Lea Grundig recalls the Great Depression in Germany (1964)


Jewish-German artist Lea Grundig, the wife of Hans Grundig and an associate of Otto Dix, recalls the Great Depression in Germany, in an extract from her 1964 autobiography:


“The unemployed had to do a lot to get their benefits. They stood in endless lines in every kind of weather at the unemployment office on Materni Street, between Stern Square and Post Square. There we stood and waited until it was our turn.

The misery of years of unemployment had colored everyone the same shade of gray. Work qualifications, special abilities, skills and knowledge based on experience – these were all as outmoded as vanished snow. The radiance and color of particular occupations were lost in the gray of welfare misery. Endless conversations, discussions, resigned grumbling and cursing, simple, childish hopeful chatter, political arguments – all this was woven into the never-ending talk of those standing in line.

Unemployment became a tragedy for many. Not only because of the poverty that mutely sat at their table at all times. Not working, doing nothing, producing nothing– work that not only provided food, but also, despite all the harassment and drudgery, was satisfying, developed skills, and stimulated thinking; work, a human need – it was not available; and wherever it was lacking, decay, malaise, and despair set in.

An old carpenter chopped his table into pieces in his room, so he could painstakingly put it back together again. Thus he was able once again to do what had become essential to him. Coal was expensive; people slept constantly. It was warm in bed and it was easier to sleep away the hunger. Strange customs emerged in some workers’ tenements. They slept during the day but became mobile at night. They got together, pooled their unemployment pittance, and held pitiful parties with cheap schnapps and a gramophone. That’s how people tried to drown out their misery.

Clothes were turned inside out, mended, continuously darned. Neither Hans nor I could buy a single piece of clothing – and it was the same for millions of people as it was for us. Everything we wore was given to us…

The grim poverty, the hopelessness, the laws governing the crisis that were incomprehensible for many, all these made people ripe for “miracles”. Sects shot out of the ground. Diviners of the stars or of coffee grounds, palm-readers, graphologists, speculators and swindlers, clairvoyants and miracle workers had a great time; they reaped rich harvests among the poor, who along with their poverty and idleness fell prey to foolishness.

Who was to blame? Where did this inconceivable misery come from? “The Jews are to blame!” they screamed in chorus. “The lost war!” “The Reds with their stab in the back!” “Capitalism” said the Communists, and they were right. “Because a few own the machines and the factories and have them work only for their profit, without a plan, not according to real needs, and those who produce everything cannot buy anything, therefore the hungry have to watch while wheat is burned, milk is poured out, coffee is thrown away. Things have to be produced as they are really needed. All of life’s necessities, all natural resources and machines have to belong to everyone. We must put an end to the exploitation, to labor for profit. And that is called socialism.”

Socialism. Like a great, solemn bell of ancient longing, that’s how this word sounded. Sweet and full of hope, more than a legend, more than soothsaying…  Socialism – that was the great dream, dreamed not by children and fools, but by warriors and seers. They were not the worst, those who dreamed of socialism in those days. We dreamed with open eyes, with sharpened hearing.”