The tattered yellow box that a friend discovered in a second-hand bookshop in Berlin’s Mitte district fascinates us immediately. It contains some faded photos with oddly familiar pictures of a banquet. They show tables decked with carefully arranged dishes – you can sense the host’s pride. And although the entire presentation is more modest than not, it must have been an important occasion.
The dishes on some of the tables have labels: “White Cheese with Fruit”, “Venison Cutlets with Tropical Fruits”, “From the Sea, River and Pond”, “Assorted Salads, Meats, Fish, Poultry and Cheeses”. A particularly splendid platter reads: “Cow Tongue Evelyne”. Other photos show dolls and toy harvesters. The words written on a model ship, possibly made of chocolate, finally solve the mystery: “20th Anniversary” stands on its side. And the emblem of the German Democratic Republic adorns the fireplace.
So the photos date from 7 October 1969, when the young nation was celebrating its 20th anniversary. The banquet has a nice air and looks rather as I imagine a state reception might have been back then in Switzerland. The photos do not quite fit the picture we used to have of the GDR as the enemy.
With this feast, the government was proudly displaying its achievements – though, of course, with the proper degree of humility, as nobody was wallowing in luxury. Inside this fated box was a note with the word: “Johannishof”. The former cigar factory on Friedrichstrasse was where the government of East Berlin held its big receptions. The Palast der Republik would not open until the 1970s.
I’m afraid we haven’t been able to find out who made the buffet. Though Siegfried Pasternak, who became chef de cuisine at the Palast der Republik, described the difficult situation in a radio interview: “The GDR had set itself such ambitious goals in so many areas that it always knew it had to improvise. We all faced the same problem : the man is two metres tall, but his blanket is only 1.20 metres long. We constantly had to choose: whether we wanted our heads to freeze or our feet.”
In the first twenty years of its existence, growth in the German Democratic Republic was only gradual. In an issue published on the eve of this anniversary, Der Spiegel described development in the 1950s as follows: “While the growth of heavy industry rose sharply, the production of foodstuffs and consumer goods developed slowly: there were no sturdy shoes or well-fitting bras, no sewing silk or oranges, indeed, not even toilet paper.” For the 1960s, the magazine reported a slight upturn. Wages had increased somewhat, and although people still had to wait four years for a Trabant, at least every eighth family now owned a car.
1969 was also the year of the first manned moon landing; in the same year, the Federal Republic of Germany abolished its law penalising homosexuality; the first jumbo jet took to the sky; the Beatles gave their last public performance; ARPANET, forerunner of the Internet, was founded. The Berlin Wall had been standing for eight years already.
Twenty years later, on 7 October 1989, a wave of flight and protest rocked the foundations of what was now a 40-year-old nation. This time the festivities being staged were nothing but a façade. And a gigantic demonstration was brewing at East Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, in front of the Palast der Republik, where the official ceremony was taking place. In other cities, such as Leipzig and Karl-Marx-Stadt (today Chemnitz), the police used considerable force to break up the protests.
Klaus Taubert, then chief reporter for ADN, the GDR news agency, described the occasion in his book Generation Fussnote – Bekenntnisse eines Opportunisten [Generation Footnote: Confessions of an Opportunist]: “I was sitting at seat No. 406 at a six-sided table. The menu read: ‘Extra Strong Turkey Soup’, ‘ Small Trout Rolls with Dill Sauce and Salmon Caviar’ and ‘Smoked Tongue Mousse’. While thousands were protesting outside, the crème de la crème of the “revolutionary world process” was assembled inside. From Palestine’s leader, Arafat, to China’s Yilin, from Mongolia’s Batmönkh to Yemin’s Ali Salem al-Beidh ― they were all there, first and foremost Mikhail Gorbachev, to honour old combatant Honecker.” The atmosphere at this anniversary banquet was extremely tense. Erich Honecker, the host, spontaneously shortened his dinner speech by five whole pages. The main guest of honour, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, left the festivities before the meal was served and flew back to Moscow. Apparently he had pronounced a warning to GDR leaders: “Life punishes those who are late.” Quite soon afterwards, in November 1989, the Wall came down: the fate of the GDR was sealed.
On 16 October 1971, two years after the banquet celebrating the GDR’s 20th anniversary, the Shah of Iran threw a magnificent feast to celebrate the Iranian monarchy’s 2,500th anniversary. This banquet did not bring that country’s host much luck either: eight years later the Shah was overthrown and had to flee the country. Read the article about the Shah’s party here.