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Thomas Hoepker's Photographs Of Everyday Life Behind The Iron Curtain

Thomas Hoepker's photographs are known for their bright colors, a contrast to the gray, dreary world we imagine behind the famous "Iron Curtain".

There are episodes in history we just assume we know everything about, especially those that are close to us. Somehow, innovations in technology and the preservation of information give us the impression that we have all the facts about everything and that everything we read is true. But we're forgetting that all this information can't be taken as the absolute truth. One of those episodes that we still don't really know that much about is the Cold War. It was the period after WWII when political tensions were at their highest but in a seemingly non-violent way. It was also a time of renewal and insertion of normality after half a century of social and economic instability. Well, for some countries, of course, because others were and still are carrying all that chaos from the war. 

Photograph by Thomas Hoepker

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Photograph by Thomas Hoepker

When talking about the second half of the twentieth century, it’s become a general belief that thanks to photographic evidence, documents, and the rapid spread of news, we have a clear portrait of how this episode in history occurred. However, every day new information is coming to light, revealing another side of the story. So, as you can see from the title of the article, we’re going to talk about life behind the Iron Curtain, more specifically about what happened in the German Democratic Republic, also known as Communist or East Germany, and the different realities lived on both sides of the Berlin Wall. So, what do we know about this time?

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Photograph by Thomas Hoepker

Photograph by Thomas Hoepker

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After the war, Germany was severely punished and forced to pay for all the damages that occurred during the war. Most leaders of the Nazi regime were put on trial and condemned for crimes against humanity. However, for most Germans, followers of the regime or not, the experience wasn’t over. When Germany signed their unconditional surrender in May 1945, the territory was divided in four sections occupied by the countries on the winning side. As a result, troops from France, Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union occupied the entire territory setting their own forms of government. As history tells us, the sections in the West established a democratic political scheme, while in the Eastern side, the Soviet Union established a communist policy.

Photograph by Thomas Hoepker

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Photograph by Thomas Hoepker

Now, the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union had agreed to treat Germany as an economic unit to be shared by all of them, while still having the four administrative departments to mediate. However, for the Soviet Union, this wasn’t really something they could benefit from, since they had a completely different political system. What they wanted was to make their part of the territory another entity of their Union, making all the intentions of a union that had made them win the war as allies practically impossible. This caused the outbreak of the so-called Cold War. Soon, the German territory was divided in two: the democratic side, known as the West, and the Soviet one in the East.

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Photograph by Thomas Hoepker

From this moment on, the Soviet authorities started establishing their offices in the territory and delegating responsibilities to German communist leaders. By October 1949, the German Democratic Republic was working perfectly as a socialist state. In short time, East Germany was one of the most profitable territories of the Soviet bloc but in for the next years, they saw that many people started to emigrate to the west looking for a more freer way of living, or at least better economic opportunities. Soon, they started creating posts at the borders to avoid this massive migration to the west, which eventually lead to the construction of the wall in 1961. Families were divided and no one really knew what was really happening on the other side. Being caught attempting to cross the wall implied the end of your life. Border officers were instructed to shoot all those who wanted to trick the system and throughout all the wall many landmines were set so the chances of really making it to the other side were extremely low.

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Photograph by Thomas Hoepker

The photos you’ve been seeing in this article were taken by German photojournalist Thomas Hoepker. This particular series is an attempt to show what everyday life in East Germany was like in 1974. His work is characterized by his use of bright colors, which naturally create a very interesting contrast with the images we have of Eastern Germany. There are tons of recollections and memoirs by people who paint this time as gloomy and grey. We’ve heard of how this authoritarian form of government controlled every single aspect of people's lives to the point that "Western" clothes were forbidden. So, what these photographs do is change that grey perception we have of life on the other side of the wall. 

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Photograph by Thomas Hoepker

I’m not saying that just because these photos have vibrant and bright colors life in there was great. What I find interesting is how the descriptions we have of people who endured this regime are so honest and filled with sadness and resiliency that they’ve made a huge visual impression on how we perceive this particular episode in history.

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Photograph by Thomas Hoepker

Photograph by Thomas Hoepker

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In the same way, going back to what I was saying at the beginning of this article, I strongly believe that we can’t think about anything in life in black and white. Things don’t work that way, making one side look like the ultimate villain of the story and the other as the hero that’s going to save the world. I mean, if that were true, Russia would have been on the "hero" side when the war ended. History should always be seen through a wide and objective lens.

If you want to see more of this photographer’s projects, take a look at his profile: Thomas Hoepker

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For more historical photographs, take a look at the following:

The Story Behind The Tragic Fate Of This Woman And The Man Who Captured Her

Rest And Then Come Rescue Me: The Tragic Story Behind This Iconic Image

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Photographs Reveal The Depraved Underworld Of Victorian Opium Dens

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