East Germany in Mozambique: Private Photographs of a Forgotten Time

Sengo 1983. Picture: Private Archive © D.Z.

“For all of us there is a twilight zone between history and memory; between the past as a generalized record which is open to relatively dispassionate inspection and the past as a remembered part of, or background to, one’s own life.” Eric Hobsbawm[1]

The signing of the Friendship Treaty (Freundschaftsvertrag) between the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and Mozambique in 1979, which included provisions for development projects, meant that over 1,000 Kooperanten[2] from the GDR, along with their families, relocated to Mozambique over the ten years that followed. These East Germans usually remained there for a period of two to three years and were scattered throughout various parts of the country. Many of the (mostly) men continuously traveled within Mozambique in keeping with the requirements of their work assignments. They brought not only their technical knowledge but also their cameras.

Surprisingly, no scholarship has yet made use of private photographs[3] documenting their life and labor abroad. Yet private photographs are important for understanding the everyday life of GDR citizens and for identifying how they engaged in individual interactions and cooperation, not only with Mozambicans but also among each other. They reveal the perspective of those who lived and worked there, rather than the perspective pursued by the GDR state. The concept of everyday life, defined by German historian Alf Lüdtke as a “history from below,” becomes intensified abroad. Daily life as East Germans experienced it in the GDR contrasted with the life they had to adjust to in Mozambique. At issue here is the manner in which everyday life is expressed (Lüdtke 1989, 21).

Taking a Trip. Picture: Private Archive © Katrin Bahr

As a medium for documenting everyday life, photographs tell stories that are expressed not only visually, but also in oral transmission and in the interaction with the addressee. Photographs are not only interactive objects. They also aim for a certain effect in delivering the photographer’s stories and experiences and, accordingly, function as the embodiment of one’s real life, experience, biography, reflection, narrative and agency. Photographs are physical evidence of a link between past and present (Edwards 1999, 2003; Edwards/Hart 2004; Wright 2004; Zuromskis 2013). The importance of including private photographs in the process of discussing the GDR’s involvement abroad serves first and foremost as a counter-narrative to the existing state images published by the Allgemeiner Deutscher Nachrichtendienst (ADN), the main state news agency in the GDR, which published its pictures in various newspapers and magazines. Still, those photos present the perception of the “developed” GDR as a specialist helping Africa in its “transition to development.”

The private photographs of East Germans citizens, however, constitute a counter-perspective, portraying all aspects of the everyday. For most of the Kooperanten, capturing impressions and experiences in pictures served as a way of capturing a life that had never existed in the GDR. Photographs captured the “I was there” moment as evidence that could be shown to family and friends at home. They photographed their work environment, their homes, luxury goods they had purchased in the Intershop (a store for Western consumer products), as well as attacks on their workplaces by the Renamo (Resistência Nacional Moçambicana), a militant movement that opposed the ruling government of the Frelimo (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique). They also photographed get-togethers and private parties with Mozambicans, contacts they usually had to report.

Today, the photographs taken in Mozambique serve as a medium of visual representation and an important resource not only for coming to terms with the East German past and collective memory of life abroad, but also for shedding light on the individual memories of the Kooperanten, which, given their limited capacity for sharing their experiences immediately after 1989, have not been articulated or, for a few exceptions, have only been revealed in memoirs and travel reports. One can even go a step further. Visualizations of experiences that differ from or are more nuanced than the state-sanctioned vision were not only produced by the image-taking of the photographers; they are also the result of their own personal views through which different perspectives on the everyday life experience are projected (Lüdtke 2004).

Luxury Goods. Picture: Private Archive © Katrin Bahr

Private photographs by East Germans who worked and lived in Mozambique represent more than just a technology for documenting life. Like most technologies, they are themselves a powerful agent. Including them in a broader range of scholarly research can help to deconstruct three (if not more) underlying assumptions: First, photographs facilitate understanding of the work and life of East German citizens in the 1980s beyond the narrative of propaganda. This includes engagement with gender differences and stereotypes. Second, photographs show not only one perspective of the life, work and travel, instead put them into the context of the different deployment locations and time of deployment. Finally, examining photographs raises the question of how private images created by GDR experts fit into the representation of the “underdeveloped” Mozambique and how they contribute to or challenge that narrative.


Works Cited

Edwards, Elizabeth (1999): Photographs of Objects of Memory. In. M. Kwint, J.

Aynesley and C. Breward (eds.). Material Memories. Design and Evocation, Oxford:

Berg, 221–236.

Edwards, Elizabeth (2003): Talking Visual Histories: Introduction. In. L. Peers and

  1. Brown (eds.). Museums and Sources Communities, London: Routledge, 83–99.

Edwards, E., & Hart, J. (2004). Photographs objects histories: On the materiality of images. London: Routledge.

Hobsbawm, E. J., & Rogers D. Spotswood Collection. (1989). The Age of Empire, 1875-1914. New York.

Lüdtke, Alf. (1989). Alltagsgeschichte: Zur Rekonstruktion Historischer Erfahrungen Und Lebensweisen. Frankfurt: Campus.

Lüdtke, Alf (2004): Kein Entkommen? Bilder-Codes und eigensinniges Fotografieren; eine Nachlese, In. Karin Hartewig und Alf Lüdke (eds.). Die DDR im Bild. Zum

Gebrauch der Fotografie im anderen deutschen Staat. Göttingen: Wallstein, 227-236.

Wright, Christopher (2004): Material and Memory. Photography in the Western Solomon

Islands. Journal of Material Culture 9(1), 73–85.

Zuromskis, Catherine. (2013). Snapshot Photography: The Lives of Images. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.



[1] Hobsbawm, E. J., & Rogers D. Spotswood Collection. (1989). The Age of Empire, 1875-1914. New York, p.3

[2] The term Kooperanten was used by Mozambicans to refer to foreign specialists from all over the world who came as consultants, teachers, doctors, coal miners or engineers.

[3] When I speak of private photographs, I refer to photographs mostly taken by East German men.