Making some money in the Workers and Farmers’ State

Logo of the hard currency Intershop retail stores chain in the GDR

I was born in Berlin, but my father’s family originated from Brandenburg, where my mother grew up. Therefore both had a very strong connection to the province that became part of the Soviet occupation zone at the end of World War II and in 1949 of the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Though both left the «Workers and Farmers’ State» in the 1950s and later moved to the Spanish port of Valencia in 1968. Until our return in 1985, we spent all summer holidays except one in Berlin and its surroundings with relatives or friends.

The six weeks I enjoyed on my father cousin’s farm in Erkner near the capital remain one of my happiest childhood memories. I remember that I cried when we had to leave, as I liked being surrounded by animals since I was a little boy. That long summer holiday had a special magic!

After I started studying in a city still divided by the world-famous Wall, these visits in the second German State increased. I crossed the border at least once a month and for each day “capitalist foreigners” like myself had to exchange 25 D-Mark into worthless communist money.

Considering that in the East there were few products of any interest for somebody coming from a free-market economy, it wasn’t easy to spend it except on stamps for my collection. The German Communists wouldn’t let you take their currency out of the country either. So I often deposited the rest in an account at the State Bank.

A few dictionaries, for example Chinese-German, represented another exception. However, to be able to purchase those you had to know the right people. An acquaintance from East Berlin worked for a publisher. She was interested in surfing accessories for her trips to the Baltic Sea. As such articles just weren’t available in the GDR, sometimes we would do some mutually beneficial transactions!

Being a regular visitor of the GDR, my East German relatives and friends once in a while asked me for specific items. I bought LPs for maybe 10 “Westmark” and sold them on the other side of the Wall for usually 100 “Ostmark”. They were also keen on posters, patches, jeans and t-shirts. That’s why a relatively poor student could afford gourmet food!

Like in all Communist dictatorships, real money made dreams come true. So average East Germans were always eager to get D-Mark in private at a reasonable rate of 1:5. They would later make a trip to the next Intershop, a chain of government-owned and operated retail stores that sold all kinds of imported high-quality goods at “reasonable” prices.

Looking back at my often half-legal activities during the last phase of the Cold War, I have never considered myself a racketeer. Both sides profited from them and somehow kept us close to each other. I always believed in reunification of what was left of Germany after its dismemberment, and in 1990 suddenly it became a reality.

When the Berlin Wall finally came down on November 9th, 1989 I had long been out of business due to my study visit in Taiwan until shortly before the great event. That was a price that I would have been more than willing to pay anyway to see how after 45 years the nightmarish partition ultimately ended.


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