by Mike Roemer



Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Communist regime in East Germany attempted to implement many policies to discourage any form of contact with the West. One medium they could not control, however, was the television. The East Germans who owned televisions were able to receive broadcasts from West German stations (Shanor p.43). This window from the West, as Shanor calls it, created many problems for the Party and for the government of the German Democratic Republic. When East Germans were able to view what life was like on the other side of the wall, it must have made their lives inside the wall a little less tolerable, particularly if there were children involved who were old enough to ask questions. Western television allowed the East Germans to witness programs that involved open political debates in which the participants made statements that would get them jailed in East Germany (Shanor p.44).

While it was not against the law to watch Western television, the Party attempted to utilize certain pressures to discourage the practice. They would, for example, encourage teachers to question children about their favorite television programs in order to find out which families watched Western programming. In an attempt to get around this, many parents attempted to coach their children about how to answer (Shanor p.45). Also, some parents would not switch on Western stations until the children were asleep in bed (Shanor p.45). The Party would also put out recurrent warnings stating that although individual viewing was not a crime, inviting others over to watch the Western Programs, or discussing them with others later, constituted the "spreading of antistate propaganda" and was illegal (Shanor p.46). In addition, teams of activists from the Free German Youth would go around from building to building tearing down makeshift antennas that were capable of bringing in Western television. But this inevitably cut off television reception for all inhabitants of the building, and subsequent protests led to the end of this campaign (Shanor p.45-46).


The television even had an economic impact on the GDR, regarding the production of certain consumer goods. Spree, an East German laundry detergent, and Dega, an East German deodorant, were produced as a tacit response to the products offered on commercials in West German television (Shanor p.49-50). Even though East Germany had always had some form of soap and deodorant, the exaggerated claims of West German admen made East German citizens discontented with what they had. The same was true for the cosmetics that the ads showed making the women of Frankfurt and Stuttgart so desirable for slim, wealthy-looking young men. The irony of the situation was that East German women tended to take the Western television claims at face value, and no matter how much the GDR's chemists improved the local detergents of blended sexier scents into the cosmetics, their customers were bound to be disappointed (Shanor p.50). This unacknowledged competition with the West did, however, allow new and better products to reach the shelves of East German stores. The real problem was in attaining them.

Empirical information will show that, relative to other East European countries, East Germans enjoyed relative prosperity. It was this fact that would allow the Party to keep the citizens content. The television, however, obviously allowed the East Germans to obtain a glimpse of how they compared with the world outside the small swatch of the East European community. It is this electronic "window to the West" that, despite the size of the role it played, helped break down the East German isolationism in which they lived.



"Soviet Europe" by Donald R. Shanor








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