‘Aktion Störfreimachung’ and Diabetes Mellitus in the Shadow of the Berlin Wall, 1961-1966

At the end of 1960, the leader of the former East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced that the state needed to reduce its reliance on goods, including pharmaceuticals, from West Germany and other NATO countries. When the Berlin Wall was erected on the 13th of August 1961, this provided the ideal opportunity for Ulbricht’s words to be put into practice. The autarkic policy in question was called ‘Störfreimachung’, which, literally translated into English, means ‘making free from disturbances’. Its impact could be felt to a large extent by East Germany’s diabetic population, who had become, it seemed, increasingly dependent on superior western depot (long-lasting) insulins, especially from the West German pharmaceutical company, Hoechst. Once depot insulin from the west was prohibited, diabetics were only able to use East German insulin alternatives, some of which were still ‘in-progress’ in their development. So catastrophic was the changeover (‘Umstellung’) from western insulins to East German variants that diabetes specialists referred to their patients as experiencing a ‘metabolic derailment’ (‘Stoffwechselentgleisung’) as a result.

It is the intention of this paper, therefore, to examine what life was like amidst the competitive, Cold-War politics immediately following the building of the Berlin Wall for diabetics, for their families and for the doctors treating them. It will look at how the policy of Störfreimachung did not simply influence the treatment of individual cases, but also how far it shaped the whole system of care for diabetes and the decisions that were made in inpatient and outpatient facilities either as a direct or indirect consequence of the policy. The paper will make use of a distinctly East German primary source, the so-called ‘Eingaben’ (petitions), which were sent to the high political authorities and frequently included a complaint of some sort. These give a colourful and detailed insight into the thoughts and feelings of diabetics and their relatives after what has often been branded the ‘secret foundation day’ of East Germany.


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