Two Germanies, Two Cultures

Carsten Kretschmann: Zwischen Spaltung und Gemeinsamkeit. Kultur im geteilten Deutschland, be.bra Verlag, Berlin-Brandenburg, 2012, ISBN 978-3-89809-412-2

Austrian journalist and essayist Karl Kraus once said that the Germans and Austrians were two nations divided by a common language, pointing out how very close and yet distant the two nations were. This might have been an even more apt description of East and West Germans before 1989, while their country was divided.

As we now know, after forty years of enforced separation certain linguistic and lexical differences between the two parts of Germany still continue to exist, sometimes painstakingly maintained by some East Germans for whom the reunification was a “hostile takeover.”Then there are the cultural differences. Carsten Kretschmann’s book Between Separation and Togetherness. Culture in Divided Germany provides a comprehensive survey of the cultural developments in Germany’s East and West.

The material is presented in chronological order, covering the period from the post-war “rubble culture” (Trümmerkultur), through the modern period (1949–1965), politicization and autonomy (1966–1982), right up to the final period that preceded the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the country’s reunification.

A major difference between cultural policies of the two German states derived from the very way they were organized internally after their establishment in the wake of World War II. The Federal Republic of Germany retained the German tradition of federalism. Victorious Western powers systematically built the new state’s institutional framework from the bottom up, starting by establishing bodies at the communal level, followed by the regional and eventually the national level. Furthermore, instead of choosing a major cultural metropolis, such as Frankfurt- am-Main or Hamburg as the country’s capital, they picked the small town of Bonn that had, over the following years, remained the country’s primary political and administrative center. What this meant in practice was that the country’s culture was produced outside the formal metropolis, in several places simultaneously. In addition, a kind of competition arose among the individual regional cultural centers.

East Germany, on the other hand, chose the path of concentrating all decision-making in a single center, fully in keeping with the so-called doctrine of “democratic centralism.” Moreover, the country’s communist leadership regarded the arts as an extension of politics by other means. Arts as a sphere autonomous from politics was inconceivable and it would, therefore, have been unacceptable for culture—or at least a significant proportion of it—ever to be in opposition to politics, as was increasingly the case in West Germany, particularly after the 1960s.

Kretschmann notes that before the early 1950s no aspect of cultural policy had ever had a significant impact on politics, either within the two German states or in their mutual relations. A turning point which changed all this were the events of June 17, 1953, when a wave of protests against the raising of work targets swept the GDR, soon turning into a revolt against the prevalent political and social conditions and permanent shortages. The Communists were only able to get the situation under control with the help of Soviet tanks.

Although the arts community in the West and the East responded to these events differently, it was generally taken aback by the brutal military crackdown on discontented citizens. One striking exception was the playwright Bertolt Brecht who had settled in East Berlin after returning to Germany in 1945. Brecht responded to the crushing of the uprising by a show of support for East German Communist leader Walter Ulbricht. And not only that: in 1954 he travelled to Moscow to accept the Stalin Prize. This led to fierce protests in West Germany, culminating in the demand for Brecht’s plays to be immediately removed from West German theatre schedules.

On the other hand, Kretschmann points to what he sees as an interesting parallel in the area of the visual arts, where both West and East Germany imposed considerable limits on artistic pluralism. In East Germany, just as in other communist countries, socialist realism was the only acceptable artistic style, and everything that did not conform to this doctrine was rejected, mostly being labelled “formalism”. In West Germany politics did not set such immediately obvious limitations on what was acceptable and what was not. However, that only made the influence of newspaper reviews—or, as the case may be, of the interest of mass audiences or a lack thereof—even more crucial to the success or failure of a work of art.

Another similarity that could be observed in the 1950s had to do with the fact that the social conditions brought about by the consequences of the war were being whitewashed both in Germany’s West and the East. Much of life was instead being presented in a more favorable light than in reality. This trend found its most visible expression in German cinema, in the genre known as “Heimatfilm,” a term that might be translated as “patriotic cinema.” Film studios literally churned out films of this kind one after another. Their plots were totally apolitical, often set in the “good old days” of the 19th century and in the idyllic Alpine setting. However, the ideal world depicted in these films had precious little in common with the social realities of the then West Germany, with its vast numbers of single-parent families whose fathers had either lost their lives in the war or were still in Russian captivity or, where they were physically present, still traumatized by their wartime experience.

East Germany took a different approach to dealing with the legacy of World War II in the arts. Right from the start it labelled itself “the better German state,” which meant in practice that it rejected any responsibility for the consequences of Nazism. Given that the composition of the population was very similar to that in the West, the East German government had to rely on propaganda to convey to their fellow countrymen the “correct progressive values” in line with the spirit of Marxism-Leninism. This also involved an effort to define and present the German Democratic Republic as a“country of readers” (Leseland DDR) whose citizens, unlike those in West Germany with its consumerist lifestyle, were quite dependent on quality literature. The fact is that the German East produced large quantities of books, there were lots of publishing houses and people sometimes queued up for new titles on publication. On the other hand, Kretschmann believes the great hunger for literature in East Germany also resulted from the existing censorship and the regime setting strict criteria as to which authors conformed to the principles of socialist ideology and could therefore be published.

One of the ways the communist regime tried to formulate a new cultural policy was the so-called Bitterfeld Way (Bitterfelder Weg), meant to bring about the birth of a “socialist national culture.”The program was drawn up at a meeting of artists’ unions held at the chemical plant in Bitterfeld, one of the largest industrial complexes on East German territory. It was supposed to provide the working classes with access to culture, not only as consumers but also as its creators, under the motto: “Comrade, get hold of a pen!” This approach was particularly aimed at overcoming the estrangement between artists and workers, by making writers and artists spend some time working in factories and getting to know the life of the working classes. Not only was this doctrine an abject failure, but it also caused an increasing division between the regime and prominent authors such as Christa Wolf and Stefan Heym, about the critical function and social role of art.

However, beginning in the 1960s the relative amount of criticism of the ruling or social elites that artists in both East and West Germany were allowed to express began to grow. In the West voices critical of the stale 1950s and the inadequate way the country had been coming to terms with the Nazi period became louder, and protest rallies against the war in Vietnam were held. At the same time in East Germany the pressure increased on artists who refused to conform to the prevailing doctrine. The solution adopted by the communist regime was to get rid of these artists. They would be deprived of their East German citizenship; allowed to travel to West Germany; or—as in the case of the singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann—banned from returning after touring abroad. As the list of names grew, some areas of the arts, notably the theatre, became visibly affected by these gaps. On the other hand, of course, most representatives of the progressive East German theatre that ended up in the Federal Republic made a significant contribution to West Germany’s theatre life with their productions. Theatre became the one area where the difference between the East and the West was smallest.

The 1980s cultural life in both parts of Germany was marked by many ironies. On the one hand, the East German authorities’ reluctance to allow critical artists to leave the country led to fierce arguments, even though it was primarily motivated by an attempt to drive up to the maximum the amount of money the West German government was willing to pay for their permission to leave. At the same time, there were examples of surprisingly harmonious cooperation between the two countries, such as the historical anniversary events relating to Prussia. Part of the reason was that the East German Communists desperately wanted to find a way of legitimizing the existence of their state within the wider context of German history.

While not voluminous, Kretschmann’s book provides an excellent survey of the complex issue of cultural life in East and West Germany. Although this basic survey does not aspire to be a scholarly work, it is, nevertheless, a pity that it includes only an index of names while a subject index is lacking.

Robert Schuster

Robert Schuster is the managing editor of Aspen Review Central Europe. He was the editor-in-chief of Mezinárodní politika monthly from 2005 to 2015, and a correspondent of Austrian daily Der Standard in Czech Republic from 2000 till 2012. He is a foreign correspondent of Lidové noviny daily since 2015, where he covers news reports from German-speaking countries. He is a regular guest in commentaries broadcast by Český rozhlas Plus.

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