Chapter 52: A History of Eastern European Matchboxes

Table of Contents:


Matchbox labels from the former Eastern bloc often display a remarkable degree of sophistication, elegance and artistic quality. They were, at a time, the most convenient,efficient and powerful medium for visual communications. Although they were produced under strict state-controlled production processes; that were aimed at exploiting them as a means of publicizing political initiatives, promoting public health and safety, and selling the communist ideal both at home and abroad, the artists used them as a vehicle to experiment with various imaginative ideas and artistic techniques, achieving truly stunning results. The striking aesthetics of these designs prompted Jane McDevitt, an accomplished Web Designer, who has downloaded a large number of these designs on Flickr files to ask:
Why did this area of the world embrace modern design and imagery when many countries, including Britain, still preferred the Victorian aesthetic?

The Stunningly Powerful Designs of Czechoslovakian Matchboxes.

These matchbox labels have been produced by three Czechoslovakian factories; Soho Lipnik, Solo Susice and Smrecina B.Bystrica. The Solo match company was established in 1834. In the early twentieth century, there were a price war among suppliers, and many small operations were overtaken by their competitors or had to join forces in order to compete, thus factories like Solo Lipnik in Moravia and Solo Susice factory in Solvenia were appeared, and later in the early 1950s merged under the Solo brand by the Bystrica works.

In the aftermath of the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, the Solo factories were ordered to print labels designed by the central German matchbox monopoly in Berlin. Later, after the defeat of Germany, when Soviets created the Peoples Republic of Czechoslovakia in 1948, the Solo factories came under the auspices of Soviet central government. All printed communications were vetted, and matchbox label designs were controlled through the state publishing enterprise Orbis, which commissioned the printing and supplied the factories with finished sheets. During this period the two Solo factories also independently produced over 20 sets of labels a year, from one-off designs to collections of up to 30 different types.

The Postwar Division of the World,

In fact, the postwar division of the world into the Eastern bloc and the Western democracies, during the mid-twentieth century, appeared as a perpetual and fundamental fissure in the conduct of humanity, which implied profound consequences for the world's artistic endeavor. It was clear that the permanent cold conflict between the Warsaw Pact and the NATO Alliance was an unnatural phenomenon, being based on the MAD foundation that terrorized the world. The Doctrine known by the acronym MAD (mutual assured destruction), of course, was a defense strategy based on the concept that neither the United States nor its enemies will ever start a nuclear war because the other side will retaliate massively and unacceptably. However, the MAD military doctrine also suppressed the ancient national and ethnic rivalries and created about four decades of stability in the global relations, which allowed both art and artifice to flourish.

In the post war era, with the availability of massive financial resources to selected Western artists, East European art was blind sided with the glare of glamor and seductiveness of the celebrity culture, while at the same time Western world's art appeared to be languishing under the shenanigans of its postmodernists charlatans. The pinnacle of achievement in the eyes of East European artists was to effectively break into the Western art circuits, and enjoy the great accolades that were bestowed to the artists who sporadically were recognized by the Venice, São Paulo or Whitney Biennials, or their name would be appeared in a reference glossary in a catalog of international galleries. This predicament was evolved predominantly from the diverging cultural discourses in the two blocs, a vicissitude which has precipitated multifarious controversies .

In the west it was the privileged and exclusive art market that was the final arbiter of the good tastes and aesthetic criteria. Here, art was treated as a liquid asset that could act as an efficient store of value for finance capital. A corporation could diversify its portfolio by including art objects among various other commercial papers. A whole slew of sophisticated critics, curators, galleries, talent scouts and museums was established to assert the sovereignty of the art establishment, whose stamp of approvals was essential for guaranteeing the value of an art object among various financial assets. In contrast, in the eastern Europe, similar to all other countries with underdeveloped financial markets, the struggling artists had to be authentically creative and flexible in order to be able to explore the aesthetics of truth during their hazardous artistic voyage over the unchartered territories. Although it was short lived, the Stalinist experiment somehow transformed the understanding of art in Eastern Europe, and provided a platform for a remarkable artistic surge in the post-Stalinist era. The task facing artists, even those who were willing to follow the political dictates of the Social Realism, was to combine the basic ingredients of academic realism, transparency of meaning and political optimism, while avoiding the twin snares of 'formalism' and 'naturalism' - categories that were elastic enough to cover a multitude of aesthetic sins. This forced the artists to think and delve into their deepest core of creativity during the revival of modernist-inspired formal experimentation, which was abandoning the single-minded, utopian content of socialist realism for a new wave of officially sanctioned works. The new art were metaphorical, imaginative and abstract in their handling of socialist themes, and this was the key reason for the striking achievements of the eastern European art in its various forms including matchbox designs.

Bold and imaginative match box design from Romania

Like other eastern European countris, Romania's graphic design was at the cutting edge of avantgarde movement. In their book; Graphics Without Computer: 50 Years of Modest Achievements of Atelierul De Grafica, with essays by Vivana Iacob, Calin Torsan and Mihai Tudoroiu, the authors report;
Much of the material came from "frequently exploring the sites of various important Romanian factories, today fabulous ruins and wastelands. . . Coming from stifling Bucharest, visually speaking, the fragments of letters and posters we found there seemed so well made. We tried to find out more about the idea of their being 'well made." And that's where the idea came from to rummage through Romanian graphics in all its variety. We discovered how the profession of graphic design also existed in the workshops of factories and other institutions, not just those of the Union of Fine Artists. . .

A Brief History of Eastern Europe

The term “Eastern Europe,” is encompassing all the European countries that were under Communist rule from the 1940s through the end of the 1980s. All these countries, except for Yugoslavia and Albania, were formally allied with the Soviet Union until the start of the 1990s, and include the western Soviet republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. The term also include some countries in what is more properly called “Central Europe,” such as Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and what in 1949 became known as the German Democratic Republic (or East Germany). By the time of Yalta conference, in the Crimea, in January 1945 victory of the allied forces in Europe was almost assured, but the Allies had not yet agreed on post-war Europe's political or economic future. Joseph Stalin was angry that the Americans and British had not crossed the English Channel earlier, leaving the Soviets to absorb the brunt of Germany's military power. Roosevelt appreciated Stalin's complaints, though as early as 1943 he was preparing to recognize a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. For its part, Moscow interpreted the Yalta arrangements, which included a signed Declaration of Liberated Europe, as granting it a free hand to set up puppet governments throughout the Eastern Europe.

The Soviet Subjugation of Poland

Having possessed overwhelming might of the Red Army, Stalin moved quickly to ensure that, at a minimum, Eastern Europe would be converted after the war into a protective zone against future invasions from European armies and a safeguard against the threat of revived German militarism. He started with Poland, for which he had already began implementing his plan for the "liberation" well before Yalta's meeting, in January, 1942; when the Polish Workers Party was founded in Moscow to replace the old Polish Communist Party that had been liquidated in a 1938 purge. After the Red Army turned the tide at Stalingrad, Soviet forces pushed the Germans back to the old Polish - Soviet frontier in January, 1944. Seven months later they had advanced to within striking distance of Warsaw. A Polish National Committee of Liberation was installed in Lublin as the Soviet recognized government of the liberated areas. The Lublin Committee signed a Treaty granting the Soviets free reign in the administration of areas under their control. The Committee declared itself the Provisional Government of the Polish Republic on December 31, 1944 and was quickly granted recognition by the Soviet Union. Stalin's demand that the post-war Polish-Soviet border be demarcated along the Curzon Line (rejected in 1920) was acceded to by Roosevelt and Churchill at the Yalta Conference in December, 1944. Five million Germans living in what the Communist termed "recovered territories" were quickly expelled to make room for Poles leaving the now Soviet eastern territories. In short; communist rule was imposed in Poland by Soviet tanks. Later “legitimized” in the forged referendum of 1946 and elections of 1947, and introduced a brutal Stalinist system. During the first post-war years the independence underground was crushed and thousands of “enemies of the people “ were executed or given long prison sentences. Any manifestation of independence was ruthlessly suppressed. The society was divided, intimidated and almost pacified.

Thought provoking and exquisite matchbox designs from Hungary 

The main traits, typical of designers who came to the fore under communism, were experimentation and irony. They used a combination of craftsmanship, typography and photomontage to create startling minimalist images with geometrical spaces defined by flat colors.

The Soviet Occupation of Hungary

Next, the Soviet Army invaded Hungary in September 1944 and set up an alternative government in Debrecen on 21st December 1944 but did not capture Budapest until 18th January 1945. Soon afterwards Zolton Tildy became the provisional prime minister.The Hungarian Communist Party became the largest single party in the elections in 1947 and served in the coalition People's Independence Front government. The communists gradually gained control of the government and by 1948 the Social Democratic Party ceased to exist as an independent organization. Its leader, Bela Kovacs was arrested and sent to Siberia. Other opposition leaders such as Anna Kethly, Frenc Nagy and Istvan Szabo were imprisoned or sent into exile. The new regimes priority was to destroy, remove or modify the numerous art objects and memorials to the ‘lost territories’ that starkly contradicted the message of socialist internationalism, such as the Sacred Flagstaff, which was destroyed on Soviet orders to make way for the first Soviet war memorial, inaugurated on May Day 1945. Next in line were the symbols of a conservative social order, typically statues of aristocratic or bourgeois politicians, the destruction of which was often orchestrated as acts of spontaneous working class revenge, with the political threat residing in their ability to keep alive the memory of a plural political system.

The Communist Coup in Czechoslovakia

The same was the scenario for Czechoslovakia, which was occupied on 15 March 1939 by Germany, after a conference consisting of Germany, Italy, France, and Great Britain,  without Czechoslovakian representation had agreed with Adolph Hitler's demand in 1938 that as a "Sudeten German area", it should be ceded to Germany.Many prominent Czechs managed to escape the Germans, including Eduard Benes, the president, who established Provisional Government in London, in 1940, and Klement Gottwald, the communist leader, who took refuge in Moscow. In 1945, negotiations between Benes, Gottwald, and Stalin established the basis for a postwar government, which was formed in the Slovak city of Kosice in April 1945 and moved to Prague the following month.The government was drawn entirely from the National Front, an alliance of parties oriented toward Soviet Russia, with whom Czechoslovakia now had a common border, after the USSR incorporated Ruthenia. Although deferring to the communists, the National Front government managed to run Czechoslovakia as a democracy until 1948. The communists had been the largest vote getter in the 1946 elections, but it seemed likely that they might lose in 1948. With Soviet backing, rather than risk the election, they organized a putsch forcing President Benes to accept a government headed by Gottwald. Benes resigned in June 1948, leaving the presidency open for Gottwald. Jan Masaryk, Foreign Minister at the time was thrown from a window during the coup, which was reported as a suicide. Once Czechoslovakia became a People's Republic, and a faithful ally of the Soviet Union, a wave of purges and arrests rolled over the country (1949–1954). In 1952 a number of high officials, including Foreign Minister V. Clementis and R. Slansky, head of the Czech Communist Party, were hanged for "Tito-ism" (after the Yugoslavian president who had been dismissed from the Cominform) and "national deviation."

Polish matchbox designs were highly influenced by the Polish movie posters

Khrushchev's De-Stalinization of the Eastern Europe

After Stalin's death in 1953, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, began to liberalize Soviet policies. During the Twentieth Party Congress of the C.P.S.U in February, 1956, Khrushchev in his speech launched an attack on the rule of Joseph Stalin. He condemned the Great Purge and accused Stalin of abusing his power. He announced a change in policy and gave orders for the Soviet Union's political prisoners to be released. His de-Stalinzation policy encouraged; Eastern Europeans to believe that he was willing to give them more independence from the Soviet Union. The revelation of Stalin's follies, reinforced by criticism of Gottwald, Rakosi and Chervenkov in their respective countries, undermined the faith of Communist Party members in their chiefs everywhere; at the same time, the de facto acknowledgment of errors in the past policies of the party made it increasingly delicate to bar public discussion of present policies. This new hope of democratic freedom prompted mass anti-Soviet demonstrations.

Polish Uprising and Gomulka's reforms

In June 1956 there was a massive anti-government and anti-Soviet demonstration in Poznan. The marchers, protesting against poor living standards, low wages and high taxes, were dispersed by Soviet tanks. Wladyslaw Gomulka, a worker, trade unionist and Communist activist during the inter-war period, who had became the foremost figure of the Polish Workers' Party and the left-wing resistance movement during the war, regained freedom and power with the tide of de-Stalinization, when Khrushchev visited Poland and in October 1956 agreed that Gomulka should be given the post of first secretary of the Communist Party. Gomulka the author of an original conception for the gradual and evolutionary introduction of the socialist system, known as "the Polish road to socialism," had been accused of a rightist-nationalist deviation and was incarcerated as a result of Stalin's policy of "uniformization" of the people's democracies. After de-Stalinization, Gomulka was told that as long as the Polish government supported the Soviet Union in foreign affairs they could develop their own domestic policies. He rose to the occasion and introduced in Poland a number of significant reforms whose consequences proved to be positive: he abandoned collectivization, limited industrialization, improved relations with the Church, pursued a pragmatic cultural policy, and eliminated glaring cases of lawlessness. In the domain of foreign policy, he successfully realized his model of a partnership with the Soviet Union, and won full international recognition of the Polish western frontier. These policies provided a fertile ground for the subsequent rise of the Solidarity Movement, born at the Lenin shipyard in Gdańsk, on August 31, 1980, and the reestablishment of the Polish democracy in 1989.

Lithuanian Matchbox Design

Imre Nagy and Hungarian Uprising

In Hungary the protests became a full-scale revolt. Ordinary Hungarians battled with Soviet troops and the hated state security police.Thousands of political prisoners were freed and the Central Committee elected the popular Imre Nagy as prime minister. He began to dismantle the one-party state. Encouraged by an apparent promise of help, Nagy appealed to the UN and Western governments for protection. But with the Suez crisis in full swing and no real appetite for fighting the USSR over a crisis in Eastern Europe, the West did not respond. The Soviet military's response was swift and devastating. Some 30,000 people were killed in Budapest alone and about 200,000 Hungarians sought political asylum in the West. Over the next five years, thousands were executed or imprisoned under Janos Kadar's puppet regime. Nagy and others involved in the revolution were secretly tried and executed in June 1958. The Hungarian uprising  was a spontaneous rebellion by a nation against the rule from Moscow - against the faceless, indifferent, incompetent functionaries (the 'funkies' David Irving calls them, adapting the Hungarian word funkcionáriusok).

Alexander Dubček and Prague's Spring

The crashing of the Hungarians revolution, with Moscow's brutal show of strength, was far more sever than the response to the challenge posed by Wladyslaw Gomulka and the Polish Communists,  since the Polish dissidents  had targeted Kremlin rule but not the Communist system. The Hungarian invasion was a blueprint for the Soviet response to the Prague Spring. The first signs that all was not well in Czechoslovakia occurred in May 1966 when there were complaints that the party was exploiting the people. This developed when people in Slovakia complained about the government in Prague imposing its rules on the Slovaks and overriding local autonomy. A weak economy exacerbated the situation and none of the reforms that were introduced worked. The workers remained in poor housing and led the most basic of lifestyles. The same occurred in rural Czechoslovakia where farmers had to follow Party lines with regards to cultivation and innovation was frowned upon. In June 1967, there was open criticism of Antonin Novotný, Party Leader, at the Writers’ Union Congress. In October 1967, students demonstrated against Novotný and early in 1968 he was replaced as First Secretary of the Party by Alexander Dubček. He had not courted leadership of the anti-Novotný movement but as the man who had handed in a long list of complaints, on September that year, Dubček was the obvious choice. Dubček embarked on a program of reform that included amendments to the constitution of Czechoslovakia that would have brought back a degree of political democracy and greater personal freedom. Dubček announced that he wanted the Czech Communist Party to remain the predominant party in Czechoslovakia, but that he wanted the totalitarian aspects of the party to be reduced. Communist Party members in Czechoslovakia were given the right to challenge party policy as opposed to the traditional acceptance of all government policy. Party members were given the right to act “according to their conscience”. He also announced the end of censorship and the right of Czech citizens to criticise the government. Newspapers took the opportunity to produce scathing reports about government incompetence and corruption. The state of housing for the workers became a very common theme.

The Latvian matchbox design is rooted in the rich heritage of the Baltic region design

The Soviet government viewed such democratic developments in Czechoslovakia with increasing concern. In July the Soviet leadership held a meeting with the leaders of the KSČ, at which Dubček defended his reform program, while also pledging to continue Czechoslovakia’s commitment to the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact military alliance and Comecon (the economic organization of Communist countries). This was followed on August 3rd by a meeting at which the USSR, Czechoslovakia, and three other Warsaw Pact countries signed the Bratislava Declaration, a document announcing the Soviet Union’s intention to intervene in any Warsaw Pact state that established a “bourgeois” system allowing multiple political parties to challenge the guaranteed “leading role” of the Communist Party. Brezhnev declared (in what became known as the “Brezhnev doctrine”) that Communist countries had the right to intervene in other Communist nations whose actions threatened the international Communist movement. Romania and Yugoslavia explicitly denounced the Brezhnev doctrine, and Romania was the only Warsaw Pact country that refused to participate in the invasion.

The Elegant minimalism of Bulgarian matchbox design.

After WWI, Bulgarian art became preoccupied with the expression of the national identity. The Society of National Art was established in 1919. The first decade of the 20th century also witnessed the emergence of radical avante-garde trends associated with the expressionist journal “Vezni”. Unlike the decorative twenties, the thirties developed a more plastic vision based on the Paris school and Cezannism. After the mid-forties, Bulgarian art became untrammeled by normative Party academicism, a characteristic of the early years of the eastern European art. Around the second half of the 1950s the socialist realist canon became less rigid. From the early sixties to the seventies the young generation of artists tried to reinstall individual expression through chromatic intensity and distortion of form.

During the night of August 20–21, 1968, Warsaw Pact troops from the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and East Germany launched a surprise invasion of Czechoslovakia.  The Czechoslovak government denied any prior knowledge of the invasion, although in the early 1990s, the Russian government gave the new Czechoslovak President, Václav Havel, a copy of a letter of invitation addressed to Soviet authorities, signed by KSČ members Biľak, Švestka, Kolder, Indra, and Kapek. It claimed that “right-wing” media were “fomenting a wave of nationalism and chauvinism, and are provoking an anti-communist and anti-Soviet psychosis.” It formally asked the Soviets to “lend support and assistance with all means at your disposal” to save the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic “from the imminent danger of counterrevolution.”   The invasion force, consisting of 200,000 troops and 2,000 tanks, encountered only sporadic, mainly nonviolent resistance from the local population as it occupied the country. Dubček himself urged the people not to resist so as to minimize casualties. A total of 72 Czechs and Slovaks were killed, hundreds were wounded, and tens of thousands emigrated from the country in its immediate aftermath. Dubček and several other Czechoslovak leaders were arrested during the invasion and taken to Moscow, where they signed an agreement under heavy pressure to accept the Soviet occupation and were subsequently returned to Prague.  The experiment’s failure had dramatic long-term consequences. Local party officials, with backing from Moscow, forced the instigators of the movement from their leadership positions one by one. In April 1969, Gustáv Husák replaced Dubček as First Secretary of the KSČ. In the end, even the popular Dubček was expelled from the Communist Party and was sent off to Bratislava to inspect chainsaws -- after 1989, however, he would be elected Speaker of the Federal Assembly of the newly democratic Czechoslovakia.

Matchbox designs of Yugoslavia,

In 1948 the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia stood up to Stalin and – despite having a communist system that the West considered “heretical” – cooperated with the United States and Western Europe during the time when the world was divided into two blocs. It loudly criticised the Warsaw Pact and NATO, and offered a third possibility: the Non-Aligned Movement. Yugoslavia was regarded as the most progressive among European communist countries, but its demise after the fall of the Berlin Wall was the most tragic of all.Yugoslavia’s graphic design legacy is impressive, but unfortunately is not yet well documented.

Tens of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks were assigned to emptying garbage cans or sweeping streets. Among them was the author Ivan Klíma, who had welcomed the Prague Spring and thus was now no longer allowed to publish. In 1988, shortly before political change came to the country, Klíma wrote a book called “Love and Garbage” about his years as a garbage man. Fellow author Milan Kundera left Czechoslovakia and gained world renown for novels such as “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” The Husák regime reversed virtually all of the Prague Spring reforms under the guise of “normalization” of political and economic life. Censorship of the press and creative arts was re-imposed, and a bleak period of Czechoslovak history began. Widespread political apathy set in among the population, as most Czechs and Slovaks accepted the modestly improved living standard and availability of consumer goods provided by the regime in exchange for their passive acceptance of the Soviet-dominated rule of the KSČ. The small number of dissidents, such as Václav Havel, who refused to accept this cynical social contract with the regime were subjected to secret police harassment, expulsion from their professions, assignment to menial jobs, and sometimes arrest and imprisonment. The normalization period lasted throughout the 1970s and 1980s, until the Velvet Revolution of 1989 finally restored a democratic political system in Czechoslovakia.

Matchbox Designs from Estonia

The Prague Spring was the last attempt of communist reformers in the Eastern Bloc to rid their countries of the vestiges of Stalinism and to decentralize the totalitarian system. It was an historical breaking point with a depressing fallout. And it was then, in the summer of 1968, 12 years after the Hungarian Revolution and seven years after a wall first divided Germany in two. The Rumanians and the Bulgarians seemed, as usual, to be bearing their yoke with docility; the Albanians were too few, too far and too inconsequent to deserve the world's solicitude. Yugoslavia was effectively quarantined by Moscow and her revisionist influence was at an ebb, and by the late 1960s, it appeared as if Eastern Europe had become the integral part of the Communist bloc.

The Eastern European Attitude Towards Soviet Union

Informed by their historical perspectives, the Eastern Europeans sentiments towards Soviet Union was decidedly hostile. In Poland, for example, the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, which resulted in the partition of the Polish state, had engendered deep and lasting resentment toward Moscow. The Soviet occupation of eastern Poland from September 1939 to June 1941 was extraordinarily harsh — far harsher indeed than the Nazis’ occupation of western Poland during that same period. Soviet troops and security forces undertook wholesale deportations and mass killings, including the massacre of more than 20,000 Polish officers near Katyń Forest in March 1940. They also engaged in widespread looting, raping, and other atrocities. The Soviet government’s actions during the 1944 Warsaw uprising came as a further blow to Polish nationalist aspirations. Compounding the tensions between the Soviet Union and Poland was the USSR’s postwar annexation of the Polish provinces east of the Curzon Line, which shifted Poland’s borders 200 kilometers to the west. Equally bitter feelings toward Moscow existed in the Soviet zone of Germany (after 1949, East Germany), where the defeat inflicted by the Soviet Union and the brutal postwar occupation by the Red Army obviously made it difficult for the indigenous Socialist Unity Party to gain even a semblance of popular support. Soviet leaders were well aware that for many years the Soviet Union would not be able to “count on the sympathies of the East German people in the way we would have liked. Partly for this reason, Stalin in December 1948 instructed the leaders of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED, the name for the Communist party in eastern Germany from April 1946 on) to be content with an “opportunistic policy” that would entail “moving toward socialism not directly but in zigzags and in a roundabout way.” He said they must avoid any temptation to adopt a “premature path toward a people’s democracy.” In an earlier conversation, Stalin had even suggested that the SED could bolster its popular support by allowing former Nazis to join its ranks. The leaders of the SED were dismayed by this last idea, and they politely though firmly declined to go along with it after Stalin raised it. Nonetheless, the very fact that Stalin would have broached such a peculiar step was indicative of his realization that the SED was nearly bereft of public backing. Similar hostility toward the Soviet Union was evident in the other East European countries. In a conversation with Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov in April 1947, the Hungarian Communist leader Mátyás Rákosi acknowledged that Hungary’s new foreign policy orientation and social order were inherently fragile because “the Hungarian nation’s traditional fear of Russians still persists.” Nikita Khrushchev, made the same point later in his memoirs, describing Hungary and Romania as “our involuntary allies.” Khrushchev added:
It was only natural that there should have been some resentment on their part left over from the war and the first years after the war. The Romanians and Hungarians had been dragged into the war against us by Hitler. Therefore, our army, as it pursued the retreating Hitlerite invaders back into Germany, had attacked and defeated these other countries as well. . . . Because of the lingering hard feelings and even antagonism on the part of our allies, we found it difficult to achieve the desired degree of monolithic unity within the socialist camp.
Given the initial reluctance of most of the East European states to subordinate their foreign policies to Soviet preferences indefinitely, Stalin increasingly sensed that his goal of maintaining a pliant buffer zone would require the imposition of direct Communist rule throughout the region. This realization came at the same time that Stalin had begun to restore a brutal dictatorship at home, undoing the liberalization of the wartime years.

Russian matchbox design

Nikita Khrushchev's de-Stalinization encouraged many artists to began to experiment with new creative design . Although Khrushchev's tolerance for avant-garde creative works varied during his leadership, the new cultural period--known as the "thaw"--represented a clear break with the repression of the arts under Stalin. Nevertheless, the state was still continuing to determine what could be legally published, punishing persistent offenders with exile or prison.

During the Brezhnev years, the regime loosened the strictures of socialist realism and more liberal experimentation in art forms became permissible in the 1970s. Russian artistic creativity surged with startling results, producing the most sophisticated and exquisite compositional works in many fields of visual design.

The “political cultures” of the East European peoples — that is, their historically-molded political values, beliefs, loyalties, practices, and expectations — were not amenable to the political system of Soviet Communism.  In the interwar period, all the East European societies except Czechoslovakia had experienced one form or another of dictatorship, but none of them had exhibited much popular support for a Communist alternative. Indigenous Communist parties, when permitted to organize, were generally of negligible importance in pre-1939 East European politics. Even in Czechoslovakia, which, as the lone industrialized state in the region before the war, had by far the largest Communist party, only about ten percent of the vote went to Communist candidates in pre-war parliamentary elections.

Czechoslovakia was an anomaly in Eastern Europe; in no other country in the region except Bulgaria had pre-war Communist parties garnered more than trifling support; and in several countries, especially Romania, Hungary, and Poland, Communism was widely regarded as antithetical to traditional beliefs and values. Despite the enormous impact of World War II on the political cultures of Eastern Europe, popular attitudes toward the Communist parties after the war changed surprisingly little in most countries. The destructiveness and horrors of the war, to be sure, had thoroughly discredited the sociopolitical structures of the interwar period and had spawned a general desire for far-reaching social change. Leftist parties had a favorable milieu in which to operate and seek electoral support. Nonetheless, the longing of most East Europeans for a sharp break with the pre-war social order — a sentiment that was evident in France, Great Britain, and Italy as well — did not translate into support for a Soviet-imposed version of Communism.

The popularity of the East European Communist parties had increased as a result of their participation in the anti-Nazi resistance and their advocacy of radical change, but in only a few countries (Albania, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia) was this increase of major importance.

Without direct or implicit Soviet military backing, the Communist parties would not have been able to gain power in Eastern Europe except in Albania and Yugoslavia and perhaps eventually in Czechoslovakia. Indeed, in most of the East European countries the Communists would have been of little or no political consequence: In Hungary, for example, the Communist party received only 17 percent of the vote in the 1945 elections (despite Soviet browbeating), and in Poland, as Khrushchev admitted, “the recognition which the Party received from the working-class and the people was never very deep-rooted or widespread.”Much the same was true of Romania and eastern Germany.

Furthermore, even if popular support for Communism had been stronger, the puissant sense of nationalism underlying the political cultures of all the East European states guaranteed that external domination by the Soviet Union would not be accepted easily. Even in Czechoslovakia, the willingness of the Communist Party to subordinate all its domestic and foreign positions to those of Moscow alienated large numbers of otherwise sympathetic voters, especially after the contrast between Czechoslovakia’s democratic heritage and the Stalinist dictatorship in the USSR had become apparent. The consequences of nationalist sentiments throughout the region were enormous: More than anything else, the Soviet Union’s role in establishing Communist regimes, and the continued subordination of those regimes to Soviet preferences and policies, thwarted efforts by the East European governments to acquire genuine legitimacy among their populations.

Social Realism in the German Democratic Republic (GDR)

The entire German territory was occupied by foreign armies, forming four occupation zones. In 1946 the United States and Britain formed the Bizone, which was later on joined by France to build the Trizone in 1949. The growing conflicts between the Western Allies and Russia led to the approval by the Western military governors of the new Basic Law on May 23, 1949, and on that date a new state, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) came into existence. Only a couple of months later, in the soviet occupation zone the new People's Council was convened for the first time on October 7, 1949, and on the same day the constitution of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) went into effect. During the following four decades, both German countries chose to follow completely different paths, both from a political as well as economical perspective.

The German Democratic Republic belonged to the most restrictive countries in the Eastern Bloc where almost no exchange or discourse could be established. It had the most unusual cultural and political background in the Eastern Bloc. In 1953, the governing Socialist Unity Party of East Germany proclaimed the supremacy of a realist art production, in particular they referred to Socialist Realism as a worthy goal. Socialist Realism purported to serve as an objective mirror of life, which its primary theme was supposed to portray the struggle to build socialism and a classless society. It demanded a didactic use of art, which aimed at developing social consciousness. Artists were expected to take a positive view of socialist society and to keep in mind its historical relevance, requisites that seldom coincided with their real experiences and frequently undermined the artistic credibility of their works. In short, the policy was very similar to the National Socialist policy of "Gleichschaltung" of the Nazi Germany, which was diametrically opposed to all aspects of modern art including surrealism, Cubism, abstract and so on, summarized under the label "degenerate art".

In his discussion of "the Development of Socialist National Culture" Walter Ulbricht, the East German Party chief repeatedly emphasized the national aspect of the arts: another means to upgrade the prestige of the GDR, or an appeal to the German soul? The German artists who had thought of projecting more individualism into their works in the wake of artistic de-Stalinization, were harshly pulled down from the pedestal of their illusions:
"Some writers and artists are now trying to exploit the discussions concerning the consequences of the personality cult to fight against socialist realism. That is they are trying to smuggle in a petit-bourgeois ideology. They do not understand certain problems of socialist development and view everything in grey on grey. . . . In so doing, they escape into formalism and schematicism. That means: everyone has the right to determine what to do. They are therefore demanding the liberty of using their own erroneous road as the determining direction of the creative arts in the GDR."
According to Ulbricht, it was the socialist "society" which determined the right and the wrong way, and the artists who tread upon the formalistic or schematic road were called "megalomaniacs" for attempting to impose their individual wills upon the nation. The criteria mentioned by Ulbricht for artistic mastery were: partiality for the Party (Parteilichkeit), folkloristic, and artistic individuality. Other erroneous paths, in addition to formalism and schematicism, were listed as isolationism, (or the ivory tower conception), and what seemed to be a new concept in the Communist condemnation of artistic schools, namely "bourgeois modernism. This concept was described as "a wrong road in practice, "characterized by "a primitive representation of men and by the elimination of genuine feelings". If subversive artists were looking for collaboration and networks than foremost they wanted to work with artists from West Berlin and West Germany. Socialist Realism was only completely imposed for a short period: in East Germany, despite the party's best efforts, only one national exhibition held in March 1953 succeed in presenting a unified socialist-realist face.

The Eastern Germany design of matchboxes

After Di-Stalinization, East German artists, who had been faced with endless portraits of people at work, began to challenge the notion that modern art was “degenerate” -- as the Nazis had initially claimed in the 1930s, and slowly pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable. They rediscovered other modernist styles and traditions once aligned with socialism that East Germany had suppressed, like Realism (of the variety practiced by the French painter Gustave Courbet), German Expressionism, or the cubist forms of Picasso’s art. Although, East German art was largely figurative and did not pursue abstraction, it began to chart its own path of modern art. It was not until the late 1970s that other mediums and practices of the avant-garde – constructivism, collage, performance and even photography– were more widely embraced as art in East German exhibitions and art publications.

During its final years, the East German state actually began to encourage the move towards modernism and officially sanctioned the progressive East German art. Critics such as Klaus Weidner and Ullrich Kuhirt wrote statements suggesting that Socialist Realism was not “a collection of strict rules,” and East German painters began to take up their “explicitly anti-fascist message” and their idealist image of the worker in more innovative ways. The central committee in these cases now appeared to tolerate modernist experimentation as long as the artist explicitly addressed the subject matter of anti-fascism. In the end, artists were triumphant, and the state simply lost control of contemporary art.

A few artists in the GDR preferred an inner emigration pursuing modern or conceptual art. The avant-garde artists; like A.R.Penck, Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz left the country for West Germany where they highly influenced the Western culture. The younger generation that mainly became active in the late 70s and 80s was organised in numerous monadic and sometimes hermetical scenes in the cities Berlin , Dresden, Leipzig, Karl-Marx-Stadt, Halle or Erfurt. Even the communication structures between the scenes were highly fragile or sometimes not permeable: “Betrayal was the law of the subcultural scene.” (Gabriele Stötzer).



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