With constant shortages even of everyday items forcing people to improvise and make the most of what they did have, necessity was truly the mother of invention in socialist East Germany. The impetus to make up for the dearth of consumer goods available in the shops and to compensate for the gap in industrial and technological development between the GDR and its western neighbours gave rise to some ingenious innovations. Driven by the desire for economic self-sufficiency and a better standard of living, the willingness to experiment was reflected in the impressive number of patent applications filed with the East German Office of Inventions and Patents – around 130,000 by the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, compared to only 70,000 in West-Germany, which had a much larger population.
Image source: mischkaarndti – photocase
The creators of these inventions came from the ranks of professional researchers and academics as well as hobbyists. Whether intended for private use or industrial application, their innovations were primarily designed to be functional.
Image source: tobid – photocase
Making It New: Government Incentives to Promote Innovation
The socialist regime in East Germany actively pursued a policy of promoting inventions. Even before the GDR was founded, officials in the Soviet-occupied zone attempted to boost productivity by incentivising workers to submit proposals for new inventions. In 1951, this led to the creation of a government initiative aimed at encouraging workers and farmers to explore options for improving equipment, workflow processes and materials. With rewards of up to 90,000 East German marks paid out for the most promising innovative ideas, a large number of people did get involved in creating prototypes that were then exhibited at trade shows and featured in Der Neuerer, a monthly magazine published between 1952 and 1990.
Image source: katz23 – fotolia
East German inventors did achieve remarkable results in some domains. In total, around 600 inventions and patents received international recognition in areas including radio and television technology, microscopy, textiles and medical devices. Among the country’s most famous scientists was the physicist Gustav Hertz, who had been awarded the Nobel Prize in 1925 and remained the only Nobel Prize winner working in the GDR.
Famous East German Inventors: Mauersberger and Kretschmer
The products invented by some of the GDR’s most important scientists were quite literally household names under the socialist regime. First and foremost, these include the food technologist Peter Kretschmer, who developed a number of iconic East German brands as well as processes for the industrial production of time- and cost-saving delicacies such as Tempo-Erbse, Tempo-Bohne (quick-cook peas and beans) and KuKo (boil-in-the-bag rice). He also saved the government the expense of buying patents or goods from the West by creating East German alternatives to essential food items such as chewing gum, cornflakes and the much-loved peanut-flavoured snacks known as ‘Erdnussflips’.
Image source: kallejipp – photocase
Kretschmer’s fellow scientist Heinrich Mauersberger worked in a very different field. One of East Germany’s most important textile engineers, he invented an innovative manufacturing process called Malimo, which revolutionised textile production in East Germany. Textiles made by this method, which was twenty times faster than conventional weaving and knitting techniques, became very popular across East Germany, with Malimo net curtains a particular favourite. It was probably Mauersberger’s lifelong refusal to join the Socialist Unity Party that denied him a share of the licensing fees when his Malimo machines became one of East Germany’s most successful exports to other European countries and even the US.
Image source: LAIS – unsplash
DIY Mentality: East Germans Made Their Own Luck
Tropical fruit, fresh bread, tape recorders and tools were among the many goods that were hardly ever available in GDR shops. However, rather than complaining about the inconvenience, many East Germans simply got on with improvising their own DIY versions. These ranged from homemade radio receivers and aerials to camping gear. Prams were turned into lawnmowers, washing machines into concrete mixers. Inventive home cooks tried out new recipes that made do without hard-to-get ingredients. These included ‘Kalter Hund’, a dessert made from hardened coconut oil and cocoa powder instead of chocolate, as well as ‘Wurstgulasch’, which substitutes sausage chunks for beef or pork.
Image source: jala – photocase
Candy: the Holy Grail for East German Inventors
Professional food technologists, too, were busy attempting to find inexpensive alternatives to food items that were in short supply in socialist East Germany. The ingredients used to make chocolate, cake and bread were kept top secret for a long time, but were eventually leaked to the public. Some of the most ingenious inventions included truffles filled with sweet-tasting peas, a chocolate-flavoured additive extracted from turnips and the use of candied green tomatoes instead of candied lemon peel in Stollen. The growing seasonal demand for this traditional East German delicacy caused a perpetual quandary for the East German planned economy, although a ban on giving Stollen as a Christmas gift proposed in 1978 was quickly scrapped for fear of popular outrage.
Image source: time. – photocase