'Re-reading East Germany’: The Literature and Film of the GDR


Stephen Brockmann (Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh)

Resurrected from the Ruins: The Emergence of GDR Culture

This chapter will focus on the emergence of the German Democratic Republic and of its culture four years after the end of the Second World War. It will place particular emphasis on the desperate situation of Germany in 1945 and the way that German intellectuals sought to respond to it. While the division of Germany into two separate states – one capitalist and one socialist – that occurred in 1949 may have seemed inevitable after the fact, it was by no means a foregone conclusion in 1945. The GDR emerged over four years after the end of the Second World War, and half a year after the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany in May of 1949. The article will touch on the political and military situation from 1945-1949, on the creation of the Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheits Partei or SED), and on the primary importance that the SED placed on culture in its planned anti-fascist democratic transformation of Germany. One of the chief cultural institutions of the immediate postwar years was Johannes R. Becher’s Kulturbund zur demokratischen Erneuerung Deutschlands (Cultural Federation for the Democratic Renewal of Germany), founded as early as June, 1945, only a month after the end of the war. The foundation and program of the Kulturbund demonstrate the great importance attached to culture by the SED, both as a way of overcoming the legacy of Nazism and as a way of gaining support from non-socialist bourgeois elements within the population of the Soviet zone of occupation. The emphasis on culture exhibited in the work of the Kulturbund can also be seen in the German writers’ conference held in Berlin in 1947, at which, for the first time the cold war began to play an important public role in German cultural life; and it carries through to the foundation of the GDR in 1949 and to the first years after the GDR’s founding.1950, for instance, saw another writers’ conference in East Berlin, while at the same time, in West Berlin, the anti-Communist Congress for Cultural Freedom was taking place. The cultural origins of the GDR need to be seen with reference to all of these factors: 1) the desire to overcome Nazism; 2) the growing cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States; and 3) the desire on the part of communist elites to enlist bourgeois intellectuals in their cause. All of these factors led to a reaffirmation of traditional German culture, and therefore it is not surprising that some of the first major cultural battles in the early GDR, such as the battle over Hanns Eisler’s Doktor Faustus in 1953 were fought over the status of traditional German culture.