Monday, 9 November 2009

East German neon signs (1)

Twenty years ago, I was preparing a presentation on some obscure point of French constitutional law for the following week, with the news radio in the background. Then shortly after 7 pm, the newsreader announced they had received a cable from East Berlin: the spokesman of the politburo had just given a press conference about the new regulations for East Germans wishing to travel abroad. It was pretty confusing but it seemed all East Germans, and not only those who had been veted, would be allowed to travel. And when he had been asked when these new regulations would apply, he had declared: “Immediately, right away.” For one month people had been demonstrating in Leipzig and then across other cities in favour of democratic reforms. But could this be true? Would the old guard of the regime finally give in and open the borders? After all, the security forces had sometimes intervened violently to repress demonstrators in Leipzig and Berlin. Earlier that year, on the other side of the world, demonstrations on Tien’anmen Square and other parts of China, had been harshly crushed by the Communist regime. Hopes for change had been dealt a severe blow. However in parts of Eastern Europe, the situation seemed to be moving in the right direction: in May Hungary had started dismantling the fence along its border with Austria before removing restrictions on travelling abroad, in June in Poland Solidarność had won the first semi-free elections and one of its leaders had been appointed prime minister. Could change finally reach the German Democratic Republic? For a while that evening confusion and caution prevailed. I went down to have dinner with my mum. My dad was away on a business trip. We sat by the fireplace in the dining room listening to the radio. Shortly after 8 pm it was mentioned the West German ARD TV station had announced East Germany had opened its borders to everyone. After the main course, we took our dessert upstairs to watch TV but nothing was happening. Streets on the other side of the Wall near the Brandenburg Gate were desperately empty. Then the news filtered that a few people had begun to gather at the Bornholmer Straße border crossing and the guards were letting some of them through. Before long, a few people became a huge crowd and similar scenes began to repeat themselves at other crossings. By 11 pm that night, unable to contain the mass of people chanting “open the gate”, it was decided to raise the traffic barriers. Until very late that night, we watched, full of excitement and hope, as the Berlin Wall came down. Little did I know then that among those demonstrators in Leipzig was my partner, a young student back then, who was watching the country she had grown in disappear.
Since the reunification in 1990, the eastern lander have been changing dramatically, especially their cities, but traces of the old regime can still be found here and there. In the small town where my in-laws live, a few murals and monuments of socialist inspiration survive. On a cobbled road, darker cobbles laid on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the GDR still spell “25 DDR”. In Leipzig, where the centre has undergone impressive changes, what really catches the eye are the few East German neon signs that have been preserved.

It is said that during a meeting between Marshal Tito and Erich Honnecker in the early 1970s, the Yugoslav leader made some comments about the sad look of East Germany. Everywhere you looked, everything was grey. Apparently the comment hurt the new secretary general of the SED enough for the East German authorities to launch shortly afterwards the “Leipzig – City of Water and Lights” Initiative, to bring colours to the city. It was partly under this initiative that these colourful neon signs were designed.
Contrary to the West where the primary aim of advertising is to lure consumers into buying, in a system of state monopolies, like that of the former GDR, advertising fulfilled another function. Indeed, given the lack of choice and sometimes limited availibility of some products, advertising was not there to stimulate sales but instead to show people how well the socialist economy was performing.
The choice of Leipzig by the party’s central committee was certainly not fortuitous: the trade fairs, which date back to the Middle Ages, continued to attract tens of thousands of visitors from both sides of the Iron Curtain and the city would have been, together with East Berlin, a showcase for the GDR.

Situated on Lenin Straße (renamed in 1991 Prager Straße), a major thoroughfare, only a short distance away from the old Messehaus Bugra where the Leipzig Book Fair used to take place, the building of the Leipziger Kommissions- und Großbuchhandelsgesellschaft (LKG) was one few visitors would have missed. LKG was founded in June 1946 by Karl Klaer and Walter Bleck. What was originally a small private company with seven employees became by 1951 the largest book distributor and wholesaler of the German Democratic Republic. It was nationalized in 1963. By 1989 LKG employed 1,200 persons and had a turnover of 1.18 billion East German marks. Yet the collapse of the GDR had dramatic consequences for the company. By 1992 its turnover barely reached 20 million DM and its workforce had been reduced to 60 employees. In August that year it was privatized through a management buy-out. In 1995, as part of the company’s expansion plan, it left its historic headquarters in Prager Straße just south of the city center and moved to Espenhain, 20 km south of Leipzig. The second half of 1990s witnessed a rapid expansion of LKG and in 2002 its turnover reached 120 million euros. In 2009 it became a subsidiary of Koch, Neff & Oetinger, a book distributor based in Stuttgart.

[The more you read
The more you know
The more you can do]

Location: Prager Straße, Leipzig, Sachsen / Pictures taken on: 07/11/2008

The most famous neon sign in the city is the amazing 45 m2 VEB Feinkost Leipzig (literaly the Leipzig Grocers’ People-owned Enterprise) below. Commonly known as the "Löffelfamilie", or "Spoon Family", it adorns what used to be the company's main building. It was one of the first signs produced under the “Leipzig – City of Water and Lights” initiative at a cost of 660 East German marks. It was designed in 1973 by Theo Hesselbarth und Jürgen Mau, who brought together the colours and animation of the Las Vegas “Go West Cowboy” and the traditional image of a family. The “Löffelfamilie” sign certainly brightened the rather dull cityscape and soon became a famous landmark. However the lights were switched off when VEB Feinkost Leipzig collapsed in 1991. Fortunately the building, together with its distinctive sign, was listed in 1993 and restored in 1999 after the local cultural association naTo purchased it for a symbolic 1 DM. The company that had originally made the neon lights provided replacement lights. Sadly in December that year, just before the party during which the sign was to be switched on, the “Löffelfamilie” was badly damaged by the “Autonome Leuchtkommando" to “spoil the fun of the stupid trendy yuppies” (according to the letter in which they justified their action). Having just spent a lot of money to bring the place and sign back to life, there was simply no fund available for repairs to the “Löffelfamilie.” Since then some funds have been collected but much more would be needed to bring the family back to the dining table...

Obst- und Gemüsekonserven,
tischfertige Gerichte,
doppelt konzentrierte Suppen.
[Canned Fruits and Vegetables,
Ready to Serve Dishes,
Double Concentrated Soups.]

Location: Karl-Liebknecht-Straße, Leipzig, Sachsen / Pictures taken on: 07/11/2008

More East German electric signs soon...

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