Thirty years ago this week the Berlin Wall fell, marking an end to the Cold War. Over two million people gathered at the wall in November 1989 and began tearing it down. As an expression of their newfound freedom, hundreds of youth made their way to the falling wall dressed in blue jeans—a Western garment previously banned behind the Iron Curtain.
The origins of the Berlin Wall date back to the end of World War II, when Germany was divided among the Allies into four occupied areas. Each ally was given one sector of Berlin. The German Democratic Republic (GDR) arose from the Russian sector in 1949 and aligned itself with the Soviet Union. It was ruled by the Socialist Unity Party (SUP) of Germany, which established a new order based on socialism. The Ministry of State Security was created to secure power and manage the surveillance of enemies of the state.
GDR citizens dissatisfied with their living conditions began leaving the country until the SUP came up with a permanent solution—erecting a massive wall on August 13, 1961. The Berlin Wall separated friends, family and countrymen, dividing Germany into two separate states.
The symbolism of blue jeans in the Berlin Wall era
Jeans were considered a token of capitalism and jeans-wearers were enemies of the state. To protect youth from outside dress influences, the SUP tried introducing a socialist clothing culture. Schools forbid blue jeans and any student wearing them was sent home. Even dance halls forbid blue jeans. But international fashion could not be stopped at the Iron Curtain. Despite government efforts, Western trends, especially Levi’s® blue jeans, were the most in vogue in the East.
For youth in the GDR, blue jeans became symbolic. They represented a piece of the West they hoped to obtain. Joachim Georg Michel of East Germany wrote a letter to Levi Strauss & Co. in 1991 describing the challenges of buying jeans as a teenager during the Cold War. He tried to buy second-hand jeans through a newspaper advertisement when he was 16. He submitted the wording, “I want to buy urgently Levi’s-jeans, size 31/36.” He was distraught when the paper printed, “I want to buy urgently rivetted trousers, size 31/36.” Adding insult to injury, nobody answered his ad.
In 1965, the Wall Street Journal published a story about a young East German woman who escaped to the West after her father forbade her from wearing blue jeans. The woman took the pocket money she had received at the refugee center and immediately went out and bought a pair of jeans.
East Jeans & the Levi’s® East German Airlift
Through the 1970s, it remained difficult to get a pair of Western blue jeans. Many asked relatives in West Germany to send them the desired pants inside a care package or “Western parcel” along with other rare goods like nylons, coffee, perfume and soap. Others purchased Levi’s® jeans on the black market.
Beginning in 1974, the GDR regime capitulated, producing the first East German jeans as an alternative to coveted Levi’s®. The “East Jeans” had names like “Goldfuchs” (Gold Fox) or “Boxer,” but as Joachim recalled, they were “a parody on jeans.” “The cut was impossible,” he said, “and did not fit at all, at least not a normal person.” Joachim remembers “East Jeans” as having a gap at the back of waistband, lengths that were too short and a top block that cut into the stomach.
That same year, GDR citizens could purchase Western goods in foreign-currency shops known as Intershops for the first time. But the pricey stores had special conversion tables that had little relation to the actual rates. Many, like Joachim, could not afford the exorbitant prices.
By 1978, the GDR approached Levi Strauss & Co. with an unusual request to buy Levi’s® blue jeans—the first large-scale arrangement of its kind. Textilvertretung, the government buying arm of the East German apparel industry, contacted Levi Strauss & Co. in November asking for a supply of 800,000 jeans to be delivered by December 5.
LS&Co. agreed, settling on a price of $9 million for the jeans. To meet the deadline, LS&Co. airlifted 600,000 Levi’s® jeans from the United States to Dresden and East Berlin’s Schoenefield Airports. The remaining Levi’s® came from inventory in Europe.
A year prior, LS&Co. had established a trading company to operate in Eastern Europe. Working through COMECON (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance), LS&Co. set up sales in six COMECON countries. COMECON had been founded in 1949 and by 1978 was composed of Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Cuba, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia on a limited basis.
The cost of the 1978 airlifted jeans was 149 East German marks. Customers lined up twenty-deep in front of East Berlin stores to buy the Levi’s® jeans. Sales locations ranged from select universities, companies and even in the Ministry of State Security. There are few details in the LS&Co. Archives about sales through COMECON during this period.
The Wall Falls –and reunified Levi Strauss Germany emerges
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 9, 1989, the fight for jeans in East Germany ended. The deficient East German jeans did not survive German reunification. In 1990, Levi Strauss Germany established a branch office in newly-reunified Berlin to ascertain sales potential. New markets that had once been restricted during the Cold War were now open.
Moscow teacher Larisa Popik was one of the earliest Levi’s® customers in the Soviet Union. “A [person] hasn’t very much happy moments in his life, but every happy moment remains in his memory a long time,” Larisa wrote to Levi Strauss & Co. in 1991. “[T]he buying of Levi’s jeans (501) is one of such moments in my life.”
Political changes also affected Levi’s® employees in Germany. Martina Patzig, a mechanical engineer in East Germany prior to the fall of the wall, took a field sales job at Levi Strauss & Co. Accustomed to working with a secret service agent always watching, Martina embraced the openness of selling Levi’s® blue jeans to customers like Arnt Findstein in stores, including one in Leipzig in the former GDR.
Berlin & Levi’s® today
Today, Levi’s® fans can shop for blue jeans online or in one of three Levi’s® stores in Berlin. I spotted plenty of Levi’s® jeans on the street when I visited the remains of the Berlin Wall in September. I carried a pair of 1970s orange Tab Levi’s® worn by a Swedish youth named Debbie. The jeans are signed by Debbie’s friends and are an example of the coveted blue jeans desired by teens in the GDR during the same period.
Remains of the Berlin Wall can be seen at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California or the Newseum in Washington, D.C. And visitors can still purchase bits of wall at the Check Point Charlie site where the American sector crossed over into East Germany. These artifacts are a reminder of how a passion for freedom, as symbolized by wearing blue jeans, sparked monumental change.