Former Berlin Director, Laura Thompson, on the DDR - Michael Reid

Former Berlin Director, Laura Thompson, on the DDR

‘Solidarity’ and ‘resilience’ have been the buzz words of 2020. Particularly in times of uncertainty they express a commitment to unity and a commitment to endure. Sharing such visions creates a collective identity and so is true of the German national identity formed through communist rule in the German Democratic Republic (GDR ‘Deutsche Demokratische Republik’).

The GDR was a country that existed for close to half a century, from 1949 to 1990 in the Eastern Bloc that formed during the Cold War. Life in the GDR was socialist, driven to be antifacist and progressive. Governed by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (the SED), the economy was centrally controlled and pricing for goods, services and housing were subsidised. The SED also had reign over curriculum, making the teaching of Marxism- Leninism and Russian language mandatory.

Although controlled, the GDR had its perks. Employment was given and many workplaces provided good childcare and health services. Some even came fit with their own sport and singing clubs. Goods were made to last and were refurbished or recycled wherever possible. Whilst culture such as music and performance from the West were censored, it led to a strong sense of comradery and the underground scene thrived making way for Berlin’s music and club scene that is world renowned today.

When social and political forces mounted against communism in 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and the GDR reunified with West Germany the following year. It was the end of an era and one that many embraced with open arms.

However, the response soon shifted as identities changed. Those from the former East became known as “eastern German”. It was an intentional disassociation from the former political agenda, but enabled acknowledgment of origin. The eastern German had to become accustomed to a new way of life, with companies becoming privatised and West German currency, laws and values taking center stage. Identities shift and change.

The collection of images now at Michael Reid Sydney + Berlin give insight into life behind the Iron Curtain. The exhibition acknowledges and retraces the resilience and comradery, and points to the humour that fed through the everyday.

Former Michael Reid Berlin Director, Laura Thompson, 2020
on the online exhibition ‘Back in the GDR’, 2021