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Made in DDR: When Communism Met Consumerism

In East Germany, engineers and designers proved that necessity is the mother of invention.


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German politician Wolfgang Bosbach made headlines earlier this year when he appeared on Germany's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and not because he won any prizes.

Stumped by an esoteric question about a washing machine that was popular in the former East Germany, the Bundestag representative attempted to call German Chancellor Angela Merkel for help. She didn't pick up, and Bosbach's blunder became fodder for talk show hosts worldwide.

Had the East German-born Merkel answered, she likely would have remembered the WM 66 washer. It was a staple in East German homes, and her family would almost certainly have owned one.

Developed and manufactured by the state-owned VEB Waschgerätewerk Schwarzenberg factory, it was designed to clean clothes. But East German hausfraus discovered that you could fill the drum with hot water and boil sausages for the whole neighborhood once your wash was done. In one form or another, the washer remained in production until 2005.

Workers building refrigerators in Scharfenstein, East Germany

Workers build refrigerators in Scharfenstein, East Germany, in 1959. [Credit: Wikimedia Commons, "BArchBot" (CC-BY-SA-3.0-de)]

Amidst the solemn celebrations surrounding the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's fall, it might seem flippant to poke fun at Communist-era consumer products. When we Westerners look back on that time, we inevitably focus on the big picture, the dismantling of institutions that outlawed basic rights like the freedom of travel and expression.

But those institutions touched virtually every part of daily life, and the Eastern Bloc wasn't just apparatchiks, spies, and party bosses. Even behind the Iron Curtain, there were families who wanted fresh food and clean clothes, and resourceful engineers who designed products that satisfied their needs. Because of the unique trade relationship among Communist countries, most of those products were made in East Germany, where engineers often dealt with unique problems their Western counterparts didn't have to.

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Even today, your washing machine or refrigerator might use technology developed in the former East Germany.

Faced with materials shortages, a centrally planned economy, and a lack of hard currency, engineers made miracles with limited resources. And some of that legacy still lives on in kitchens and laundry rooms around the world. Even today, your washing machine or refrigerator might use technology developed in the former East Germany.

Hammer and Compass

The WM 66 washing machine

The WM 66 washing machine was designed for the needs of the East German consumer—and the ruling Communist party. [Credit: Wikimedia Commons, "Magnus Manske" (CC-BY-SA-3.0-de)]

The stereotype of a lab coat–wearing, pencil-wielding German engineer didn't come out of nowhere. Since the days of Robert Bosch and Karl Benz, high-quality, precision manufacturing of innovative, durable goods has been an integral part of the German identity.

That pride didn't wane after the country was split in the wake of World War II. East Germany's ruling party even added a drafting compass to the country's flag, alongside the more traditional Communist symbols of a hammer and sheaves of wheat, to symbolize the intelligentsia who toiled alongside workers and farmers.

Jonathan Zatlin, an associate professor of history at Boston University, interviewed East German engineers while studying industry and consumer policy in the former East Germany. He was impressed with their talent and confidence.

"They didn't have the resources, and they didn't have the time to do the kinds of research and playing around, but they saw themselves as able to do just what the West German engineers could do," he said. For instance, the WM 66 washing machine used a wash plate to agitate clothes, way back in the 1960s. Decades later, the technology would become popular in high efficiency top-load washers in the U.S.

After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, most East German consumer products couldn't compete with their Western rivals. Yes, Vita Cola can still be found in convenience stores throughout Germany, and the former East's pedestrian traffic signal—known as Ampelmännchen—became a symbol of a reunified Berlin.

But even though Western consumer goods triumphed, that doesn't mean East German engineers worked in vain.

"They saw themselves as able to do just what the West German engineers could do."

For instance, a 1982 patent for an automatic detergent dispenser filed by VEB Waschgerätewerk Schwarzenberg was referenced in subsequent patents by Miele, LG, Bosch, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever. Similarly, 30-year-old East German designs for washer drum suspensions and bearings were referenced in patents filed by LG as recently as 2011.

Perhaps the longest-lasting legacy of East German manufacturing is R600a, the world's first CFC- and HFC-free refrigerant. It was developed by engineers at the former DKK Scharfenstein factory in Saxony, and is still in widespread use today.

Even in a socialist system, Zatlin said, workers did the best they could. "Most people do try and get something out of their work. You spend so much time at it—why not enjoy it? Why not take pride in it?"

A Socialist Spin Cycle

By the 1970s, East Germany had built its reputation on manufacturing the best consumer goods in the Eastern Bloc.

erich honecker

Erich Honecker, who led East Germany from 1971 through 1989. [Credit: Wikimedia Commons, "Fer1997" (CC-BY-SA-3.0-de)]

It wasn't supposed to be that way. Initially, East German leaders intended to build an anti-consumerist state, and decried what they saw as rampant materialism in West Germany. "The idea was that the West was commercial, and there was something terribly superficial about that," Zatlin said.

"The government would try at least to calm people down by making consumer goods available."

While the West thrived on competition, with 10 brands of toothpaste and multiple manufacturers of washing machines, the East had only one of each. According to Eastern central planners, it was more efficient to pool resources behind a single brand. Besides, there was something vulgar about using catchy slogans and pretty models to sell a product.

When Erich Honecker took over East Germany in 1971, however, those policies changed. Most East Germans could see television broadcasts from the West, and Honecker worried they would start to wonder why Westerners were wealthier, with greater access to quality consumer goods.

Honecker responded with an ambitious, convoluted plan to improve morale: East Germany would now welcome materialism, but only through traditional Socialist economic policies. Propaganda posters proclaimed, "The introduction of new technology always improves working and living conditions" and 'High achievement for the good of the people and for peace."

If "socialist materialism" sounds like a contradiction, it was. It's impossible to centrally plan fashion trends, or design a single product that will please all consumers. And instead of pacifying the people, so-called "consumer communism" actually hastened the country's collapse.

east german propaganda poster

"Quality is a matter of honor," says this East German propaganda poster. [Credit: Randall Bytwerk]

"The East German currency was not convertible, so it just didn't work," said Marco Wolf, a professor of marketing at the University of Southern Mississippi who grew up in the former East Germany and studied consumer behavior in the country. "You couldn't buy resources from other countries."

Without access to hard currency, Communist countries traded raw materials and finished goods with each other. However, East Germany lacked natural resources. For its part, the Soviet Union hoarded the Eastern Bloc's raw materials (largely for military use), but still siphoned off East German finished goods. That led to supply shortages, and stunted production of TVs, radios, cameras, and home appliances.

If "socialist materialism" sounds like a contradiction, it was.

Even though it was obvious that factories couldn't possibly produce enough stuff to satisfy demand, Honecker couldn't back down.

"The government would try at least to calm people down by making consumer goods available—plenty of refrigerators and TVs, so people couldn't complain that they didn't have the basics," Wolf said.

Bare Shelves

Honecker's plan to ply the proletariat with what historians would later dub "consumer communism" worked—for a while. By 1975, East German statistics claimed that 75 percent of households had a refrigerator, while 67 percent could boast they owned a washing machine.

"I had a great childhood and I don't know anybody else who didn't," said Wolf, who was 18 when the Berlin Wall fell. "Everybody had a car, everybody had refrigerators, everybody had washing machines. There was nothing that was missing for a comfortable life."

But material shortages eventually took their toll on both consumers and the products themselves. For example, freezers were impossible to buy. "You couldn't find freezers, so people had to get to other means to get their hands on those," Wolf added.

VEB DKK Scharfenstein factory exterior

The exterior of VEB DKK Scharfenstein, East Germany's sole refrigerator factory, in 1968. [Credit: Wikimedia Commons, "BArchBot" (CC-BY-SA-3.0-de)]

Sometimes, that meant slipping money to a clerk so he'd call you when the next shipment arrived. Other times, it meant that you had what East Germans referred to as "Vitamin C"—connections to important people who could move your name up on a waiting list.

To increase production, East German engineers had to develop creative solutions to problems that Western engineers never faced. "In terms of semi-finished products, they really had to come up with workarounds and invent their own stuff," Zatlin said. For instance, the WM 66 washer lacked a drain pump, and could be filled with water manually in case a home didn't have indoor plumbing.

"Everybody had a car, everybody had refrigerators, everybody had washing machines."

Additionally, designs were informed by how much material factories had access to, and how many machines a central planning committee ordered them to make. Designers would cut corners—quite literally—to save on materials. Because waste was impossible, factory bosses and product planners inadvertently developed their own sort of lean manufacturing, and factories continued to output outdated designs.

A WM 66 washer and Spee detergent

A WM 66 washing machine, alongside Spee detergent. If you lived in East Germany, this was likely how you did laundry. [Credit: Wikimedia Commons, "Apothekenschlumpf" (CC0 1.0 )]

Social policy dictated product design, too. That detergent dispenser patent, for example, may have been intended to keep East Germans from overusing washing powder since the factory that made Spee—the country's only detergent—couldn't meet demand.

According to Wolf, when products were well-built, it also was a matter of policy. "The government dictated how long consumer products would have to last because we could not afford to throw them away and buy new," he said.

Indeed, many household goods outlived the country in which they were built, but that's only because factories couldn't afford to keep up with demand for replacement units. "It was a necessity," Wolf said.

And all those patents? Most of them were filed out of desperation. "We couldn't afford to buy patents from someone else," he said.

From Red to Green

"What the government did was basically train people to think that the West did everything better."

Eventually, Honecker's policy of socialist-guided materialism backfired.

"Because we watched West German television, we would see the advertisements, and we would always start daydreaming about the things you can't have," Wolf said. "Catalogs would float around—I remember we had a Quelle [a West German mail-order retailer] catalog—and they were carefully maintained so you could flip through the pages and see what the other side had."

Honecker gradually started allowing the sale of Western goods in exchange for hard currency, but because the country's exports weren't modern enough or plentiful enough to compete on the world market, even a small amount of imports created a massive trade deficit. They also had the unintended effect of letting citizens compare Eastern and oft-superior Western products side by side.

A model East German kitchen at the DDR Museum in Berlin. [Credit: Flickr, "Kris Arnold" (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)]

That perception was reinforced even further after reunification, when a government agency called the Treuhand restructured and sold the former East Germany's state-owned businesses. Many of them were closed, or simply folded into the production of existing, privately owned Western companies.

One of those former Eastern enterprises was Foron, formerly the DKK Scharfenstein refrigerator factory. There, engineers had developed products that ran on a new isobutane refrigerant—called Greenfreeze, or R600a—that didn't deplete the ozone layer or trap greenhouse gases.

Unfortunately, the outdated factory needed a massive cash infusion to start producing those fridges. Unless a private buyer could be found, the Treuhand was planning on shutting down the factory.

greenfreeze photo Foron

Foron's refrigerator factory after German reunification, saved from closure by Greenpeace activists. [Credit: Greenpeace]

To protest the closure, Greenpeace and Foron hastily organized a press conference to show off prototypes of the environmentally-friendly fridges—a ploy a Treuhand representative dismissed as the work of "ex-communists" who were "concerned about saving their unreformed skins."

The plan worked, however, and Foron got 5 million Deutschmarks from the Treuhand to modernize and resume operation. While the Foron brand was eventually sold to an Italian company that subsequently went out of business, Greenfreeze lives on. Over 600 million refrigerators worldwide use the technology—including products from manufacturers based in the former West Germany.

Engineers of the World, Unite!

No matter how flawed its political system, East Germany existed for over 40 years. It's inevitable that some innovations developed there would outlast the country in which they were conceived—especially since that particular country took pride in engineering and scientific achievement.

Even so, it's important to recognize that countries like East Germany were filled with real people—not just victims and perpetrators. Some of them were engineers, and some of them made refrigerators and washing machines. If we recognize their work, we recognize them.

Hero image: German Federal Archive via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-3.0-de)
Propaganda poster: Randall Bytwerk

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