Franziska Kuschel: Schwarzseher, Schwarzhörer und heimliche Leser [Secret viewers, secret listeners and secret readers] reviewed by Hans-Jörg Stiehler

The government of the GDR saw the media not as a means of public communication but – overestimating its effectiveness – primarily as an instrument for controlling the masses. The fact that media from the Federal Republic remained relatively freely accessible in the GDR and that a “pan-German communication space” (p. 9) continued to exist gave the state a two-fold problem: The Eastern block experienced the almost unique situation of competition from alternative sources of information and entertainment (in the same language) both stealing its audience and providing them with competing interpretations of the world and leisure activities. Because this competition was also accused of being very potent and intending to ‘disrupt’ the GDR, additional measures to weaken the influence of West German media were considered essential.

A dissertation written at the Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung in Potsdam, Franziska Kuschel’s publication therefore asks “which strategies the state tried in order to control, prevent or at least curb media consumption and, on the other hand, with which strategies the media consumers counteracted the state pressure and tried to assert their own interests” (p. 10). In line with this objective, the work outlines a broad panorama of the (media-related) interdependence of the state and the individual. The author argues that the stubbornness of media consumers played a central role. They contradicted and undermined the state strategies in their everyday lives all the way into the 1980s, when the use of media from the Federal Republic had become a common feature of life and media consumers had found new ways to take action.

This investigation, published as part of Wallstein Verlag’s series Medien und Gesellschaftswandel im 20. Jahrhundert [Media and social change in the 20th Century], has two aims. Firstly, it attempts to cover the entire period in which the GDR was in existence and thus go beyond the remit of works that merely examine individual periods or regions, e.g. the areas around Dresden, which could not receive West German television for so long. This means that the work is divided into three sections: the periods 1949-1961 (The battle for minds), 1961-1971 (The battle against those who had mentally emigrated) and 1971-1989 (Resignation and capitulation). Context is provided in each case by the historic constellations and specific media situations. Secondly, Kuschel attempts to examine and document the entire spectrum and diversity of the strategies used by both sides. In the case of the state, these include technical measures (jamming transmitters), administrative acts (such as the short-lived obligation to seek permission for satellite dishes), legal repression (especially in the 1950s and 1960s), attempts at media education, and border controls (especially for printed products). A wide range of activities by citizens (including home-made antennas, smuggling, and exchanging books and magazines) is also described to illustrate their role. In conducting these activities, people circumvented the measures taken by the state, resulting in the state’s tacit consent and lack of further attempts at control.

In order to achieve these two aims, the author has analyzed an enormous quantity of documents. The sources examined range from files from the party leadership, government and relevant ministries to regional records. There is no doubt that this work fulfils its ambitions in formidable fashion. Carefully-chosen focuses in the three periods under examination and broad-based, well-considered analysis of the material produces an impressively vivid portrait of “negotiation processes…in which the fact that they achieved numerous successes was not lost on media consumers” (p. 307).

In contrast, the publication only partially succeeds in its ambition to make a contribution to the “larger issue of the effects of medialization processes” (p. 11). The range of terms and methods this would demand is not fully developed here, and the problem that is examined appears too limited. Although consumption of West German media is a central moment in the media history of the GDR, its effects can only be understood in connection with the (non-)communication practiced between the East German state and its population. But this is only a small niggle on this otherwise excellent work. The book makes a significant contribution to the communication and media history of the GDR, largely thanks to its sophisticated approach and the wealth of issues and material covered.

This review first appeared in rkm:journal.

About the reviewer

Dr. Hans-Jörg Stiehler has been Professor of Empirical Communication and Media Research at Leipzig University since 1993. He studied Social Psychology in Jena and was a research assistant in culture and media research at the Central Institute for Youth Research (Zentralinstitut für Jugendforschung) Leipzig from 1975 to 1990. His research focuses on media in the former GDR, media and sport, subjective media theories, and media and attribution research.

About the book

Franziska Kuschel (2016): Schwarzseher, Schwarzhörer und heimliche Leser. Die DDR und die Westmedien. Göttingen [Wallstein] 2016, 336 pages, EUR 34.90.


Translation: Sophie Costella