqq-A4jioATHjoHICA&ved=0CE4Q6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=porgy%20and%20bess%20Poland&f=false
[8] Ibid.
[9] Capote, Truman “Onward and Upward with the Arts: Porgy and Bess in Russia – The Muses Are Heard,”  The New Yorker, October 27, 1956, p. 41-114, http://archives.newyorker.com/?i=1956-10-27#folio=040, accessed: 10/2/2014.
[10] Ibid.
[11] “Kriegshetze mit Sex-appeal,” Neues Deutschland, Apr. 28, 1950, p. 3.
[12] Goetze, Lutz “Bertolt Brecht in Ost- und Westdeutschland,” GlobKult Magazin,last modified: 09/07/2014, http://www.globkult.de/kultur/l-iteratur/802-lutz-goetze
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
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The Politics of Contraception in the GDR

When the crude wooden contraption to the right was unpacked, I heard (and occasionally participated in) variations of the following conversation at least half a dozen times in the space of five hours.Condom Dispenser

“What on earth is that?”

“It’s an East German condom machine.”

“…oh. Right. Wait, what?”

The surprise was understandable. For whatever reason, a condom dispenser strikes most people as an inherently un-Museum-like object. Simultaneously, however, in a bizarre sort of way this condom machine is emblematic of the Wende’s mission: to present the “alternate reality” that was East German (and Eastern Bloc) life through the everyday items that made their life possible, and in the process provide us with insight into the way East German society functioned and what East German society valued, without recourse to the reductionist bipolar rhetoric of the Cold War.

Even two decades removed from the fall of the Soviet Union, one of the dirty little secrets of the Cold War is that Eastern Bloc nations occasionally enacted progressive social policies that predated similar efforts in NATO and other Western nations by decades. For instance, the Soviet Union of the 1920s displayed more of a commitment to racial/gender equality than did the United States of the 1950s. [i] Even in the Stalin years and beyond, when the Eastern European communists lost much of their taboo-busting idealism in favor of authoritarian traditionalism, social policies often retained something of a revolutionary edge.[ii] It should go without saying that such dynamism does not lessen the horror and trauma often inflicted upon the citizenry by the state in these nations. But we can recognize the multifaceted nature of the Cold War communist regimes without becoming apologists for them, and note the inventiveness of many of their social policies without forgetting that the enlightened impulse behind some of their ideas was inconsistently applied and at times was even perverted into atrocity.

Mondos LogoOne area in which the Eastern Bloc remained consistently more progressive than their Western counterparts was in contraception. The United States effectively outlawed contraception in the 1873 Comstock laws, which prohibited the sale and advertising of any form of birth control. Contraception for married couples was legalized in 1965 and for unmarried Americans at the almost unbelievably late date of 1972. Contraceptives in East Germany, meanwhile, were legal for the entirety of the GDR’s duration, and (condoms excepted) were provided free of charge beginning in the early 1960s.[iii] For most ossies, the representative image of East German contraception is the logo of the Mondos brand (see left), produced largely in Erfurt by Volkseigener Betrieb (“Public enterprise,” commonly known as VEB) Plastina. Mondos were available in all pharmacies or via mail-order. Like a great deal of GDR merchandise, Mondos were cheap and said to be unreliable, but they enjoyed a public presence far in excess of any form of contraception in the United States until the 1970s, or possibly even until the AIDS-driven mass adoption of condoms in the 1980s.[iv]

The Mondos condom machine depicted here provided condoms for fifty pfennigs a piece, and was most likely displayed in a pharmacy, train station, public toilet, or possibly even a barber shop or supermarket. It dates to the 1960s, a decade in which condom dispensers would have been a rare sight in the United States. According to the information on the dispenser, fifty pfennigs would buy two “silver” condoms. The buyer is instructed to insert their coin and then pull open the compartment at the bottom of the dispenser, which would unlock and contain the purchased condoms (none of which remained in the machine after the Wende purchased it).

Julius Fromm

Julius Fromm

The growth of the GDR contraceptives industry was almost entirely due to the work of two people: Julius Fromm and Karl-Heinz Mehlan. Fromm took advantage of the then innovative use of rubber vulcanization to produce condoms in the early 20th century along with the Imperial German (and later, the Weimer Republic’s) liberal attitude towards sex, establishing the world’s first global condom brand in 1916 (known as “Fromms Act”). During the 1920s, Fromm’s factory in East Berlin was producing upwards of 24 million condoms per year, a figure that far outstripped any other contraceptive manufacturer on earth. Fromm’s condom empire was dismantled in 1933, however, as Adolf Hitler rose to power. Fromm, who was Jewish, was forced to sell his enterprise to a government-sponsored buyer for a sum of 116,000 Reichsmarks (the estimated actual value was close to 5 million Reichsmarks).[v] His Berlin factory was eventually seized by the GDR, who nationalized it for the production of Mondos.

Karl-Heinz Mehlan

Karl-Heinz Mehlan

Mehlan, meanwhile, a professor at the University of Rostock and a gynecologist by profession, was instrumental for his efforts to introduce and popularize the birth control pill in the GDR. He designed and managed the first studies on sexual practice in the GDR, and cooperated with Western scientists to promote sex education around the world. He ultimately founded some two-hundred family and marriage counseling centers to disseminate information on safe-sex, and his advocacy was largely responsible for the free distribution of the birth control pill (known in the GDR as the “Wunschkindpille,” or child pill) by doctors in the GDR beginning in 1965.[vi] He remained a revered figure in both Germanys until his death in 2003.

Despite the free provision of contraceptives and their substantial public presence, the perspective of the East German government on birth control was complicated. On the one hand, East Germany was a conservative society – much more so than the more urbanized West Germany.[vii] Gender roles dictating the woman’s central role in parenting were deeply ingrained, and resistance to contraception was often strong “on the ground.”[viii] Walter Ulbricht, general secretary of the GDR’s communist party and the most powerful man in the country between 1950 and 1971, held an ill-disguised disdain for measures of population control, although not to the extent of illegalization (as in the United States). On the other, the GDR considered itself a “scientific” state in the tradition of the Bolsheviks and therefore put a great deal of stock into the concerns of so-called “social hygienists” like Mehlan, who claimed that a lack of contraception was a huge health risk.[ix] In addition, as in the Soviet Union, there was recognition that pregnancy and motherhood presented women with a “double burden,” meaning that most women were forced to work in order to align with Communist mores and care for children in order to align with domestic ones. While this problem was never satisfactorily resolved (due to the state’s refusal to redefine the role of men in East German society),[x] the acknowledgment that there was a problem made the GDR (and Soviet Union) more receptive to contraception than in the United States, where the integration of middle-class women into the workforce was a gradual process and the “double burden” of working–class women was ignored until the last quarter of the twentieth century.[xi]

— David B. Wagner


[i] See Francine Hirsch, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge & the Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005) and Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001) for information on Soviet ethnic policies. See Wendy Goldman’s Women, the State, and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917-1936 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) for information on Soviet gender policies.

[ii] See Patrizia Albanese, Mothers of the Nation: Women, Families, and Nationalism in Twentieth Century Europe (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006) for information on how social policy developed in the Eastern Bloc into the 1980s.

[iii] Henry Philip David and Joanna Skilogianis, From Abortion to Contraception: A Resource to Public Policies and Reproductive Behavior in Central Europe from 1917 to the Present (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999) , p. 137.

[iv] Donna Harsch, Revenge of the Domestic: Women, the Family, and Communism in the German Democratic Republic (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 268.

[v] Götz Aly, Michael Sontheimer, and Shelley Laura Frisch, Fromms: How Julius Fromm’s Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis (New York: Other Press, 2009).

[vi] David and Skilogianis.

[vii] See Katherine Pence and Paul Betts, Socialist Modern: East German Everyday Culture and Politics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008).

[viii] Harsch.

[ix] Harsch.

[x] Socialist Modern.

[xi] Norman Stockman, Norman Bonney, and Xuewen Sheng,  Women’s Work in East and West: the Dual Burden of Employment and Family Life (Among, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1995).

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