The state-organized parades in the GDR were a conspicuous and typical
aspect of political life in the East; they were frequently portrayed
by photographers and therefore shaped the image of the East in the West.
Nearly every citizen of East Germany will have participated in such
parades at some point in his or her life. On certain significant days,
children, sportsmen/women and factory workers marched with banners along
the main streets of their town or village to a podium where the local
party officials (or the party leaders, in Berlin) were standing. When
passing the podium, the marchers waved to the officials, who waved back.
A voice from a loudspeaker would announce which group was marching and
animate the crowd’s cheers.
The major occasions for such parades were the traditional workers’ day, 1st May, the anniversary of the end of World War II, 8th May, the anniversary of the murder of the founders of the German Communist Party, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht on 15th January and visits of important representatives of Communist states. Highest in the hierarchy of parades was the 1st May. In 1959, the 10th anniversary of the founding of the GDR was celebrated with numerous, large-scale parades. From then on, the so-called „birthdays of the republic“ were celebrated in this way every ten years.
Since participation in these parades was on the basis of groups from individual schools, sports groups, factories etc., it was always possible to check who took part. Many considered their participation as an unwelcome duty to be carried out in order to avoid critical questions and perhaps disadvantages later on. Street parties were organised to make the marches more attractive. The whole ritual was aimed at expressing harmony and unity between caring rulers and loyal subjects, but given the rigid rules and the pressure to take part, this was merely a stage-managed illusion.
The themes of the banners carried in these parades always related to the past or to the future: they evoked „good“ traditions (the beginnings of the Communist Party in Germany) and condemned „bad“ ones (Nazism, which was alway called „Fascism“ in East Germany) or evoked a bright future (the continuing development of socialism/communism). The present was only referred to with reference to the West, which was portrayed as aggressive and belligerent. The real problems of the present East German society could not be addressed, since people were not allowed to prepare and carry banners different from the prescribed ones. Attempts to organize an alternative demonstration were punishable by several laws. Thus these parades, despite all their revolutionary pathos, always remained the same and expressed a standstill rather than progress.