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Under considerable Soviet influence (and with a huge Soviet military presence, the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany), East Germany is best known for the massive amount of surveillance carried out on its citizens by its Secret Police, the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Ministry for State Security), known as "Stasi". Its police force, the Volkspolizei (People's Police, known as "Vopos" for short) were also fairly notorious. It built the Berlin Wall and heavily fortified the Iron Curtain to stop its people from fleeing to the West (officially, it was to prevent Western spies going East -- it probably did that, too ).
It allowed churches to operate freely, provided they didn't get political.
The leaders of the freshly founded GDR were Walter Ulbricht ("the guy with the Lenin beard"), Wilhelm Pieck ("the guy with the potbelly") and Otto Grotewohl ("the guy with the glasses" - not this one, obviously). As early as 1953, shortly after Stalin's death, the state had its first big crisis when workers rose against the government on June 17th. It didn't end too well. Even Communist author Bertolt Brecht criticized the government in his poem The Situation: "Would it not be be simpler then for the government, To dissolve the people and elect another?"
There were elections, and other parties than the Socialist SED, but they were far from democratic. East Germans called this voting "Falten gehen" (going to fold), because anybody who did anything but fold their ballot (like crossing out candidates, or even staying at home) and put it in the urn immediately became suspicious. As the East Germans said, the only way to vote was "by foot", i.e. leaving the GDR for West Germany. Well, until 1961 that is, afterwards this was less an option.
During its early years, the conservative government of West Germany did everything they could to not acknowledge East Germany's existence; breaking off diplomatic relations with every state that acknowledged the GDR, calling it derogatory names like "Ostzone" (east zone), "Sowjetische Besatzungszone" (Soviet-occupied zone), "so-called GDR" and "Undeutsche Undemokratische Diktatur" (un-German undemocratic dictatorship), and generally claiming that western Germany was the only legitimate German state. The GDR rulers did the same, just the other way round. Later, under social democrat Willy Brandt, diplomatic relations improved.
East Germany was one of the economic success stories of Commie Land, with a decent agricultural system and enough manufacturing to put consumer goods within reach of many; their flag reflects this with its hammer and pair of compasses instead of the ubiquitous sickle. They achieved this despite the fact that, like the rest of Commie Land, the government invested far more than was necessary into the military and heavy industry. In fact, while the 1989 protesters had popular support for doing away with the oppressive regime, many East Germans were proud of their state and were not happy with the way that East Germany "became part of the effective area of the Basic Law of Germany" quite so summarily.  At least not after realising that reunification did not bring them an instant paradise, and that the now-ruling Western leaders weren't shy about handing out pink slips.
The Eastern side did have a pretty good military, getting the full Soviet versions of military tech rather than the weaker export versions. Planned the one or other raid on West Germany too, but the unification stopped the plan before it could be executed. Their uniforms, though... Due to Germany still being, in many regards, an occupied
country couple of countries country with two separate and independent governments, the Western powers (US, UK, France) had Military Liaison Missions in the GDR, allowing them to observe Soviet forces in action.
East Germany also did quite well in sporting events... largely because many of its athletes were doped up to the eyeballs with the latest performance-enhancing drugs, in an effort to make the Communist regime look like it was working on the international stage. Most would suffer health problems as a result. In American TV of the seventies and eighties look for many jokes about East German sportswomen not really being women.
Much of East Germany could pick up West German TV networks, which helped undermine the regime. The channels couldn't be jammed since it would also jam West Germany and that would be bad diplomatically. The Dresden and Rügen areas couldn't, so were dubbed "The Valley of the Clueless". This was done a) because GDR television was full of propaganda and b) it appears not to have been that good. The only programmes that The Other Wiki discusses in its English version are:
- Der schwarze Kanal ("The Black Channel"- derived from a German plumbing term for sewer): Think of a Communist MSTing of West German television news, only without the humour. Or the popularity. May fall under So Bad It's Good, though.
- Aktuelle Kamera- the East German TV news broadcast, which was pretty much Propaganda.
- Fake ones are made in Goodbye Lenin!, which also features actual clips.
- Ein Kessel Buntes ("A Kettle of Colour")- A Variety Show, shown six times a year. Hollywood production standards and (usually past their prime) Western celebrities. Continued into the Berlin Republic and still turns up in re-runs.
- Das Spielhaus ("The Playhouse"): a popular puppet thing.
East Germany's most famous consumer products were the Exacta and Praktica cameras (the Praktica brand still exists; it was part of the Kombinat Volks Eigener Betrieb Zeiss Jena (how's that for a company name, eh?) that invented the prism SLR design which is still the standard for cameras today - one of the few communist inventions to have an impact in the west), MZ motorcycles (whose engine technology gave Suzuki quite a boost in the early '60's) and the Trabant car, which was, by Western standards, obsolete before the '60s were over but gave many a Worker and his family the opportunity to move themselves about a bit, followed by a blue two-stroke oil cloud. It pretty much disappeared from the East German streets as soon as the Wall opening brought other choices, but it's now considered a classic car. Some enthusiasts have succeeded in making their Trabants capable of passing the MoT, Britain's strict government-mandated roadworthiness test; divine intervention is suspected. However the Trabant, suitably renovated, is making a bit of a comeback today.
The GDR was also famous for its bureaucratic nomenclature. Coffins for example were named Erdmöbel (literally: ground furniture), or the term Sättigungsbeilage (literally: Well it is difficult to translate, really. It would be something like "a filling side dish", and means stuff like potatoes, dumplings or rice as a supplement to a proper meal). Even more hilarious were the words they invented for religious stuff, like Frühjahrsschokoladenhohlkörper (hollow chocolate article of spring - a chocolate easter bunny) and Jahresendflügelpuppe (winged doll of the year's end - a christmas angel for the christmas tree and the like). The reason: Religion wasn't verboten in the GDR, but the ruling people didn't like it too much either.
The East Germans had their own state airline. They originally called it Deutsche Lufthansa, but the West Germans complained and got awarded that trademark, so it adopted the name of a separate charter airline- Interflug.
On the other hand, the East German rail network retained the pre-1945 name of Deutsche Reichsbahn ("German Imperial Railways"), while the West Germans renamed theirs Deutsche Bundesbahn ("German Federal Railways"). This may have been done since several treaties dating to the end of World War Two mentioned special privileges given by name to Deutsche Reichsbahn that might not have transferred automatically to VEB Bahn der DDR or some such, so it was best not to risk it.
The GDR was allocated an ISO 3166-1 code, but it never got a full domain code. Had it survived to get one, it would have been .dd. It had the international calling code +37, now divided up among some former Soviet states.
There is a degree of "Ostalgie" ("Eastalgia") in The Berlin Republic, including GDR-themed parties.
In a curious note, the DDR also
"owns" does not own an island off the coast of Cuba as a gift from Castro, although some incredibly funny people like to twist facts to make it look that way.
Since approximately 1990 "Ossi" is the German slang term for a former East German, "Wessi" being the West Germany counterpart. Until then, "Zoni" was used for people from the GDR, "Wessi" was used by the people in West Berlin for those from West Germany and "Ossi" was used in jokes about people from East Frisia.
Media set in East Germany:
- A couple of MacGyver episodes.
- The 1984 comedy Top Secret depicts it as Nazi Germany in order to spoof World War II espionage thrillers. Then again, the Volksarmee did spend a while Putting on the Reich...
- The Lives of Others, 2006 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film.
- The aforementioned Goodbye Lenin!, perhaps the most effective movie ever made about "Ostalgie" (nostalgia for East Germany).
- Airwolf has an episode, "Fallen Angel", set in the GDR. Loses points for crediting two Vopos characters as "Polizie". Not only is that a misspelling of "Polizei", the correct term for a male police officer in German is "Polizist".
- Further negative points for implying that Magdeburg and East Berlin are right next to each other. It's actually a 70-mile trip as the crow flies and the East German Border Troops would fancy a crow for dinner.
- John le Carré used East Germany as a subject in his early novels, including Call for the Dead, The Looking-Glass War, and, most strikingly, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
- The Singing Ringing Tree, a fairy tale filmed by the East German DEFA studio in 1957 and oft-repeated on British TV during the 1960s and 70s. Well enough known to have been spoofed by The Fast Show.
- The manga Monster is set in post-unification Germany and revolves heavily around covered up events in the former GDR.
- Night Crossing, a film about two families who escape from the DDR via a home-made hot air balloon.
- The hilarious comedy One, Two, Three is set in both halves of Berlin, before the wall was built (which lead to Dude, Not Funny and Too Soon when this happened shortly before the movie hit the theaters, even if it wasn't director Billy Wilder's fault).
East German characters:
East German agents were also common in Cold War fiction, partly because of their major role in the Warsaw Pact and partly (possibly) to what might be called the "German Commie Nazi" factor, which allowed writers to combine the worst stereotypes of Germans, Nazis and Communists.
Cool Runnings features a nasty East German. The East German Judge was a common element at international sporting events such as The Olympics, where they would invariably give ridiculously low scores to anyone not from Commie Land; the term has come to mean anyone who seems to grade harshly and give low scores, such as Kishi Asako on Iron Chef.
- A Trabant was featured in Michael Palin's New Europe giving Palin a tour of Nowa Huta in Poland. One particularly distressing feature is the tendency for a wheel to fall off.
- Something that this troper's driver (on the same tour as Palin) waited until we were doing 40 mph to reveal happens to him about once a month.
- In Axis Powers Hetalia, Prussia seems to take up the East Germany role in contrast to his younger brother, Germany, whom he apparently nicknames "West". Which is pretty much Word of God.
- The whole Prussia calling Germany "West" thing is less, "What do you mean it's not Symbolic" and more that Himaruya was just giving people hints. No symbolism attached, except that Prussia called Germany "West" in an episode that took place before there was a West Germany and an East Germany, which makes it kind of confusing.
- The video game Poly Play was the only video game officially created in East Germany. Strictly speaking, it's a collection of eight different arcade games, including a Pac-Man clone. It is low resolution, uses a complete TV set as a screen, and is emulated in MAME, the ROM allegedly being freely available (which is probably not true, since someone must have inherited the East German copyrights - but apparently, no one can tell). It has an article on The Other Wiki.
- Whether or not the ROM is freely available has nothing to do with copyright. You can easily find almost any ROM for almost any system. No one cares about the copyright.
- Anna Funder's Stasiland gives an outsiders perspective to the end of East Germany and what came after.
- well, except for the Military Liaison Missions, see below
- The term annexation is frequently used. This is incorrect. There was (in theory) only one German state, divided into West Germany, East Germany and the lands occupied by Poland and the Soviet Union. East Germany adopted the laws of West Germany and the lands east of the Oder-Neiße border were indeed annexed (or ceded to) the respective countries. Berlin was a special case.
- Neither were they particularly interested in keeping potential economic rivals of Western companies alive until they found their footing. A lot of previously state-owned factories were sold for next-to-nothing by the new government and then closed down by the "investors".
- Though German cuisine usually includes one source of carbohydrates as a necessary component of a proper meal, besides meat and vegetables. So it's doubly strange that it was called a "supplement".
- from "Sowjetische Besatzungszone" (Soviet Occupation Zone)