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What was life like in 1980s East Berlin?

The 1980s were the last decade of the DDR, but what was it really like to live in that vanished state? Here are 11 things every former Ossi will remember.

The wastelands, punks and wild concerts of Prenzlauer Berg, Mitte and Friedrichshain

In the mid-1980s in the Hirschhof on Oderberger Strasse: a privately organized punk concert. Photo: Imago Images/Frank Sorge

The DDR wasn’t exactly a glittery disco. Dance events had to adhere to the 60/40 rule when selecting music (60 percent Eastern, 40 percent Western music). On the weekends people went to ‘multi-purpose’ restaurants: after everyone finished eating, the tables were pushed aside and beer, wine or martinis were served in excess (the martinis had cherries instead of olives).

But in the ‘non-conformist’ districts, – Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain or the dilapidated parts of Mitte –  everything was a bit more chaotic. People met for readings and performances and even backyard punk concerts. Churches even played an important role as venues. The vibe was wild, unpolished and gritty. Quite a time to be a teen! 

Making out on the leather armchairs at Palast der Republik

Palace of the Republic: ‘Erich’s lamp shop’ with leather sofas and a glass flower. Photo: Imago/SMID

The Palast der Republik was the centre of East German power, where the People’s Chamber met. A whole range of socialist festivities took place in the ultra-modern event hall: SED party days, the Saturday evening television show “Ein Kessel Buntes”, and the “Festival of Political Songs”.

But it was also a leisure place for the workers with restaurants, ice cream bars, beer halls, wine bars, a bowling alley, a gallery of state approved art, even a theatre. The slang for the building was “Palazzo Prozzo” or “Erich’s lamp shop” because of the 10,000 lights that hung from the ceiling of the foyer.

And in the red leather armchairs in the foyer you could always see quite a few young couples cuddling and snogging. Love was in the air.

SEZ

In the first indoor wave pool in the GDDR. Photo: Wikipedia Commons/Gerd Danigel/CC BY-SA 4.0

Another outrageously expensive DDR leisure magnet: The sports and recreation centre, SEZ, on Leninallee (today, Landsberger Allee), opened in 1981, and had something for nearly everyone. 

The only other place you could experience waves in the DDR was the Ostsee. The winter ice rink was used for roller skating in the warmer months. You could go bowling or pump some iron, but instead of evil capitalist bodybuilders, it was the “body culturists” who sweated it out.

SEZ, was eventually sold to a developer in 2003, for one euro. The contract was, to put it mildly, rather poorly negotiated, and the legal dispute still not been finally decided. The Senate now wants to build apartments, a school and a Kita on the grounds.

May Day Parades

In lockstep past the men’s club of the DDR: the power apparatus admires the people. Photo; Imago/Werner Schulze

Every authoritarian regime loves a military parade. Basking in the devotion of the people and broadcasting the pomp and propaganda to the rest of the world. This ritual was repeated every year on May 1st (and also for the DDR’s birthday on October 7th).

Delinquency was punished harshly, and reflected poorly on management. A list of approved slogans were printed in advance, things like “My workplace – my battlefield for peace!”, “Our greetings to the fraternal parties, the working people of all socialist countries!” or “Work with us, plan with us, govern with us”.

But at least at the end of it you got to get drunk in Scheunenviertel. 

Intershops were only for those with Western money  

A Stroller in front of an Intershop. Photo: Imago/Frank Sorge

Allegedly everyone was equal in the GDR. But the ones with Western money were more equal. In the Intershops, the west was still the enemy, but the range was better than in the department store. In the Intershops you could confidently leave your ‘aluminum chips’ as the light-weight East German mark coins were called, in your Wisent jeans pocket. Only western money was good here. 

If you had no Western relatives, no grandfather with the right to travel to the West, or did not want to exchange D-Marks at a horrendous black market rate, you could only cast a glimpse at the bounty of exploitative capitalism.

Queues. Everywhere.

Queue in front of a department store Photo: Imago/Frank Sorge

If you were used to anything in the DDR, it was standing in line. Queuing in front of the department store, only to find the ketchup and the bananas were gone anyway. Queuing in front of the restaurants – after all, the sign there said “You will be seated”. Standing in line in front of the record store even if you didn’t know why. Maybe a Western record had recently been acquired by the only state approved record company ‘Amiga’: Madonna’s “True Blue” or Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.”? Only way to know was to queue.

The Kulturpark Plänterwald Ferris Wheel

The legendary Ferris wheel in the Kulturpark, in 2021 – shortly before dismantling. Photo: Imago/McPhoto=

There are many childhood memories are associated with this approx 30 hectare area. And they taste like cotton candy.

Kulturpark Plänterwald was the only permanent amusement park that the DDR had. Opened in 1969, excursions there were hugely popular. Up to 1.7 million visitors came every year, and the popular DDR series “Spuk unterm Riesenrad” was filmed here. Shortly before the Wall came down in 1989, the Ferris wheel was expanded from 36 to 40 gondolas and painted red to mark the 40th anniversary of the DDR.

“Let’s not discuss that on the phone”

Yes kids, phones really looked like that at one point. Photo: Imago/Rüdiger Wölk

Telephone connections in short supply in the DDR. You often had to wait years for one. Of course it was easier to get a line into your own apartment if your mum or dad (preferably both) were SED members or, worked for the Deutsche Reichsbahn.

Lines were so rare that after the death of a fellow comrade, the telephone technician would come and disconnect the connection before the body was cold.

During calls to West Berlin, there was a distinct crackling on the line that announced an eavesdropper (the Stasi had no problems getting a connection). Which led to the standard refrain: “Let’s not discuss that on the phone.”

Trabis Trabis everywhere

Photo: Imago/teutopress

A Trabant. A Trabant. Another Trabant. Look, a Wartburg. Another Trabant. Was that a Golf 2? The Trabant – or Trabi as they are affectionately known – were ubiquitous in the DDR. The legendary two-stroke engine from Zwickau! Parents often registered their kids for one as soon as they were born so that it would be delivered in time for their 18th birthday. A four-stroke variant came onto the market shortly before the end of the DDR. But by then it didn’t matter.

BFC Dynamo set a German record that still stands today

In 1986/87, the BFC became East German champions for the eighth time in a row. The top fan Erich Mielke loves all the players. Photo: Imago/Camera 4

Today, Bayern Munich are the inevitable champions of the Bundesliga, but the DDR had their own juggernaut: BFC Dynamo, who played in Jahnsportpark or in the Sportforum in the 1980s. To this day they hold the German record for the most football championships in a row. The club won the Oberliga title ten times between 1979 and 1988.

They were somehow even less popular than FC Bayern. This was not least due to the fact that Honorary President Erich Mielke headed the Stasi, and penalties almost always went their way. To add to this ugliness, from the mid-1980s, quite a lot of their fans were skinheads.

More and more people went west, their apartments became squats

Punks occupy an apartment in Prenzlauer Berg in 1982. Photo: Imago/Photo12

Since the 1970s, state housing had concentrated on large prefabricated housing estates in the east of the city, while the old buildings in the centre fell increasingly into disrepair. Tiled stoves, cold water, toilets halfway up the stairs, no more plaster on the walls. You could even still see bullet holes from the war denting the walls.

Because run-down apartments were empty, young people would squat them, fix them up, then apply for their ‘polizeiliche meldung’ and thus bypass the centralised state housing allocation. Large scale squatting began in earnest after the fall of the Wall, culminating in the occupation and then evacuation of Mainzer Strasse.