“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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Holiday Memories of the Cold War

In the United States, celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah is so highly connected to material goods like Christmas trees, ornaments, cards, menorahs, dradles, decorations, specific food items and gifts, that it is difficult to imagine these holidays without these objects. In the Soviet Union however, items intended for the celebration of Christmas and Hanukah were rare (if they existed at all) and the holiday that was most openly celebrated and involved the consumption of the greatest number of goods was the secular, state-approved holiday Novy God (Russian for “New Year”).  While the purchasing and public display of goods relating to Christmas and Hanukah was largely verboten, open exchange of Novy God cards, exhibiting a Novy God fir tree and feasting for the New Year was encouraged by the state and warmly embraced by much of the population.



Novy God Card in The Wende collection depicting “Grandfather Frost” and a Novy God fir tree

When Hanukah and Christmas were celebrated in the Soviet Union they were observed surreptitiously, because religion was highly discouraged by the state. During more lenient phases and for certain faiths that the state found less objectionable, religious practice was permitted in private spaces and areas like churches specifically designated for religious observance. However, during other eras and/or in regard to religions the state viewed less tolerably (for example, Judaism, Jehovah’s Witness, and Ukrainian Orthodox), persecution of worshippers could be extreme–resulting in exile, death and imprisonment for the openly observant. As a consequence, celebrations of Christmas and Hanukah in the Soviet Union were much less conspicuous than celebrations in the West—if celebrations occurred at all.

The celebration of Hanukkah in the Soviet Union was often so different from the celebration in America that Jews growing up in the Soviet Union who moved to the United States were often completely unfamiliar with the rituals and traditions of American Jews. According to an article from Philadelphia Weekly, while many American Jews celebrate Hanukkah with rituals involving the dreidel, the menorah, and gift-giving, many Jews born in the Soviet Union placed much less emphasis on Hanukkah and observed no traditions related to it. In an interview  with the artist Ann Krasner (conducted for the Wende’s upcoming film From Red State to Golden State: Soviet Jewish Immigration in the City of Angels, An Oral History about the Soviet Jewish experience in Los Angeles), she remarks on her lack of familiarity with many Jewish rituals saying, “…we were deprived of [religious traditions] completely, in my family in Russia when I was raised, there was nothing Jewish on the table …my parents were missing that Jewish education, and they didn’t give it to us,”  and she goes on to speak about having to learn religious traditions from American Jews: “…we try to observe Jewish holidays, we love to visit other families in Malibu who are more religious, and have more traditions, so we learn from them.” In sum, because Jews were frequent targets of Soviet persecution, open participation in religious activities frequently resulted in negative repercussions from the state; as a result, Jews who remained in the Soviet Union lost knowledge of Jewish ritual and tradition which had an impact on the ways in which Hanukkah was celebrated.

Christmas celebrations were also relatively meager and often limited to private homes and services within state sanctioned churches. While some celebration might be tolerated, it was hardly encouraged by the state. Enn Tarto, the Estonian dissident, provides a riveting account of how several Christmases in Soviet-occupied Estonia were affected by Soviet repression.  The first Christmas memory he described was in 1956; on Christmas Eve, the KGB observed him celebrating Christmas with members of an underground youth movement. The next day (Christmas Day), he was assaulted and taken into custody for his participation in the youth movement’s activities. While being interrogated, he was taunted by members of the KGB and wished a, “Merry Christmas,” before being sent to prison.  The second Christmas he recalled (1958) found him still imprisoned for his involvement with the youth movement two years prior. On Christmas day, the prisoners were celebrating Christmas with Christmas trees, cookies and religious observances when prison staff attempted to stop their observance of the holiday. The prisoners resisted, and considered it a victory when they were allowed to continue their celebration. During the last Christmas he recounts (1984), he was in a death camp and he and his cellmates sang Christmas songs and attempted to light a candle they had placed next to a small twig of a fir tree (all that they were able to muster for the observance of the holiday).  The guards, however, would not tolerate even this meager celebration.

While Hanukah and Christmas celebrations were heavily discouraged due to their religious affiliations, the Soviet authorities realized that many people were used to observing a winter holiday and thus attempted to transfer people’s wintertime celebratory zeal onto a secular celebration of the Novy God. This transfer was extremely effective and many Jews and Christians alike were enthusiastic about this secular holiday, not only because it allowed for gift giving, special holiday meals and heavy drinking (including the drinking of Soviet champagne: see image), but also because many of the rituals and symbols the State chose to represent Novy God were reminiscent of Christian (and perhaps even Jewish) rituals. For example, two prominent motifs associated with the holiday were the  Novy God fir tree decorated with ornaments, lights and a star, as well as two stories and icons featuring “Grandfather Frost,” an elderly white-bearded, gift-distributing man resembling Santa Claus. Another  icon with possible religious origins that was used on many Novy God cards was a lit candle, which perhaps was supposed to be a reference to the lighting of candles on the Menorah during Hanukah (see image) and is a symbol Christians use during the Christmas season as well.



Novy God Card in The Wende collection  

Some say that part of Novy God’s widespread appeal can be attributed to its lack of a Soviet-ideological basis, (unlike May Day, the Great October Soviet Revolution Day or other worker-oriented holidays created by the Soviet regime). “It was the best, cleanest, most joyful holiday. It was completely clean of ideology,”(Boston.com) said Masha Buman, a woman currently living in Israel but originally from the U.S.S.R.  However, while not “based” on Soviet ideology, the state still used Novy God material culture as a vehicle for pro-Soviet messages and iconography. Frequently, images on Novy God cards not only depicted non-political idyllic winter landscapes, Father Frost or Novy God trees, but also incorporated Soviet motifs like the hammer and sickle, cosmonauts and graphics showcasing the might of Soviet industry.  This iconography was probably fueled by the State’s desire to use people’s enthusiasm for Novy God to engender goodwill towards Soviet aims. An excellent example of this can be seen in a decorative plate  in the Wende collection depicting Grandfather Frost holding a watch standing with a happy  child wearing a “CCCP” helmet next to a Soviet rocket (see below).



Plate in The Wende collection featuring Grandfather Frost, a Soviet rocket and a child in a cosmonaut helmet

The inclusion of ideological material, however, did not seem to dampen people’s fondness for Novy God. In fact, the holiday was so beloved that many continue to celebrate the holiday even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In America, despite Novy God having several elements reminiscent of Christmas,  Jews from the Soviet Union continue to carry on traditions they formed around this holiday, including seven- to eight-hour meals featuring many courses of Russian food, listening to Russian music, and drinking tea and vodka.  Novy God is also enthusiastically celebrated in Israel since over a million former Soviet citizens moved to Israel after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R.  While there is some resistance to the celebration of Novy God in Israel as a result of its superficial similarities to Christmas, acceptance of the holiday has grown over time. While Israeli Rabbis still often discourage the display of many Novy God decorations, many Novy God items like Grandpa Frost and ingredients for traditional Novy God dishes (like canned peas and mayonnaise) are increasingly displayed and associated with the holiday in supermarkets and some hotels.



Novy God card in The Wende collection featuring Soviet Champagne

The differences in how the winter holidays were dealt with under Soviet rule and how they are approached in America is apparent in the material culture, and it reveals key differences in the societies as a whole. In the former, the relatively intense scrutiny of citizen behavior, lack of religious freedom, and willingness to use force, occur not just during the holidays but also year round.  Since stories of holiday experiences reveal deep and enduring societal motifs and features one hopes that over time more people will come forward with stories of their Christmas, Hanukah and New Year’s traditions in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.  

We hope you enjoy the holiday season. We wish you a merry Christmas, a happy Hanukah and encourage you to eat your fill of canned peas and mayonnaise for Novy God.

For information on The Wende’s upcoming film From Red State to Golden State: Soviet Jewish Immigration in the City of Angels, an Oral History, click here.

Links consulted:







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How I Spent My (East German) Summer Vacation

Kate Papageorge was a Collections Intern and will receive her master’s degree in Library and Information Studies this year from UCLA.

As a Collections Intern at the Wende Museum, I had the pleasure of cataloging fascinating objects that represented aspects of life during the Cold War. Many motifs emerged from the materials I processed and one in particular seemed apropos for a summer internship: vacationing.

Hundreds of Postcards

The beginning of an adventure.

The vacation theme burst forth from a shoebox one day as I was unpacking items from a recent shipment. I discoverered nearly 400 postcards, each of which was a record of someone’s journey, complete with place name, image, date, and commentary giving me a glimpse into the travels of the people living in the German Democratic Republic. Guided by these colorful images, I began to get a sense of what it was like for people there to go on vacation and was inspired to learn more.

After some reading, it became clear that travel in East Germany was at once both restricted and facilitated by the political circumstances of the day. In a country where labor was assigned a great deal of importance, travel was seen as a way to rejuvenate oneself for the return to work. Thus the state made provisions for its citizens to enjoy an appropriate amount of travel and leisure time. To begin with, the labor reforms of the 20th century ensured that the citizens of the GDR had much more vacation time than they had historically, rising from 6 to 18 days during the country’s existence. Furthermore, state travel agencies like Reisebüro and union groups like the Freier Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (FDGB, or Free German Trade Union Federation) helped to organize travel that was relatively easy and affordable, albeit to a limited number of locations. Large factories often operated their own resorts, which were available to workers at any level of the firm for a reasonable price.

Feriendienst Travel Guides

The Free German Trade Union Federation offered its Feriendienst travel service to its members and was the largest provider of holiday travel tourism in the GDR. The FDGB operated many travel resorts and two ships.

However, the freedom to take time off and the freedom to travel are not the same thing. Because the government restricted the movement of its citizens for political reasons, East-West travel involved lengthy and unpleasant encounters with the Grentztrupen (border guards) at border checkpoints.  As a result, citizens of the GDR mostly traveled instead to friendlier areas in the Warsaw Pact region and also roamed extensively throughout their own countryside, visiting East Germany’s many attractions along the way. And so it was that GDR inhabitants would pack up their Trabants and head off into the wild and wonderful East.

Germany is notable for its multifarious tourist destinations. Boasting a combination of historical sites, modern cities, and vast swaths of natural beauty, Germans and international visitors alike had no shortage of vacation destinations to choose from. Some of the more popular vacation spots within East Germany were the Baltic Coast and the Saxon Mountains.


A postcard from the Baltic Coast.

Dresden Postcard

Greetings from Dresden!

The general types of activities that took place on these vacations would be the same as any vacation in the West, but with the subtle yet pervasive differences that distinguish daily life on one side of the wall from the other. These typical vacation activities are evident from the different locales represented by the postcards in the collection I processed. The spa towns located throughout the country gave visitors an opportunity for rest and relaxation, while some of the challenging mountain ranges offered more strenuous recreation. Resorts frequently hosted summer and winter sports and historical sites were an opportunity to be informed and inspired. Lastly, the big cities of the German Democratic Republic, such as Dresden, Berlin, Potsdam, and Leipzig offered the culture, historical connection, and entertainment that tourists desired. The images on the postcards let us imagine ourselves as vacationers at the tourist attractions they advertise.

Thale Postcard

Images of Thale in the Harz Mountains. This area is famous for its witch folklore.

I have grown very appreciative of the practice of postcard sending. This ritual has created vast amounts of data on the travels of people from all walks of life. And yet, this commemorative tendency is not unique to writing postcards. Whether it is checking in on Facebook, sending a postcard, or scratching a name into a rock, humanity has exhibited the impulse to document itself, its activity, and its movement.

It’s as if these are saying:

“I exist.

Wish you were here.”

Postcard message.

Even children participate in the postcard experience.


  1. Encyclopædia britannica online, s. v. “Germany”, accessed September 10, 2013.
  2. Fodor, Eugene. Germany 1970. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1970.
  3. Hanke, Helmut. “Leisure time in the GDR: trends and prospects.” The quality of life in the German Democratic Republic.  Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1989.
  4. “Have D-marks, won’t travel” The economist 316, no. 7667 (August 11, 1990): 52.
  5. Smith, Jean Edward. Germany beyond the wall. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1969.
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Skoda: the Eastern Bloc’s Model Automobile Manufacturer

SOgbac1    While exploring the artworks in the Hungarian Collection, I stumbled upon a relief depicting two workers in a machine factory that had the logo of Skoda Auto in the bottom left. The logo immediately caught my attention because of my interest in cars and automobile racing. As a result, I started to research Skoda’s history and explore Eastern Europe’s automotive landscape under Communism.

During the Cold War, countries under the Warsaw Pact emphasized the need for industrialization as a way to move society forward. The Hungarian government, for example, promoted industrial and agrarian reform in order to advance national identity through communist ideology. Manufacturing companies like Skoda Auto benefitted from the command SOgbac2economy because it gave them access to a larger pool of workers. Furthermore, this philosophy also allowed Eastern bloc countries to take pride in the products they produced and encouraged the proletariat to see the value of hard work and its importance in modernization. Their presence in artworks validates the importance of the people who represented the backbone of communist society.  Reliefs like the Skoda Machine Factory Wall Decoration (above) exemplify the people’s ability to help their nation move forward through working together as a collective.

Skoda Machine Factory Wall Decoration depicts two factory workers manufacturing parts for a car. The iron relief highlights the importance of industrialization to the eastern bloc as a way to progress to the same level as their western counterparts. At the same time, the object illustrates the high quality goods made in the Eastern bloc by emphasizing the ability of Skoda to create excellent vehicles that rivaled those from Western Europe, the United States and Japan. Furthermore, the piece affirms the fast pace of industrialization in eastern bloc nations through the products they produced.

Founded in 1895, Skoda is a Czech car manufacturer that began as a producer of SOgbac3bicycles. During the Cold War, Skoda was the only automobile marquee that marketed its products in both the eastern and western blocs. The company manufactured its cars, buses, trains, and locomotives in the former Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Under Communism, however, the process of developing new products changed, causing Skoda to “reuse and recycle” parts from older models and sell them as “all-new” products. This became evident in the 1980s when

Skoda’s cars fell behind with technology that dated back to the 1960s. Nevertheless, unlike car makers in the Eastern bloc such as Trabant and Lada, Skoda maintained its reputation for producing reliable automobiles, allowing it to continue selling cars in both Eastern and Western Europe. In 1952, Skoda’s 1200 models became the first cars exported to East Germany, selling 8,000 examples in various body styles. They followed up with the Octavia line at a cost of 15,000 marks, which sold 70,000 examples, and the Felicia convertible, which commanded 19,000 marks from 1954 to 1971. By the 1960s, Skoda began manufacturing vehicles with engines in the rear that sold for 15,000 Marks. During the 1970s, Skoda developed the S 100 model, which cost between 16,000 to 23,000 Marks depending on body style, selling some 400 examples in East Germany. The 1980s saw Skoda develop the S105, S120, S130 and S135 models, which continued a rear engine design and commanded around 20,000 Marks. The models from the 1950s to the 1980s were the first Skoda vehicles to use the names “Rapid,” “Favorit,” and “Octavia” that the brand continues to use today for its contemporary product offerings.

SOgbac4After the fall of the Soviet Union, Skoda became part of the Volkswagen (VW) Group, which gave the company access to new technologies and innovations developed by their parent and partner companies. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Skoda built its automobiles using platforms and technologies co-developed with VW Group companies such as Audi and Volkswagen. Positioned as a competitor to Fiat, Toyota, Ford and Opel, Skoda kept its reputation for building quality cars for the people and became a transnational company, selling its vehicles in Europe, Asia, Africa, South American and Australia.

The association with Volkswagen also allowed Skoda to resume its participation SOgbac5in motorsport particularly in rally events where it had competed since the 1960s. Skoda began competing in the World Rally Championship in the 1990s under Skoda Motorsport, funding various teams and companies with modern automobiles and engines to build race cars. Furthermore, the alliance with the Volkswagen Group allowed Skoda to offer performance-minded cars under the “RS and “vRS” monikers.

– Stefan Ogbac



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Editing History through Art: An Examination of the 50 years of the Hungarian Soviet Republic poster

HungarianAs I was researching the Hungarian Collection, the poster titled 50 years of the Hungarian Soviet Republic (1969) caught my attention. This poster celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1919 Communist Revolution in Hungary. It is interesting that the year 1919 is cited as the beginning of a continuous Communist government because the Hungarian Communist Revolution of 1919 was a failure. In fact, the Communist regime of Béla Kun lasted for only six months before the Kingdom of Hungary was reestablished. It would be more accurate for 1949 to be cited as the beginning of the Soviet-Hungarian Communist regime because that was the point when a stable communist government was established. Nonetheless, this poster strongly promotes 1919 as the beginning of the Soviet-Hungarian Communist government. What could explain this contradiction?  What purpose could this poster serve?

There are many possible explanations for this ambiguity. Exploration of the historical context before the Hungarian Revolution of 1919 is the best means to find an answer.  Throughout its history, Hungary had a strong foreign presence within its borders. In fact, Hungary was governed by the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Austria-Hungarian Empire. After World War I, Hungary was forced to turn over a significant amount of territory to the Triple Entente (France, Britain, and Russia).  Historically, Hungary was unable to establish a nation state, in which a people share a cultural background within defined territory.   In addition to the cultural and territorial confusion, the communist revolution of 1919 failed to create stability in Hungary.  Against this historical backdrop, Hungary creates a confusing definition of what it means to be Hungarian; therefore the 50th anniversary poster is an attempt to establish continuity.  It is far easier to cite 1919 as the beginning of a stable government  than to acknowledge Hungary’s complicated history including the failed revolution of 1919.  In an  effort to define Hungary’s national character, this poster consciously erased the influences and blunders of the past.

This poster is evidence that history was “edited” to define national character in Hungary. Ironically, today, the Hungarian government is continuing to obfuscate their recent past by divesting themselves of material culture associated with Communism under the Soviet Union. Can you find any other instances of this in Eastern Europe?

-Angela Salter

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Renate Müller Collection

The Wende Museum is Excited to Grow Our Collection of Renate Müller Toys!  


Renate Müller graduated from the Technical College of Applied Arts and Toy Design in Sonneberg, Germany. She began her career as a toy maker working with Helen Haeusler to create toys for use in therapeutic settings for mentally and physically handicapped children. The idea was to create large, bright toy animals for sensory exercise as well as balance training, orthopedic exercise and hand-eye coordination.


This effort proved successful, with psychiatric hospitals and clinics throughout Germany testing the toys for their benefits. In the 1970’s, the toys were also awarded the “Good Design” award by the Office of Industrial Design in East Germany.

When the Berlin Wall collapsed, Müller was able to gain the rights to her designs. She still produces a limited quantity of her toys each year. Each toy is hand-filled with natural materials and sewn by the artist.


In addition to the stuffed toys pictured in this post, The Wende Musuem recently acquired one of Müller’s seals and a snail!

Information about Renate Müller and her body of work is from the artists pages on R Gallary.

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