Artistic Control in the German Democratic Republic

People are fond of saying that their grandparents or great-grandparents fought for this or that right in the Second World War.  This cannot and must not be disputed.  The war ended with Hitler dead and Germany in tatters. What hadn’t been won, however, was the war against propaganda. This survived well into the 1980s under the auspices of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Everything from art to what vehicle you drove still fell under the control of the state.

This topic of “control” surfaces frequently in the subtext of nearly all GDR propaganda. For example, as a journalist you were watched closely to be sure what you wrote was in line with party policy. But, you were also monitored for the things that you didn’t write down, the things in your head that you dare not commit to paper.  GDR “control” also covered the motivations of the journalist, artist, novelist, and playwright. Actions, people you visited, places you went, who you talked to, all were interpreted to develop a picture of you as a person and where your allegiances lay.

This fits with the ethos of the GDR as a party. They presented a complete model of the external (natural) world, and formulated rules governing social behavior.  Everything was political, so anyone who wished to interact with the world around them needed to understand and use the Marxist-Leninist paradigm. Only then could a citizen interact with and interpret the external world with clarity. This demonstrates just how insidious the GDR was in the lives of its citizens. Everything, including what you thought, was under the control of the state.

Artists such as playwrights faced problems when it came to their particular creations. As can be seen in The Lives of Others, there were very tight restrictions on what you could write. Plays generally took on a patriotic tone meant to please the government more than the audience.

I have shown in this brief introduction that all of the arts were under explicit government control, and that should regulations be contradicted, there would be consequences – some dire, some temporary. In what follows, under separate headings, I will show how insidious the GDR’s involvement was in all forms of the arts by discussing specific examples through analysis of Bytwerk’s research of life under the GDR. I will then conclude by discussing “control” and how it affected these creative communities.

Nazi Art (Unknown)

The Arts

As an artist in the GDR, you would find yourself in the curious situation of not knowing whether your art was “officially” acceptable or not. More often, the GDR had some difficulty when they got to figuring out what approved art was.  The definition of what is art is so broad and far-reaching so as to make it very difficult to identify it even when it is staring you straight in the face. This, by definition, would cause automatic suspicion of all artists, since the GDR could not interpret it through some rubric or thought lens.

To begin, one had to be a member of an approved artists’ guild, which were closely monitored by the GDR apparatchik. Only officially approved art could be offered to the public for viewing. This included paintings, plays, movies, short films, and on the list goes.

Both the Nazis and the GDR saw the arts as important. “Both systems guided art by controlling admission to the professional organizations that were a prerequisite for artistic life. (Bytwerk, p.128) Modern or abstract art were given an automatic “no”, as official GDR policy was to reject these as forms of art – being either subversive overtly or secretly.  It’s fairly clear that the GDR censors were by no means skilled or soulful art critics.


            Working under the auspices of the SED, Neues Deutschland (ND)was the official national state newspaper, with a readership of around 1-million people. If you worked at ND it’s because the state deemed you to be “politically reliable.” (Bytwerk, 93) Bytwerk notes that there was a shortage of socialist journalists at the outset; something that was soon remedied with the construction of a “trustworthy cadre”.

Goebbels once said that “any man who still has a residue of honor will be very careful not to become a journalist.” Setting aside the humorous possibility of becoming a journalist by accident, this foreshadowed what was to become of the media under the SED.

“The media in totalitarian societies have catechetical functions,” writes Bytwerk. (Bytwerk, 89) Their job was not to present their readership with news, but with state-controlled stories of a political nature (often of things that never happened). “That which is presented,” continues Bytwerk, “must agree with the reigning wordview.” (ibid.) So, if the facts didn’t line up with the official line of the government, they were either changed so that they did, or they went unreported.

As if we have learned nothing, this still occurs in countries like Great Britain that issue “D-Notices” to newspapers, preventing them from running a story that will cause harm to state security.  Just a couple of years ago, MI6 walked into the offices of The Guardian newspaper in London and demanded that all their computers be destroyed as part of their campaign to end the leaks coming from Edward Snowden’s files. This is no secret, but for the first few days I was the only person in a very small group of people who knew what had happened. Was there state intimidation? Yes, and it was shocking how similar it was to the intimidation that went on under the GDR.

That may seem a bit of an aside, but I think it has application to our present discussion on state-controlled stories and the catechetical functions of newspapers. In any event, GDR newspapers were very strictly controlled and were intended not to impart news, but to educate the public in a state-sponsored way that maintained the readers’ dim, cramped-circle worldview. State-held journalistic conferences ensured that this would remain the case on a year-on-year basis.


A writer working in the GDR was very limited in the scope of what she could actually commit to paper and hope to publish. Writers, as with other forms of the arts, were subject to surveillance and bugging and generally treated with suspicion by the state. The GDR understood the power of the word and would crush any attempt at insubordination. I described above in my analysis of journalism writers faced, particularly since they weren’t on the payroll of the GDR.


The Mystery of Human Nature

Any discussions of governments like the GDR necessarily need to include the subject of religion and how it is addressed within that political worldview.

Christian churches, particularly those of the evangelical variety, talk about a “God-shaped hole” that each person has, and that it can only be filled by the Trinitarian Christian God. But what if that hole could be filled by a simple sense of broader purpose in life? Bytwerk writes that “by failing to affirm both the mystery and intrinsic value of human life, [the GDR/Nazi Party] failed as substitute religions. In bending spines, the totalitarian systems misunderstood human nature and brought out the worst of old human beings rather that the best of the new ones.”

I will address the “God-shaped hole” first and then, using that, offer an answer to how “totalitarian systems misunderstood human nature.”

Evangelical Christians speak of God as though he is a friend; in fact they speak to God as if he is a friend. To most Christians, God is that which all meaning derives from. God is the answer to the question “why”? He is the reason that things happen the way they do – particularly in modern Calvinism where much of the Christian life is preordained. He is spoken of as the meaning for everything. Whatever happens, God must be responsible and so we must praise him for that. This may sound simplistic, but it has profound effects on how an individual views herself, the world around her and how she interacts with that world under God’s protection and love.

Furthermore, evangelical Christians place a very high intrinsic value on human life. God gives purpose, love and value to those who neither deserve nor seek after it. People are important just by virtue of being.  That is probably the most important aspect of the evangelical Christian life. People have meaning and purpose that is both in each of their constituent parts and outside themselves in terms of serving the church and the world.

Whether or not the Christian story is objectively true, this idea of God as the source of all meaning has resonated with millions throughout the ages, following the life and death of Jesus.

If there is a “God-shaped hole”, then it would have done the GDR well to try to fill it with something more meaningful than grey tower blocks, drab old stories, and Trabants. What is remarkable is that it would have been so easy to do, and yet they didn’t – or at least if they did, it was in such a shambolic way as to be devoid of meaning.

In terms of the answer that Bytwerk sought in his book Bending Spines as to how the GDR “failed as substitute religions” and “brought out the worst of old human beings rather than the best of new ones, the answer is fairly simple; though that may be presumptuous of me.

The “faith” that would be engendered in a substitute religion could have been – if properly engineered – very similar to the Christian faith I have just outlined above. Instead, what was provided by the GDR was a complete lack of direction, meaning or value. How does that even begin to build a new humanity that is intrinsically good? The answer is that it doesn’t. I believe that the lack of a faith substitute brought out some of the worst in what was otherwise a good humanity in the worst of contexts.

This is exemplified in the suicide of Christa-Maria Sieland after betraying her lover, Georg Dreyman. It is the final and decisive portrait of what life was made into by the GDR. It was a life without faith or hope, bereft of any substantive meaning apart from that which you created for yourself – particularly in the arts.

It ought to give us pause, I think, to consider our present world in which we live. The United Kingdom is a surveillance state, placing microphones in light standards. They are using facial recognition software on all their streets. They are ignoring journalistic privilege (and they can as there is no law preventing them from doing so) in the interest of national security – whatever that is.

The United States regularly orders the killing of people abroad, some of them Americans, using unmanned drones.  How cowardly and sick.  We celebrated when the Wall came down. I can still remember it and how it made me feel, as though a massive weight had been removed from my back. There was hope for humanity again. The GDR was no more.  And then, perhaps because we know no better, we started it all over again.



Works Cited

  1. Randall L. Bytwerk, Bending Spines: The propagandas of Nazi Germany and the German Democratic Republic (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2004)
  2. The Lives of Others Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006.

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