Women in East Germany

By Weedon, Chris | Canadian Dimension, April-May 1995 | Go to article overview

Women in East Germany


Weedon, Chris, Canadian Dimension


How have women greeted the new found freedoms that accompanied the reunification of the Germanies at the beginning of this decade? What do they make of their former lives? What is their evaluation of their current status? Since 1989, GDR Studies teacher Chris Weedon interviewed dozens of East German women ranging in age from teens to women over 90. Here are her conclusions.

Generation is a basic factor shaping East German women's experience of the GDR. For those generations who knew something before the GDR - rural life in East Prussia, life under the Nazis, exile and war - anti-fascism and the desire to create a new type of society free from war and exploitation were the basis for a strong positive identification with the GDR, at least in its early decades.

For women born into the GDR the situation was often radically different. Whereas most identified in principle with socialist ideas and aspirations, many became aware at an early age of the discrepancies between the moral and political rhetoric and actual day-to-day practice. Moral and political ideals learned at kindergarten, in the Pioneers, at school, and in the Free German Youth (FDJ) were constantly reiterated by the media, trade union groups and other social institutions. Yet the gap between these ideals and daily life confronted people everywhere.

Ways of coping with these contradictions varied. Some led a schizophrenic double life, others repressed contradictions, and others turned away from politics and buried themselves in everyday living. This third group tended to maintain a sceptical, often cynical distance from state rhetoric. A small minority of women became part of one of the oppositional organisations, most of which wanted to bring about a better form of socialism.

class and politics

Class background and profession are major factors affecting women's attitudes to life in the GDR, to the `Turn' and to unification and its aftereffects. Officially the GDR claimed to have abolished antagonistic class relations. The state's official cultural policies were aimed at overcoming the mental-manual divide in the consumption of culture; yet the GDR quickly became a very socially segmented society.

Level of education and type of employment remained crucial factors affecting all areas of life, as did membership in the Socialist Unity Party (SED). Professional jobs may have been low-paid compared with the West, but none the less, education and non-manual jobs brought certain privileges which increased personal identification with the GDR.

Yet for women who did not follow a standard path through education into a secure job, for critical cultural workers, writers, for example, and for those directly employed in industrial production, the contradictions between official policy and actual practice were often stark and irreconcilable.

the official belief system

A belief in socialism's moral superiority was central to many people's identity as GDR citizens. Many believed that, whatever its shortcomings, socialism was preferable to capitalism, that however many difficulties the GDR faced, history was on its side.

In conversations people would explain away the discrepancies between theory and practice (and some still do). They would point to the objective position, economic and political, of the GDR in the Cold War period, to economic isolation, boycotts, West German campaigns to get people to leave for the West and to discredit the system. The GDR, they would argue, wanted peace and prosperity for all. It had good social welfare and educational provisions. It did not suffer from the evils of capitalism - unemployment, homelessness, etc. It was not imperialist and did not exploit the Third World.

In part, feelings of moral superiority marked an internalisation of an official belief system. People were encouraged to support ideologically sound causes. Whether it was classes of school children writing to Angela Davis in prison, or regular deductions from pay packets to support government-endorsed causes, GDR citizens were drawn into beliefs and practices that reaffirmed their superior moral status. …

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