For those of us who lived through the Cold War, there’s still an air of mystery as to what it was like on the Communist side. As Uncle Sam’s F-111s cruised slowly in to land above our heads in our sleepy Oxfordshire village it was at the same time very real and immediate, yet also distant. Other than being told how fortunate we were to be capitalists while those on the communist side lived lives of mindless drudgery under their authoritarian boot heel, we knew nothing of the people on the other side of the Wall, and God knows what they were told about us. It’s thus interesting on more than one level to find a promotional film from the mid 1970s showcasing VEB Fernsehgerätewerk Stassfurt (German, Anglophones will need to enable subtitle translation), the factory which produced televisions for East Germans. It provides a pretty comprehensive look at how a 1970s TV set was made, gives us a gateway into the East German consumer electronics business as a whole, and a chance to see how the East Germany preferred to see itself.
The sets in question are not too dissimilar to those you would have found from comparable west European manufacturers in the same period, though maybe a few things such as the use of a tube output stage and the lack of integrated circuits hints at their being a few years behind the latest from the likes of Philips or ITT by 1975. The circuit boards are assembled onto a metal chassis which would have probably been “live” as the set would have derived its power supply by rectifying the mains directly, and we follow the production chain as they are thoroughly checked, aligned, and tested. This plant produces both colour and back-and-white receivers, and since most of what we see appears to be from the black-and-white production we’re guessing that here’s the main difference between East and West’s TV consumers in the mid ’70s.
The film is at pains to talk about the factory as a part of the idealised community of a socialist state, and we’re given a tour of the workers’ facilities to a backdrop of some choice pieces of music. References to the collective and some of the Communist apparatus abound, and finally we’re shown the factory’s Order of Karl Marx. As far as it goes then we Westerners finally get to see the lives of each genosse, but only through an authorised lens.
The TVs made at Stassfurt were sold under the RFT East German technology combine brand, and the factory continued in operation through the period of German re-unification. Given that many former East German businesses collapsed with the fall of the Wall, and that the European consumer electronics industry all but imploded in the period following the 1990s then, it’s something of a surprise to find that it survives today, albeit in a much reduced form. The plant is now owned by the German company TechniSat, and manufactures the latest-spec digital TVs. Meanwhile for those interested in history there’s a museum exhibition in the town (German language, Google Translate link), which looks very much worth a visit should you be motoring across Germany.
As degenerate capitalists we weren’t offered the privilege of buying a TV from the Worker’s Paradise, so we never had the opportunity to see how their quality stacked up to that of the Western models. It’s worth remembering that however rose-tinted our view of the 1970s may be, British-made sets of the period weren’t particularly reliable themselves.
As a juxtaposition of how a communist TV factory saw itself, have a watch of a capitalist one doing a bit of self-promotion.