Scan of an old post card (showing „Bummi“)

Every child in the GDR knew the friendly yellow teddy bear Bummi, the eponymous little hero of the children’s magazine in the country.

The old post card above had been sent on 7 June 1962 (see the faint red stamp mark overlapped by the typed text?) – three years, by the way, before a new system of postal codes and postal districts was introduced in East Germany.

The card replies to a letter little Marion had sent in. Obviously, she’d enclosed a drawing of a red carnation flower, the then symbol for the International Workers’ Day. Now, in behalf of Bummi, someone from the editorial staff thanks Marion, adding that Bummi had joined the parades on May Day. The post card closes by asking if the little reader has had a jolly Children’s Day and if she could draw another picture about it.

The odd thing is a bit below the surface, I guess. It’s how political (or rather: propagandistic) even this post card addressing a kid of around 5 years or so is. The May parades in the GDR were no self-organised demonstrations but arranged and controlled by the authorities. The little socialist state – in self-presentation – was all the labouring masses’ concerns and dreams turned reality. This had to be celebrated and manifested.

So every factory, every cooperative, every school, hospital, institution had to send their contingents to swell the marching columns. That the military and para-military forces were out marching, too, is a matter of course. And if you wonder what this has to do with Workers’ Day – well, in 1962 you’d have better kept your thoughts to yourself and had a Bratwurst.

It is an integral part of totalitarian systems and the societies dominated by them that everything is political (or religious). Even a post card to a kid. And to clear Bummi from undue blame: I suppose he did not have too much leeway either.

It’s so easy to look back and blame the forebears for having been too passive, too indulgent, for not having been »activists« and fought the system. (Or, another topic, for not having opposed nuclear power plants in the 1960s or the use of plastic or automobiles or …) This kind of looking back is not only unhistoric but very simplistic, too. For starters, it neglects how very much courage and will power it demands to oppose a totalitarian system (or even only the Zeitgeist) – always taking into account the local and global conditions. Like those of the Cold War era, for example.

The whole matter becomes even trickier when you talk to someone who comes from a totalitarian state, who maybe has even suffered, who despises the government there – but who still cherishes his childhood memories and loves his home country. People who have always lived in a free country can only with difficulties understand this dualism. Which again is the cause for misunderstandings and bitter controversy.

Imagine Marion, many, many years later – after the Socialist block had crumbled away – looking back on her childhood, her first love, her professional successes, her life in the GDR. Or the born Iranian who had long left the country and would never live there under the current system but who praises the beauty of the landscape, the cuisine and who is moved to tears when there on an occasional family visit. Or the Chinese who is proud of the great progress of her homeland during the last decades. It’s very, very improbable that they are bad people and that their warm memories include the political system.

The thing is that not everything is political.