“It wasn’t all bad in the GDR” – this same tongue-in-cheek sentence can also be used to describe television in the GDR. Many well-known and long-running German television programs started in East Germany. Not everything in the GDR had a political or ideological slant, as one might readily suspect. Admittedly, films produced and broadcast in the East were more affected by censorship and politicization, but there were also some highlights on the German television station “Deutsches Fernsehfunk des Osten” from the 1960s onwards, which were widely viewed. We have put together seven facts for you below, many of which will surprise you.
Television set Rembrandt – first model to be designed and built in the GDR, Source: SchiDD Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA 4.0
Fact 1: The first GDR television set cost ten months’ wages
In 1952, the GDR got its first television channel, the “official test channel.” With only 30 television sets in the whole country, broadcasting was limited to two hours per day. These two hours were mainly devoted to daily news, and at the beginning the SED exerted little influence. Deutsche Fernsehfunk officially went live in January 1956. By 1970, more than 130 hours of television was being broadcast each week and an increasing number of GDR citizens had treated themselves to the luxury of owning a television set. After all, the Leningrad model, the first GDR-manufactured television set, cost GDR Mark 3,500 in 1952 – ten times the average monthly income. But as time went by, prices fell and more devices were connected. In 1969, on the 20th anniversary of the GDR’s founding, a second channel, DFF2, was launched.
Fact 2: Sandmännchen was invented in the GDR
In addition to news and information programs, the increasing number of weekly broadcasts also included a wide variety of entertainment programs – many of which are still known today. Although not a “must-see,” Sandmännchen is a classic. First broadcast in 1959, before the West German version of Sandmännchen, it still has an early evening slot and spreads a piece of East German nostalgia, or Ostaglie. The first broadcast became a race against West German television, which wanted to broadcast on December 1, 1959. In order to pre-empt their capitalist neighbors, the first East German Sandmännchen was broadcast nine days earlier.
The East German Sandmännchen still visits young viewers’ living rooms regularly
Fact 3: Polizeiruf 110 has its origins in the GDR
Another classic is Polizeiruf 110, the modern continuation of which has achieved a respectable audience to this day, and has been setting investigators on the trail of criminals since 1971. Unlike its western counterpart, Tatort, this is not just about murder and manslaughter, but the full range of crimes. Another big difference to Tatort is that crime, investigation and police work take precedence over the character development of the investigators. The series took the viewer on a journey through various regions of the GDR.
Fact 4: Crime in the GDR was also portrayed on TV
You’d be forgiven for thinking that there was no place for detective series on GDR television. After all, the political leadership of the workers’ and peasants’ state propagated the country’s complete peacefulness. Until 1965 there were actually no depictions of crime in the GDR on television in the GDR – detective series were set abroad, in West Germany. From 1965, however, a series of short dramas, Der Staatsanwalt hat das Wort, dealt for the first time with crime in the GDR. The focus was on the crime and its motives, and a final legal assessment from a real prosecutor served to help calibrate viewers’ legal compasses. Even today, reruns of the series, which was produced until 1990, are still broadcast on public television.
Fact 5: GDR television was a window to the world
These weren’t the only journeys GDR television took its viewers on. Viewers of Treffpunkt Flughafen joined actors on long-haul flight with the GDR’s state airline, Interflug. Whether on board or on the ground abroad, problems in the lives of the characters were portrayed, against the impressive backdrop of an exotic, real-world setting (e.g. Addis Ababa or Cuba). With this program, Deutsche Fernsehfunk was a window to the world for many.
The Interflug crew faced many critical situations
Fact 6: The world’s longest documentary comes from the GDR
The series of documentaries Die Kinder von Golzow is also notable. From 1961 to 2007, the filmmakers Barbara and Winfried Junge followed 18 children through adolescence and adulthood. This resulted in a total of 20 documentaries, making Die Kinder von Golzow the longest documentary in the world.
Memorial plate for the children from Golzow, Source: OTFW Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA 4.0
Fact 7: Series from foreign, capitalist countries were also shown
In fact, East Germany didn’t just broadcast its own productions, but also imported films and series from abroad, even from non-socialist countries. In the 1980s, for example, viewers were able to follow Tom Baker in his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in 1982’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, one of the BBC’s most successful productions. In some cases, the versions dubbed by DEFA were even German premieres.
Of course, there were many programs that were shaped by ideology and politics. With the growth of potential viewers and registered televisions, the Central Committee of the SED saw this flourishing medium as a valuable tool for reaching the citizens of the GDR in their homes. However, this often didn’t work out as expected (link GDR films, Indians) and the citizens formed their own opinions. The bottom line: GDR television was anything but boring. The TV schedules spanned many genres and tastes, combining domestic productions and programs imported from abroad.