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Everyday life in the GDR

Everyday life in the GDREveryday life in the GDREveryday life in the GDR

East Germans often quoted from Brecht's "Question from a worker who reads"

"Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the name of kings. 
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
Who raised it up so many times?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?" 


The poem criticizes the tendency of historians to focus on rulers and their acts. Modern historians have long understood that a more rounded view of history requires the study of the day-to-day experience of ordinary men and women. Nevertheless, "the history of everyday life" threatens to become fuzzy unless given strict definition. It represents the repeated experiences of ordinary people in the daily routine of their lives - the average experience of privacy and normality far removed from high politics. To avoid the pitfalls of such an approach in terms of the GDR however, we need to paraphrase Brecht:     

"Who built the Wall in Berlin?
The files record the names of the Party leaders?
But who poured the concrete?
And where in the evening did the soldiers go after shooting their countrymen on the border?“

In other words, focussing on the normality of everyday life in the GDR can act as license for ignoring the nature of the political system. It is only one step removed from the age-old excuse "we didn't know." Everyday life was not the story of a mass evasion of the political system through escape into private social worlds, but a life lived as a central part of that system.


To label the GDR as a dictatorship is undeniably accurate. However, the label obscures the range of positive memories associated with life in the undemocratic state: childhood; the first love; graduation; moving into one's first flat; family celebrations and much more. The attempt by the state to gain total power over the lives of its citizens must not be allowed to erase the autonomy that existed within ordinary life in the GDR. "Life" in the GDR also meant "living in opposition to" the GDR. This could express itself as a conscious distancing from the system, or an attempt to protect the private sphere against official intrusion. On the other hand, withdrawal from the regime did not mean its absolute rejection. Indeed, many could oppose the regime whilst appreciating the absence of unemployment. Moreover, the general reluctance to climb the career ladder – involving, as it did, the surrender of a degree of personal freedom - resulted in reduced workplace competition.


The development of a parallel economy to rival official Real Existing Socialism (the singular self-designation of the SED system) was less a conscious attempt to supplant the official status quo, than a necessary step to remedy its shortcomings and ensure day-to-day survival. This "Real Informal Economy" was based not on money payments, but the barter of goods and services. Being wealthy in this system meant having good relationships with tradesmen and the administrators of scarce resources (goods and non-material commodities such as hotel rooms). The shortage of almost everything made queuing - whether for actual goods or access to services - a permanent necessity of life for forty years. The state kept waiting lists for virtually every large product: cupboard units, flats and cars. It seems strange, but the rationing of these scarcer goods caused moments of joy denied to those living in a market economy. Indeed, the acquisition of a car was often celebrated to an extent comparable with the birth of a child. The power of such joyful memories often serves to overcome the more permanent feelings of frustration. This melange of feeling cannot be divided up into "good" and "bad," rather remains as indissolubly linked as the "seven gates of Thebes" and those who had to build them.