View onto Germany

The Stuff That Progress was Made Of

By Eli Rubin

In East Germany plastic goods were more than just cheap throwaway items. The beautiful new world of plastics became the symbol of modernity and the success of socialism.

“Ziphona decent 306” portable mono record player made by VEB Funkwerk Zittau, 1970
“Ziphona decent 306” portable
mono record player made
by VEB Funkwerk Zittau, 1970.

The GDR’s beautiful new world of plastics began in 1958 with two major events run by the Socialist Unity Party. The first was the Fifth Party Congress, at which East German leader Walter Ulbricht announced a major shift from a production-oriented socialist economy and society to a technologically advanced, consumer-based economy and society. The second was the Chemical Conference in Leuna, convened in the heart of East Germany’s chemical industry, to announce the Chemistry Programme. It was to be the leading edge of the technological modernisation of the economy and ultimately of everyday life in socialist East Germany.

Among the highest priorities for the new consumer turn was to begin the mass production of the kinds of modern consumer goods that had become symbols of the good life in the West such as modern apartments, furniture, appliances, toys, clothes, electronics, prepackaged foods, etc. Accessibility to these things would prove to the East German population that socialism could offer a compelling and attractive future to them, and compete with the economic miracle of the West for their consent.

“Television shows, magazines and exhibitions trumpeted the superiority of plastics.”

The ability to produce plastic became a focal point for the very survival of socialism, not only because modern petroleum products are necessary for other modern industries such as electronics and construction, but especially because the GDR, like other socialist countries, was not able to import the array of natural materials necessary for the mass production of modern consumer goods. Cotton, wool, wood, glass, aluminum, rubber; all of these were in very short supply in East Germany. In order to give its citizens a modern, consumer-based lifestyle and thus to compete in a divided Germany, East Germany needed to use chemicals and especially plastics to synthesize those materials that were unavailable otherwise.

“Yvette YMP-5” manicure and pedicure machine made by VEB Elektrogerätewerk Suhl, 1974
“Yvette YMP-5” manicure
and pedicure machine made
by VEB Elektrogerätewerk
Suhl, 1974.

The major question for those in charge of this economic transition was whether the East German population would understand plastic substitutes as inferior, and thus a symbol of life in East Germany as a cheap substitute for the real thing in West Germany, or whether plastics, especially modern thermoplastics, would be understood as a sign of a technologically advanced modern society. Not long after the 1958 conference, East Germans were flooded with signs of the coming plastic life. Specialty shops opened selling nothing but plastic and synthetic products; television shows, magazines, exhibitions and other venues trumpeted the superiority of plastics to the materials they would imitate. Plastic table tops were superior because they were easier to clean; polyester clothes because they needed less work to maintain. A great deal of excitement was generated among ordinary East Germans, who moved into mass produced housing blocks, ordered mass produced furniture made from plastic laminate, and dressed themselves in polyester clothes cut in contemporary 1960’s fashions. Socialism seemed to have harnessed the magic of science – atomic, aerospace, and petrochemical – as its means of bringing about a promised communist utopia that was one part Jules Verne and one part Karl Marx.

Polystyrene watering can made by VEB Glasbijouterie Zittau, 1960
Polystyrene watering can
made by VEB Glasbijouterie
Zittau, 1960.

Design according to Bauhaus

Plastic goods came to be highly prized in the GDR, both for their scarcity and for the commonly accepted notion that they were a high quality material, not a cheap substitute. Crucial to the creation of such a notion was the rising influence of a school of industrial designers in the GDR, essentially the remnants of the Bauhaus in East Germany, led by an influential designer named Martin Kelm. Kelm’s orga nisation, the Office for Industrial Design, brought the idea of using modern technology to mass produce highquality materials that were neither imitative of past forms nor devoid of culture from the fringes to the centre of political and economic power in the GDR. Central to Kelm and his associates’ mission was harnessing plastics and plastic substitution in the planned economy so that plastics would not come to be abused as a cheap substitute, as had happened in the West, and thus to prevent the kind of throw-away society that had developed as a partial response to the advent of plastics in the capitalist world.

In ensuring that plastics were used as part of a highly controlled planned economy, only where they made sense for the user to achieve a more rationalised, streamlined daily life, these designers helped the government connect with a mainstream culture within the East German population that valued usefulness, function, and newness over ideology. In this way, the aims of the regime met the core values of the population, and together a mainstream culture, distinctly East German, evolved, a consensus that took on a viable life of its own, that was neither purely a matter of support flowing from the people to the government nor the government enforcing power over the people, but rather a cohesive cultural force that claimed legitimacy for itself, and in many places in the former East Germany still does.

“Rejecting the plastic lifestyle aroused the Stasi’s suspicion.”

This mainstream East German culture was the real source of the regime’s power, more than the hard power of the state alone. When East Germans distanced themselves from this mainstream – by insisting on wearing cotton clothing instead of polyester, or purchasing antique wooden furniture instead of laminate or polyurethane – they signaled immediately that they held values not shared by the regime and the mainstream population. Often, rejecting the plastic lifestyle raised a flag of suspicion with the Stasi, who believed that such a rejection might signify other subversive tendencies.

Plastic chicken soft-boiled egg holder, VEB Plaste Wolkenstein
Plastic chicken soft-boiled
egg holder,
VEB Plaste Wolkenstein
Photo: Kathleen Langan; courtesy
of the Dokumentationszentrum
Alltagskultur der DDR

In the first years after the Wall fell, the centrality of plastics to the material world of East Germans struck West Germans and other westerners as alternately quaint, exotic, or pathetic. In the West, plastic had long come to signify cheapness and disposability. And as with many other aspects of East German material culture, such as the Trabant, once East Germans realised their material world was, literally, a joke to West Germans, they sought to shed the trappings of their communist provinciality and join the capitalist cosmopolitanism that was flooding in all around them. However, by the mid 1990s, as part of the phenomenon of Ostalgie (nostalgia for the East) East Germans began to sense that much of the critique of western culture made before 1989 rang true. Plastic goods in East Germany, many began to complain, were made to last; one very rarely threw anything out, especially if it were plastic. Terms such as Wegwerfgesellschaft (throw-away society) began to be revived among former East Germans, and those who had not rid themselves of their plastic chicken egg cups and “Sprelacart” kitchen surfacing clung on to them as one of the places in which the GDR lived on.

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Eli Rubin Eli Rubin
Photo: Kathleen Langan

Professor Dr. Eli Rubin teaches history at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA. From 2007 to 2009, he was a Humboldt Research Fellow at the Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung in Potsdam.

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