Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Visual Representations of Work and Consumption as an Integrative Strategy in East German-Soviet Relations (1953-64)

A Contribution to the History of Communication

Prof. Dr. Bianka Pietrow-Ennker, Dr. Isabelle de Keghel


The project primarily focuses on a question which has yet to be the subject of thorough research:  whether and how the USSR attempted to achieve cultural hegemony over its “exterior empire”. The study begins with the hypothesis that the Soviet elites indeed pursued the establishment of a culturally based “informal empire” (Wendt/Friedheim), but prioritized this objective to a lesser extent than securing political and military power. This hypothesis shall be tested on the basis of integration processes in a particularly dynamic phase of East German-Soviet relations. The period of investigation begins in 1953 with the de-Stalinization crisis in both countries and ends in 1964 with the newly enhanced status of the GDR as a junior partner of the USSR due to the Treaty on Friendship, Mutual Assistance and Cooperation.

The project addresses East German-Soviet relations from a communication history perspective. By comparing press photos from selected print media from the GDR and USSR and drawing on documentation of elite communication from both countries, it examines how visual representations were used as a technology of power in order to influence the East German-Soviet relations in an integrative manner. The starting point of the study is the hypothesis that the visualizations spread by the mass media create a hierarchically arranged transnational community, which coincided with the power asymmetry between the Soviet Union as the center and the GDR as the periphery of the state socialist system.

Two premises are decisive for the selected research concept. On the one hand, the East German-Soviet relations were not part of the “horizon of experiences” of most people and were thus primarily communicated by the mass media. Accordingly the print media, which reported on various forms of East German-Soviet face-to-face communication and orientational knowledge about the respective other country, was a highly significant means of dissemination (Luhmann). Due to the illustrative character attributed to them, photographs on the other hand played a substantial role in the perception of social “real-fictions” constructed by the mass media as uncircumventable truth. Combined with their affective impact this made them an important vehicle of integration (Jäger, Paul).

Due to the expected abundance of material, the analysis shall focus on examples of the portrayal of the USSR and GDR as a community in the spheres of “work” and “consumption”, which are particularly relevant for integrative strategies. The project combines three methodological techniques: serial-iconographic analysis, a form of Foucault’s discourse analysis which can be operationalized, and qualitative social research techniques.

The project is closely linked with a research endeavour of the project group “Elites – Media – Communication” at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RGGU) in Moscow, which writes German-Soviet relations as communication history and examines technologies of representation of the political elite of the USSR. The cooperation shall be institutionalized by a group of German-Russian researchers at the University of Konstanz and the RGGU.


Isabelle de Keghel: Western in style, socialist in content? Visual representations of GDR consumer culture in the “Neue Berliner Illustrierte” (1953-64). In: Sari Autio-Sarasmo, Brendan Humphreys (Hg.): Winter Kept us Warm. Cold War Interactions Reconsidered, Helsinki 2010, 76-106.