Love in the Time of Communism: Intimacy and Sexuality in the GDR

November 10, 2011

Generalisations about the other part of the country were always rife both in West Germany and in the East. Popular Western assumptions included the observation that communist political oppression went hand in hand with a particular autonomy in private lives and - polemically - that highly emancipated East German women could teach Western men a lesson. Others claimed that the sexual revolution of the East would begin only when access to the West was finally granted. Josie McLellan's intriguing and well-written study tackles such myths and contradictory narratives, and considers the close, and at times perplexing, links between politics and society. What stands out in the end is the calculated pragmatism of the East German state.

In this respect, "The naked republic: Nudism" is the book's most illuminating chapter. While the state initially regarded nudists with suspicion and depicted them as "sexual miscreants, Social Democratic revivalists, Nazi sympathizers, West German day-trippers, and morally dubious party-goers", the nudists presented themselves as a functioning collective built on true comradeship. At times their defence even turned into a critique of what they perceived as officially condoned but unrestrained communist lifestyles. When nudism eventually became more integral to socialist society, some of these original ethics were lost. Attempts to compete with the West, albeit in a distinctively Eastern way, fostered what the nudists had been so keen to avoid: socialist consumerism. The chapter "Picturing sex: East German erotica" takes this narrative further and confirms that the regime happily used "sex as a social pacifier" and did not shy away from Western influences. In the 1950s, the GDR government recognised that an austere ideology was insufficient to keep people in line and therefore allowed a popular entertainment monthly called Das Magazin. To calculated effect, it carried a nude photograph in every issue. While it officially addressed both men and women, McLellan explains, the latter were, in practice, sidelined.

Provided that communist core values were not at stake - couples were to be productive at work, engage politically and take care of the next socialist generation - the state was surprisingly ready to compromise. "Sex and young people" shows how the party sought to appeal to younger generations, albeit more or less exclusively to heterosexual couples.

Some of the state's core problems, however, namely the precarious housing situation, determined certain developments: since only married couples were granted their own space away from the parental home, a trend towards marrying young was the inevitable result. The chapter "Gay men, lesbians, and the struggle for the public sphere" shows systemic failings in both state and society. While homosexuality was decriminalised in the East well before the West, public tolerance towards it was low, and it remained an extremely sensitive issue.

In the early 1970s, the GDR saw a marked increase in divorces, the birth rate dropped and more children were born outside marriage, as the chapter "Marriage and monogamy" notes. While the roles of women may have changed dramatically, the same cannot be said for men. The economic independence that the GDR granted women fostered a readiness to dissolve relationships. Here, one of the popular myths cherished in the West appears to be more accurate. McLellan confirms findings by Mary Fulbrook and Paul Betts, who have investigated other areas that link public and private lives in the GDR. She shows that the niches afforded by intimacy and sexuality were hardly completely private ones: Big Brother might not have been watching everything, but he certainly kept a close eye on his citizens and was happy to direct or even to exploit private lives if it appeared to suit the communist cause.

Love in the Time of Communism: Intimacy and Sexuality in the GDR

By Josie McLellan. Cambridge University Press. 250pp, £50.00 and £17.99. ISBN 9780521898911 and 7617. Published 1 September 2011

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