The DDR Museum gave a fascinating insight into life in East Germany. There were artefacts from public life, the ruling party (SED) and living in a tower block. A whole flat was re-created. You even get to sit in a Trabant! It’s worth visiting and getting the 200-page guidebook (paper or ebook), which has much more detail than I’ve provided. The museum attempts to describe everyday life from 1945-1989, the years from the war and when DDR (East Germany) was created (1949) to its fall (1989) and reunification with FDR (West Germany) in 1990.
As you walk around the museum, you wonder about the propaganda, coercion, Stasi (Ministry of Security) informers and how you would have reacted to living under those conditions. For example, could you trust a work colleague enough to tell them you were watching West German TV the previous night? There were many stories of people informing on their own friends, brothers, sisters and parents. In some situations, this continued for many years without people knowing they had an informant amongst them.
The Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 prior to which abut 50,000 East Berliners worked in the West. People travelled between and East and West Berlin. However, before the wall was built, it became clear that FDR’s economy was outperforming DDR’s and more people were leaving the East. The response to this was to seal the last gap in the Iron Curtain.
The Berlin Wall was, in fact, several barriers: internal walls, death strips, alarmed fences, watch towers, vehicle strips, patrol strips, and the demarcation wall between East and West. Although ideologically justified, it was an admission of defeat: it effectively imprisoned East German citizens behind bars to stop the drain to the West. It was not the best advert for the Socialism the DDR was advocating.
All this continued until Mikhail Gorbachev in the USSR introduced in 1985 his policy of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). After that, in hindsight, the days of the Soviet Union were numbered.
To get a car could mean waiting 15 years. The Trabant (“Trabi”) was a common sight. The brunt of jokes (What do you call a Trabi on top of a hill? – A miracle!), the Trabant was the most common car in East Germany. Just before the fall of the Wall, there were nearly 2 million Trabants. Of course, party officials didn’t drive around in Trabants. They (the “fat cats”, as they were called) had limousine-like Volvos, one of which is in the museum.
Apparently, East Germans didn’t suffer acute hardship. The single party state provided the basics. Food and transport were cheap and available. However, there would be random shortages: scissors, letters, honey or ketchup. Fruit and veg were always scarce. These shortages were the result of a planned economy, inefficient production and bureaucracy. The central allocation of all goods meant that they often didn’t arrive where they were needed. Demand and supply were out of kilter. Some goods were never seen because they were exported to get foreign currency.