The Intershop's offering of luxury goods available for hard currency turned into something of a Pandora's box for the East German government.
Photo: Ullstein

Berlin - Shopping in East Germany, as in many other Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War, is often viewed as a pretty alien experience from what we are used to today. The selection of goods was limited, the products themselves modest, and often there were gaps on the shelves - or huge queues outside of people trying to get their hands on anything from bread to a new pair of shoes.

But from 1974, GDR citizens had a chance to escape into the lurid world of Western retail - thanks to Intershops. At this chain of stores across East Germany, Western goods like cigarettes, alcohol and perfume could be bought using freely convertible currencies like the western deutschmark at a cheaper price than in the West itself - like communist duty free. 

The first Intershop opened in 1962 to appeal to Western visitors and travellers passing through the East - but it remained illegal for East Germans to possess "Western money" until 1974. As soon as they could however, the Intershop became a go-to destination for those who could get their hands on the necessary currency - you couldn't pay in Ostmarks. 

Dividing the people into the haves and have-nots might not seem very socialist - but Erich Honecker, secretary general of the Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, SED) said the Intershops made it possible for the country to hold on to some of the money passing through in the pockets of millions of Western visitors each year. An unintentional effect of the SED's money spinning scheme was that it offered GDR citizens a stark contrast with the consumer experience available to them in other Eastern shops, and gave them a glimpse of what was possible.

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