Cov­er Image (Fig­ure 1): Gaby from the East­ern Zone (17) in Par­adise (the FRG): My First Banana. From: Titan­ic 11 (Novem­ber 1989). Image cour­tesy of Titan­ic Redak­tion, Frank­furt, Germany.

 8-1 | Table of Con­tents | DOI 10.17742/IMAGE.GDR.8-1.8 | Wein­rebPDF

Abstract | This essay uses the top­ic of taste, specif­i­cal­ly taste for food, as a way of unpack­ing the his­to­ry of the GDR and East-West rela­tions dur­ing the late Cold War. It explores the ques­tion of East Ger­man tastes from two angles: West Ger­man fan­tasies about the inad­e­qua­cies of the GDR’s food sys­tem, and East Ger­man nutri­tion­ists’ unsuc­cess­ful strug­gles to reg­u­late pop­u­lar tastes. In par­tic­u­lar, it focus­es on the moment when pop­u­lar taste was seen as a seri­ous prob­lem by the GDR state—during the rise of the obe­si­ty epi­dem­ic in the 1970s and 1980s. 
Résumé | Cet essai utilise le thème du goût, spé­ci­fique­ment le goût pour la nour­ri­t­ure, comme un moyen de dévoil­er l’histoire de la RDA et les rela­tions Est-Ouest pen­dant la fin de la guerre froide. Il exam­ine la ques­tion des goûts de l’Allemagne de l'Est sous deux angles: Les fan­taisies des ouest-alle­mands sur les insuff­i­sances du sys­tème ali­men­taire de la RDA, et les luttes infructueuses des spé­cial­istes de la nutri­tion est-alle­mands pour régle­menter les goûts pop­u­laires. L’essai se con­cen­tre en par­ti­c­ulière sur le moment où le goût pop­u­laire a été con­sid­éré comme un prob­lème grave par l’état de la RDA—pendant l’augmentation de l’épidémie d’obésité dans les années 1970 et 1980.

Alice Wein­reb | Loy­ola Uni­ver­si­ty Chicago

It Tastes like the East…:
The Problem of Taste in the GDR

In the autumn of 1999, just a few months after I had moved to Berlin for a post-col­lege fel­low­ship, I attend­ed a par­ty host­ed by a good friend. Like most of my friends at that time, she was East Ger­man, a fact of which I was bare­ly aware. This par­tic­u­lar par­ty proved unex­pect­ed­ly mem­o­rable, how­ev­er, as it was the stage for my first expe­ri­ence of the infa­mous Mauer im Kopf, the “Wall in the head” that was still a sub­ject of much debate a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The host­ess had pro­vid­ed abun­dant snacks for our enjoy­ment, includ­ing, to my delight, one of my favorite sweets: Knus­per­flock­en, small can­dies made of crunchy grains and milk choco­late. I was enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly reach­ing for a hand­ful when a guest warned me away: “I can’t believe it—don’t eat those,” he said. “Those are so Ossi [East Ger­man].” “What do you mean,” I asked inno­cent­ly, “I think they’re deli­cious.” “No, they are not,” he insist­ed, “they only have two ingre­di­ents!” This both sim­ple and non­sen­si­cal answer revealed that this Wes­si defined East Ger­man food by what he per­ceived as inad­e­qua­cy and lack—not poor fla­vor per se, but the abstract prob­lem of hav­ing “only” two ingre­di­ents (choco­late and grain). His expla­na­tion bemused me; it only made sense when I began to under­stand it as part of a larg­er dis­course that exist­ed with­in recent­ly reuni­fied Ger­many. It also was my first expo­sure to the per­va­sive­ness of food-based fan­tasies on the part of both East and West Ger­mans with regard to one anoth­er in the wake of reunification.

Per­haps the most famous exam­ple of this sort of West Ger­man fan­ta­sy of East Ger­man “bad taste” is the infa­mous satir­i­cal mag­a­zine Titan­ic’s cov­er image from Novem­ber 1989: the smil­ing “Zonen-Gabi,” or “Gabi from the [East­ern] zone,” holds an enor­mous peeled cucum­ber under the head­line, “My first banana” (See Cov­er Image/ Fig. 1). The Titan­ic pic­ture was only the most famous in a ver­i­ta­ble flood of car­toons and images memo­ri­al­iz­ing the fall of the Wall—an over­whelm­ing num­ber of which focused on bananas (Seeßlen). These jokes almost always described a pro­found East Ger­man desire for bananas, one that was so strong it bor­dered on the patho­log­i­cal. For exam­ple, East Ger­mans were depict­ed as mon­keys or as rav­en­ous hordes con­sum­ing overnight the entire sup­ply of bananas in the FRG (Fed­er­al Repub­lic of Ger­many or West Ger­many). These jokes often revolved around the idea that East Ger­mans’ tastes were so under­de­vel­oped that they could not actu­al­ly iden­ti­fy a banana when they ate it—or did not eat it, as the case may be. Most fre­quent was the premise of the Titan­ic image: an East Ger­man ate a pick­le, cucum­ber, sausage, or oth­er deeply famil­iar food, but in their igno­rance they “tast­ed” a banana. In oth­er words, post-reuni­fi­ca­tion dis­course on the GDR nor­mal­ized assump­tions not only about how much East Ger­mans ate (a lot) and what they ate (drab, non-deli­cious foods), but also about their inabil­i­ty to iden­ti­fy spe­cif­ic fla­vors. Most of these jokes could be summed up with the premise that the GDR was a land inhab­it­ed by peo­ple who were uni­ver­sal­ly afflict­ed with “bad taste.”

The­o­ries of taste have been a cru­cial part of dis­cus­sions of class, dif­fer­ence, and iden­ti­ty at least since Pierre Bourdieu’s influ­en­tial work Dis­tinc­tion, in which the soci­ol­o­gist not­ed that “tastes in food also depend on the idea each class has of the body and of the effects of food on the body, that is, on its strength, health and beau­ty” (190). How­ev­er, taste is not sim­ply a com­po­nent of the expres­sion of indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive iden­ti­ty. People’s tastes in food have long been a cen­tral con­cern of mod­ern states. Econ­o­mists and nutri­tion­ists have strug­gled to deter­mine, explain, and mod­i­fy indi­vid­ual tastes in food since the emer­gence of the indus­tri­al econ­o­my; the rise of indus­tri­al­iza­tion meant that eco­nom­ic health depend­ed upon eat­ing habits. Labour pro­duc­tiv­i­ty was seen as direct­ly relat­ed to pop­u­lar diets, and food pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion became increas­ing­ly impor­tant com­po­nents of the nation­al econ­o­my. This recog­ni­tion of the eco­nom­ic and social sig­nif­i­cance of indi­vid­ual dietary pref­er­ences has inspired count­less projects to improve how and what pop­u­la­tions eat. How­ev­er, nutri­tion­ists’ con­sis­tent fail­ures to mod­i­fy what they con­sid­er unhealthy pop­u­lar eat­ing habits has only con­firmed anthro­pol­o­gist Jack Goody’s obser­va­tion that food­ways often seem to be “the most con­ser­v­a­tive aspects of cul­ture” (150). Indeed, since the emer­gence of the mod­ern nutri­tion­al sci­ences, nutri­tion­ists have con­sis­tent­ly com­plained about the near-impos­si­bil­i­ty of chang­ing pop­u­lar tastes (“Psy­chol­o­gis­che Grund­la­gen des Ernährungsver­hal­tens”). As a West Ger­man nutri­tion­ist explained grim­ly in 1967, “it is the task of nutri­tion­ists to work against false dietary habits, and this oblig­a­tion makes nutri­tion­ists unpop­u­lar. Nowhere is the human spir­it less rea­son­able and more stub­born than when it is defend­ing tra­di­tion­al and false eat­ing habits” (Holt­meier 312). Thus taste remains indi­vid­ual and almost impos­si­ble for exter­nal forces to reg­u­late at the same time that peo­ples’ tastes in food mat­ter pro­found­ly to mod­ern states because they deter­mine what and how much indi­vid­u­als eat.

Schol­ar­ship on the GDR has only recent­ly begun to address issues of food pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion as key com­po­nents of every­day life (Cies­la and Poutrus). This lit­er­a­ture has care­ful­ly doc­u­ment­ed East Ger­mans’ strug­gles to pur­chase food­stuffs giv­en the vagaries of a social­ist econ­o­my. Poor qual­i­ty prod­ucts, irreg­u­lar and inad­e­quate sup­plies, and inequitable and unpre­dictable dis­tri­b­u­tion shaped con­sumer cul­ture gen­er­al­ly, but also of course deter­mined how and what peo­ple ate. His­to­ri­ans have been less aware, how­ev­er, of the ways in which the GDR’s dis­tinc­tive food cul­ture incor­po­rat­ed cit­i­zens’, espe­cial­ly East Ger­man women’s, strug­gles to pur­chase food­stuffs. More­over, they have ignored the exis­tence of an elab­o­rate net­work of col­lec­tive-eat­ing estab­lish­ments in work­place can­teens and school cafe­te­rias, as well as a vari­ety of indi­vid­ual strate­gies for food acqui­si­tion, includ­ing a reliance on pri­vate gar­dens and barter and trade as meth­ods of com­pen­sat­ing for inad­e­quate state-pro­vid­ed sup­plies. More gen­er­al­ly, the expand­ing lit­er­a­ture on con­sump­tion prac­tices in the GDR has rarely explored the issue of taste. While schol­ars such as Paul Betts, Judd Stitziel, and Eli Rubin have addressed the rela­tion­ship between taste and East Ger­man iden­ti­ty vis-à-vis, respec­tive­ly, fur­ni­ture, fash­ion, and plas­tics, food has been mar­gin­al to these dis­cus­sions. Nonethe­less expres­sions of taste as a strat­e­gy of social order­ing and hier­ar­chy are insep­a­ra­ble from food itself. While we usu­al­ly assume that good taste (or fla­vor) deter­mines the foods that we eat, we simul­ta­ne­ous­ly believe that oth­er people’s “wrong” food choic­es are made because of their under­de­vel­oped or inad­e­quate tastes. In short, the rela­tion­ship between the actu­al fla­vor of spe­cif­ic foods and their sym­bol­ic asso­ci­a­tion with “good taste” or “bad taste” is flu­id, often con­tra­dic­to­ry, and heav­i­ly influ­enced by larg­er exter­nal polit­i­cal and social categories.

This essay thinks about the cat­e­go­ry of taste as a way of explor­ing both the his­to­ry and the lega­cy of the GDR by focus­ing upon two dis­tinct dis­cours­es that con­struct­ed East Ger­man pop­u­lar food tastes as flawed or bad. Dur­ing the 1970s, the East Ger­man med­ical estab­lish­ment came to the con­sen­sus that its pop­u­la­tion was too fat because of its inap­pro­pri­ate appetites for both too much food and the wrong sort of food. Actu­al­ly the 1970s and 1980s wit­nessed the emer­gence of a so-called obe­si­ty epi­dem­ic in both East and West Ger­many, as well as across much of the indus­tri­al­ized world. Obe­si­ty posed a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem to the social­ist state because its very exis­tence sug­gest­ed that pop­u­lar taste was flawed, and that the sorts of “ordi­nary” food­ways gen­er­al­ly con­cep­tu­al­ized as cen­tral to the state’s iden­ti­ty caused seri­ous health prob­lems. This dis­turb­ing idea that East Ger­man cit­i­zens did not, in fact, like the “cor­rect” foods sug­gest­ed that some core val­ues of social­ism need­ed to be rede­fined. The obe­si­ty epi­dem­ic thus became a source of ten­sion between nutri­tion­ists, who believed that exces­sive lev­els of fat­ness revealed poor eat­ing habits, and a larg­er polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, and cul­tur­al dis­course that asso­ci­at­ed social­ism with cheap, abun­dant, and tasty foods. This essay com­pares this ten­sion sur­round­ing East Ger­man obe­si­ty with West Ger­man descrip­tions of East Ger­mans as both impov­er­ished and over­weight, a pop­u­la­tion imag­ined as rely­ing upon poor-tast­ing and unde­sir­able food­stuffs. Here, East Ger­mans’ poor taste was imag­ined as being the direct and inevitable result of the eco­nom­ic sys­tem; West Ger­mans imag­ined the East Ger­man pop­u­la­tion as icons of “bad taste” because they were forced to live with­in the inad­e­quate con­sumer land­scape of state social­ism. Although these dis­cours­es served dif­fer­ent pur­pos­es and emerged out of dif­fer­ent con­texts, they shared a com­mon per­cep­tion of the flawed nature of East Ger­man bod­ies and appetites.

Western Fantasies of Eastern Food

The con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of East Ger­mans as pos­sess­ing sin­gu­lar­ly unso­phis­ti­cat­ed palates and an infe­ri­or gus­ta­to­ry cul­ture had a long tra­di­tion in the FRG. Dur­ing the decades of Cold War divi­sion, main­stream West Ger­man dis­course invoked two dis­tinct and seem­ing­ly opposed images of the East Ger­man body: the starv­ing vic­tim of com­mu­nism and the over­weight and unso­phis­ti­cat­ed social­ist cit­i­zen. Nei­ther of these clichés was spe­cif­ic to the FRG. At least since the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, West­ern anti-com­mu­nists asso­ci­at­ed com­mu­nism with food short­ages and even famine (Veit). Dur­ing the Cold War, the emer­gence of pri­vate con­sump­tion as a pri­ma­ry sphere of glob­al com­pe­ti­tion gen­er­al­ly asso­ci­at­ed the East­ern Bloc with an under­de­vel­oped, inad­e­quate, and unat­trac­tive con­sumer mar­ket. In the case of divid­ed Ger­many, how­ev­er, these gen­er­al pat­terns proved ubiq­ui­tous and long-last­ing. Here pop­u­lar dis­course invoked these pathol­o­gized bod­ies to rep­re­sent a dis­tort­ed con­sumer cul­ture and the pro­found inad­e­qua­cies of the GDR’s polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic sys­tem more gen­er­al­ly.[1] In addi­tion, these stereo­types of East Ger­man bod­ies assumed that what and how East Ger­mans ate was unique­ly cen­tral to their over­all lived experiences.

In the new­ly devel­op­ing rhetoric of the Cold War, the same­ness and anti-indi­vid­u­al­ism that was thought to be a hall­mark of com­mu­nism became asso­ci­at­ed with poor qual­i­ty and inad­e­quate sup­ply. Con­vinced, in the words of the post­war West Ger­man agri­cul­tur­al expert Frie­da Wun­der­lich, that the goal of the Sovi­ets had always been “above all the ruin of East Ger­man agri­cul­ture,” anti-com­mu­nists believed that a social­ist gov­ern­ment inevitably result­ed in mal­nour­ish­ment and hunger (50). The week­ly news mag­a­zine Der Spiegel reg­u­lar­ly report­ed through­out the 1950s and 1960s that “hunger, the vul­ture that cir­cles over the social­ist recon­struc­tion, is hov­er­ing over the Ger­man Sovi­et Zone” (“Schweinemord”), as the Ger­man Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic was often termed in West­ern media. Until the con­struc­tion of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the Grüne Woche (Green Week), the major West Ger­man agri­cul­tur­al con­ven­tion held annu­al­ly in West Berlin, offered free food sam­ples to East Ger­man vis­i­tors who were assumed to suf­fer from severe hunger. Indeed, begin­ning in the late 1950s, the West Berlin gov­ern­ment began stock­pil­ing vast amounts of gro­ceries in city store­hous­es, as advi­sors pre­dict­ed a food cri­sis as a result of an antic­i­pat­ed uni­fi­ca­tion. Decades before Gabi was depict­ed devour­ing her “banana,” West Ger­man econ­o­mists imag­ined hordes of half-starved East Ger­mans gob­bling up their sup­plies of sug­ar, but­ter, and meat (Betr: Arbeits­gruppe “Lebens­mit­telin­dus­trie”). Through­out the years of divi­sion and regard­less of the actu­al nutri­tion­al sta­tus of the pop­u­la­tion, West Ger­man depic­tions of life in the GDR relied upon tropes of hunger and depri­va­tion that had been estab­lished dur­ing ear­li­er wartime and imme­di­ate post­war expe­ri­ences of pover­ty and short­ages: poor­ly stocked stores and emp­ty shelves, mea­ger oblig­a­tory can­teen meals, and nev­er-sat­is­fied crav­ings. For the FRG, the GDR became a key sym­bol of and short­hand for Ger­man hunger.

This vision of the GDR as a place of hunger and under­de­vel­op­ment was encour­aged by the steady ship­ments of West Pack­ages (West­pakete) sent east­ward across the bor­der. They con­tained every­thing from bon­bons to soaps, exot­ic fruits to stock­ings, noo­dles to import­ed choco­lates. As a 1954 ad in the pop­u­lar West Ger­man mag­a­zine Pri­ma explained to its readers:

[F]ood pack­ages seem to be a per­ma­nent aspect of our age. Before the cur­ren­cy reform, many lives depend­ed on them. That’s how it was with us. Then came the great [cur­ren­cy] reform, and sud­den­ly we were no longer depen­dent on the food pack­ages. We were not. But on the oth­er side of the oft-cit­ed cur­tain not much has changed, and so we now send pack­ages across it. What you and I fill the pack­ages and gift bas­kets with is not insignif­i­cant. It must be lux­u­ri­ous food prod­ucts, but­ter and cheese, fish con­serves, a sausage, fruit juices, a bot­tle of wine, valu­able things for which our broth­ers and sis­ters will thank us. (“Pri­ma Abschrift”)

These pack­ages of choco­lates, cof­fee, and cig­a­rettes con­tin­ued to be sent long after the GDR had trans­formed itself into a pros­per­ous, indus­tri­al­ized, and—from a pure­ly caloric perspective—quite well-fed social­ist coun­try.[2] By rel­e­gat­ing the GDR to a state of per­ma­nent want, these ship­ments com­pound­ed the inter­nal­ized mod­el of inequal­i­ty that was cen­tral to West Ger­man iden­ti­ty. Even at the peak of the GDR’s obe­si­ty epi­dem­ic in the 1970s and 1980s, these pack­ages con­tin­ued to be shipped across the bor­der, feed­ing East Ger­man fan­tasies of West­ern abun­dance rather than intend­ing to address real food short­ages. Telling­ly, through­out divi­sion and on into reuni­fi­ca­tion, West Ger­mans tend­ed to depict East Ger­mans as both chub­by and bad­ly dressed, exploit­ing a heav­i­ly class-based iconog­ra­phy that linked social­ist bod­ies with the une­d­u­cat­ed and unso­phis­ti­cat­ed pro­le­tari­at.[3] These poor-yet-overfed bod­ies rep­re­sent­ed a par­tic­u­lar kind of “Cold War hunger” which allowed East Ger­mans to be con­struct­ed as simul­ta­ne­ous­ly hun­gry (need­ing food aid) and fat (lack­ing sophis­ti­ca­tion and knowl­edge about how to eat well).

The real food sit­u­a­tion in the GDR was cer­tain­ly dif­fer­ent from that of the FRG, although as much in terms of the ways in which peo­ple acquired their food as the actu­al foods con­sumed. Rather than rely­ing on well-stocked and reli­able super­mar­kets, a hall­mark of the West Ger­man econ­o­my, East Ger­mans acquired their foods through a wide array of means. In addi­tion to stan­dard gro­cery shop­ping, food was acquired through an infor­mal econ­o­my that includ­ed sys­tems of barter and trade, the black mar­ket, favours, bribery, or per­son­al connections—so-called “Vit­a­min B,” with B stand­ing for Beziehun­gen or “rela­tion­ships” (Schnei­der 250). Though the most severe sup­ply prob­lems had been resolved by the ear­ly 1960s, inad­e­quate and monot­o­nous food sup­plies con­tin­ued to be a major polit­i­cal prob­lem through­out the dura­tion of the GDR. A 1968 report from the Leipzig Insti­tute for Mar­ket Research found that “the lack of con­ti­nu­ity in prod­uct sup­ply is most notice­able in the struc­tur­al dif­fer­ences between sup­ply and demand,” not­ing that sheer quan­ti­ty of goods was ade­quate for the pop­u­la­tion as a whole but dis­trib­uted spo­rad­i­cal­ly “in terms of time and ter­ri­to­ry” (Insti­tut für Mark­forschung). A shop’s selec­tion of goods was gen­er­al­ly deter­mined by geo­graph­ic loca­tion; large cities, tourist des­ti­na­tions, or indus­tri­al regions were bet­ter sup­plied than small­er towns or areas with low pop­u­la­tion den­si­ty. Nutri­tion­ists com­plained that inequitable and unre­li­able dis­tri­b­u­tion poli­cies not only insured con­stant dis­sat­is­fac­tion but did not serve the inter­ests of pub­lic health (Vorschlag Nr 5). Unpre­dictabil­i­ty and recur­rent short­ages pro­duced scarci­ty and con­sumer unhap­pi­ness that coex­ist­ed with low basic food prices, high caloric intake, and well-devel­oped col­lec­tive feed­ing pro­grams for work­ing adults and school children.

The extend­ed life of rationing in the GDR meant that pri­vate food con­sump­tion did not increase as dra­mat­i­cal­ly or as ear­ly as it did in the West. How­ev­er, despite fre­quent short­ages of indi­vid­ual foods, and coun­ter­ing West Ger­man assump­tions of star­va­tion and food depri­va­tion, caloric intake remained quite high.[4] With­out a doubt short­ages in sta­ple products—especially but­ter and meat—often sig­naled exces­sive con­sump­tion rather than inad­e­quate sup­ply. As the pop­u­lace had ris­ing incomes and inad­e­quate con­sumer goods to pur­chase, they fre­quent­ly turned to food­stuffs, which were avail­able abun­dant­ly if not always in the best qual­i­ty or great­est vari­ety. As a result, food quick­ly became one of the population’s most impor­tant out­lets for spend­ing (Stein­er 186). In a devel­op­ment cel­e­brat­ed by East Ger­man politi­cians, if not the country’s nutri­tion­ists, the GDR’s per capi­ta but­ter con­sump­tion had already out­paced that of the FRG by 1960 (Stein­er 109).

In 1965, Der Spiegel bit­ing­ly not­ed that “the GDR—as always ten years behind progress—has final­ly reached the stage of the eat­ing wave. Wal­ter Ulbricht’s cher­ished dream of reach­ing glob­al supe­ri­or­i­ty has final­ly been realized—at least on the scale” (“Süß und fett”). Indeed, the FRG had already begun report­ing dan­ger­ous lev­els of obe­si­ty amongst seg­ments of its pop­u­la­tion with­in two years of the country’s 1949 found­ing (Ban­si). A decade after the Spiegel arti­cle, in 1976, at the same time that the West Ger­man med­ical estab­lish­ment was con­firm­ing obe­si­ty as the country’s most press­ing med­ical threat, Die Zeit report­ed in open dis­gust that “obe­si­ty has grad­u­al­ly acquired an epi­dem­ic char­ac­ter” in the GDR, as “84,000 tons of excess fat are wob­bling around” (“Gegen die Fettsucht”). The arti­cle, typ­i­cal of West Ger­man dis­course on East Ger­man obe­si­ty, diag­nosed this exces­sive weight as being exis­ten­tial­ly dif­fer­ent from the West’s own strug­gles with over­weight cit­i­zens. West Ger­mans were gen­er­al­ly assumed to be too fat because of their boom­ing economy’s exces­sive con­sumer choice. West Ger­man cit­i­zens, espe­cial­ly women, were thought to lack the willpow­er to resist the seduc­tive call of abun­dant high-qual­i­ty del­i­ca­cies (Neu­loh and Teuteberg). In dra­mat­ic con­trast, social­ist obe­si­ty was inter­pret­ed as a cipher of unful­filled and dis­placed desires. In the East, food “makes up for dif­fi­cul­ties, stress­es, and dis­ap­point­ments. It is often a sub­sti­tute for plea­sures that one can no longer enjoy (“Gegen die Fettsucht”). This pathol­o­gized fatness—representing pover­ty and unhap­pi­ness rather than pros­per­i­ty and pleasure—was a phys­i­cal expres­sion of the country’s flawed economy.

The asso­ci­a­tion of the GDR with a dis­tinc­tive sort of over­weight was both true and untrue. While East Ger­man body­weight steadi­ly climbed over the post­war decades, and nutri­tion­ists agreed that the population’s diet was far too fat­ty and sweet, includ­ing too much meat and too lit­tle pro­duce, this was not an East Ger­man but rather a Ger­man-Ger­man trend. Com­par­isons of the two coun­tries’ diets were far more strik­ing for their sim­i­lar­i­ties than for their dif­fer­ences. East Ger­mans ate more but­ter, flour, and pota­toes than West Ger­mans, rough­ly the same amount of sug­ar, meat, and milk, and, sur­pris­ing­ly, more vegetables—though pri­mar­i­ly pre­served and pickled—and much less trop­i­cal and cit­rus fruit. In short, since the ear­ly 1960s, the two Ger­man states had con­sis­tent­ly report­ed anal­o­gous lev­els of over­weight. While both states began report­ing ris­ing lev­els of over­weight by the mid-to-late 1950s, it was the 1970s that ush­ered in talk of an epi­dem­ic. At this point, both FRG and GDR stud­ies con­sis­tent­ly found that about one in three Ger­man adults was over­weight (“Übergewicht als Risiko­fak­tor;” Müller). 

The Dilemma of Dieting in Socialism

While basic dietary intake as well as gen­er­al rates of obe­si­ty resem­bled those of the FRG, the GDR’s strug­gle with over­weight was real­ly quite dif­fer­ent from that of West Ger­many, dis­cur­sive­ly as well as in terms of pol­i­cy. What were the spe­cif­ic con­tours of the East Ger­man strug­gle to con­trol and reduce the country’s rel­a­tive­ly high lev­els of over­weight cit­i­zens? In the FRG, over­weight went from being cel­e­brat­ed as an icon of eco­nom­ic suc­cess (see Eco­nom­ic Min­is­ter Lud­wig Erhard, whose own bulk rep­re­sent­ed the abun­dance that marked the end of aus­ter­i­ty and pover­ty) to being demo­nized as a work­ing-class prob­lem caused by a com­bi­na­tion of lazi­ness and igno­rance. In the GDR, by con­trast, a spe­cif­ic lev­el of plump­ness rep­re­sent­ed a pro­le­tar­i­an sort of pros­per­i­ty and social equal­i­ty, while hunger sig­naled moral and eco­nom­ic fail­ure. Much as they might have bemoaned exces­sive caloric con­sump­tion, social­ist com­men­ta­tors nev­er for­got, as chef Kurt Drum­mer point­ed out in a best­selling cook­book pro­mot­ing healthy, low­er-fat recipes, that “after all we have not been liv­ing in this excess for so long. Less than two cen­turies ago cakes and tarts were still a lux­u­ry of which the poor­er seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion gen­er­al­ly could only dream” (Drum­mer and Muske­witz 172). East Ger­man “real-exist­ing social­ism” con­sis­tent­ly reject­ed the West’s pur­port­ed­ly “self-absorbed” obses­sion with slim­ness, con­demn­ing the health harms of weight-loss pills and quack diets as well as the rise of eat­ing dis­or­ders among west­ern youth as indica­tive of capitalism’s moral and soci­etal flaws. By con­trast, East Ger­many pro­mot­ed an ide­al­ized worker’s body that was sup­posed to be attain­able to all, nei­ther thin nor fat, con­sum­ing nei­ther too much nor too lit­tle, and focused on pro­duc­tiv­i­ty rather than exter­nal appearance.

One of the ear­li­est nation­al stud­ies of the spread of obe­si­ty in the East, pub­lished in 1970, esti­mat­ed that one-third of the adult pop­u­la­tion was seri­ous­ly over­weight, while assur­ing its read­ers that it was “the high stan­dard of liv­ing in the GDR” that was respon­si­ble for the “incred­i­ble spread of obe­si­ty” (Müller 1008). The study claimed that East Ger­mans were over­weight because “food is avail­able everywhere—when among friends, it is prac­ti­cal­ly forced upon you,” rather than, as in the West, being con­sumed inap­pro­pri­ate­ly due to lone­li­ness, famil­ial degen­er­a­tion, or iso­la­tion (Krebs 481). The head of the GDR Insti­tute for Health Edu­ca­tion explained that “our cur­rent health prob­lems are the prob­lems of a rich soci­ety, from the first we should see this, and for all com­plaints about the wide­spread over­weight and the grow­ing abuse of nat­ur­al stim­u­lants, we should not for­get that, after all, we want­ed this high qual­i­ty of life and fought hard for it” (Voß 64). The fact that the GDR had the high­est per capi­ta rate of but­ter con­sump­tion in the world was a source of pride for gov­ern­ment offi­cials, although anath­e­ma to nutri­tion­ists. This con­tra­dic­tion result­ed in awk­ward con­struc­tions, as in the pam­phlet “Your Diet, Your Health,” which claimed that “we are proud that in our state work­ers eat but­ter. But one must say to them that the exclu­sive con­sump­tion of but­ter can lead to health prob­lems” (“Deine Ernährung, deine Gesund­heit”). As a result, the GDR was much less con­sis­tent than the FRG in its offi­cial rejec­tion of fat­ness, which remained med­ical­ly pathol­o­gized at the same time that it was con­sid­ered aes­thet­i­cal­ly accept­able, a sign of pros­per­i­ty and plea­sure. While women’s mag­a­zines in the West were dom­i­nat­ed by count­less pages of diet­ing advice, East Ger­man women’s mag­a­zines made a point of encour­ag­ing read­ers to reject both fat­ness and thin­ness, instead mod­el­ing a mod­er­ate range of body shapes that includ­ed the accept­able cat­e­go­ry of vollschlank (usu­al­ly trans­lat­ed as “stout,” the word lit­er­al­ly means “full-slim” or “big-slim.”) Pub­lic fig­ures ref­er­enced abun­dant appetites and cel­e­brat­ed their paunch­es in a way unimag­in­able in the West. Even in the midst of the country’s obe­si­ty epi­dem­ic, con­ven­tion­al diet­ing con­tin­ued to have neg­a­tive asso­ci­a­tions, while abun­dant and care­free eat­ing remained both norm and ide­al.[5] Although health pro­fes­sion­als agreed that grow­ing rates of over­weight were a seri­ous prob­lem and health risk for the pop­u­la­tion, East Ger­man politi­cians and many ordi­nary cit­i­zens con­tin­ued to see excess body weight as a cipher for abun­dant and tasty food, and thus proof of the country’s eco­nom­ic and social success.

In the GDR, a mod­ern food econ­o­my was con­cep­tu­al­ized as one of abun­dance, egal­i­tar­i­an­ism, col­lec­tive well­be­ing, and plea­sure. East Ger­man health and nutri­tion experts repeat­ed­ly empha­sized the close rela­tion­ship between food and pleasure—something that is espe­cial­ly strik­ing giv­en the rel­a­tive absence of this theme in equiv­a­lent West Ger­man sources. The Ger­man Hygiene Muse­um in Dres­den, reflect­ing on how to get its cit­i­zens to eat both less and dif­fer­ent­ly, remind­ed edu­ca­tors that “eat­ing is a plea­sur­able expe­ri­ence, it belongs to the impor­tant plea­sures of human life. One can­not under­es­ti­mate the val­ue of this plea­sure. Speak­ing pro­hi­bi­tions with a raised fin­ger pre­vents the nec­es­sary open-mind­ed­ness and will­ing­ness to change one’s own eat­ing habits” (Brinkmann 65). Experts assert­ed that health­ful eat­ing and mod­er­ate dietary restraint did not mean “a soci­ety of thin ascetics with burn­ing gazes who want every­one to live from a diet of black bread, yogurt, and radish­es” (Haenel, “Fettsucht muss nicht sein”), and nutri­tion­ists were con­stant­ly remind­ing chefs and cook­book authors not to sac­ri­fice fla­vor for health, some­thing they believed was a sure recipe for fail­ure. Indeed, this cel­e­bra­tion of the plea­sure of eat­ing, and espe­cial­ly the joys of “good taste,” reflect­ed a polit­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy that offi­cial­ly ven­er­at­ed the “ordi­nary” cit­i­zen and “nor­mal” tastes. Thus, Honeck­er him­self described his dietary lifestyle as a sort of mod­el for social­ist eat­ing, com­bin­ing an ascetic denial of exot­ic food­stuffs with an enthu­si­as­tic con­sump­tion of the sim­ple yet dis­tinct­ly unhealthy foods (meat, fat, starch­es), which nutri­tion­ists blamed for the country’s weight problems:

[E]very morn­ing I ate one or two rolls with only but­ter and hon­ey; for lunchtime I was in the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee [can­teen]; there I had either sausage with mashed pota­toes, mac­a­roni with bacon or goulash, and in the evenings I ate a lit­tle some­thing at home, watched some TV, and went to sleep […]. Thus I nev­er lost my con­nec­tion to the Volk. (qtd. in Merkel, Wun­der­wirtschaft 314)

Such a cel­e­bra­tion of domes­tic, low-cost, and high-calo­rie can­teen meals was entire­ly absent from West Germany’s far more strin­gent lan­guage of cri­sis and self-control.

For nutri­tion­ists, this dis­course posed a seri­ous prob­lem as they strug­gled to rec­on­cile the country’s eco­nom­ic and social real­i­ties with their own rec­om­men­da­tions for weight-loss. They com­plained that wag­ing a seri­ous fight against obe­si­ty would require a rever­sal of the country’s basic eco­nom­ic pri­or­i­ties, which gen­er­al­ly equat­ed high lev­els of pop­u­lar con­sump­tion with eco­nom­ic as well as polit­i­cal suc­cess. While in the West diet prod­ucts and reduced-calo­rie food­stuffs rep­re­sent­ed the poten­tial for mas­sive prof­it, in the GDR this was not the case. Diet foods, which gen­er­al­ly required high­er lev­els of indus­tri­al pro­cess­ing as well as the addi­tion of arti­fi­cial sweet­en­ers and oth­er rel­a­tive­ly expen­sive and often import­ed chem­i­cals, were a hard sell to social­ist econ­o­mists. In the ear­ly 1970s, when a Dres­den cake fac­to­ry devel­oped a reduced-fat cream torte with 6,000 calo­ries (reduced from the 9,000 in the orig­i­nal recipe), the addi­tion­al labour costs were so sub­stan­tial that the company’s pro­duc­tion num­bers dropped dra­mat­i­cal­ly (Bericht über den Stand der Qual­ität). The com­pa­ny request­ed a reduc­tion in their assigned quo­ta because their year­ly pro­duc­tiv­i­ty rat­ings were suf­fer­ing; the threat of reduced prof­its won them per­mis­sion to reduce their pro­duc­tion of the dietet­ic desserts and to return to the full-fat version.

By the 1970s, ris­ing rates of obe­si­ty had inspired med­ical experts to exert unprece­dent­ed pres­sure on the food indus­try to expand its dietet­ic offer­ings. At this point, East Ger­man fac­to­ries were pro­duc­ing only 74 dia­bet­ic and “spe­cial diet” foods, 23 reduced-calo­rie items, and 35 healthy children’s food prod­ucts (Ibid.). Ten years lat­er, the num­ber of such prod­ucts had near­ly dou­bled (Entwick­lungskonzep­tio­nen). In order to reg­u­late this expand­ing mar­ket, the Trade­mark Asso­ci­a­tion for Dietet­ic Prod­ucts received increased fund­ing for its ON stamp (opti­mierte Nahrung or “opti­mized food”), which was award­ed to prod­ucts that met a high stan­dard of qual­i­ty and health­ful­ness: it could sig­nal reduced calo­rie, high fiber, low fat, reduced sug­ar, or dia­bet­ic-safe. A guide to dietet­ic food prod­ucts shows the vari­ants of ON labels being pro­duced in the late 1970s. By the mid-1980s, 140 prod­ucts were receiv­ing the stamp, and this num­ber con­tin­ued to grow until 1990 (Ibid.). How­ev­er, impres­sive as these offi­cial num­bers were, the prod­ucts actu­al­ly avail­able var­ied in qual­i­ty and were always in inad­e­quate quan­ti­ties to meet pop­u­lar demand.

East Germany’s dif­fi­cul­ty with mar­ket­ing weight-loss was both con­cep­tu­al and eco­nom­ic. Espe­cial­ly prob­lem­at­ic was the basic premise of encour­ag­ing peo­ple to sim­ply eat less food. After all, the GDR’s much-vaunt­ed sub­si­dized food prices were explic­it­ly designed to encour­age high lev­els of (spe­cif­ic kinds of) food con­sump­tion, a goal inspired by the pover­ty and hunger of the inter­war and post­war years. The rise in obe­si­ty, how­ev­er, added fuel to old­er eco­nom­ic crit­i­cisms of the coun­ter­pro­duc­tive con­se­quences of arti­fi­cial­ly low food prices. Frozen prices on core goods led to sub­si­dized com­modi­ties being seen as cheap rather than valu­able and, as a result, they were con­sumed in excess and wast­ed prof­li­gate­ly.[6] Nonethe­less, econ­o­mists wor­ried that any decline in food spend­ing would leave cit­i­zens with no out­let for their excess cash. In the West, decreased food spend­ing could be coun­tered with increased spend­ing on aux­il­iary diet­ing prod­ucts, rang­ing from gym mem­ber­ships to weight-loss pills to diet sodas. Such prod­ucts were near­ly nonex­is­tent in the GDR. In short, food seemed to be the only thing that one could always buy, to the frus­tra­tion of many East Ger­man dieters. In 1975, pro­fes­sion­al chef Claus Kul­ka wrote a let­ter blam­ing the country’s sup­ply issues for his unsuc­cess­ful strug­gle to lose weight. After see­ing a short TV clip com­posed by the Ger­man Hygiene Muse­um in Dres­den on “healthy nutri­tion,” he had been inspired to change his eat­ing habits. The pro­gram had rec­om­mend­ed a calo­rie chart to reg­u­late indi­vid­ual diet more pre­cise­ly. How­ev­er, such a chart proved impos­si­ble to find at a store or through mail-order, caus­ing Kul­ka to ask angri­ly: “what use is it to us when healthy lifestyles are advo­cat­ed by our media, but the sim­ple and even cheap-to-pro­duce prod­ucts that are required can­not be found any­where (Let­ter)?”

Nutri­tion­al chemists proud­ly claimed that “we are already capa­ble of sim­u­lat­ing meat so effec­tive­ly that it can­not be dis­tin­guished from the nat­ur­al prod­uct” (Haenel, An Frau Ilse Schäfer), assert­ing that such “sim­u­lat­ed foods” would become espe­cial­ly pop­u­lar among the over­weight pop­u­la­tion by pro­vid­ing “much need­ed low-calo­rie alter­na­tives” (Haenel, “Entwick­lun­gen”). In real­i­ty, even sim­ple reduced-fat sausages—which had been pro­duced before the Sec­ond World War—were often dif­fi­cult to come by. Despite offi­cial pro­duc­tion quo­tas for over two dozen vari­eties of health-con­scious sausages, a dia­bet­ic man com­plained in 1975 that it was:

incom­pre­hen­si­ble why fine baked goods are made so exces­sive­ly rich with sug­ar and fat, [and] the same is true for sausage. In gen­er­al there is only one sin­gle vari­ety of low-fat sausage [in stock]. Who can eat this year after year? In spe­cial shops one can gen­er­al­ly receive two to three sorts in exchange for stand­ing in line for twen­ty min­utes. All of them how­ev­er are dis­tin­guished by a par­tic­u­lar fla­vor­less­ness because they are all diet-sausage. (Betr: Diabetiker)

Even when the food indus­try did man­age to devel­op and pro­duce food­stuffs with reduced lev­els of fat and sug­ar, this meant, coun­ter­pro­duc­tive­ly, that the East Ger­man mar­ket was flood­ed with these “unhealthy” waste prod­ucts. A new vari­ety of reduced-fat con­densed milk with only four-per­cent fat promised, iron­i­cal­ly, to also result in the pro­duc­tion of “forty-sev­en tons of but­ter with sev­en­ty-four per­cent fat for [every] one thou­sand tons of con­densed milk” —an equa­tion of ques­tion­able health ben­e­fit (Beschluss); stan­dard East Ger­man but­ter at the time had a fat-lev­el of 70 per­cent. As much as nutri­tion­ists tried to guide and reg­u­late food con­sump­tion, eco­nom­ic goals rather than nutri­tion­al ideals deter­mined the food­stuffs that were produced.

Par­tic­u­lar­ly galling was the fact that the East Ger­man media con­sis­tent­ly affirmed the wide­spread belief that pros­per­i­ty was “con­nect­ed to a high con­sump­tion of meat, but­ter, sweets made from refined flour, etc.” (Ein heiss­es Eisen). Mag­a­zines, news­pa­pers, and oth­er pop­u­lar media explic­it­ly reject­ed offi­cial nutri­tion­al rec­om­men­da­tions to eat both less and dif­fer­ent­ly, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to mar­ket alter­na­tive or health­i­er foods as “good.” As nutri­tion­ists complained:

[O]ccasionally we find sup­port in the press, but often things there are made espe­cial­ly dif­fi­cult for us. There were great dif­fi­cul­ties with get­ting an arti­cle about whole grain noo­dles pub­lished in the news­pa­per. It was said, “with whole grain noo­dles we are tak­ing a step back­wards,” or “this means that lean years are com­ing our way.” At this point a col­league spon­ta­neous­ly took a pot of whole grain noo­dles to the press and thus con­vinced the edi­to­r­i­al board. (Gemein­schaft­sküche 29)

In 1976, the pop­u­lar mag­a­zine Guter Rat (Good Advice) casu­al­ly defend­ed its fre­quent inclu­sion of high-calo­rie recipes despite the grow­ing lev­els of obe­si­ty by assert­ing that “for years our read­ers have enjoyed the lit­tle spe­cial occa­sion at which they occa­sion­al­ly present their guests with some­thing spe­cial on the table. From this per­spec­tive we see absolute­ly no con­tra­dic­tion in the fact that we here exceed the caloric lim­its, and on the oth­er hand speak of a healthy diet” (Edi­to­r­i­al). Such pop­u­lar venues defend­ed high-calo­rie and pur­port­ed­ly unhealthy food choic­es as both nor­mal and appro­pri­ate, sug­gest­ing that offi­cial nutri­tion­al rec­om­men­da­tions were inad­e­quate, unap­peal­ing, or just plain wrong.

A 1987 report on the psy­chol­o­gy of dietary behav­ior blamed the food indus­try for the country’s neg­li­gi­ble declines in obe­si­ty rates. The prob­lem, the report found, was in the poor fla­vors of the country’s dietet­ic food­stuffs. By try­ing to mar­ket these prod­ucts to over­weight cit­i­zens, the indus­try was ignor­ing the pri­mal fact that “in dietary behav­ior the taste of foods and dish­es and the affil­i­at­ed sat­is­fac­tion of the plea­sure dri­ve plays an essen­tial role. This fact should be the basis for all deci­sions of those respon­si­ble for the food indus­try and food prepa­ra­tion to pre­pare tasty foods in the inter­est of a healthy diet” (“Psy­chol­o­gis­che Grund­la­gen”). On the oth­er hand, nutri­tion­ists acknowl­edged that the bet­ter food tast­ed, the more peo­ple ate, work­ing against weigh loss goals. Even as they labored to improve the qual­i­ty and taste of the country’s food sup­ply, nutri­tion­ists wor­ried about numer­ous stud­ies of con­sumer behav­ior that had found that improv­ing gro­cery selec­tion “stim­u­lates pri­vate food pro­duc­tion” and dis­cour­aged the use of can­teens, which in turn meant that care­ful­ly cal­i­brat­ed reduced-calo­rie can­teen meals would have far less impact than antic­i­pat­ed (Entwick­lung des Bedarfs).

The country’s high lev­els of fat­ness and obe­si­ty-relat­ed ill­ness­es sug­gest­ed that the wide­spread avail­abil­i­ty of cheap and pop­u­lar high-fat and high-sug­ar prod­ucts was coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. Anti-obe­si­ty cam­paign­ers attempt­ed to sev­er the asso­ci­a­tion of social­ism with a “com­fort­able,” even poten­tial­ly attrac­tive, sort of fat­ness. The East Ger­man Cen­tral Insti­tute for Nutri­tion (Zen­tralin­sti­tut für Ernährung) ini­ti­at­ed a pub­lic debate ask­ing “whether obe­si­ty is a pri­vate issue.” The answer was a resound­ing no, since “the con­se­quences of obe­si­ty are so seri­ous and impact­ful that one is deal­ing with a social, health, human­i­tar­i­an, and eco­nom­ic prob­lem of the first degree […] and beyond that the fat per­son cer­tain­ly does not match our beau­ty ide­al and seems unaes­thet­ic, which one—including the fat per­son him or herself—is regret­tably well aware of” (“Ist Fet­tleibigkeit Pri­vat­sache”). Dr. Hel­mut Haenel, the lead­ing pub­lic fig­ure in the country’s anti-obe­si­ty cam­paign, open­ly expressed his desire to make slim bod­ies the soci­etal norm of the GDR. An egal­i­tar­i­an social­ist soci­ety, accord­ing to Haenel, “can­not afford to main­tain up to a third of its cit­i­zens, even up to a half, with heavy bod­ies, gasp­ing for breath and unwill­ing to be active, sus­cep­ti­ble to dis­ease, less resis­tant to dis­ease, ear­ly invalids, and dying ear­ly. A mod­el soci­ety must also have the mod­el of a healthy pro­duc­tive indi­vid­ual, that is, of a slim per­son” (Haenel, “Fettsucht muss nicht sein”). Such mes­sages, how­ev­er, did not have the desired impact. Although by the 1980s, sur­veys revealed that for the first time a major­i­ty of the pop­u­la­tion was try­ing to lose weight, these high rates of diet­ing cor­re­lat­ed with high­er rather than low­er lev­els of obe­si­ty. By the time the Berlin Wall fell, the East Ger­man med­ical estab­lish­ment, much like its cap­i­tal­ist coun­ter­part, had come to see the population’s recal­ci­trant tastes as its biggest obsta­cle to pop­u­lar health.


By the 1970s East and West Ger­man nutri­tion­ists agreed that obe­si­ty was their respec­tive nation’s most press­ing health threat. As a result, both social­ist and cap­i­tal­ist experts believed that the goal of mod­ern nutri­tion­al edu­ca­tion was to tack­le diet-relat­ed health prob­lems through retrain­ing pop­u­lar tastes. Through a com­bi­na­tion of pro­pa­gan­dis­tic scare tac­tics and increased inter­ven­tions in child­hood and work­place diets, both states strug­gled through­out the 1970s and 1980s to change Ger­man tastes, and both admit­ted a dis­cour­ag­ing lack of suc­cess (Wein­reb, Mod­ern Hungers). Thus, despite West­ern asser­tions of pro­found dif­fer­ences in tastes on either side of the Iron Cur­tain, East and West Ger­man food habits were more sim­i­lar than dif­fer­ent, both in terms of their resis­tance to change and their spe­cif­ic desires. The fall of the Wall changed the con­tours of these Ger­man-Ger­man strug­gles to reg­u­late bod­ies and con­trol pop­u­lar taste. The dis­ap­pear­ance of the GDR meant for West Ger­mans the dis­ap­pear­ance of an “oth­er” Ger­many that embod­ied the “wrong” sort of food con­sump­tion and pro­duc­tion. Yet food has remained a piv­otal sym­bol. The impor­tance of food in the com­plex mem­o­ry work that has sur­round­ed Ger­man reuni­fi­ca­tion since 1990 reflects the ways in which both East and West Ger­mans have been strug­gling to come to terms with their divid­ed past and shared present (Gries).

The impor­tance of food for remem­ber­ing the past and imag­in­ing the future at least par­tial­ly explains why it is that foods and drinks are some of the only East Ger­man prod­ucts still being pro­duced in reuni­fied Ger­many (Sut­ton); most oth­er con­sumer prod­ucts are no longer avail­able (Merkel, “From Stig­ma to Cult” 264). This con­tin­ued inter­est in East Ger­man foods appears to many West­ern­ers coun­ter­in­tu­itive, if not absurd. For many West Ger­mans, the GDR’s food cul­ture seemed to be the aspect of every­day life that most graph­i­cal­ly rep­re­sent­ed the hor­rors and fail­ures of the for­mer nation. Instead, the East Ger­man food land­scape has become the focal point of dis­tinct­ly pos­i­tive mem­o­ries and acts of recre­ation; it is a cru­cial, though under­ex­plored, com­po­nent of the phe­nom­e­non of the rise in nos­tal­gia for the GDR—a sort of mag­i­cal mem­o­ry of the past that has even grown to include West Ger­mans who in turn fetishize prod­ucts of the imag­ined for­mer East (Jarausch 336). Indeed, the con­tin­ued promi­nence of food­stuffs in post-reuni­fi­ca­tion con­struc­tions of the GDR—ranging from the Spree­wald pick­les of the block­buster film Good Bye Lenin! to the revival of new­ly exot­ic “cult” clas­sics such as the East Ger­man Rotkäp­pchen brand of sparkling wine or even the afore­men­tioned Knus­per­flock­en—remind us that food-based fan­tasies of the self and the oth­er have proved longer last­ing than the polit­i­cal divi­sions of the Cold War itself. More gen­er­al­ly, this brief dis­cus­sion of both inter­nal and exter­nal debates over pop­u­lar tastes in the social­ist GDR sug­gests the impor­tance of taste for the work­ing of state pow­er. Mod­ern states, regard­less of their eco­nom­ic sys­tem, strive to opti­mize their pop­u­la­tions’ diets, and nutri­tion­ists and econ­o­mists fail to rec­on­cile the frus­trat­ing real­i­ty of indi­vid­ual tastes with such larg­er biopo­lit­i­cal projects.

Works Cited

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Image Notes

Cov­er Image (Fig­ure 1): Gaby from the East­ern Zone (17) in Par­adise (the FRG): My First Banana. From: Titan­ic 11 (Novem­ber 1989). Image cour­tesy of Titan­ic Redak­tion, Frank­furt, Germany.

Fig­ure 2: “Pros­per­i­ty for All: Lud­wig Erhard, CDU.” Elec­toral poster from 1957. Image cour­tesy of the Lebendi­ges Muse­um Online. Kon­rad-Ade­nauer-Stiftung; KAS/ACDP 10-001:650 CC-BY-SA 3.0 DE.

Fig­ure 3: “Food Prod­ucts for Healthy Nutri­tion.” A guide to new East Ger­man prod­ucts that sup­port healthy diets, par­tic­u­lar­ly focus­ing on low-calo­rie and low-cho­les­terol food­stuffs. Lebens­mit­tel für die gesunde Ernährung (Fach­buchver­lag, 1978). Author’s pri­vate collection.

Fig­ure 4: “Over­weight. Exces­sive Eat­ing leads to Over­weight.” Image cour­tesy of Deutsches Hygiene-Muse­um, Dres­den, Germany.


[1] I have pre­vi­ous­ly argued that the West Ger­man inter­est in the mate­r­i­al real­i­ty of East Ger­man bod­ies was a direct lega­cy of Ger­mans’ per­son­al and col­lec­tive expe­ri­ences dur­ing the Third Reich and the post­war Occu­pa­tion (see Wein­reb, “Embody­ing Ger­man Suffering”).

[2] By the late 1950s, per-head caloric intake in the GDR had reached pre­war lev­els and rose steadi­ly over the sub­se­quent decades. By the 1960s, the coun­try had large­ly over­come its severe hous­ing short­age and was boast­ing impres­sive rates of eco­nom­ic growth. By the ear­ly 1970s, the GDR had estab­lished itself as the “shop win­dow” of the East­ern Bloc and was gen­er­al­ly con­sid­ered the most pros­per­ous com­mu­nist coun­try (Stein­er 84). Of course, these devel­op­ments paled in com­par­i­son to the Fed­er­al Repub­lic, whose post­war Eco­nom­ic Mir­a­cle made the coun­try the world’s fastest grow­ing econ­o­my with­in just a few years of its defeat and col­lapse in 1945.

[3] East Ger­man anthro­pol­o­gist Katrin Rohn­stock notes the ubiq­ui­ty of beer bel­lies in descrip­tions of East Ger­man men, argu­ing that the swollen stom­ach is a sort of “social­ist phe­no­type” in both Ger­man states (Rohn­stock, “Der Bierbauch.”)

[4] While the GDR did not can­cel its rationing pro­gram until 1958, by this point caloric intake had already exceed­ed med­ical rec­om­men­da­tions. Indeed, this extend­ed rationing is linked more to exces­sive food con­sump­tion than to sig­nif­i­cant short­ages (Stein­er 109).

[5] This is not to say that indi­vid­ual East Ger­mans, and espe­cial­ly women and girls, did not feel pres­sure to lose weight or suf­fer from eat­ing dis­or­ders, only that main­stream dis­course did not open­ly encour­age extreme thin­ness (see Kerr-Boyle).

[6] The offi­cial end of rationing in 1958 accom­pa­nied the estab­lish­ment of prices for core com­modi­ties that remained con­stant for the dura­tion of the state’s exis­tence (e.g., bread rolls were 5 pfen­nig, half a pound of but­ter was 2.50 marks, a sausage was 80 pfen­nig) (see Kamin­sky 49).

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