The Berlin Wall, according to Gerd Horten who had taught at Concordia University in Portland until a few years ago, was slowly undermined by the East German people before it fell in the night of November 9, 1989. The author of this new book on the media and consumer culture in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) argues that it was the growing demand for Western media and consumer products by the large majority of the East German population which caused increasing economic, financial, political and cultural challenges for the leadership of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschland (SED), the communist party. These challenges were in part even worsened by the SED herself, especially by Erich Honecker’s slogan of a “unity of economic and social policy” (Einheit der Wirtschafts- und Sozialpolitik) which promised rising standards of living while the East German economy was increasingly legging behind the much more dynamically growing Western capitalist system.
To some extent, this was also an unintended consequence of the most successful decade of the GDR, the “Golden 70s” when the German communist state was internationally acknowledged, its pop bands acclaimed, and incredible triumphs at the Olympics of 1972 and 1976 celebrated, while the USA and the West were suffering from multiple crises created by the Vietnam War, the Oil Shock, and various social and political conflicts. During these years, East Germans got used to an ever-increasing standard of life, access to many improved social services (health, housing, childcare) and expected also more and better entertainment in movie theatres, television (TV), radio.
However, better entertainment meant in the long run was more and more dictated by Western production because of the unforeseeable advances in technology and sophistication which occurred mostly towards the end of the 1970s. In order to fill movie theaters and to raise the sluggish numbers of the audience of GDR TV and radio, the media producers needed to buy more and more Western movies, TV shows, and pop music because the East German products were seen as technologically inferior, backward, provincial. In this context, the regime had mostly given up to feed the population with ideologically or pedagogically burdened content and the strict censorship of Western media products. However, in the Epilogue to this fascinating monograph, Horten claims that the East Germans did not only bring down the SED regime until 1989 by their stubborn resistance to indoctrination but also protested the Westernization that set in afterwards, in the process of the re-unification of Germany.
Gerd Horten tells this story in five chapters in which he discovers similar mechanics in a number of areas. He begins with the successful propaganda campaigns of the 1970s which brought the East German state international praise and confirmation of the critique of the United States in the West itself, particularly regarding the Vietnam War and racism. This stabilized the GDR in an unprecedented way. However, in the next four chapters, the author describes how the successes of the 1970s had unintended, very negative and increasingly unstoppable consequences in the areas of film importation (Chapter two), television (Chapter three), popular music (Chapter four) and consumer politics (Chapter five), all culminating in a silent “surrender” by those who were responsible for media production and consumer policies in the GDR.
Horten has written a fascinating, very readable, analytically sharp monograph, based on an impressive amount of primary and secondary sources (his bibliography is more than 20 pages long!). He has tried to counter the mass of official sources with numerous polls, letters and other documents that give a good idea of what many East Germans thought about “thought control”. The average East German, not the few dissidents or the few fanatics on top, are the real heroes of his narrative. In a next step, an entangled media and consumption history which also would include West Germans, would be desirable.