When we think of famous inventors, names like Johannes Gutenberg, Leonado da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Marie Curie, Orville and Wilbur Wright, and Steve Jobs quickly come to mind. I have always thought that it must be incredibly interesting and satisfying to be an inventor, but I learned that this was not the case in East Germany. Inventors in that country could not pursue their interests in an unrestricted and creative way; rather, they were government employees and as such assigned to invent specific things that were needed in the GDR. I learned about this in the strangest way.
In 1976, I spent the first two weeks of June in East Berlin, in order to continue interviewing East German writers and gathering various materials from them for a book project on GDR literature. I stayed in the Interhotel Stadt-Berlin, a four-star hotel that was supposed to offer its guests a taste of the West in the East. This forty-story hotel on the Alexanderplatz, a huge public square located in the most central district of Berlin (Mitte), boasted the best of the GDR in an attempt to compete with Western standards. It had a panorama restaurant on the 37th floor, a favorite place to dine for diplomats and tourists with hard currency, and unusually fast elevators for that time in the GDR. It also had a restaurant on the ground floor where one could pay the bill with East German marks. The food and service were exceptionally good there, and—as a hotel guest—I never had difficulty being seated at a table or at the long bar that stretched along one side of the dining room.
On the evening I am recalling, I returned to the hotel after a particularly exhausting day that had involved long meetings with three GDR writers who lived in different districts of Berlin. Usually, I scheduled such meetings in the morning and the afternoon, but on this day I had been invited to dinner at one writer’s house, a very special occasion. Our ‘business meeting’ took place after dinner, then I drove back to the hotel and went to the ground-floor restaurant for a nightcap. I took a seat at the bar and observed that someone was sitting to the left of me, with one barstool between us. I would soon learn that this person, a man who looked to be about forty years old, was an East German inventor.
I was tired and not at all eager to have a conversation with a stranger, so it was he who spoke first. He looked in my direction and asked me what he surely knew from the Western-style clothes I was wearing: “Are you from here?” I replied: “No, I’m not from here.” Whereupon he said, “Then you must be from over there (drüben ),” the reference being to West Berlin or West Germany. I responded: “No, I’m not from over there, I come from outside Germany (draussen). I’m from the United States.” Being curious, he didn’t hesitate to ask me what I thought of the GDR, a question that took me by surprise. When I told him I thought it was OK, he gave me a weird look that signaled disbelief and said, “You can tell me the truth. Tell me what you really think.” This prompted me to tell him about my project on East German literature that brought me together with very interesting people, such as the GDR writers I’d met with that day.
At some point, I asked this man about his line of work. “I’m an inventor,” he said. When I commented that being an inventor must be an extremely interesting and satisfying occupation, he replied: “On the contrary, here in the GDR it is a frustrating and unrewarding job.” He went on to explain, so I would understand the GDR inventor’s unhappy fate. “I’m a creative person with many original ideas for new things I’d like to invent. But, I can’t do that. I’m employed by the state and work together with other inventors at a facility in Potsdam. We’re all assigned to invent things that the GDR desperately needs. These things have already been invented and are readily available in Western countries, but we don’t have the hard currency to buy them. So, our task is to come up with ways to produce something comparable here, using materials that are available in the GDR. This is not always possible, of course, and when we ‘invent’ a product it is always inferior to what already exists. For forward-looking persons like myself, this is frustrating beyond belief.”
I must have asked him for examples of things he had reinvented, but in truth I cannot recall any. However, he did indicate that his team of inventors worked on producing equipment for use in hospitals, doctors’ and dentists’ offices, electronic data processing, banking, and manufacturing, also household appliances of every type, and more. An exemplar of the item to be copied or imitated would be purchased in a Western country, disassembled and studied by the inventors who had been assigned to work on the project, and then they would proceed to reinvent something that had already been invented.
Our conversation went on for quite some time and gave me several new insights into life in the communistic GDR. Shortly before the restaurant and bar closed I finished my beer, said good night to the inventor, and went to my room, still thinking about this strange but revealing encounter.