Berlin is a city that bears the scars of its history. Be it remnants of its imperial history, bullet scared facades or tragic memorials. While it seems like virtually every other building is either listed as a protected monument or has some commemorative plaque on it, traces of certain periods of the country’s history seem to be harder to find. While (mainly the west) city still has dozens of Nazi era eagles adoring its schools, police stations and stadiums – it is quite interesting to see how rare (and difficult) its become to spot any insignia from the former German Democratic Republic. With my interest piqued, I decided to venture out and see how many emblems of the former German Democratic Republic I could find in Berlin.
The history of the national emblem of the German Democratic Republic
Before we get into the how the national emblem of the GDR came to be, we need to take a brief detour and look at how the flag of the GDR came in to being.
On the centennial of the March Revolution of 1948, the second Volkskongress was called to Berlin. As the German Peoples council, it was tasked with drafting a new constitution for the not yet established German Democratic Republic as well as creating/deciding on a national flag for the state.
Three flags were up for choice, a red one (the socialist flag), a black, white and red one (the old Reichsfahne) and a black red and gold version (from the Weimar Republic). The red flag – a symbol of communism and the international movement of workers – was quickly rejected as the “people” had already once rejected the flag after the November revolution of 1918. The Council initially settled for the Black, Red and Gold version from the Weimar Republic (just like the Federal Republic of Germany), but the Soviet Union was against this.
As a symbol of the Weimar Republic, it was a reminder of a period of weakness, crisis and unemployment. Thus only the Black, White and Red version of was left. The choice for this flag actually goes as far back as June 1943 when the “National Committee Free Germany” was founded by German Communists and Prisoners of war, which adopted it as their new flag for Germany. The flag was to be interpreted as a sign of the struggle against the fascist Nazi regime under Adolf Hitler and the Swastika Flag. At the Third People’s Congress in 1949, the soviet placed mayor of East Berlin, Friedrich Ebert brought the proposal back on the table again for the black-red-gold flag. His application was approved on May 30, 1949, and put into force on October 7, 1949, the date of the founding of the German Democratic Republic.
Interestingly enough – the Federal Republic of Germany had actually already adopted the Black, Red and Gold flag on the 8th of May, 1949. This led to the situation that both East and West Germany were using the same flag up until 1959.
The first design
With the introduction of an official Flag, the GDR was still missing a national emblem. It was initially debated to use an eagle, which faced to the left (instead of the traditional right). This apparently caused some concern in West Germany where politicians urged for a quick adoption of the eagle as its state symbol before the East German State could.
The precursor of the east german state seal was designed by the German-Dutch caricaturist Fritz Behrendt. Fritz Behrendt had fled Nazi Germany with his family for Amsterdam in 1937. After the war, he helped establish a leftwing youth group in the Netherlands. He left for Yugoslavia in 1947 to lead an international youth brigade to help in the countries reconstruction. 2 years later he was invited to East Berlin by Erich Honecker (the future General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party and de facto ruler of East Germany) who was the head of the FDJ – the Free German Youth. While in Berlin, Behrendt was part of the central committee for advertising, and it was here where he designed the precursor of the national emblem of the GDR. The initial design consisted of a Hammer surrounded by a wreath of rye. The hammer symbolised the workers, while the wreath of rye symbolised the farmers – as this is how the GDR understood itself, a workers and farmers state. The design was used from the 12th of January 1950 up until the 28th of May 1953.
Fritz Behrendt was arrested and placed in solitary confinement for 6 months in December 1949 as the GDR suspected him to be a Titoist who wanted to destabilise the country. He was released in the summer of 1950 due to pressure from the dutch government. After his release he moved back to Amsterdam where he worked as an „Editorial Cartoonist“ for the N.Y-Herald Tribune, the Swiss Weltwoche, the Austrian Kronen Zeitung and the German FAZ. He died in 2008 in Amsterdam.
The second and third design
The coat of arms of the GDR was regarded as unofficial and could not be called “coat of arms” right up until 1955. The Prime Minister Otto Grotewohl stated in 1951 that the current emblem of the GDR was “semi-official” and that any mention that it was the official coat of arms of the GDR should be refrained. This was done so as to not torpedo the “German Negotiations” between the 4 allies and 2 German states and to create “facts on the ground” by declaring an official GDR-coat of arms. Grotewohl was also of the opinion that the emblem (the original from 1950) did not accurately portray the character of the GDR.
The graphic artists Martin Hänisch and Heinz Behling as well as the Professor Herbert Gute designed a new emblem for the German Democratic Republic between 1951 and 1952. The style of the emblem was now more complex and various elements had been added. The wreath was now 3 rows of rye, and more identifiable as such. It was also now draped in the German flag. A compass was added over the hammer to incorporate the academics of East Germany. Just like the previous version, this design was also considered semi-official as to not derail any political talks. It was in “use” from the 28th of May 1953 up until the 26th of September 1955.
No significant progress had been made concerning the “German Question” by 1955, so a third and final emblem was created. The design was almost identical to the second version, with the only significant changes being that a red background was added behind the hammer and compass, and that the compass had been mirror flipped. One end of the hammer was also slightly tweaked. This version was then officially incorporated as the national emblem of the German Democratic Republic on the 26th of September 1955. The emblem was only officially incorporated on the East German flag on the 1st of October 1959, as to differentiate between the identical West German flag.
By the end of the 1950s, it was a punishable offence to openly display the flag of the GDR in West Germany and West Berlin – disparagingly known as the “Soviet Zone Flag” or “Spalterflagge” (Spalt – to split). The law was only dropped in July 1969 as a measure to de-escalate tensions.
What remains of the national emblem of the GDR
History took its course and the GDR slowly came apart at its seams. By 1989 the GDR was set on a path where there was no way back. The first truly free elections in the GDR were held on the 18th of March 1990 (and in theory the first free elections in that region since 1932). The communists and socialist suffered a crushing defeat when center right parties won a majority in the Volkskammer. One of the early motions which passed through the parliament was that the national emblem of the GDR was to be removed from the inside and outside of all public buildings. The emblem was still used on paperwork up until the German reunification, but the GDR itself decided to remove the emblem from the public sphere. It seems like they did a pretty good job as its become very difficult to spot any these days.
Over the course of one year, ive wandered through the streets of Berlin and through former east german government buildings to see if I could find any that survived “the Wende” and the German reunification. Below are the results. If you know of one or more that I might have missed – do let me know in the comments!
A GDR border marker – Spotted: Checkpoint Charlie
State Emblem of the GDR – Spotted: Checkpoint Charlie
A memorial to those who fought against National Socialism – Spotted: Schönhauser Allee Brücke
State emblem of the GDR on a memorial for the Polish Soldier and German Antifascist – Spotted: Volkspark Friedrichshain
Part of a stained glass ensemble – Spotted: Humboldt Universität
Part of a stained glass window ensemble – Spotted: Former Staatsratsgebäude
A large mosaic of the emblem of the GDR – Spotted: Former Staatsratsgebäude
Close but not quite
While “official” emblems of the German Democratic Republic are quite difficult to find, you can spot other symbols from the GDR era if you look closely enough. Below are a few examples which look quite similar but aren’t official state symbols.
From left to right: An “ed ko” manhole cover. While the center of the cover has at first glance a smiliarity to the emblem of the GDR, its actually the logo of the company “Eisenhammer Dresden Kokillenguß”. The logo is an E and D with a hammer in the middle.
The hammer, compass and set square can be found on the entrance of one of the buildings along the Karl Marx Allee. It fits into the timeframe of when the official emblem of the GDR was introduced, but it’s not an official version – it alludes to it.
And lastly the logo of the Gesellschaft für Deutsch-Sowjetische Freundschaft (Society for German–Soviet Friendship). Hidden in the back of the Karl Marx Allee, youll find another remnant of the GDR. TheSociety for German–Soviet Friendship was founded as the Society for the Studies of Soviet Culture to teach about Russian culture to Germans unfamiliar with it. It quickly turned into a propaganda tool and eventually changed its name. This version of the logo shows the East German flag without its national emblem, while later versions include it.