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TODAY IN BERLIN: THE 1962 DYSENTERY EPIDEMIC OR RUHRGEBIET AT THE SPREE

There is currently but one piece of news that circumvents the world at what feels like the speed of light: the latest update on the pandemic situation.

Whether we want it or not – and many, perhaps a tad unwisely, honestly don’t – we are under permanent barrage of information about the current infection numbers, death cases, the pace at which the infection is spreading and the steadily growing count of protective masks the US president has effectively nicked from his allies in Europe in an allegedly increasingly desperate bid for the next round in the White House (click the link for more info).

All of it is quite unsettling and disturbing in a way that most of us have never experienced before. And there is no guarantee that the restrictive measures we are meant to follow will work or, on the other hand, that the authorities  – in this case German authorities – have not gone over the top with them. But before anyone starts complaining about the lock-down (which here in Berlin takes a traditionally “light” form compared to other cities), about potential “scaremongering“ or the fact that the kids are with you 24 hours a day (and trust you me, I speak from experience), let me tell you a little story from the past – a story of how pear-shaped things can go when the authorities fail to do all or any of the above.

In today’s post we will be travelling back in time to 1962: on this day East Berliners were first informed about the epidemic which had began at least six days earlier.

Front page of the 4 April 1962 edition of the Berliner Zeitung (via Zeitungsarchiv ZEFYS Berlin)

On April 4, 1962 East-Berlin newspapers published short texts about the spread of dysentery in town. To provide their readers with some scientific, in this case medical, input both the Berliner Zeitung and the Neues Deutschland, two leading titles and back then obedient servants of the Great Master otherwise known as the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), included an interview with the head of East Berlin’s Health and Welfare Department, Dr Hoeck.

Interview with Dr Hoeck in the 4 April 1962 edition of the Berliner Zeitung (via Zeitungsarchiv ZEFYS Berlin)

The latter, acting as an expert, advised the city’s residents to wash their hands with soap, stay clean and trust in the party’s ability to handle the outbreak for them. Which was a lot to ask considering that the same party, for political and PR reasons, held back information that could have prevented the spread in the first place.

Dysentery, or Ruhr, is a highly contagious and potentially deadly disease whose symptoms include acute diarrhoea with blood in the stool, fever and general loss of liquids which leads to life-threatening dehydration. In the twentieth century it came to be associated with army barracks, with war and with Nazi concentration camps. And this was one of the reasons why the East German authorities were desperate to keep a lid on the news about the outbreak. What with their own mocking campaign during the spread of smallpox in West Germany only a short while ago? Now the Land of Workers and Farmers and of the Working Intelligentsia was experiencing a bout of a deadly illness which plagued the Nazi death camps. Not something the country’s leaders wished it to be associated with.

Soviet poster warning against dysentery spreading.

But there was another reason for their reticence. The cause of the epidemic. It did not take the experts long to trace it down to the butter delivery from the Big Soviet Brother, a batch which was most likely contaminated with a bacteria known as Shigella or with an amoeba Entamoeba histolytica. Whichever it was, the effect was dramatic: whole families were affected and through contact with the infected or with their secretions, the disease kept spreading further and further.

The contaminated Soviet butter was delivered to numerous HO shops (Handelsorganisation, the state-owned retail chain) in Berlin-Weißensee, Prenzlauer Berg, Treptow, Lichtenberg and Pankow. By the time anyone noticed what was going on, it was too late to have the product withdrawn from sale. On top of that, people who bought the butter kept eating it for another couple of days, unaware of the danger – no-one warned them despite having the knowledge. Fear of aggravating the Soviet allies by indirectly putting the blame for the outbreak on them proved stronger than a basic reflex of “protect your own“.

And so for a week the epidemic was free to spread all over the city (West Berlin was, ironically, protected from it by the Wall) and beyond. Soon enough first cases were reported in Frankfurt Oder, in Potsdam, in Rostock. And it did not stop there. By the 18th of March Dresden would have its own outbreak, too.

Meanwhile in East Berlin, the fight was on. By April 1 – so three days before the public was officially informed – local hospitals were already overwhelmed with the number of cases they had to deal with. Emergency lazaretts, not unlike those set up during the wars or today, were opened but shortage of stuff meant it was an uphill race. Some 2,000 doctors, 1,600 medical students and thousands of nurses had to rely on the help of Red Cross volunteers as well as the Volkspolizei, East German police force. All of them working three-shift days.

A 1960s ambulance of the emergency unit in Prenzlauer Berg.

At least one person was certain not to burden the local health-service in case they should catch the disease (which was highly unlikely anyway): Walter Ulbricht, the leader of the nation, the First Secretary of the SED Party and as such, the head of Democratic German Republic, left the city and headed south for Czechoslovakia. A sanatorium stay, undoubtedly long-planned…

On April 8 1962 the authorities announced new measures were being put in place to dam the spread: no-one was allowed to leave or enter the city, all big events were cancelled and no visits to patients placed in hospitals dealing with dysentery cases (which basically meant all of them) were any longer allowed. Interestingly, to keep the economy under steam and not to disrupt the flow of goods and money sustaining the state of utopia, the factories kept chugging ahead, workers kept working and kindergartens and schools remained open, creating a whole range of new ways for the disease to spread even further.

The DDR press were told to tread lightly and offer soothing advice without touching upon the topic of damage-assessment or, God forbid, responsibility. The order was followed (however, let’s not be too fast to judge or forget that among East German journalists there were also many people with families and other weak spots, all caught in the system of permanent surveillance and ever-present threat). The news was mostly brief and aimed at reminding everyone that the Party, as always, will take care of them.

Which it made pretty much a hash of as by the 18th of April 1962 East Germany had at least 75,000 cases of infection (by then it reached the south of the country, too) and several death cases. A Hamburg newspaper reported as many as 100,000 ill and 40 dead but one should be careful here – West German propaganda was as much a thing as the East German was.

It took months to contain the outbreak and the trust in the authorities was irreparably damaged. The epidemic was another crystal-clear sign that not all was well in the East and that the people of the state created to guarantee them a say in the rule of the country, a state established to allow them to participate in the Marxist ideal of the ownership of the means of production, was another Potemkin village.

“Socialism is the best prophylaxis” (quote from Clara Zetkin) (Photy by Harald Schmitt for the “Stern” magazine).

Berlin’s response to the epidemic, though? As usual with a healthy dose of black humour: “Es wird alles besser: Berlin ist Ruhrgebiet!” – “It’s going to be fine: Berlin is the Ruhr Area now!” (with Ruhr meaning either dysentery or the wealthy area in West Germany).

Stay safe and healthy!

3 comments on “TODAY IN BERLIN: THE 1962 DYSENTERY EPIDEMIC OR RUHRGEBIET AT THE SPREE

  1. jpkleiner
    Apr 3, 2020

    Great post! An important bit of East German history of which I was completely unaware. Thanks for this.

  2. moopenheimer
    Apr 4, 2020

    Cool. I didn’t know that. Maybe, because I was born 6 years later and (was) moved here not before 1970.

    Thanks again for this reminder.

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