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ABCs of the GDR: A brief glossary

Rayna Breuer
November 9, 2021

Alfons Zitterbacke, Kosmonaut, Intershop or Sandmann: Discover terms referring to nearly forgotten or quirky aspects of everyday life in former East Germany.

The Trabi car from East Germany with snow on its back windshield with the words DDR inscribed on it
Cult car of the GDR: the TrabiImage: picture-alliance/dpa

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell — and like dominoes, other communist regimes in Eastern Europe gradually disintegrated as well. This also signaled the end of the division within Germany itself: between the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the east and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in the west.

While former East Germany is often associated with terms like "wall," "Stasi," "informers," and "dictatorship," the country's separation that spanned more than four decades was also visible in everyday life. People in the East watched different shows on TV, read different books and created new words that didn't exist in the West.

Here's a peek behind the former Iron Curtain to see which terms were commonplace in the GDR. Inspired by the German book "Von Alfons Zitterbacke bis Zonen-Gaby: Die DDR in Elf 99 Kapiteln," this list is not exhaustive but aims to encourage people to think about everyday life in the GDR.

Still from an "Alfons Zitterbacke" film showing two boys at a table
Now a film, the misadventures of Alfons Zitterbacke (played by Luis Vorbach, left) are now known across GermanyImage: Stefan Sauer/dpa/picture alliance

A is for Alfons Zitterbacke

Alfons Zitterbacke was a popular children's book character. The precocious youngster dreams of becoming either an astronaut or a celebrated sports star.

His reality, however, is far less stellar. Criticized by his father for being physically weak, he devours 60 eggs to build biceps — with hilarious consequences.

His schoolmates too often taunt him by rhyming his unusual surname with "Hühnerkacke" (or "chicken poo").

While Alfons' misadventures amused the children in the East, it also gave their parents food for thought on potentially damaging parenting methods.

B is for Bückware (or 'below-the-counter goods')

To ensure that everyone could afford basic essentials, East Germany's socialist government kept the prices of basic consumer goods and groceries artificially low. Yet, the shelves in the stores were often half empty, with customers standing in snaking queues to buy new products — if and when they arrived.

Particularly desirable items were often reserved for "selected" clients such as party functionaries, good friends or clients holding Western currency, and sales staff would place these products below — as opposed to on top of — the counter.

Thus, when these clients turned up, the staff had to stoop down ("bücken" in German) to fetch the items, thus earning these products the name Bückware or below-the-counter goods.

Below-the-counter goods were reserved for selected customers in the former East Germany
Not all products were sold 'over the counter' to everyoneImage: Kai Bienert/imago images

C is for Centrum

Centrum was a chain of department stores in the GDR. The special feature of the buildings was their grid-like, futuristic metal facades. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, most Centrum department stores were taken over by West German companies such as Kaufhof, Karstadt and Hertie. In most cases, the new owners tore down those distinctive facades.

E is for 'Ein Kessel Buntes'

Roughly translated to "A Pot of Color," this was a popular television variety show in the GDR. Consisting of a colorful mix of music, dance and cabaret, the show filled entire town halls and guaranteed good entertainment with lots of glitz and glamour. It featured both stars of the GDR as well as guests from the West. 

It also boasted international guests, including Swedish pop sensation ABBA, who performed their breakout hit "Waterloo" on the show in 1974.

The Centrum department store in East Berlin in 1983 with its distinctive grid-like metal facade
The Centrum department store in East Berlin in 1983 with its distinctive metal facadeImage: Jürgen Ritter/Imago Images

F is for friendship

The word "Freundschaft," or friendship, held deep significance in former socialist states.

With collective structures serving as the main organizational form, the state also prescribed friendship as a guiding concept.

The word was, for instance, part of the greeting of the Free German Youth (commonly known by its German acronym, FDJ), which was the communist youth association.

At the start of every FDJ meeting or a flag roll call, the meeting leader would often begin by declaring, "I greet you with the greeting of the Free German Youth: Friendship!" A shorter version was simply, "FDJ-ers: Friendship!" To which the assembled would respond in unison, "Friendship!"

G is for GD, GHB and GSSD

Acronyms and abbreviations abounded not only in the GDR, but were almost a trademark of the language in some former East bloc countries. Thus, everyone knew that "GenSek" meant General Secretary.

But some acronyms aren't as well known. Allow us to clarify: GD stands for General Director, GHB for Grosshandelsbetriebe (or wholesalers) and GSSD was the acronym for the Group of Soviet Forces in the GDR.

H is for Hoheneck

The Hoheneck Women's Prison was a correctional facility that operated between 1862 and 2001 in Stollberg, in the East German state of Saxony.

Set in the Hoheneck Castle in the Ore Mountains, it had already been used as a detention center during Nazi times. Prison conditions were humiliating and harsh, and during the GDR era one-third of its inmates were female political prisoners. They were forced to work, among other places, at the prison sewing shop. It has been a memorial site since 2015.

A black-and-white picture of a row of shops in East Berlin that includes an Intershop
The first Intershop opened in East Berlin near Friedrichstrasse stationImage: picture-alliance/dpa

I is for Intershop

Intershop was a chain of state retail stores at which only foreign currencies could be used to purchase high-quality goods: the East German mark was not accepted here.

Until 1974, GDR citizens were officially forbidden to hold Western currencies such as the US dollars or the West German Mark, so the store's target groups were initially transit travelers or visitors from Western countries.

But even after 1974, many GDR citizens had only limited insight into the range of goods offered by Intershops.

J is for Jahresendflügelfigur (or 'end-of-the-year winged figure')

As was (and is) the case in communist societies, secularism was enforced because religion was considered "the opium of the people," as Karl Marx said.

But some traditional festivities like Christmas proved difficult to quash in the GDR. Thus, the state came up with alternative and amusing secular terminology for certain Christmas characters.

Thus, the Jahresendflügelfigur or "end-of-the-year winged figure" was quite simply, an angel.

Ironically, the traditional German Christmas angels carved from wood originated in the Ore Mountains region in the east of Germany and were an export hit. Yet, they were a rather scarce commodity in GDR stores.

Profile picture of former East German cosmonaut Sigmund Jähn
GDR citizen Sigmund Jähn was the first German to fly into spaceImage: dpa/picture-alliance

K is for Kosmonaut 

The race between capitalism and communism during the Cold War extended even to space. Space travel became an unprecedented focus of public interest.

And the GDR had its own hero: Sigmund Jähn. On August 26, 1978, the cosmonaut flew in the Soviet Soyuz space capsule to the Soviet Salyut 6 space station. The flight, during which he conducted numerous experiments, lasted almost eight days.

R is for rübermachen (crossing)

Before the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 and the borders were fortified with barbed wire and automatic firing devices, East and West German citizens were able to cross either side. After that, it became almost impossible: Visits were only permitted in rare cases, and the separation between East and West was finally cemented.

But some GDR citizens refused to be resigned to this fate and attempted life-threatening escapes. Many died or were killed in the process.

The word "rübermachen" roughly translates to "going over the border" in search of the long-awaited freedom in the West.

Two puppets representing the west and east German versions of the children's bedtime character, the Sandman
For more than 60 years, the eastern Sandman (right) has been spreading his sleeping sand. His western colleague (left) has long since retiredImage: picture-alliance/ZB/M. Hiekel

S is for Sandmännchen (or 'sandman')

Germany's beloved children's bedtime TV character was born amid the Cold War.

Besides beating the West by launching Sputnik and the first man into space, the GDR also won the race to televise a German cultural icon, namely the Sandman.

Sporting a pointy hat, a white goatee and a bag of magic sleeping sand, the East German Sandman went on the air for the first time on November 22, 1959 — beating the West German version of the same character by a good three years.

The fear was that he would fade into oblivion after German reunification in 1990, but his widespread and enduring appeal has seen him edging out his Western peer and becoming Germany's sole bedtime storyteller.

U is for urst

"Cringe," "digga," and "sheesh" were nominated for the 2021 German Youth Word of the Year, with "cringe" taking the crown. 

If the GDR still existed, the word "urst" might also have ended up on the youth word list. It was (and to some extent still is) part of the vocabulary of young people and roughly means "awesome."

W is for Wartburg

Together with the Trabant — affectionately known as the "Trabi" — the Wartburg shaped the street scene of the GDR until the production of the car was stopped in 1991.

Today, these are a rarity and are now traded as classic cars.

The Wartburg was one of the few status symbols of the GDR; people had to wait up to 15 years for a car. It got its name from the Wartburg Castle that was situated on one of the hills overlooking the town of Eisenach, where the cars were manufactured.

A back view of the East German car, the Wartburg, which is no longer manufactured
The Wartburg: from dream car to cult objectImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Pleul

The book "Von Alfons Zitterbacke bis Zonen-Gaby: Die DDR in Elf 99 Kapiteln" is published by Edition Noack & Block, Berlin 2021.

This article was translated from the German by Brenda Haas