Who Knew? 15 Surprising Facts about the GDR

Life in socialist East Germany, and in East Berlin in particular, holds an ongoing fascination for a lot of people. While many of the events and anecdotes we know about today are quite disturbing, there are also plenty of clichés and cultural oddities that are simply flabbergasting. Here are 15 facts about life in the German Democratic Republic that will probably come as a surprise to you. Did you know that…

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1. …compared to its population size, the GDR had more allotments than any other country in the world? 
With 2.6 million holiday homes in the country and around 855,000 allotments for a population of just over 16 million, dachas – weekend retreats surrounded by a small plot – were more popular in the GDR than anywhere else in the world. Compared to the country’s population, socialist East Germany had a record number of garden plots. Even today, the numerous allotment colonies are a distinctive feature of the city’s eastern districts.

2. …there was officially no unemployment in the GDR? 
Every citizen of the German Democratic Republic had the legal right to a job. But not everybody who had a job actually had any work to do. A lot of jobs were unskilled, too. Shirking your duty to work was a punishable offence. None of this helped to make the GDR’s planned economy more productive than the West German free market economy.

3. …TV chef Kurt Drummer was a household name in East Germany?  
During his 25-year reign on East German television, Kurt Drummer inspired a lot of amateur chefs to try out the surprisingly sophisticated and healthy dishes he promoted on his weekly show. Launched in 1958, “Der Fernsehkoch empfiehlt” (“The TV Chef Recommends”) was eventually discontinued at his request because sourcing the ingredients for the dishes he wanted to present had become too challenging. Drummer was the official chef for the East German football team during the 1974 World Cup in West Germany.

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Watching TV in the living room. Image courtesy of Stefan Kunze – fotolia.de

4. …socialist East Germany continues to fascinate filmmakers and cinema-goers? 
There are plenty of films about life in the GDR, some of them well-received by audiences and critics alike. The Life of Others, Good-bye Lenin, Sonnenallee, Bornholmer Straße and The Tunnel are among the best. Some of them even achieved international success – including The Life of Others starring Ulrich Mühe, which in 2006 won an Oscar for “Best foreign film”.

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The DDR on film. Image courtesy of dommy.de – photocase.de

5. …collecting stamps was an extremely popular hobby in the GDR? 
Collecting stamps was a passion shared by many in socialist East Germany. Around 70,000 East Germans were members of the German Democratic Republic’s Philatelist Association – an impressive number, considering the Association of German Philatelists currently has 60,000 members although there are a total of three million stamp collectors in reunified Germany.

6. …there are significant differences between the dialects spoken in West and East Berlin?
Colloquial language developed in different ways on both sides of the Wall. Dialect was far more common in East Berlin, where it was spoken across all social classes and even in public settings. East Berlin idioms include Asphaltblase (“asphalt bubble”) for the Trabant car and Nuttenbrosche (“hooker’s brooch”) for the fountain on Alexanderplatz. Fried chicken was known as Broilers, while plastic was commonly referred to as Plaste.

7. …Mandy and René were among the most popular children’s names?
Mandy ranked among the top ten most popular girls’ names in East Germany from 1974 to the late 1980’s. René was used for boys as well as girls and ranked among the most popular names from 1970 to 1980. Contrary to popular belief, not all East German parents shared this predilection for outlandish names. Chart-toppers also included Kathrin, Stefanie and Nicole for girls and Thomas, Christian and Stefan for boys.

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Image courtesy of Flügelwesen – photocase.de

8. …only one in two East German households owned a colour TV? 
Televisions and telephones were hard to come by in socialist East Germany. Only 52 per cent of GDR households owned a colour TV, while only 9 per cent of households had a telephone. In West Germany, a whopping 94 per cent of households owned a colour TV, while 98 per cent had a telephone.

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Luxury: A TV. Image courtesy of  complize – photocase.de

9. …Wind of Change wasn’t released until two years after the Wall came down? 
The song most people will immediately associate with the Fall of the Wall wasn’t released until two years later: “Wind of Change” by the Scorpions came out as a single in 1991. The events of 1989 were soundtracked by other artists: the East German band Silly’s album Februar, Freiheit by Marius Müller-Westernhagen,  “Looking for Freedom” by David Hasselhoff and of course Neil Young’s “Rockin‘ in the Free World”.

10. …the Stasi files would cover a total distance of around 111km (69 miles)?  
The Ministry for State Security, more commonly known by its abbreviation Stasi, collected detailed personal information on East German citizens. So far, 111km of files and 39 million index cards have been found along with 1.75 million photos, 2,800 films and videos and 28,400 audiotapes.

11. …East Germans loved eating out? 
Festive occasions were always a good reason to go out for a meal at one of the GDR’s 25,700 restaurants. Some of the most popular dishes on the menu included Schweinesteak mit Letscho (pork cutlet with pepper and tomato stew), Hallesche Fettbemmen (slices of bread topped with lard) and Mecklenburgische Schlachteplatte (“Butcher’s Plate”, a selection of boiled meats and sausages). The inventors of the Ketwurst – a parboiled sausage dipped in ketchup and eaten hot-dog style in a bun – even received an official award.

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The Café Moskau in Berlin. Image courtesy of Daphne Daamians

12. …East Germans had to wait for up to 15 years to get a car? 
Today, Trabant cars – affectionately known as Trabbis – are collectors’ items. Before the Fall of the Wall, they were an essential commodity many GDR citizens had to do without for far too long. In some cases, the waiting period between ordering and receiving a Trabant was up to 15 years, which meant that used Trabants would fetch higher prices than new ones.

13. …GDR citizens were avid campers? 
In the late 1970’s, around half a million East Germans spent their holidays in tents or caravans. Campgrounds in former Czechoslovakia were a favourite holiday destination. Other popular choices included Bulgaria, Hungary and the Soviet Union.

14. …wearing jeans was frowned upon for a long time? 
The rise of denim jeans or Nietenhosen (studded trousers), as they were known in the GDR, was viewed with suspicion by the Party leadership, who did their best to stop it. This should come as no surprise, given that jeans symbolise “typically Western” values such as non-conformity, rebellion and freedom. However, denim proved an unstoppable force even in socialist East Germany. The first pair of jeans was imported from Hungary in 1968. The first pair “made in the GDR” was manufactured in Lößnitz, Saxonia, in 1974.

15. …bananas did exist in the GDR? 
Contrary to the common stereotype of the hapless GDR citizen who encountered her first banana after the Fall of the Wall, bananas did exist in socialist East Germany, although they were a coveted and rare delicacy. Estimates put the quantity of bananas imported in 1978 at 6.3kg per citizen. By 1988, this number had dropped to 2.8kg per citizen. Meanwhile in West Germany, imports stood at 9kg per citizen in 1984.