THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

07 October 2019

70 Years of Books From and About East Germany

On 7 October 1949 the Soviet-occupied area of Germany became an independent state with the official name Deutsche Demokratische Republik/DDR (German Democratic Republic/GDR). The Western-occupied territories had become the Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Federal Republic of Germany) in May of the same year, and for the next four decades there would be two separate German states with very different government, societies, ideologies and allegiances.

Map of the German Deomcratic Republic (East Germany) in 1979

Map of the German Democratic Republic, from Deutsche Demokratische Republik: Handbuch (Leipzig, 1979) X:800/14702

Wilhelm Pieck (left) aned Johannes Dieckmann (right) in the East German Parliament

Wilhelm Pieck (left) is sworn in as President of the newly-founded GDR, 11 October 1949, from Heinz Heitzer [et al.], DDR – Werden und Wachsen: Zur Geschichte der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik (Berlin, 1975) X:809/23404

The British Library and its predecessors acquired books and other material from the GDR for the whole period of its existence and continues to buy works about the East German state and its legacy. Many are of course research-level publications, the backbone of our non-British collecting, including the output of East German academies, universities, museums and other scholarly institutions, but there are also more general and in some cases ephemeral works which shed light on everyday aspects of life in the GDR.

Cover of 'Die Volkskammer der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik'

A official handbook of the East German Parliament, Die Volkskammer der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik  (Berlin, 1964) S.F.1372/2.

9th Party Conference 1976

Images from the 9th Party Conference of the SED, from Deutsche Demokratische Republik: Handbuch

Official GDR Government publications were received by the Library via international exchange agreements. While our holdings are not complete, we have the proceedings of the East German Parliament (Volkskammer) from the late 1950s to 1990 and the official record of laws and treaties for the whole period of the GDR’s existence. Full details of our own holdings, as well as those of the LSE and Bodleian libraries, can be found in the collection guide on our website  We also hold a complete run on microfilm of Neues Deutschland the official newspaper of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED).

Masthead of 'Neues Deutschland' 7 October 1949 with headlne 'Tag der Geburt der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik'

Masthead of Neues Deutschland, 7 October 1949, announcing the birth of the German Democratic republic. MFM.MF538H

We hold a small amount of material for and about the East German youth movements, including a collection of poems and art by members of the Ernst Thälmann Pioneer Organisation to celebrate its 30th anniversary. In one poem a boy reflects that in 30 years time his will have a son of his own who will be a pioneer; I wonder if he remembers that today?

Cover of 'So sind wir, so ist ein Pionier', showing a girl in uniform saluting

Cover of So sind wir - so ist ein Pionier! Literarische und bildkünstlerische Arbeiten der Schuljugend des Bezirkes Neubrandenburg zum 30. Jahrestag der Pionierorganisation 'Ernst Thälmann' (Neubrandenburg, [1978])  X:990/11196

Cover of songbook 'Leben, singen, kämpfen' showing a young man brandishing a flag

Cover of a songbook for the Freie Deutsche Jugend, Leben, Singen, Kämpfen (Berlion, 1949) A.697.dd

Many publications serve as guides to or histories of the East German state. An impressive publication from 1979, simply titled Deutsche Demokratische Republik: Handbuch gives a full overview of the state’s geography, history, economy, institutions and culture. Like other state-approved histories such as Heinz Heitzer’s DDR – Werden und Wachsen, the Handbuch gives a resolutely upbeat account of the GDR. Inevitably much material has a greater or lesser degree of propagandist content and is openly critical of the West German state, such as a study of the popular magazines and pulp fiction found in a typical Munich news kiosk and described by the study’s author as ‘poison in colourful pamphlets’.

Book jacket showing a newspaper kiosk and the covers of some West German magazines

Gift in bunten Heften: ein Münchner Zeitungskiosk als Spiegel des westdeutschen Kulturverfalls (Berlin, 1960). X.529/47019

Cultural and leisure activities within the GDR are also represented: music, art and sport all feature in the collections, often in books received as donations or as part of exchange arrangements, intended to showcase the GDR’s cultural credentials. 

Cover of 'Sports in the GDR' showing a girl in a leotard holding a teddy bear

Cover of Sports in the GDR (Dresden, 1980) L.45/1458. This was published on the occasion of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the young gymnast is shown holding the official mascot for the games

And of course we acquired original literary texts by prominent East German writers,  such as Christa Wolf, Volker Braun, Heiner Müller and many others.

We also hold West German material about the GDR from the period of its existence, also often propagandist in its own way. In the early decades of the two states, West German authors deliberately avoided using the name ‘Deutsche Demokratische Republik’, instead referring to the ‘Soviet Occupation Zone’ (Sowjetische Besatzungszone/SBZ), or sometimes just as ‘the Zone’ as in a 1965 history.

Front cover of the handbook 'SBZ von-A-Z ',1966

SBZ von A bis Z : ein Taschen-und Nachschlagebuch über die Sowjetische Besatzungsone Deutschlands (Bonn, 1966) W8/7230. A guide to the GDR produced by the West German Federal Ministry for All-German Affairs

Cover of "20 Jahre Zone" showing an East German Politician and a crowd of protestors

Henning Frank, 20 Jahre Zone: kleine Geschichte der "DDR" (Munich, 1965) F13/4579. (Note how thew designation DDR is placed in inverted commas)

The GDR lasted only 41 years; in October 1989, even as the regime celebrated the state’s 40th anniversary, mass protests were growing in the country and many citizens were taking advantage of new opportunities to flee to the west. Within a few weeks the Berlin Wall had been breached and within a year the GDR had officially ceased to exist, acceding to the Federal Republic to form a single state.

After German reunification, books about the GDR continued to appear: scholarly studies of all aspects of East German history, politics and society; official reports on the activities of bodies such as the Ministry for State Security (STASI); literary works with the GDR as a theme; memoirs of former GDR citizens. We even have some more light-hearted items, some of which pick up on the trend for ‘Ostalgie’ (nostalgia for East Germany), such as a collection of the ‘best Trabi jokes’ mocking the famously unreliable East German cars.

Book cover with a cartoon of a Trabant car springing over the Berlin Wall

Nils Brennecke, Warum hat der Trabi Räder? Die schönsten Trabi-Witze (Reinbek, 1991) YA.1994.a.9428 

All the material we hold from and about the German Democratic Republic can be found in our online catalogue. With 70 years’ worth of material, we must have something for every research interest in the area.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections