Posted by: ingogulde | March 24, 2010

Why Freedom was a Driver for Change in East Germany

“I’ve been looking for freedom”, by David Hasselhoff was one of the most popular songs in 1989. The timing for this song could not have been more perfect. It captured the spirit of 1989. The following video is the best recording that I found from that night of New Year’s Eve in 1989. From talking to people in the USA, this song did not seem to be as popular in the US.

Millions of people in East Germany and other East block countries were desperately looking for freedom and for change. For me, three types of freedom stood out:

Freedom of Speech
“But don’t tell anyone at school!” said my mom. I must have been 8 years old. I saw a news cast about politics on West German TV, which we were not supposed to watch. I told my mom about it. It must have been something critical about the East. My mom did not want me to tell what I had seen at school. The Stasi, the Ministry for State Security, had its ears and eyes everywhere. The parents of my classmates could have been potentially involved with the Stasi and reported suspicious behaviors. Also, teachers could have been Stasi spies. It could have been anyone: neighbors, co-workers, wives, husbands… One could never feel safe and always had to watch what one said.

Freedom of Assembly
Stopping the formation of resistance groups or movements was one of the top priorities of the socialist regime. Even seemingly harmless church groups or peaceful movements came under scrutiny. The system was everywhere. It was powerful, strong, and very effective in maintaining an inner equilibrium. In the late 1980ies, however, the equilibrium went out of balance. The number of people longing for a change was too big. It’s very likely that the system itself lost the beliefe in Socialism.

Freedom of Travel
My uncle left East Germany before the Wall was entirely completed. He was one of our few relatives that lived in the West. Unfortunately, it was not very easy to visit him in West Germany. East Germany imposed very strict travel restrictions. One was not at liberty to decide when to go to the West and for how long. Everything was regulated. The government was aware of the drastic differences between the East and the West. They were afraid losing their people to the West. If they let someone visit West Germany for example, the government had to be sure that there were compelling reasons for people to return. Travelling to other East block countries was a little bit easier. Since 1972, one could even travel to Poland and the Czech Republic without visa.

The longing for these three basic forms of freedom was probably the most decisive driver of change. If it was not for the thousands of brave men and women who stood up against the regime, especially in 1989, the Change might have come later. But I am very certain it would have come eventually.


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Posted by: ingogulde | March 18, 2010

How East Germans Craved Material Things

We could have been perfectly happy from a materialistic point of view if we had not had “West TV”. We were lucky (or unlucky) to live close enough to West Berlin which broadcasted the two public West German TV stations ARD and ZDF. Both were our window to the other world. On TV, we saw how life was in the West. Watching TV made the contrast between East and West very apparent and inflamed a strong material desire. Even though, we had similar products, there were some very distinct differences between the goods available in the West and the goods available in the East.

The first difference was pricing. In the planned market economy, the federal government defined retail prices. Here are a few examples of how the federal government set the prices in East Germany. The prices are in East German Mark (M). 1 EUR = ~2 DM = ~10 M.

Price Product Name

0.05 M    Bread Rolls (Broetchen)
0.08 M    Electricity (price per kWh)
<1.00 M    Loaf of Bread
2.55 M    Gallon of Milk
2.40 M    250g butter (2 American Sticks of butter)
~5.70 M    1 gallon of gasoline (1.50 M / liter)
16.00 M    LP (music album)
70.00 M    Monthly rent for 60m² (645 square feet)

400 M   Digital watch
>1,000 M    Sony-Walkman
1,900 M    Moped (Simson S51)
~3,000 M    Washing machine
4,500-8,300M   Color TV
~10,000 M   Trabant Standard Edition, smallest and most affordable car model
~25,000 M   Wartburg 353, one step up
~35,000 M   Lada Samara
~45,000 M   Volvo 244

(More prices at and

You will notice that prices for basic need products such as food, transportation, energy, and shelter were extremely low. That is because the government heavily subsidized these products. Prices for consumer products such as TVs, washing machines, and cars were disproportionately high. However, with a monthly income between 500 and 1,000 M, not out of reach.

The second difference was availability of consumer products. In order to buy a car, for example, one either had to wait very long or had to rely on “connections”. Because of production shortages for cars, it took up to 15 year from order to delivery. In the black market, used cars often sold for more than the retail price. One closing remark regarding availability. Contrary to common belief, we really had enough to eat in the East. Food supply was not an issue.

The third difference was product innovation. Like price, product development was driven by the federal government and not by consumer needs or demand. Cars provide a very striking example for the lack of innovation in the East. I am sure our engineers would have had the ability to innovate, but the socialist system limited their freedoms. The following chart illustrates the difference of 40 years of car development between the East and the West.

40 Years of Car Innovation

Notice how little the Trabant changed in 40 years. Compare this to the innovation leap at VW from the VW Beetle to the VW Golf.

The fourth difference was product variety. Continuing with the car example, there were only a handful of car brands on the market in East Germany. The same was true for cameras, TVs, digital watches, chocolate, coffee, beer, career options, etc.. The good thing about having limited options is that it made life simpler. The bad thing is that one can not fully satisfy individual preferences and is not able to learn to make decisions in more complex situations. Consider an example from today’s world. Picking the right breakfast cereal out of 30-50 different types requires some decision-making skill. One has to know the individual preferences (strawberry flavor, crunchy texture, little sugar, whole wheat, organic, etc.) and has to stay on top of health trends. In a way, the more variety, the more responsibility for the customer to decide for right product. (More about psychological aspects of life behind and beyond the Iron Curtain in another article.)

Differences in pricing models, product availability, product innovation, and product variety led to a strong material desire for West products. Expressing and fulfilling this desire was one of the drivers for the Change that happened in 1989.


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Pivotal Moments of German History (Part 1)

More and more East Germans tried to escape their home country through Hungary to Austria and then West Germany. Others tried to escape through the Czech Republic.

Starting in August 1989, hundreds and later thousands of East Germans sought refuge in the West German Embassy in Prague. I remember watching TV and seeing people climbing the fence to get into the embassy. The inside was crowed with people and tents and the outside with hundreds of abandoned cars.

People were both afraid of the consequences of their attempt to escape and hopeful to start a new, free, and better life in the West. One could feel the immense tension even through TV.

In September, the conditions at the embassy worsened. There were not nearly enough sanitary facilities to accommodate several thousands of people. Supply became a growing issue. Bad weather made the situation even more dramatic.

The night of September 30, 1989 would decide the fate of 4,000 refugees. At an UN General Assembly, former Foreign Secretaries of West Germany, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, and the Soviet Union, Eduard Schewardnadse, negotiated a deal. Genscher returned from New York to address the waiting people from East Germany in Prague. Genscher stepped on the balcony to announce his famous words:

„Liebe Landsleute,
wir sind zu Ihnen gekommen,
um Ihnen mitzuteilen,
dass heute Ihre Ausreise…“

“Dear fellow countrymen,
we have come to you
to tell you
that today your departure…”

After the keyword “departure” exclamations of pure joy and relieve. The most famous half sentence in German History changed not only the lives of the refugees in Prague but also the lives of millions of others in the East. 4,000 people escaped to West Germany by train. Nine days later the borders were opened and people were free to leave or stay.

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Posted by: ingogulde | March 11, 2010

Why Bananas were special in East Germany

Bananas are today a staple but were rare in East Germany

Bananas are today a staple but were rare in East Germany

I love bananas! Yet, I could not have them everyday. Our grocery store had them only once or twice a month. And once the day had come, it was a matter of luck to get any. There would be no advertising. It worked all word-of-mouth or through observation. It was quite easy to know when a store would have bananas or other exotic fruits, like oranges or melons. Either your neighbor or colleague would tell you or you could see when there was a long line in front of the grocery store. Unlike today, there was only a handful of grocery stores, not even supermarkets, in our little town of 3,000 inhabitants. The long line would soon become synonym for a long wait for something special. That’s why we still have the common expression in East Germany when we see a long line “Do they have bananas here or why is the line so long?”

One of these special days, my mom heard from one of  her colleague that they sell bananas today. Usually, by the time work was over, the bananas would be sold out or the shopkeepers would have held on to some and sell them under-the-counter to their friends, neighbors, and family. Our shopkeeper had a big heart for children. So she would keep some for parents with young children. That day my mom got lucky and brought home some bananas.

Eating bananas was like a big celebration, especially for me as a toddler. My mom would prepare a couple of slices of bread with butter and cut the bananas into little cubes and put them onto the slices of bread. It was a feast! I still remember the fresh and sweet taste of my first banana.

Shortly after the wall came down, bananas became a normal part of everyday life. Now and then, I remember my first banana and am happy that future generations will grow up in a world of abundance and not scarcity.

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