East German television and the unmaking of the socialist project, 1952-1965

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Gumbert, Heather Leigh

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This dissertation examines the emergence of television between 1952 and 1965 as an important locus of social and political power in the German Democratic Republic. In 1952, television was the least important medium of communication in the GDR: newspapers, literary works, film and especially radio overshadowed television. The medium had no audience and few advocates: most SED leaders were indifferent to television, and television workers were uncertain of what the technology could or should do. Yet within five years, television had differentiated itself as an apparatus of topical reportage that, unlike film and radio, could transmit images of events, apparently unmediated and as they were happening. Within a decade television had proven that it could harness this power, disseminating its narratives to an audience outnumbering that of other media and, therefore, could be an important instrument in the regime’s campaign to effect social change. Yet just as television came into its own, the revolutionary cultural project of the 1950s was giving way to a more conservative program. The construction of the Berlin Wall marked the beginning of a new approach to cultural nation-building in the GDR. The transformative idealism of the early East German regime fell increasingly into an “exhausted compromise” with its organs and its citizens, mediated in part through the television screens. Television was never an instrument of revolutionary transformation: Instead, it was a medium of a nominally “socialist” culture, dependent on the revolutionary legend of the early postwar years, but deeply entrenched in the values of bourgeois culture that predated the GDR. The dissertation deepens our understanding of the practice of power in the GDR during the Ulbricht period. Television responded to the state’s cultural project, but also to the audience, the imperatives of the Cold War, and television workers’ own visions of the world. It performed an important cultural role, perpetuating and challenging the power of the state. More important, the dissertation demonstrates the fundamental importance of visual culture: not simply a repository of memories and ephemeral images of the past, it was also constituent of historical actors’ understanding of the world in which they lived.