25th Sep 2023


Germany as a laboratory of 'communism vs capitalism'

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As every good European knows, the EU began life after the Second World War as the European Coal and Steel Community.

But within that small club of members, born out of the rubble of a continent, one country in particular, a big exporter of both steel and coal, offered an real-time, almost laboratory conditions, experiment through the post-war decades of what became the EEC (European Economic Community), then the European Community, then the European Union, in the competing allures of capitalism vs communism: Germany.

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Or, more specifically, West Germany (a founding member of the coal and steel community), and East Germany (a member of the Warsaw Pact and a socialist state barely independent of Moscow and the USSR.)

Split down the middle — both geographically and politically — the two new German states are the subject of a new exhibition that opens this week at the Deutsches Historiches Museum [German History Museum] in Berlin: Fortschritt als Versprechen — Industriefotografie im Geteilten Deutschland [Progress as a Promise — Industrial Photography in a Divided Germany].

It covers not just coal and steel, but also the automobile industry, textiles, chemicals (the 1959 DDR five-year plan for its chemicals industry came with the slogan: Bread, Prosperity, Beauty) and many others, from the years 1949-1990 (when east Germany was formally dissolved and amalgamated into West Germany).

'Bread, Prosperity, Beauty' — East Germany's five-year plan for its chemical industry, 1959 (Photo: DHM, Matthew Tempest)

Not only that, but the exhibition, covering two floors, consists of only officially sanctioned photographs — these are the images the West German conglomerates took for press and publicity purposes, and the East German regime published for public consumption and propaganda purposes.

It's an insight into how the two competing political and economic systems saw themselves — and wanted to be seen by others.

Textile spinning machines in Augsburg, West Germany, 1961 (Photo: Bayerisches Wirtschaftsarchiv, Deutsche Historiches Museum)
Spinning machines in Leinefelde, East Germany, 1965 (Photo: Martin Schmidt, Deutsches Historisches Museum)

Speaking to EUobserver, curator Stefanie Dietzel, admitted one of the amusing things about compiling the mammoth show was that — minus picture credits or texts — nine times out of ten it would be hard to know if the factory or plant was in the east or west.

"No, absolutely not! Just looking at the pictures, the iconography, you cannot really tell. You need the written texts or maybe sometimes you can tell by looking at the workers' clothing — but not by looking at the machinery," Dietzel says.

"[The show is] not per se about the history of the economic systems or the political systems — it's more about how they represent themselves, what narratives they want to give their publics, and what they wanted to communicate about their own economies. So in a sense it's a narrative about advertisements, about promises, and about wishes — for what a socialist or capitalist future might look like," Dietzel explains.

West Germany's (but originally the Third Reich's) WV Beatle rolling off the production line, in 1968 (Photo: Volkswagen Aktiengesellschaft, Deutsches Historiches Museum)

One of the most famous — indeed now iconic — products of the DDR was the Trabant family motor car, manufactured in Zwickau, former east Germany [see top picture in this article], and now post-reunification a Volkswagen plant.

From featuring on U2 album covers to now 'Trabant Safari' self-drive tourism tours of Berlin, where the rudimentary four-wheelers can be hired, it's has become a fond joke about the primitive, 'catch-up' technology of the socialists. But one of the revelations of the show is that, yes, the Trabant (or Trabbie, as they are affectionately known) did not change its basic model in over 30 years — but that was a deliberate policy. The politburo in East Berlin simply had no interest in upgrading it, once they had a model they could mass produce.

"It was not a priority [for them], to improve single-person transportation, because 'the individual' was not that prioritised in East Germany, compared to the mobilisation of the community. So they had this working model. And there was demand for it. People were buying it, they were producing millions of it. So why change your running system? Why invest more? This is not your primary concern," explains Dietzel.

That more socialist model of 'fix-and-repair', rather than the consumerist mode of 'use-it-and-dispose-of-it', perhaps did outlive the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, with the rise of the Bundnis90/Greens (Bundnis90 was the post-1989 East German 'citizens' party' that merged with the western Green party, but the party keeps its joint name to recognise that merger) and their now-mainstream mantra of 'Reuse-Repair-Recycle'.

Textile spinning machines in 1965, but in the communist East or capitalist West? The answer is at the bottom of this article (Photo: Martin Schmidt, Deutsches Historisches Museum)

And the exhibition touches on this serious side. It comes at a time when the industrial and economic behemoth that is a united and reunified Germany is trying a new, second, form of transition — to a green, clean, industrial economy.

Looking at these hundreds of photographs of the coal and steel industries in particular, often foul, polluting and dirty, and realising they were trumpeted at the time unthinkingly as 'the future' (for both east and west Germany) asks serious questions of how a modern audience views these commercial photographs now. Especially as Germany, with France, lead an EU fightback for green subsidises, even the once 'verboten' state-aid, in response to US president Joe Biden's Inflation Reduction Act — which has sparked a transatlantic bidding war for pump-priming green investments.

Dietzel again: "This is a world that we're not used to seeing that much anymore. And I hope that this exhibition also raises questions [like these], because this era was sort of a time capsule of complete enthusiasm for industrial production — and we now are kind of paying the toll for it.

"But those photos don't show that there's always been concerns about the environment, but this was kind of counter-movement. And what we're seeing right now, in this exhibition is I hope forms some critical thinking about industrialisation. That's a lesson we're dealing with, right now and I hope this exhibition forms some kind of critical thinking about it."

Progress as a Promise — Industrial Photography in a Divided Germany opened last week in Berlin at the Deutsches Historiches Museum, and runs until 29 May 2023. Deutsches Historisches Museum, Unter den Linden 2,10117 Berlin. Admission €7.

The answer is Leinefelde, East Germany.


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