During the second half of the 1950s, the East German regime encouraged writers to embark on the “Bitterfeld Path” [Bitterfelder Weg]. This party-sponsored initiative aimed to expose members of the intelligentsia to the lives of workers and peasants, the idea being that their experiences would ultimately become the central subject of cultural production. Party leaders envisioned a literature freed from the “decadence” and the “cosmopolitanism” that they saw developing on the other side of the Iron Curtain. There, West German writers experimented with a range of genres, from poems to radio plays, and repeatedly criticized what they perceived as a lack of engagement with the German past and an uncritical embrace of the “Economic Miracle,” rearmament, and anti-communism on the part of their government and compatriots.
Architecture and design in West Germany were characterized by simple lines and a lack of ornamentation. Designers and commentators ascribed astonishing authority to “clean” design (for objects ranging from dishes to chairs) in the quest to attain moral regeneration, reconnect with the Bauhaus tradition of the Weimar Republic, and rehabilitate Germany’s image abroad. With certain design types being associated with certain political views, it is not surprising that West German design taste was the subject of many postwar opinion polls. Some East German architecture, particularly representative buildings, relied on ornamentation, as was the case with East Berlin’s Stalinallee, a grand avenue designed to showcase the achievements of state socialism. Elsewhere, the construction of efficient modern housing involved minimizing costs. Due to the imperatives of economy and fashion, the types of home furnishings and clothing promoted by magazines in both East and West Germany were relatively similar in the 1950s. And while the East German planned economy had more difficulty delivering consumer goods than its West German counterpart, journalists and politicians in both states could celebrate levels of affluence that surpassed those found in the years leading up to the start of war in 1939.
American cultural imports, too, became Cold War battlegrounds. Initially, West German politicians and commentators proved sensitive to East German suggestions that West Germany was being overrun by American movies, music, and fashions. Soon enough, however, West Germans were arguing that youthful expressiveness and rock ‘n’ roll enthusiasm were signs of West German freedom and prosperity. In making these arguments, they also pointed to the repression of “open” dancing in East Germany. Some East German jazz fans managed to promote American popular music by presenting it as a product of the American “Negro” proletariat, but East German authorities remained skeptical. In the second half of the 1950s, they even arrested some outspoken jazz and rock fans. In West Germany, by contrast, politicians declared jazz the music of the new democracy. It thus became part of a Cold War liberal consensus that linked aesthetic modernism to Western political forms and saw youthful rebelliousness as a psychological issue rather than a political threat.
Political and cultural repression in East Germany, together with economic hardship and the perception of greater economic opportunities in the West prompted over 2.5 million East Germans to leave for West Germany between 1949 and 1961. The West German government encouraged intra-German migration. Portraying itself as a haven of democracy and prosperity, the Federal Republic granted special benefits to recognized political refugees. By 1961, the East German leadership was so concerned about labor shortages and the weakening of its image as a workers’ state that it sought – and was granted – permission from the Soviet Union to build the Berlin Wall. Construction began on August 13, 1961. During its 28-year existence, the Wall severely curtailed personal contact between East and West Germany, a subject that is explored in detail in the next volume of this project, Two Germanies, 1961-1989.
Volker Berghahn and Uta Poiger