East Germans combating shortages of consumer goods

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

From October 10 to October 16, 2016 there was an exhibition in the museum of the city of Jena – Germany, formerly German Democratic Republic – about how the citizens of the German Democratic Republic, often referred to as (communist) East Germany were combating and overcoming the shortages in consumer goods with ingenuity and DIY. The title of this exhibition, here translated, was “One has to know how to help oneself. Homemade in the GDR”.

Some of it may indeed have been because there was not “enough” by way of consumer goods on the shelves, sometimes possibly due to bad planning in the planned economy, though in other instances it was just a case that something simply could not be had, and probably in the West neither, not that they could have bought it from there, and thus they made it themselves. In yet other cases it was simply a case of making it because of the fun of it and of making something unique.

The consumer culture that the West knew and which is getting worse every year, it would seem, just was not something that, per se, existed in the GDR and I am sure it was not a bad thing. Products also that were made and could be bought were made to last, whether it was electrical and electronic goods – and many still rod well today, some 30 or 40 years after they were made, and they can be repaired (they were made that way) – or other goods.

It was not so much a “combating or overcoming of shortages” but simply a case of a culture still of making things while in the West this was more and more going over to “I can go to the shops and buy that” because – one – the things, quite of lot of them, could just simply be bought, as they were already then, imported, and – two – because many people could no longer be bothered to make things themselves. To some degree this could also have to do with the aftermath of the Second World War and the early years thereafter where people, even in the areas of Germany occupied by the Western Allies, had little and had to make do and mend. When then consumer goods were available, from various sources, many no longer wanted to be seen making their own things.

Things were different in East Germany as first of all the country had less by way of raw materials and secondly also the Big Brother in the East could not be of much help as the USSR was rather destroyed courtesy of the German military and therefore there was, for a long time, no flood consumer goods in the shops. “Not macht erfinderisch”, is an old German adage, which equals the English: “Necessity is the mother of invention”, and so people went to make, or continued to make, things they wanted and could not buy either because they were not available or rather expensive, as they were considered luxury items, themselves. In other cases it was also the love of making things themselves instead of spending money on it. A good route at all times, I think.

But the media and this exhibition in the city of Jena make it all sound as if the citizens of the GDR – East Germany – did all that just because there was nothing to be had in the shops, which just is not the case. The essentials and more could be easily obtained, luxury goods were a different kettle of fish, and those, obviously, included cars. However, it has become and been a hobby of the Western media to claim that there was nothing to be had in East Germany and other socialist countries because of the socialist planned economy and that that kind of economy is one of mismanagement and scarcity by design.

Teresa Thieme from the Jean City Museum said: “Homemade is in vogue again today – even if it for other reasons as it was in the GDR because of the bad supply situation. Today it is often more the environmental aspect which leads people to rather repair that to throw away.”

Either the people making such comments do not understand how the situation truly was or they just want to paint – and I believe it is the latter – a bleak picture on purpose. The fact that some – many, in fact – things were made rather than bought is not simply because of the supply situation but that people wanted to make those things themselves, for many different reasons.

For some reason, I believe, in East Germany the spirit of making things oneself, not simply because of problems due to a variety of reasons, remained alive for much longer than it did in the Western sectors where consumer goods came in from abroad and also the factories were rather quickly rebuilt, with mainly American “help”.

Had the German Democratic Republic been able to trade more freely on the world market – we have to remember always that there were sanctions in place – and the Mark been freely convertible – neither of which was the case (and, yes, there were possibly some mismanagement of the planned economy) things might have been different. If better, however, remains a question. It also shows what can be done even without all those imports and international trade.

In the exhibition there were articles that I would call art, such as a wooden wall platter surrounded with pyrographed clothespins, something that was a popular craft in the 1960s and 1970s also in the West. But this too has been, basically, made out to be one of the examples of something that was made because it could not be bought. I would put forward the notion that this item was made because someone loved to make it. The same goes for other examples in that exhibition, such as a Christmas Pyramid made with used matchsticks.

Maybe it would be a good idea if we all rediscovered our skills and talents by starting to make things ourselves instead of each and every time looking to buy what we want or need, even if we could make it ourselves. And still today there are things that you can make – or even have to make – because you can't actually buy them. I had that not so long ago when I wanted a holster for my Opinel pocketknife to wear on a cord around the neck. Buying was not an option as there was no such thing. So what is one to do. A bit of scrap leather and less than an hour later and ready it was. Then there are things that one can buy but which are so ridiculously expensive, considering what they are and how easy it is to make them, that I, and I am sure others, resort to doing the latter rather than buying. At the same time it is possible to customize such an item to exactly what one wants.

Now, as I could not buy the item that I wanted and thus designed and made it myself must, according to the logic of those at that museum in Jena, mean that there are serious shortages in the economy in the free West.

If I cannot get something because it has not been made for general sale and I know that I can make it then I make it and the same goes for something that I may be able to buy, at a price far too high in my opinion, and can make then, again, I make it. And I am sure that a similar approach was also taken by many of those makers in East Germany.

© 2016