Lieber Sandmann

Mass Media and the Construction of a New National Identity in Eastern Germany

By André Francischetti Moreno

“Sandman, dear Sandman, it’s not over yet; we’ll first see the evening regards; before every child must go to bed; you certainly still have time!”

If you come from Germany, or at least lived there, you have probably listened to this song from the children´s cartoon Unser Sandmännchen while you were growing up. In fact, in despite of the apparently naïve lyrics of the opening song, the cartoon´s origins relate to a not so-long time ago when Germany was still divided in two, during most part of the Cold War.  What most people do not pay attention, however, is on how the then government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) used the cartoon to build a new national identity. Indeed, national identity is not an inherent feature of human beings, rather it is something that must be constructed and disseminated. Smith (1988) goes further and argues that the concept itself can be regarded as a “political myth” as it holds that mankind is naturally divided into different nations. In 1949, the foundation of the GDR disrupted more than 78 years of German identity-building and set an important challenge to the new administration: “How to locate the newly formed East German State in the present, past and future of the common German experience” (Nothnagle, 1993, p. 93). The Unser Sandmännchen cartoon is a substantial example of how the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) used mass media to create a new national identity through the redefinition of values and historical aspects of the German society, differentiation and use of national symbols.

Firstly, Unser Sandmännchen conveyed a very important tenet of SED, which was the redefinition of the historical Heimat. The concept of Heimat, explored by Becker and Applegate (1992), denotes a homeland. It involves values and history, and thus may be used to legitimize a state, leading to a greater appreciation of the surroundings and a genuine and democratic patriotism (Palmowski, 2004, p. 369, 377). Essentially, the socialist Heimat was determined by class relations and proposed that socialism was the only way to become a fair society. (Schwarz, 1956). Emphatically, Peter Blümel, the former director of Unser Sandmänchenn, stated that the cartoon was projected to “reflect life in east Germany, transmit class consciousness and feeling of solidarity” (Molen, 2015). Moreover, historical approximation was also involved in the cartoon, endorsed by the “German-Soviet friendship myth” (Nothnagle, 1993, p. 103). The appearance of socialist symbols and, more subtly, Sandmann´s favorite place to spend holidays, Moscow, are examples of this shift. Volker Petzold, a Sandmann historian, said that it was made by and should convey a communist belief in a better and more just world, whose model was the Soviet Union.

Secondly, the government quickly recognized the political potential of the socialist Heimat and used it to differentiate the principles and policies of the new Eastern German State. Above all, the government utilized it to induce pride in the GDR’s achievements vis-a-vis the Federal Republic of Germany (Poiger, 2000). Unser Sandmännchen clearly represented the attempt of policy differentiation, when the little puppet traveled to Vietnam, in the middle of the Vietnam war, and to young nation-states in Africa and the Near East spreading the values of socialism (War´s, 2019). Furthermore, Sandman, who sometimes used a spaceship, traveled to space both fictionally and in real life (when in 1978, during the Space Race, the East-German astronaut, Sigmund Jähn took a puppet with him to the Soviet space station).

Thirdly, symbols were also used in order to construct a new national identity. As it comes to the transition from the old Germany to the GDR, the Eastern leaders agreed on five official ideological phases of the GDR development, of which one was the era of “Socialist Construction”, from 1952 to 1989 (Von Buxhoeveden, 1980). According to KolstØ (2006), national identity must be learnt, and audiovisual aids such as flags, coats of arms and national anthems play a crucial role in nation building and nation-maintenance). This can be seen when Sandmann and young pioneers board on a type of plane and fly over a Berlin full of GDR flags.

In brief, one can see that the GDR government used mass media to construct a new national identity in Eastern Germany and that the cartoon Unser Sandmännchen was an outstanding example of it. First, SED was able to reach its goals through the redefinition of values and historical aspects of the German society by creating the socialist Heimat and nearing German and Soviet history. Second, it differentiated its policies by exhibiting its achievements and political engagement. Third, national symbols such as the national flag were present to consolidate a national feeling. As one can see, “Communication is (understood as) the means through which a nation forges a common identity, a common purpose, and a common resolve, and mass media are the forum in which this communication occurs” (Grossberg, Wartella & Whitney, 1998). Luckily, from now on you will have a much broader idea over the cartoon, and more ideas to frame your dreams.

Photo by Barbara Evening on Pixabay


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