Envisioning Socialism: Television and the Cold War in the German Democratic Republic

Reviewed by Kurt

Heather L. Gumbert, Envisioning Socialism: Television and the Cold War in the German Democratic Republic (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014)

When movements for socialism gain power, the radicalization that arises during a revolutionary process almost inevitably gives way to the necessity of incorporating the broad public within a new society. Many working people – even if supporting egalitarian economic measures, full employment policies and universal health, pension, educational and housing guarantees – resist social, cultural and ideological changes that touch on daily life. Hence the importance of the arts and media in helping to change people’s outlooks.

The German Democratic Republic (GDR) in its early years, with its slogans “everyone can learn anything” and “culture, like peace, is indivisible,” aimed at bringing about just such a transformation, challenging audiences to think critically about their world. A poem from the 1920s by Hans Eisler – an avant-garde composer, collaborator with Brecht, and a Communist who remained a lifelong supporter of GDR socialism – expresses that viewpoint: “How and why do we read?/ And how and why does the bourgeoisie read?/ The bourgeoisie read for fun, for diversion./ We read to learn, to concentrate./ … For the bourgeoisie, art is for pleasure, for consumption./ For us, art is thought, for learning, for struggle.”1

Heather Gumbert’s Envisioning Socialism puts the uneasy tension between those two views at the center of its examination of East German television, giving the book an importance that goes beyond its immediate subject matter. Moreover, by focusing on change, on the relationship between producers, medium and audience, the book shows the GDR as a dynamic system in which choices were constantly being made by all involved – in contrast to the static view of a “totalitarian” society in which meaningful change is illusory. As Gumbert writes:

The history of television in the GDR cannot be reduced to the caricature of a deeply unpopular medium and unrelenting repression perpetrated on a largely disinterested public, just as GDR history cannot be reduced to persistent crisis and opposition. Instead … in myriad ways the state and its citizens came to terms with one another. In particular, the state leadership’s strategy for socialist success in the 1950s and into the 1960s was constructive, not destructive: their goal was not to repress liberalism but rather to create a society of convinced socialists with well-developed socialist personalities. The story of television is key to understanding the ways in which this enterprise succeeded and failed. (13)

Television provides a good basis to explore this process because it was a relatively new medium in the post-World War II years. As Gumbert notes, some problems of development in the GDR were similar to those faced in Britain and West Germany, the US or the Soviet Union. Acquiring equipment for production and reception, building an audience, finding personnel with technical skills as well as writers and directors able to adjust to the problems and potentials of a small screen that reached into individual homes was a challenge in all countries, a challenge for which similar solutions were found. At the same time, because of its newness, because its importance was not at first fully understood, television reflected in clear form the means by which culture integrates people into any given society or system. Following the analysis by Raymond Williams in Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Gumbert argues that what is key is not the technology of television, but rather its social application (7).

Thus, what varied between countries and between systems were program-content, intended audience, and ideological values. The GDR leadership hoped to use the DFF (East German television service) both to build support for the new society in its own population and to influence West Germans by presenting a genuine alternative to fascism and liberal capitalism. It was less concerned to block hostile programming from its neighbor than it was to have its own programming seen by audiences abroad. This approach reflected its confidence that it could regain the revolutionary leadership earlier exercised by the Communist party for the German working class as a whole. As an example of such thinking, Gumbert quotes a 1955 paper by Werner Fehlig (director of the DFF’s Department of TV Drama) urging that “where the struggle between the New and the Old is seen, where the first indications of the new, better and more beautiful life can be found, which claims victory over the Old, the television cameras of democratic broadcasting also must be there” (48).

Such an outlook was never fully developed, as reflected during GDR television’s first crisis, when the DFF failed to adequately cover the fighting that took place during the Soviet Union’s 1956 intervention in Hungary. The lack of timely, responsive television coverage was condemned by authorities as a failure to speak to the issue of revolution and counterrevolution, the failure to use the opportunity to explain the GDR’s support for Soviet actions. The goal was not to suppress the news, but to present the Communist viewpoint about matters that were especially controversial.

Such an outlook was pronounced during the years immediately thereafter, 1957-59, when a concerted effort was made for a rapid advance toward socialism in the East in the expectation that this would enable the GDR to surpass West Germany economically. With that came greater centralization and emphasis on a new socialist morality. The failure of that drive was one of the precipitating factors behind the building of the Berlin Wall, as the attempt to force the pace of change led more workers to leave the country, giving more space for domestic and foreign attempts at destabilization, all of which increased the danger of war. Bridging this period was a controversy over Fetzer’s Flight, a successful radio opera produced in 1959, that turned into a heavily criticized television opera in 1962 – a story Gumbert examines at length because it proved to be a turning point in television that reflected and reinforced a turning point in the GDR’s cultural industry and political development.

Fetzer’s Flight’s plotline was complex – a teenager from the GDR flees to the West, killing an innocent man in the process. Bothered by his conscience, he rejects the kind of freedoms now open to him and becomes a hunted man in his new homeland and so returns to the East. Told in a series of flashbacks, with two distinct storylines (his flight West, and his flight East), the music, narrative and television production was performed in a style influenced by Brecht – rejecting audience empathy or identification in favor of a critical understanding of the complex relations depicted. Envisioning Socialism recounts the nature of that reaction, of how the complexity that was its strength and purpose was rejected by a viewing public far larger than that of the theatre, a rejection paralleled by attacks in the media and from a political leadership which had initially championed the show. The lack of a positive hero with whom to empathize, the difficulty of following the narrative, were two constant elements of a criticism that marked the end of radical experimentation on television, which was, Gumbert notes, no longer conceived of “as a medium of high ‘art’ and debate.” Instead, the goal was increasingly to meet the desire of people for entertainment after work.

By contrast, successful both with the public and with authorities was a mini-series, Revolt of the Conscience (Gewissen in Aufruhr), which provided a realistic and straightforward narrative, a clear message, and characters with whom the audience could identify. The goal of upholding socialist values remained, but now it was more narrowly conceived. The GDR was presented as an alternative to the West because it was more socially integrated, and thus without the “rowdyism” and decadence associated with capitalism. Nonetheless, GDR television looked increasingly similar in form, if not in content, to West German productions. Serious GDR programs like Prisma, which examined local problems and the contradictions between socialist goals and the real-life difficulties, no longer challenged audiences. That is, television focused on consolidation rather than on moving forward.

Coming after the building of the Berlin Wall, this reflected a turning inward of GDR politics. Its leadership no longer saw national development as a meaningful vehicle to radicalize western workers. The turn from the avant-garde to a focus on better rooting socialism amongst the population with their pre-existing worldview was in some way, perhaps, similar to how the revolutionary radicalism of the 1920s developed into the United Front/Popular Front movements in response to fascism’s victory. But the difficulty became that these had ever less space in which to exist side-by-side or influence each other. Economic and political experiments in GDR socialism undertaken in subsequent years were divorced from cultural experiments. Television became the model for other German arts and culture. Although critical works continued to be produced on stage, their audiences shrank steadily. The consequence was a kind of depoliticized support for socialism that could not withstand the cultural and ideological challenge of 1989-90 (with the DFF silent and largely irrelevant during that time).

The DFF’s succumbing to Western-influenced programming (163) speaks to a challenge that anti-capitalist movements face when in opposition as well as when in power. The need to advance and consolidate, to be a vehicle both for all radical initiatives and also for the vast majority, is one that can only be met by openness to multiple forms of organization, communication, outreach, by a cultural practice as radical and diverse as the world we live in. The challenge was summed up by Brecht in these lines from his In Praise of Communism: “It is common sense, everyone understands it./ It is easy./ It is the simple thing – which is difficult to do.”

Reviewed by Kurt Stand Cheverly, Maryland www.klstand.net Klstand2002@gmail.com


1. Quoted by Paul Gorrell in introduction to a reprint of art is in danger!  by George Grosz, John Heartfield, and Wieland Herzfelde, Curbstone Press, 1987, 13-14.