Facilitates beauty prosperity

"Chemistry gives bread - prosperity - beauty"

In November 1958, economists, politicians, scientists and engineers from all parts of the GDR gathered in the cultural center of the Leuna-Werke. The SED and the "State Planning Commission of the GDR" had invited. It was a forward-looking event for the young socialist republic, because nothing less than the reorganization of the chemical industry and the entire reality of life was on the agenda of the so-called "Chemical Conference". The motto of the conference was based on a saying by SED boss Walter Ulbricht: "Chemistry gives bread - prosperity - beauty." The use of artificial fertilizers would noticeably increase crop yields in agriculture, prosperity could be achieved by increasing the production of everyday objects and the bleak gray of the long post-war years could finally be drowned out by colorful man-made fibers. So the SED envisioned a prosperous future shaped by chemistry.

Connection to the top of the world

The chemical industry was a problem child of the GDR economy from the start. There were numerous large and traditional chemical sites in the area of ​​the socialist republic, such as the Buna works in Schkopau or the Leuna works. However, many of them were either damaged in World War II or dismantled by the USSR as reparations after the war. An efficient production of chemical goods based on global standards was therefore hardly possible. To make matters worse, the GDR had little petroleum, the most important raw material in the manufacture of plastics. The most uneconomical domestic brown coal was therefore used.

Petroleum from the Soviet Union

"Although we are far exceeding the average pace of world development in our development, we have to state that we have lagged behind in some important areas of chemical production," the party organ "Neues Deutschland" diagnosed a few weeks before the "Chemistry Conference", quite self-critically. In any case, a major problem should be resolved in just a few years: the Soviet Union had committed itself to supplying oil in sufficient quantities and, moreover, at a moderate price. In December 1958, the construction of an almost 5,000 kilometer long oil pipeline began. In 1963, the pipeline called "Friendship" reached the Schwedt petroleum-chemical combine, which was to be used to process the oil from the Urals. "Now we've done it: the oil is here," Walter Ulbricht cheered at the inauguration of the pipeline. Nothing stood in the way of a noticeable increase in production.

Victory of socialism

At the legendary Leuna "Chemistry Conference" in 1958, it was decided, among other things, to at least double the chemical production in the GDR by 1965. A very ambitious goal. This was to be achieved primarily through the construction of new production facilities and the use of Soviet oil. The main focus was on increasing the production of plastics and elastics, the GDR terms for plastics and synthetic fibers. Walter Ulbricht was not only interested in increasing the economic power of the GDR, he also saw the chemical program as a political and social one: with the strengthening of the chemical industry, the standard of living of the GDR population was to be increased considerably, as was the victory of socialism be ushered in about the capitalist West.

Everyday objects made of plastic and elastane

In fact, it was possible to increase production in the chemical industry noticeably. And just a few years after the "Chemistry Conference", products made of plastic and elastane found their way into everyday life for GDR citizens. There was hardly an area of ​​life that was not affected by the so-called "plasticization" of the country. In the shops and department stores there were all kinds of household goods, furniture, toys as well as camping and leisure items made of plastic. The synthetic fiber "Dederon" was used to make clothes, aprons, shopping bags, carpets, duvet covers and curtains, among other things. Articles made of plastic and synthetic fibers were consistently advertised as modern and future-oriented. In later decades, however, many GDR citizens were tired of the uniform plastic design and preferred products made from natural materials. It was no different in the east than in the west.

Failure of the ambitious chemistry program

The SED's ambitious chemistry program was only able to keep its promises to a limited extent. As everywhere, there was an increasing lack of money for planned and necessary investments in the chemical industry and many companies had to continue to produce with equipment that came from the prewar period. Most disastrous, however, was the significant cutback in oil deliveries by the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The GDR felt compelled to increasingly use lignite as a raw material in the chemical industry - with dire consequences for the environment.

Filth, decay and hopelessness

The environmental impact of the chemical industry has been dramatic since the early 1980s at the latest. The chemical triangle Wolfen-Bitterfeld, Leuna and Schkopau was considered one of the most polluted areas in Europe: The air was acrid, toxic chemicals turned rivers and lakes into industrial cloaks and heavy metals and toxins were stored in the ground. "Bitterfeld, Bitterfeld, where the dirt falls from the sky," said the vernacular. In view of this devastating environmental damage in the chemical region, the citizens of the old slogan "chemistry gives bread - prosperity - beauty" left nothing but mockery and ridicule. Over the years it had turned into its complete opposite: instead of prosperity and beauty, there was only dirt, decay and hopelessness. Here, too, lay one of the roots for the revolt of the citizens in autumn 1989 and the end of the GDR barely a year later.

Sources: The chemistry conference and its aftermath. Documentation Center for Everyday Culture in the GDR, www.alltagskultur-ddr.de; Marcus Schulte, chemistry gives bread, prosperity and beauty, DRA-Spezial 18/2008; Martin Hartwig, chemistry gives bread, prosperity and beauty, DLF 2010; Andreas Ludwig, Katja Böhme, 50 Years of the Chemistry Conference of the GDR, Workshop History 50 3/2008.)

04/06/2018 | 3 p.m.