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Bringing Culture to the Masses

Bringing Culture to the Masses: Control, Compromise and Participation in the GDR

Esther von Richthofen
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: NED - New edition, 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 252
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  • Book Info
    Bringing Culture to the Masses
    Book Description:

    Cultural life in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) was strictly controlled by the ruling party, the SED, who attempted to dictate how people spent their free time by prohibiting privately organized leisure time pursuits and offering instead cultural activities in state institutions and organizations. By exploring the nature of dictatorial rule in the GDR and analysing the population's engagement with state-organized cultural activity, this book challenges the current assumptions about the GDR's social and institutional history that ignore the interaction and inter-dependence between 'rulers' and 'ruled'. The author argues that the people's cultural life in the GDR developed a dynamic of its own; it was determined by their own interests and by the input of cultural functionaries, who often aimed to satisfy popular demands, even if they were at odds with the SED's cultural policy. Gradually, these developments affected SED cultural policy, which in the 1960s became less focused on educationalist goals and increasingly oriented towards popular interests.

    eISBN: 978-1-84545-894-2
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-vii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. viii-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-27)

    In 1983, Günter Gaus, the former head of the West German permanent representation in East Berlin, wrote: ‘Even tearing down the Berlin Wall could not rectify the problems of German division’.¹ Gaus wanted to make West Germans aware of the fact that life across the Wall had been deeply affected by years of separation. He wanted to show that everyday life in East Germany had its own rules, rules that were not solely determined by oppression, suffering and greyness, but were shaped by clearly developed conceptions of sociability, social security and fulfilment.² West Germans, Gaus believed, had to be made...

  6. Prelude Nonconformity, Coercion and Alienation: the 1950s
    (pp. 28-44)

    This chapter explores the turbulent process of establishing the cultural structures of the socialist dictatorship inBezirkPotsdam, a process which was hindered by a population that obstinately held on to traditions on the one hand and by organisational shortcomings on the other. The administrative functionaries who were responsible for implementing the SED’s cultural policies were faced with a situation where many people within established cultural associations ofBezirkPotsdam wanted to carry on with pre-war customs and objected to the imposition of new cultural structures.

    People’s obstinate refusal to integrate into the newly introduced cultural structures could be described...

  7. PART I Bending the Rules While Upholding the Structures:: Cultural Functionaries

    • [PART I Introduction]
      (pp. 45-48)

      What role did cultural functionaries play in the GDR? Were they the repressors’ henchmen, were they merely spineless opportunists or were they perhaps the people’s only representatives? Any portrayal of functionaries along these lines will not describe them adequately. It is probably fair to say that, in the cultural sphere, functionaries were simplyganz normale Bürger(average citizens) with a bit more of a stake in the system than everybody else. And yet, despite such a modest formulation, this book regards their role in cultural life as so important that it is difficult to overestimate it. Through their efforts, cultural...

    • Chapter 1 Neither Puppets nor Opponents
      (pp. 49-71)

      The key question that this and the following chapters set out to answer is whether or not cultural functionaries were mere tools who did the SED’s bidding. In order to answer this question, we need to find out first and foremost who took up positions as functionaries in the cultural sphere. What were the backgrounds of cultural functionaries, and what motivations enticed them to organise cultural activities for the population? It is crucial to find answers to these questions before delving into an analysis of their agency, because only when examining the cultural interests and the political allegiances (or lack...

    • Chapter 2 Organising Culture: Compromise and Communication
      (pp. 72-94)

      The previous chapter has outlined the fact that the majority of cultural functionaries had deep-seated cultural interests. It has also shown that it was impossible for the SED leadership to enforce tight regulations regarding the qualifications, reliability and loyalty of cultural functionaries. The combination of these two factors meant that cultural functionaries were not simply regime puppets. They were individuals with their own ideas about the organisation of cultural life and, as they depended on a good rapport with their participants, they were even ready to function as the people’s representatives vis-à-vis higher state organs – but, as this chapter will...

  8. PART II Attempted Self-determination – Pursuing an Interest:: The Participants

    • [PART II Introduction]
      (pp. 95-99)

      This is a lovely little ode to sociability, composed by a worker in the factory Schwermaschinenbau Heinrich Rau in Wildau. Its celebration of brigade festivities illustrates what the next two chapters discuss in detail: people who participated in cultural activity usually had deeply personal motivations for doing so. They sought pleasurable, cosy get-togethers, or the opportunity and facilities to exercise their cultural inclinations and hobbies. In many respects, the cultural structures the state provided were seen as a means to satisfy these personal cultural inclinations, whether people attended festive events with a high degree of conviviality or lived out a...

    • Chapter 3 Patterns of Participation
      (pp. 100-122)

      At almost each stage of his/her life, the average East German citizen was likely to be a member of one or several mass organisations, whether as a child or adolescent, as part of the working population or as a result of activities pursued in his/her free time. Whilst appreciating the strong presence of state institutions or mass organisations in people’s lives, however, the citizens of the GDR should not be regarded purely as passive subjects ‘being organised’ by the SED. People were able to give their lives a personal direction and meaning, even within the structures of the state. This...

    • Chapter 4 Communication with Cultural Functionaries
      (pp. 123-148)

      The previous chapter showed that when people pursued cultural activities within the organised cultural structures, they wanted to satisfy a particular personal inclination. The participants had to meet a minimum of the political requirements, which will become evident in this chapter once more, but that does not mean that they were unable to look after the fulfilment of their interests, or that cultural life was fully homogeneous.¹ Cultural life in the GDR was not standardised or ‘de-differentiated’ as a result of state coercion and party control. People developed different strategies to secure their interests and circumvent state control, and by...

  9. PART III From Utopianism to Pragmatism:: Cultural Policy

    • [PART III Introduction]
      (pp. 149-152)

      The previous four chapters have highlighted how cultural life inBezirkPotsdam was shaped by individual motivations, by the willingness of functionaries to compromise and by the participants’ strategies for interest fulfilment. The following two chapters analyse how this situation increasingly induced political leaders to take a broader approach towards ‘cultural mass work’. The SED’s cultural model had been founded on an inherent contradiction. The state only provided restricted forms of cultural activity within the cultural institutions. At the same time, however, it envisaged that no form of cultural activity would exist outside these institutions. This process was intended to...

    • Chapter 5 Responding to Developments at the Grass Roots
      (pp. 153-170)

      This chapter analyses changes in cultural policy from the late 1950s until 1965. During these years, the broadening of the SED’s cultural model was in its early phases, but it was nonetheless becoming increasingly evident. The main aim of the analysis is to emphasise that the alterations of SED cultural policy were reactions to the situation at the grass roots. In order to highlight this, the analysis concentrates on the close correlation between difficulties that were experienced by the administration inBezirkPotsdam and the issues that were addressed by central cultural policy in Berlin. Looking at developments from this...

    • Chapter 6 From Art to Culture
      (pp. 171-189)

      When Erich Honecker came to power in 1971, he was adamant that he had made a complete break with the Ulbricht era. He portrayed the changes he introduced as grand innovations of social, economic and cultural policy. The developments of the Ulbricht years were almost entirely dropped from the official rhetoric. In the cultural sphere, for example, the Bitterfeld Way was hardly ever mentioned again.¹ The impression that Honecker was trying to convey, however, did not correspond to reality. His policies relating to cultural life, which were announced at the eighth party congress in 1971, and which were discussed in...

  10. Aftermath Breakdown of Communication: the Late 1970s and 1980s
    (pp. 190-207)

    It is difficult for the GDR historian to analyse the 1980s without pursuing the answer to one single question: what were the key events and socio-economic developments that precipitated the Peaceful Revolution in 1989? Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there have been numerous historical studies that have attempted to provide the answer to this particular question. It is, however, dangerous to view the 1980s solely from this angle, because it lures the historian into the trap of constructing a narrative that comments only on the developments that precipitated the downfall of the SED regime, while continuities and stabilising...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 208-218)

    This book set out to explore the developments that underpinned the functioning of organised cultural life in the middle period of the GDR. During the analysis, it became clear that cultural activities in the East German dictatorship could not be reduced to either coercion ‘from above’ or withdrawal into isolated ‘niches’. This does not mean to say that the study disregarded either the interference from state and police organs or the prevalence of autonomous spaces. Both aspects have been highlighted as important factors of cultural life. They were, however, not the only features that dominated it during the 1960s and...

  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 219-235)
  13. Index
    (pp. 236-239)