The »Special Inventory«
by Andreas Michaelis
date the two Germanies were unified, 3 October 1990, is assured its place
in the history books. It was a day that set a seal on a remarkable process
of disintegration: not with a bang but a whimper, East Germany - the German
Democratic Republic - disappeared from the political map. An entire society,
complete with its structures and networks, was consigned (as author Stefan
Heym put it) to the »garbage heap of history«.
But numerous relics of the now defunct state remained to tell their tales.
Some were to be found in the Museum für Deutsche Geschichte (Museum
of German History).
The museum's task, under the rule of the East German SED (Sozialistische
Einheitspartei Deutschlands: the German Socialist Unity Party), was to
present a Marxist-Leninist interpretation of German history to those within
and outside the country, an interpretation that viewed the history of
East Germany as the crown and climax. The museum was one of the GDR's
foremost ideological power-houses; the museum's collections, and its exhibition
policies and contents, were directly laid down and supported by the leadership
of the East German Communist Party and the state.
After unification, the use of, and rights to, the arsenal and the museum
collections passed to the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German History
Museum), which had been established in West Berlin in 1987. This meant,
among other things, that the Deutsches Historisches Museum found itself
with holdings which, both by their constituent character and by their
origins, were quite new to western museum staff: the »Special Inventory«.
This was a remarkable collection of unfamiliar, odd or commonplace objects
that could scarcely be seen as meeting the criteria of any normal, rationally
conceived museum collection; and they amazed, amused or appalled the staff
who found them on their hands. In the first instance their interest was
doubtless aroused by a whiff of the exotic, but they soon realised that
in fact the »special inventory« afforded a unique glimpse of GDR history,
and indeed a more instructive mirror than any other items in the museum's
The collection included gifts exchanged on the occasion of state visits
to or from East Germany, as well as personal birthday or anniversary presents
given to state and Party leaders in the 40-year history of the GDR. There
were also items that had been made specially for Party congresses and
Generally speaking, these things are not valuables; the value they possess
lies in their symbolic character. In the main, the materials from which
they are made, and the subject matter expressed, reflect the national
folklore and craft tradition of the country of origin. Presents from other
Communist-ruled countries tend often to be of an unsubtle revolutionary
nature, and may carry slogans in favour of peace and friendship, solidarity,
or the triumph of socialism. Gifts connected with Party congresses, anniversaries
or birthdays are particularly prone to carry class struggle messages.
Presents received from guests, by contrast, are usually free of tendentious
material, and reflect the national character of the country of origin.
The »Special Inventory« is a complex and illuminating collection, an altogether
unique collection of material drawn from the realm of political pomp and
circumstance, a collection that vividly illustrates the iconography of
the GDR and its socialist brothers in the Soviet bloc. Furthermore, it
affords us an exceptional insight into the ritualized relations between
East German social organizations and institutions and the SED, and sheds
instructive light on the SED's relations with Communist parties elsewhere
and with revolutionary movements in the Third World.
The present publication is the first attempt to present these museum holdings
in any genuine complexity. This cross section of some 250 select items
now in the Deutsches Historisches Museum adds up to far more than so many
pages of photographs: it is a (partial) history of the GDR and of the