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Screening Socialism

TV in the GDR

Early History

Germany was one of the first countries in the world to begin regular television broadcasting, with the first signals transmitted in 1935 (albeit using a 180-line system compared to the British BBC’s 405 lines) (Hoff 1990: 230). In common with pre-war television in other countries, few ordinary viewers owned television sets, meaning that most TV viewing took place in organised communal settings (Uricchio 1990: 115-116). While the National Socialists sought to exploit the new medium, devoting special attention to it during the 1936 Berlin Olympics (Hoff 1990: 232-234), their main focus remained on the more established media of radio, cinema and the press. During World War II broadcasting continued, but almost entirely for military purposes. Production of sets for civilians ceased, and research focused on the application of television technology for missile guidance systems, or as a means for entertaining wounded troops (Uricchio 1990: 116).

Development of a National Infrastructure

In 1945, Germany’s television broadcasting capacity lay in ruins and received little attention from the Allied or Soviet occupying powers. But gradually, interest in the capacity of television was rekindled. In 1948, the head of broadcasting in the Soviet occupation zone, Hans Mahler predicted that in the near future
‘a new and important technical step forward in the field of broadcasting in Germany will begin its triumphant march: television. There still stand numerous obstacles in the way of its development, but of this I am sure: they will be overcome, and just as today’s listeners take in impressions with their ears through the loudspeaker, with their eyes they will be able to follow events in the studio, to observe the microphone in its journey through the concert hall, the theatre, through opera houses, events, and across town and country.’ (Fischer 2001: 13)

But it was only in 1950, with the approval of a Television Centre in Berlin, that plans for a nationwide television service really got off the ground, with test transmissions beginning in 1952. (Compare this to West Germany, which started test broadcasts in 1949 and was broadcasting daily by 1952). There were so few viewers for East German programming in July 1952 that the country’s broadcaster DFF (Deutscher Fernsehfunk) was able to inform viewers personally by telephone about technical problems (Gumbert 2013: 26).

In the early 1950s, the GDR’s television authorities struggled both with the effects of trade embargoes that limited its ability to import modern TV technology and also the phenomenon of so-called ‘republic flight’: the defection of qualified cadres to the west (Gumbert 2013: 24-25, 74). Even after the end of the embargo and the gradual development of a technical infrastructure, television professionals struggled to master the new medium and its language, encountering many problems along the way. Indeed, Heather Gumbert has argued that the main goal for GDR television in these early years was not the development of programming but rather the occupation of bandwidth which would otherwise be relinquished to other countries (Gumbert 2013: 30).

It was not until 1956, then, that one can speak of an East German television service in any real sense. In January, DFF began broadcasting its regular schedule (Gumbert 2013: 68), while the confusion over events in Hungary in November 1956, which DFF had failed to broadcast, represented another important spur to improving the quality of broadcasting (Gumbert 2013: 70-75). Subsequently, the SED authorities devoted much closer attention to the development of television, and attempted to define the ideological principles upon which its output should rest.

Political Control

After the founding of the GDR in 1949, responsibility for monitoring mass media moved from the Soviet authorities to the SED government. From 1952, a Department of Agitation and Propaganda was established for this purpose. Between 1952 and 1968, television was run by the State Broadcast Committee which dealt with both radio and television, and subsequently a dedicated TV committee would be set up (Fischer 2001: 24). In its early years, television was less tightly controlled, probably because the medium itself had little social impact at its inception. Gradually – and particularly in response to international crises such as the Hungary invasion of 1956 and the Second Berlin Crisis of 1961 – controls were tightened (Gumbert 2006: 155). In common with television in many other countries in socialist eastern Europe, German television professionals were subject to a range of legal and professional checks on their work to ensure that it conformed to the Party line, including thorough checking of scripts prior to broadcast, coupled with post-broadcast censure for ideological errors (Kochanowski et al 2013: 83-86).

The situation in East Germany differed from the one that existed in a number of other socialist states because of the widespread availability of West German television. While cross-border television reception was possible in many of these countries, on the whole they did not broadcast in the recipients’ native languages. The source of this decision was problems with reception of television in borderland areas, leading the GDR’s authorities to place GDR television on the western B/G standard – the only country in the socialist sphere to do so (Paulu 1974: 232). A secondary aim was to allow the GDR to broadcast into West Germany, but this also created an opportunity for West German television to broadcast into the East. After the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, reception of West German television and radio was recognised as problematic by the SED authorities, but (aside from a campaign to divert TV aerials towards the west in 1961) the regime feared the public response to jamming, and was therefore forced to tolerate the presence of ‘enemy propaganda’ on East German soil (Gumbert 2013: 107-111).

This created a paradoxical situation where East German television was subject to heavy censorship but uncensored West German television was widely available to most of the population (save for the far North East and South East of the country – the so-called ‘Valley of the Clueless’ [Tal der Ahnungslosen] – where ARD television signals could not reach). In the 1980s both ARD (87%) and ZDF (83%) signals could be received by most of the population, with the number able to receive at least one probably higher (Lee 2003: 32). This had an huge effect on the programming that was offered on East German television, since the GDR needed to compete with the FRG on the level of programming, as the next section will show.


The goal of television broadcasting in East Germany was to further the cause of socialism. As the chairman of the State Radio Committee put it in 1960: “By means of ideological and educational broadcasts from the main centres of the republic, radio and television aid the building-up and victory of socialism” (quoted in Paulu 1974: 229). This suggests a highly instrumentalised television apparatus, which prized agitation above all else. But East German television was also called upon to inform, educate and entertain viewers, which it did with varying levels of success.

TABLE 1: Programming by Genre, 1955-1989 

  1955 1965 1975 1985 1989
Information 74 603 839 944 957
Current Affairs 113 498 1095 1104 1313
Sport 23 463 686 752 772
Education - 98 325 696 721
TV Drama 362 715 1949 2319 2525
Entertainment 129 559 960 1143 1126
Children's 47 194 404 580 603
Youth 11 153 40 81 238
Other 27 491 553 646 646
TOTAL 786 3774 6851 8265 8900
Mean hours per week 15 73 132 159 171

(source Fischer 2001: 17-18)

One of the most important tasks for television in the GDR was to put forward a distinctly socialist world view through its news coverage. However, because of the availability of West German TV and radio signals, the authorities faced problems in doing so. While GDR television developed a wide range of news and current affairs programmes, including the daily bulletin Aktuelle Kamera (Current Camera, 1952-1990), these were challenged by the FRG’s counterpart, Tagesschau (1952 to present, ARD), while the infamous show Der Schwarze Kanal (The Black Channel, 1960-1989), hosted by the journalist Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, achieved low ratings and a certain notoriety for its one-sided commentaries on West German news reports (Mestre 2013: 159-175). Viewers were able to compare these news reports with their everyday reality, which did not speak positively of the ability of East German television to report everyday life with accuracy. At the same time, it should be noted that West German television’s focus on East German affairs was also seen by viewers as one-sided, and not reflective of their lives (Gumbert 2006: 159). For many viewers, then, the truth lay somewhere between the messages put forward by East and West German mass media.

By the early 1970s one frequently could hear murmurs of dissent about the quality of television – including the voice of the Party’s General Secretary Erich Honecker, who in 1971 called on TV professionals to “overcome a certain boredom”, and improve the quality of entertainment programming in the schedules (quoted in Dittmar 2010: 288). Again, because of the proximity of West German television with its proliferation of entertainment programming, this was seen as an urgent priority. As Heather Gumbert has argued, the main terrain of competition between East and West Germany was most likely not in terms of news and current affairs, but in entertainment programming (Gumbert 2006: 158). GDR television broadcast a range of light entertainment shows, such as Ein Kessel Buntes (A Kettle of Fun, 1972-1990), a Saturday-evening variety show broadcast on the first channel, as well as a number of long-running quiz, music, and shows for children, including the famous Unser Sandmännchen (Our Sandman, 1959 to date). In this regard, East German television was highly successful, enjoying ratings of 55-60 percent, as opposed to under a quarter for West German television (Gumbert 2006: 158-159).

Part of this success was down to the country’s effective drama programming. As Sascha Trültzsch and Reinhold Viehoff point out, unlike in the case of news, which is ultimately judged on its closeness to reality, entertainment programming is judged by different criteria (Trültzsch & Viehoff 2013: 142). East German drama had a long and distinguished history, producing hundreds of mini-series and dramas, including well-regarded shows such as Heute bei Krügers (Today at the Krügers, 1960-1963), Die lieben Mitmenschen (The Good Fellow Men, 1972-1974), Rentner haben niemals Zeit (Pensioners Never Have Time, 1977-1979), and the police dramas Blaulicht (Bluelight, 1959-1968) and Polizeiruf 110 (Police Call 110, 1972-1990), the latter of which survives (albeit in modified form) to this day. While contemporary scholars often deride these shows as predictable and propagandistic (Trültzsch & Viehoff 2013: 154; Kochanowski et al 2013) many shows enjoyed high audience ratings, and were able to match West German dramas’ popularity (Gumbert 2006: 158-159).

Final Years

Unlike the Soviet Union, the GDR did not undergo a process of liberalisation in the 1980s - indeed, its leadership actively opposed the USSR’s new course. Thus, television in the GDR entered its final years with many of the same personnel and many of the same programmes that had sustained viewers throughout the 1970s. This lack of innovation led viewers to turn away from the GDR’s programming and look for alternative sources of information. By the summer of 1989, less than a third of East German viewers were watching DFF, with news programmes like Aktuelle Kamera watched by less than 10 percent (Wolff 2002: 276). The authorities made belated attempts to reorient its programming, for example by taking the infamous Die schwarze Kanal off the air in 1989, and introducing lively youth programming like Elf 99 (Eleven 99, 1989-94) which, according to one scholar “was an active participant in the collapse of the GDR” (quoted in Fischer 2001: 19, see also Wolff 2002: 277).

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the State Committees for Radio and Television were both wound up, effectively ending the SED’s control over broadcasting. Over the course of 1990, the broadcasting environment changed completely, with a higher number of western films and serials broadcast. But changes in the content of many news and current affairs programmes linked to the end of Party control in the period 1989-909 meant that long-running programmes such as Aktuelle Kamera began to enjoy higher audiences, while established entertainment and drama programming like Polizeiruf 110, Die Staatsanwalt hat das Wort (The Prosecutor’s Turn to Speak, 1965-1991) and Ein Kessel Buntes continued to receive more than 50 percent of the audience (Wolff 2002: 285-286). After reunification, a 1991 survey suggested that more than half of the respondents in the former GDR said that they would miss DFF when it was taken off the air on December 31, and only 15 percent said that they preferred the West German programming of ARD and ZDR (Wolff 2002: 286). This ongoing affection for the DFF’s entertainment programming helps to explain the lasting impact of GDR television in the popular imagination, and its afterlife in German popular culture.


Dittmar, Claudia. 2010. Feindliches Fernsehen. Das DDR-Fernsehen und seine Strategien in Umgang mit dem westdeutschen Fernsehen. Bielefeld: Transcript.

Fischer, Joerg-Uwe. 2001. ‘Fernsehzentrum Berlin/Deutscher Fernsehfunk/Fernsehen der DDR 1952-1991’ in Das Schriftgut des DDR-Fernsehens. Eine Bestandsübersicht. Deutsches Runfunksarchiv.

Gumbert, Heather. 2006. ‘Split Screens? Television in East Germany, 1952-89’. In: Mass Media, Culture and Society in Twentieth-Century Germany, ed. by Karl C. Führer and Corey Ross. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 146–64.

Gumbert, Heather. 2013. Envisioning Socialism: Television and the Cold War in the German Democratic Republic. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Hoff, Peter. 1990. ‘German Television (1935–1944) as subject and medium of National Socialist Propaganda’ Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 10(2), 227-240.

Kochanowski, Katja; Sascha Trültzsch; Reinhold Viehoff. 2013. ‘An Evening with Friends and Enemies: Political Indoctrination in Popular East German Family Series’. In: Popular Television in Eastern Europe During and Since Socialism, ed. by Anikó Imre, Timothy Havens and Katalin Lustyik. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 81–101.

Lee, Woo-Seung. 2003. Das Fernsehen in geteilten Deutschland (1952-1989). Ideologische Konkurrenz und programmliche Kooperation. Potsdam: Verlag für Berlin-Brandenburg.

Engelmann-del Mestre, Frank. 2013. ‘Agitprop Gone Wrong: Der Schwarze Kanal’. In: Popular Television in Authoritarian Europe, ed. by Peter Goddard. Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp.159-175.

Paulu, Burton. 1974. Radio and Television Broadcasting in Eastern Europe. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Trültzsch, Sascha & Viehoff, Reinhold. ‘Undercover: How the East German Political System Presented Itself in Television Series’. In: Popular Television in Authoritarian Europe, ed. by Peter Goddard. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013, pp.141-158.

Uricchio, William. 1990. ‘Introduction to the history of German television, 1935–1944’. Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 10(2), 227-240.

Wolff, Franca. 2002. Glasnost erst kurz vor Sendeschluss. Die letzten Jahre des DDR-Fernsehens (1985-1989/90). Köln: Böhlau.


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