The Secretary of the Writers' Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?"
The Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic) was what was created in 1949 when the Soviet zone of occupied Germany became its own country. Accordingly, it was Commie Land.
The leaders of the freshly founded GDR were Walter Ulbricht ("the guy with the Lenin beard"), Wilhelm Pieck ("the guy with the potbelly") and Otto Grotewohl ("the guy with the glasses" - not this one, obviously). As early as 1953, shortly after Josef Stalin's death, the state had its first big crisis when workers rose against the government on June 17th. It didn't end too well. Even Communist author Bertolt Brecht criticized the government in his poem The Situation: "Would it not be be simpler then for the government, To dissolve the people and elect another?"
Under considerable Soviet influence (and with a huge Soviet military presence, the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany), East Germany is best known for the massive amount of surveillance carried out on its citizens by its Secret Police, the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Ministry for State Security), known as "Stasi". Its police force, the Volkspolizei (People's Police, known as "Vopos" for short) were also fairly notorious. It built the Berlin Wall and heavily fortified the Iron Curtain to stop its people from fleeing to the West (officially, it was to prevent Western spies going East — it probably did that, too note ).
Like any proper People's Republic of Tyranny, the German Democratic Republic did have elections, and other parties than the Marxist SED, but they were far from democratic. East Germans called this voting "Falten gehen" (going to fold), because anybody who did anything but fold their ballot (like crossing out candidates, or even staying at home) and put it in the urn immediately became suspicious. As the East Germans said, the only way to vote was "by foot", i.e. leaving the GDR for West Germany. Well, until 1961 that is, afterwards this was less of an option.
During its early years, the conservative government of West Germany did everything they could to not acknowledge East Germany's existence; breaking off diplomatic relations with every state (other than the USSR, which was too big to ignore) that acknowledged the GDR, calling it derogatory names like "Ostzone" (east zone), "Sowjetische Besatzungszone" (Soviet-occupied Zone), "so-called GDR" and "Undeutsche Undemokratische Diktatur" (Un-German Undemocratic Dictatorship), and generally claiming that western Germany was the only legitimate German state. The GDR rulers did the same, just the other way round. Later, in 1971, under Social Democrat Willy Brandt, relationsnote between the Germanies improved (the so-called Neue Ostpolitik, "New Eastern Policy") and relations with the Eastern Bloc were established. However, all the way until 1990 there was a lot of Insistent Terminology on the part of West Germany when it came to the East. For instance, the "embassy" in East Berlin was not called a Botschaft ("Embassy") but a "ständige Vertretung" (idiomatically, "Permanent Mission") and maps went to absurd lengths when describing the de facto borders of Europe with terms like "administered by Poland" for the former German territories east of Oder and Neiße.
East Germany was one of the economic success stories of Commie Land, with a decent agricultural system and enough manufacturing to put consumer goods within reach of many; their flag reflects this with its hammer and pair of compasses surrounded by wheat instead of the ubiquitous sickle. They achieved this despite the fact that, like the rest of Commie Land, the government invested far more than was necessary into the military and heavy industry. In fact, while the 1989 protesters had popular support for doing away with the oppressive regime, many East Germans were proud of their state and were not happy with the way that East Germany "became part of the effective area of the Basic Law of Germany" quite so summarily. note At least not after realising that reunification did not bring them an instant paradise, and that the now-ruling Western leaders weren't shy about handing out pink slips.note
The Eastern side did have a pretty good military, getting the full Soviet versions of military tech rather than the weaker export versions. Planned the one or other raid on West Germany too, but the unification stopped the plan before it could be executed. Their uniforms, though... Due to Germany still being, in many regards, an occupied country with two separate and independent governments, the Western powers (US, UK, France) had Military Liaison Missions in the GDR, allowing them to observe Soviet forces in action.
It allowed churches to operate freely, provided they didn't get political. It was also the most progressive of the East Bloc nations in matters of LGBT Rights. This dates back to the German Communist Party's support of Magnus Hirschfield's policies in The Weimar Republic (which preceded Stalin's homophobic reversal). The Paragraph 175 homophobic legislation from Imperial Germany remained on the books in both West and East Germany, but East Germany stopped enforcing it in The '50s and took a far more moderate approach albeit it absolutely forbade the creation of any public Gayborhood and kept the closet in force. In sharp contrast to West Germany, where pro-LGBT rights were opposed by the Churches, in East Germany, Protestant Churches actually helped nurture the underground gay community. In The '80s, East Germany reversed homophobia, and opened the first state-owned gay disco while a Supreme Court in East Germany affirmed, that "homosexuality, just like heterosexuality, represents a variant of sexual behavior. Homosexual people do therefore not stand outside socialist society, and the civil rights are warranted to them exactly as to all other citizens." In some respects, East Germany was a lot more progressive than West Germany on this issue, albeit the latter's development of free society and free speech allowed for openly gay artists and gay communities to develop, which did not quite happen behind the Wall.
East Germany also did quite well in sporting events... largely because many of its athletes were doped up to the eyeballs with the latest performance-enhancing drugs, in an effort to make the Communist regime look like it was working on the international stage. Most would suffer serious health problems as a result. In American TV of the seventies and eighties look for many jokes about East German sportswomen not really being women due to the Brawn Hilda-esque features that the drugs produced in female athletes. On the flip side to this, no one could accuse figure skater Katarina Witt, who won two Olympic golds in 1984 and 1988 along with a string of other titles, of being male; her elaborate and revealing costumes (which the the International Skating Union would change their rules to ban) led to her being dubbed "the most beautiful face of socialism" by Time magazine and who posed nude for a sell-out Playboy after the Wall came down.
Less amusingly, some female athletes were so badly messed up by the doping regimen (which in some cases started at the age of ten) that they had to undergo a full sex change operation, while others found themselves unable to properly bear children.
Most of East Germany could pick up West German TV networks, which helped undermine the regime. The channels couldn't be jammed since it would also jam West Germany and that would be bad diplomatically. The Dresden and Rügen areas couldn't, so were dubbed "The Valley of the Clueless". This was done a) because GDR television was full of propaganda and b) it appears not to have been that good. The only programmes that Wikipedia discusses in its English version are:
- Der schwarze Kanal ("The Black Channel"- derived from a German plumbing term for sewer): Think of a Communist MSTing of West German television news, only without the humour. Or the popularity.note (May fall under So Bad, It's Good, though.) Or, basically, you'd have clips of West German news programmes and presenter Karl-Eduard von Schnitzlernote providing pro-regime, anti-Western commentary on those clips in an attempt to undermine beliefs that Western news was more accurate than the Eastern offering...
- Aktuelle Kamera- the East German TV news broadcast, which was pretty much Propaganda. (After 1953 at least, prior to which it was even quite critical of the regime until coverage of the Uprising in that year put paid to that.)
- In Good Bye, Lenin!!, several real-life clips from the show are shown alongside edited-in fake reports made by the main character and his budding filmmaker friend in order to fool the former's mother into thinking communism never fell.
- Ein Kessel Buntes ("A Kettle of Colour")- A Variety Show, shown six times a year. Hollywood production standards and (usually past their prime) Western celebrities. Continued into the Berlin Republic and still turns up in re-runs.
- Das Spielhaus ("The Playhouse"): a popular puppet thing.
- Polizeiruf 110 ("Police call 110"): A Police Procedural, originally the Alternate Germany Equivalent of ARD's Tatort (albeit one that averted Always Murder in an attempt to "educate" the people), this series moved to Das Erste after reunification and basically became indistinguishable from its new inspiration (and stablemate).
East Germany's most famous consumer products were the Exacta and Praktica cameras (the Praktica brand still exists; it was part of the Kombinat Volks Eigener Betrieb Zeiss Jena (how's that for a company name, eh?) that invented the prism SLR design which is still the standard for cameras today - one of the few communist inventions to have an impact in the west), MZ motorcycles (whose engine technology gave Suzuki quite a boost in the early '60's after one of MZ's factory riders defected to join Suzuki) and the Trabant car, which was, by Western standards, obsolete before the '60s were over but gave many a Worker and his family the opportunity to move themselves about a bit, trailing a blue two-stroke smoke cloud. It pretty much disappeared from the East German streets as soon as the Wall opening brought other choices, but it's now considered a classic car. Some drivers have succeeded in making their Trabants capable of passing the MoT, Britain's strict government-mandated roadworthiness test; divine intervention is suspected. However the Trabant, suitably renovated, is making a bit of a comeback today among enthusiasts, who rebuild them into customized hotrods or simply restore them to better-than-new conditions.
The GDR was also famous for its bureaucratic nomenclature. Coffins for example were named Erdmöbel (literally: ground furniture), or the term Sättigungsbeilage (literally: Well, it is difficult to translate, really. It would be something like "a filling side dish", and means stuff like potatoes, dumplings or rice as a supplement to a proper mealnote ). Even more hilarious were the words they invented for religious stuff, like Frühjahrsschokoladenhohlkörper (hollow chocolate article of spring - a chocolate Easter Bunny) and Jahresendflügelpuppe (winged doll of the year's end - a Christmas angel for the Christmas tree and the like). The reason: Religion wasn't verboten in the GDR, but the ruling people didn't like it too much either. To what extent any of those words were ever actually and seriously used by anybody is still debated, much like alleged Berlin slang terms for several landmarks in Berlin that nobody but tourist and guidebooks seem to actually use.
The East Germans had their own state airline. They originally called it Deutsche Lufthansa, but the West Germans complained and got awarded that trademark, so it adopted the name of a separate charter airline- Interflug.
On the other hand, the East German rail network retained the pre-1945 name of Deutsche Reichsbahn ("German Imperial Railways"), while the West Germans renamed theirs Deutsche Bundesbahn ("German Federal Railways"). This may have been done since several treaties dating to the end of World War II mentioned special privileges—particularly relating to trackage rights in West Berlin, including the right to run the S-Bahn there—given by name to Deutsche Reichsbahn that might not have transferred automatically to VEB Bahn der DDR or some such, so it was best not to risk it. In 1994 the two were unified to form the new "Deutsche Bahn AG", though the name "Bundesbahn" somehow still sticks around in the minds of many West-Germans. The GDR-Reichsbahn is famous among many a Rail Enthusiast because steam died very late in the GDR. Until well into the 1980s, steam was employed on main lines which was mostly due to the lack of electrification (all pre-war electrification was taken to the Soviet Union as war reparation) and the fact that the GDR had lignite in abundance but hardly any oil deposits. Steam's main downsides (inefficiency and need for a lot of human labor) were of no major concern to the GDR authorities, as they wanted everybody to have a job (and only got it done by having a lot of people work less than full jobs, but paying them as if they were) and lignite was cheap and plentiful. As to speed, the horrible condition of most tracks allowed no more than 120 km/h on most lines, which was well within reach of pre-war era steam locomotives anyway.
The GDR was allocated an ISO 3166-1 code, but it never got a full domain code. Had it survived to get one, it would have been .dd. It had the international calling code +37, now divided up among some former Soviet states.
Since approximately 1990 "Ossi" is the German slang term for a former East German, "Wessi" being the West Germany counterpart. Until then, "Zoni"note was used for people from the GDR, "Wessi" was used by the people in West Berlin for those from West Germany and "Ossi" was used in jokes about people from East Frisia.
Media set in East Germany:
- A couple of MacGyver episodes.
- The 1984 comedy Top Secret! depicts it as Nazi Germany in order to spoof World War II espionage thrillers. Then again, the Volksarmee did spend a while Putting on the Reich...
- The Lives of Others, 2006 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film.
- The aforementioned Good Bye, Lenin!!, perhaps the most effective movie ever made about "Ostalgie" (nostalgia for East Germany).
- Airwolf has an episode, "Fallen Angel", set in the GDR.
- John le Carré used East Germany as a subject in his early novels, including Call for the Dead, The Looking-Glass War, and, most strikingly, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
- The manga Monster is set in post-unification Germany and revolves heavily around covered up events in the former GDR.
- Night Crossing, a film about two families who escape from the DDR via a home-made hot air balloon.
- The hilarious comedy One, Two, Three is set in both halves of Berlin, before the wall was built (which lead to Too Soon when this happened shortly before the movie hit the theaters, even if it wasn't director Billy Wilder's fault).
- The rogue fictional Eastern Bloc state of Pottsylvania in Rocky and Bullwinkle, despite the thick Slavic accents of many of its citizens, had many elements making out to be a parody of East Germany, most notably the fact that there were Teutonic Iron Crosses everywhere (despite the East Germans not using the symbol) and the fact that Boris and Natasha's boss Fearless Leader closely resembled a stereotypical SS officer (a nod to East Germany's Putting On The Reich uniforms.)
- That said Pottsylvania's geography seems to be based off of East Prussia◊ (at least from the map), which had been split between the USSR and Poland at that point. That does make the Iron Cross thing a little more appropriate if they are East German, Soviet, Imperial Prussians. (Also, the name "Pottsylvania" brings to mind the Eastern Pennsylvania region around Reading, which has a Pottsville and a Pottstown.)
- The appallingly dreadful film Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2 involves a superpowered baby secret agent codenamed Kahuna (just go with it) whose jealous older brother seeks to spite him by defecting to East Germany and growing up to be a Stasi captain (later turned television producer) performing medical experiments on children, imprisoning his victims beneath the Berlin Wall, and played by a painfully scenery-chewing John Voigt.
- Wargame: European Escalation has East Germany as a playable Warsaw Pact faction.
- The Bionic Woman's episode "Motorcycle Boogie" has Jaime cross over into East Germany to retrieve a stolen data tape, with the help of, of all people, Evel Knievel As Himself.
- The Lupin III (Red Jacket) episode "To Be Or Nazi Be" depicted an airborne escape over the Berlin Wall.
- Deutschland 83 is a heavily acclaimed German series involving both this and The Bonn Republic.
- Der gleiche Himmel ("The Same Sky") is a 2016 ZDF series set in 1974 involving a Stasi Romeo agent sent to seduce a woman working at the NSA listening site in West Berlin, a family looking to get their daughter into the GDR Olympic team and a gay teacher.
- The James Bond film Octopussy has Big Bad Duumvirate General Orlov and Prince Kamal Khan attempting to detonate a nuclear bomb on a US Air Base in West Germany to trigger World War III. They transport the bomb using Octopussy's Circus, hiding it in a train wagon when it is on a stop in the East German city of Karl-Marx-Stadt (renamed Chemnitz in 1990). Bond himself has to cross the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie.
East German characters:
East German agents were also common in Cold War fiction, partly because of their major role in the Warsaw Pact and partly (possibly) to what might be called the "German Commie Nazi" factor, which allowed writers to combine the worst stereotypes of Germans, Nazis and Communists.
Cool Runnings features a nasty East German. The East German Judge was a common element at international sporting events such as The Olympics, where they would invariably give ridiculously low scores to anyone not from Commie Land; the term has come to mean anyone who seems to grade harshly and give low scores, such as Kishi Asako on Iron Chef. In a somewhat humorous irony, Katarina Witt (the aforementioned former figure skater) judged for a season on Dancing On Ice, but does not appear to have been a harsh marker.
- A Trabant was featured in Michael Palin's New Europe giving Palin a tour of Nowa Huta in Poland. One particularly distressing feature is the tendency for a wheel to fall off. There's Trabant drivers who'll wait until doing 40 mph on the tour before revealing happens to them about once a month.
- In Axis Powers Hetalia, it's strongly implied that Prussia takes up the East Germany role after World War II. There is still much Internet Backdraft about this, as other parts of the fandom believe Prussia is actually Kaliningrad. Some clues that support the "Prussia = East Germany" connections are:
- Prussia nicknames his younger brother, Germany, "West".
- A later profile has Prussia being described as brought under Russia's beck and call after the War, further strengthening the East German connection. Not only that, but it has also been stated that Prussia sometimes gets struck by the aforementioned "Ostalgie" — and when this happens, Russia shows up uninvited to his doorstep and tries to drag him away. See here
- After the reunification, Prussia arrived at Germany's house in a "cardboard car" (an allusion to the Trabant).
- The video game ''Poly Play'' was the only video game officially created in East Germany. Strictly speaking, it's a collection of eight different arcade games, including a Pac-Man clone. It is low resolution, uses a complete TV set as a screen, and is emulated in MAME, the ROM allegedly being freely available (which is probably not true, since someone must have inherited the East German copyrights - but apparently, no one can tell). It has an article on Wikipedia.
- Anna Funder's Stasiland gives an outsiders perspective to the end of East Germany and what came after.
- In the Light Novel, Visual Novel and Anime Schwarzesmarken, focuses on a group of mecha pilots fighting against an alien BETA invasion that has overrun much of Eurasia. In the works are antagonistic Stasi and a plot to overthrow East Germany's government to reunify it with the west.
- In Cyborg 009, Albert Heinrich aka 004's backstory in almost all continuities (save for the Archaia graphic novel) reveals that he was an East German truck driver who tried to defect with his girlfriend Hilda via using the truck to go past the Berlin Wall. It soon went From Bad to Worse, with her dying and him being wounded and then re-made into a cyborg by Black Ghost. (Plus 40 years of cryogenic sleep in the 2001 series, thanks to its Setting Update.)
- The Singing Ringing Tree, a fairy tale filmed by the East German DEFA studio in 1957 and adapted by the BBC as part of the "Tales From Europe" strand, being oft-repeated on British TV during the 1960s and 70s. Well enough known to have been spoofed by The Fast Show.