Movers & Shakers

Interview with Bernd Sauer on his book Spielzeugland DDR

Header_Spielzeugland DDR Interview  Bernd Sauer


Your book is a mixture of autobiography, documentation and personal reckoning. Why did you write this book?

Bernd Sauer
Bernd Sauer, worked in the toy industry of the former German Democratic Republic.

Bernd Max Sauer:

The decision to document the foreseeable development of the GDR toy industry matured in me at the 1990 Leipzig Autumn Fair – the last fair held in Leipzig for the toy industry in East Germany. I realised where West German politics and the work of the Treuhandanstalt (agency established by the West German government to privatise East German enterprises) were heading. From then on, I started collecting documents and publications on the toy industry in East Germany. Thanks to my work at Plaho, Piko, Kombinat and my company A&O Spielwaren, I managed to amass a large pool of documents.

I didn't want to publish this book as a pure reference book. I also wanted to record the many personal experiences and emotions from those times. From 2009 to 2019, I interviewed 84 contemporary witnesses from former GDR toy companies, whose opinions and experiences from the period of reunification are included in my book. For this time of great personal effort – unfortunately often associated with negative results – I also wanted to document the motivations and actions of individuals as well as the federal laws in force at the time. That's why my book also contains incidental autobiographical details. And yes, it was also meant to be a reckoning with what I consider to be the arrogance, injustice, ignorance and professional incompetence of the people who acted during and after the period when state-owned East German companies were being privatised.

One could get the impression that a large part of a toy manager's work in the GDR had to be spent on managing shortages. Was that the case and where were the worst shortages?

Bernd Max Sauer:

 My job wasn't just about managing shortages. Eighty or ninety per cent of the industrial production in the Plaho and Piko factories functioned normally and properly, that is to say "as planned". The remaining part had to be dealt with by the factory director himself. This was often only possible by pulling strings with other factory directors. However, the result was that this string-pulling just caused shortages elsewhere in the GDR! My main focus in the GDR toy industry was product development. This is where I had the greatest impact on performance, quality and turnover. I was hugely successful in that respect. Thanks to my training as a fitter who had graduated from high school and my degree in plastics from the Karl-Marx-Stadt College of Mechanical Engineering (now Chemnitz University of Technology), I had the necessary professional qualifications to do all this.

At the same time, as an internationally experienced toy expert, you've experienced the fact that these problems don't occur like this in Western-style market economies – well, not after the fallout of World War II had been overcome anyway. What did that do to you?

Bernd Max Sauer:

The main difference between the western and GDR toy industries was the higher productivity of the individual workers. East Germany lagged about 50% behind West Germany in 1989. In my opinion, the right to work embedded in the constitution of the GDR led to lower individual labour productivity. People in western countries, on the other hand, were probably more productive so as to avoid becoming unemployed. Other reasons included the lack of highly productive equipment and excessive social benefits. I was born in the Soviet Occupation Zone, went to school in the GDR and was able to study. At the age of 33, I was responsible for managing companies in the GDR economy. I was proud of my work and what resulted from it, but that is no longer worth anything today.

Spielzeugland DDR
book Spielzeugland DDR: Das Werden, Wachsen und der Niedergang der Spielzeugindustrie der DDR ("Toyland GDR: the Emergence, Growth and Decline of the GDR Toy Industry")

A considerable part of the GDR's toy exports went to West Germany. How great was the influence of customers from West Germany on product development?

Bernd Max Sauer: 

Toys from the GDR were exported to 42 countries around the world. Customer feedback and influence on new developments were rather rare. As toys were mainly sold by the VE AHB (state-owned foreign trade company) Spielwaren und Sportartikel Berlin, there was hardly any cooperation with the manufacturing companies. The constructive cooperation with our West German agent Heinrich Bauer, Nuremberg, was positive however.

For many years, you exhibited at the Spielwarenmesse in Nuremberg with various companies. What function did this event have for the toy industry in the GDR?

Bernd Max Sauer: 

The Spielwarenmesse in Nuremberg was an important trade fair for concluding final contracts with major corporations and for retailers. When it came to exporting toys to the non-socialist economic system, conversely, the main fair was the Leipzig Autumn Fair. At the fair in Nuremberg, almost 100% of the preliminary contracts or options made on the occasion of the Leipzig Autumn Fair were then converted into firm orders. That is why the Leipzig Autumn Fair had the greatest significance for the presentation of new developments. Up until the Spielwarenmesse took place, the results from the Leipzig Autumn Fair were evaluated, new developments were still modified and some new products presented.

With the Burg Giebichenstein Kunsthochschule Halle, the GDR had an institution that dealt with the training of toy designers. West Germany didn't have anything like that. Did the work there really find its way into the range of toys on offer?

Bernd Max Sauer: 

Many graduates of this college ended up working in the development departments of the GDR toy companies and in the VEB Institut für Spielwaren Sonneberg. Another type of training was offered at the engineering school for mechanical engineering and toy design in Sonneberg. How much the trained toy designer could achieve depended on the field of application and the creative and business management level in the development departments of the individual firms. Wherever there was a high level that combined design and economy in production, good results could be achieved. The positive thing was that most of the students in Halle and Sonneberg had started their studies after having done an apprenticeship to become a skilled worker.

The East German toy industry once employed around 30,000 people. In 1990, this figure – along with production, sales and exports – declined very sharply. From your point of view, would it have been possible to save many of the companies and jobs in the GDR toy industry during the transition from a planned economy to a capitalist one?

Bernd Max Sauer: 

The East German toy industry would have represented a competitor with an annual turnover of around DM250m to DM 300m for the toy industry in the old federal states. The passing of the 'Second Trusteeship  Act' on 17 June 1990 reduced the number of people employed in the industry in the GDR. In it, the People's Chamber decided to transfer the GDR's state-owned enterprises (VEB) into private ownership through the Treuhandanstalt. Around 800 jobs still remain in the East German toy industry as of 2019. However, I estimate that, despite the onset of globalisation in the early 1990s, around 4,500 employees in the former publicly owned toy industry and another 1,000 or so in reprivatized firms in the three clusters of Sonneberg, Erzgebirge and Waltershausen would have been viable.

Mr Sauer, thank you for publishing your extensive knowledge of the toy industry in the GDR and for sharing your view of the time after the fall of the Wall with us.

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Ordering information:
Bernd Max Sauer: Spielzeugland DDR, Trautmann Druck, Verlag & Werbung Sonneberg, €49.90. ISBN: 978-3-00-066320-8. Order by phone +49 3675-742 977 or by e-mail: