The close to three decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall have been marked by a proliferation of urban legends and stereotypes about socialist East Germany. A closer look at the reality of everyday life in the GDR shows that while there may be some truth to some of these, others are complete fabrications. We’ve explored a few of the most prominent stories to help you untangle fact from fiction.
Image source: tiefpics – photocase
(False) Fact No. 1: The GDR had zero unemployment.
East German leaders liked to boast that there was full employment in their country. Not only was reducing unemployment a key political objective after the economic turmoil of the Weimar Republic immediately preceding the Second World War – unemployment was decried as a problem caused by capitalism, while the right to work constituted a cornerstone and crucial tenet of the socialist planned economy. In fact, obvious unemployment was a rare and marginal phenomenon in the GDR and was even considered a crime under some circumstances. However, there was definitely underemployment due to material shortages, ailing production facilities and defective equipment that frequently led to outages in production. Many companies also employed more people than they needed, which meant that there wasn’t always enough work to keep all of them busy. GDR experts and historians estimate the country’s hidden unemployment rate at around 15 percent.
(False) Fact No. 2: The GDR had universal childcare.
With a seamless network of free all-day childcare facilities, East German mothers were expected to return to work within a few weeks of giving birth while their children were looked after by qualified professionals. Compared to the current situation, East German childcare provision sounds remarkably efficient and progressive. On the other hand, strict government regulation left women little choice in the matter. It wasn’t until 1976 that the law was changed to allow mothers to stay at home and look after their own children if they wanted to. In the state-run facilities, children were brought up in accordance with socialist guidelines that included military training.
Image source: Flügelwesen – photocase
(False) Fact No. 3: East Germans didn’t have telephones.
That many East Germans had to wait years to buy a car is a well-known fact. Telephones were equally hard to come by. In some cases, it took 25 years from the time of ordering to the actual delivery. Applicants who lived in East Berlin and other large cities stood the best chances of being connected quickly. Specific groups, including clergy, doctors and party functionaries, were also entitled to preferential treatment. By the time the Wall came down in 1989, only 11 percent of East German households had their own phones, while 1.6 million applications were still pending. However, East Germans did have access to public phones located in post offices, municipal buildings and sometimes even private residences.
Image source: pexels – pixabay
(False) Fact No. 4: East Germans were not allowed to choose their professions freely.
Although East Germans had a legally guaranteed right to work, the government imposed restrictions on their freedom to choose and practise a profession. Anybody who had relatives or other connections in the west, or who had criticised the government, was barred from entering certain professions and/or going to university. Known dissidents were frequently forced to work in low-level manufacturing jobs. There were few escape routes for those who refused to cooperate with the restrictions, although some of them went to work for the church.
Image source: Pabkov – fotolia.de
(False) Fact No. 5: Private enterprise was prohibited in the GDR.
All East German companies were state-owned? That’s a myth. Under socialist rule, East German citizens in principle had the right to start a business and employ others. However, the government did not make life easy for them. Business owners often had trouble obtaining the materials, equipment or tools they needed, forcing them to improvise instead. They were also required to join a state-controlled cooperative.
(False) Fact No. 6: East German children had to go to school every day except Sundays.
East German schoolchildren could only dream of long weekends. In all Eastern bloc states including the Soviet Union itself, Saturday was a school day like any other. Until the law was changed in 1967 to introduce the 5-day working week in response to economic stabilisation across most industries, their parents didn’t have Saturdays off either. The 6-day school week remained in effect until the East German curriculum and education system was brought into full alignment with the West German system during the reunification period. Military training and the barracks-style morning roll call were also scrapped at this time.
Image source: pexels – pixabay
(False) Fact No. 7: Gifted athletes had an easy ride in the GDR.
Even today, socialist East Germany is often held up as a shining example of a sporting nation par excellence. It’s true that the GDR acquitted itself extremely well against much larger rivals at countless high-level international competitions including the 1968 Olympic Games and the 1976 and 1988 Winter Olympics, where East Germans beat athletes from West Germany, the US and even the Soviet Union across a range of disciplines. Outstanding athletic achievements were a major source of national pride for the East German leadership. World records and medals in prestigious Olympic disciplines were seen as a hallmark of success, cementing the GDR’s reputation for athletic excellence in the eyes of the international community. Accordingly, the government invested massively into promoting sports and supporting gifted athletes by providing schools, clubs and training facilities. However, the concept of sport as a professional career was frowned upon. Even top East German athletes were amateurs and had to have a day job alongside their sometimes impressive sports careers.
Image source: lumen digital – photocase.de
Would you like to know more about everyday life in socialist East Germany? Read our blog post on 15 weird and wonderful facts about the GDR that are guaranteed to surprise you.