Carl Zeiss Jena (DDR) P

Pekka Buttler 02/2024

You might have encountered cheap-looking lenses claiming the illustrious heritage of Carl Zeiss Jena. Lenses looking like the ones above and below:

Carl Zeiss Jena P 1:2.8 f=28mm MC captured in its natural habitat.

These lenses are usually optically okay, but they really do not live up to the expectations that the name Carl Zeiss usually engender. This is especially true regarding materials (a lot of plastic), build quality (feels cheap) or build quality (so&so).

This reality is in stark contrast to those expectations you are likely to have when encountering the name Carl Zeiss Jena, and that these lenses do not live up to those. In the following lines, I will try to explain what these lenses are. I hope you will tolerate a bit of history, because – as always – history determines what comes afterward.

A (almost) short history

I’m going to summarise the postwar development of Carl Zeiss Jena in three acts: 1949–1968; 1968–1983; and 1983–1990.

1949–1968 – The birth of East Germany and Carl Zeiss Jena

As soon as Nazi Germany was beaten, whatever harmony there may have been between the victors, that harmony was gone. The increasing animosity between East and West lead to the 1949 formation of first the German Federal Republic (West Germany) followed the same year by the reconstituting of the Soviet occupation zone as the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Importantly, a significant part of German camera and optics production resided in what became East Germany. These formerly privately owned enterprises were socialised (made ‘the people’s companies, ‘Volkseigener Betrieb‘ or VEB in short). For some decades, the East German camera industry did rather well, even in the international markets, albeit in the price-conscious segment.

From one Carl Zeiss Jena to a Carl Zeiss and a Carl Zeiss Jena

In 1945 American troops had to vacate areas that they had managed to occupy before the Nazi surrender, because they needed to hand some of those areas over to Soviet control. Before leaving, they invited some key people to move west with them. Among these were ≈ one hundred managers and senior engineers from the Carl Zeiss plant in Jena who travelled westward in convoy with their entire households, a fair amount of tooling and a lot of technical plans. Subsequently, the Americans set their guests up in a former armaments factory in the town of Oberkochen1.

During the later part of the 40s operations – both the original factory in Jena (East Germany) with much of the original workforce and under the auspices of the Soviet occupying forces and the new factory in Oberkochen (West Germany) under the patronage of the American leadership – started producing lenses again. Lenses for everything from eyeglasses to bombsights. At this stage, the western operation ran under the name Opton (as the American and Soviet sectors were still technically within the same Germany and the name Carl Zeiss was taken).

After 1949 and the separation of the western and eastern zones into two separate countries, the western, Opton arm of Carl Zeiss laid claim to the right to the name Carl Zeiss. This was a move strongly contested by the eastern arm of Carl Zeiss Jena. In a classic realpolitik carve-up, a court in West Germany gave Opton (West) the monopoly on the name ‘Carl Zeiss’ and Carl Zeiss trademarks (including names such as Tessar and Sonnar) – a move that was echoed by most Western countries. As a countermove, Moscow gave Carl Zeiss Jena monopoly to the Carl Zeiss name and trademarks in the Eastern bloc.

As a result, in most Western countries Carl Zeiss Jena (East) lenses were simply sold with “aus Jena” (from Jena) on their name rings, and the trademarked design names (Sonnar, Tessar, etc.) were simply replaced by initials (S for Sonnar; T for Tessar; B for Biotar; Bm for Biometar, etc…). Hence, it’s not surprising that VEB Carl Zeiss Jena spent its first two decades developing new designs and giving them new names (Flektogon, Flexon, Pancolar, Cardinar, etc.)

German industrial consolidation

The pre-war German camera industry had a number of giants, such as specialty glass maker Schott, lens makers Carl Zeiss, Schneider-Kreuznach, Meyer-Optik, camera makers such as Rollei, Zeiss Ikon and Ihagee as well as full-service (lenses and cameras) manufacturers such as Leitz and Voigtländer.

But one could (and I tend to) make the argument that the vibrancy of that early German camera and optics industry was not based solely on these trail-blazing giants, but a plethora of small manufacturers, each trying to innovate (processes or products) their way to greatness. Companies of the type that we today would call startups were plentiful. The region from Jena to Dresden to Görlitz (from the Saale to the Neiße rivers) could have been called Silica Valley(s).

But since the beginning of the 20th century a consolidation trend was clearly evident, with smaller companies often being gobbled up by established companies. One of these companies was the camera arm of Zeiss: Zeiss Ikon, which was the result of the merger between Goerz, Ernemann, Contessa Nettel (itself the result of Contessa and Nettel) and ICA (the result of a merger of four companies) lubricated by Carl Zeiss money.

In the postwar era this consolidation trend strengthened, but in the East it was not only driven by market realities, but also by that all the companies had the same owner, namely ‘the people’. This process progressed stepwise, but by the end of 1969 it was almost finished: VEB Pentacon had by that time swallowed almost the entire East German camera and optics industry: Zeiss Ikon, Kamera Werke, Belca, Altissa, Welta, Meyer-Optik, Mentor, Certo, Ihagee (and a number of smaller actors). Outside remained film maker ORWO and VEB Carl Zeiss Jena, which was more an industrial and military optics manufacturer (that also happened to manufacture some higher-end consumer lenses).

1968–1983 – Pentacon and Carl Zeiss Jena, from heyday to stagnation.

On the one hand the late 60s and 70s looked very good for the East German camera industry. Through the merger of Kamera Werke and Meyer-Optik into Pentacon, Pentacon was now equipped with both a line of attractive cameras (the redesigned Praktica L line) to be mass produced, and a line of high-performance optics (former Meyer-Optik designs) to churn out. And it did so, in the millions. Pentacon was clearly making itself felt in the budget-focused market and managed to (in the 70s) achieve majority market shares in many European markets.

Also, there was some innovative zest in the new kombinate, resulting in a number of firsts, including the 1969 proprietary extension of the M42 mount: the M42 electric – a lens mount that communicated the selected aperture value to the camera electronically. While electronic body-lens communication is indeed the norm today, Pentacon was the first to introduce it to a lens mount.

At the same time, Pentacon’s attempt to keep up with the competition or enter the pro segment failed. The Pentacon Super that was intended to enter the demanding pro market sold only some thousands and the ambitious lenses designed to be used with it – for example the Carl Zeiss Jena Pancolar 55 mm f/1.4 (external review here) – remained rare oddities instead of becoming something the competition would be forced to react to.

Moreover, while the East German industry seemed to me able to hold its own mechanically, the same could not be said electronically. Electronics, especially microelectronics was (in Soviet logic) something reserved for military applications and not something to be squandered on civilian frivolities. As a result, while the entire Japanese camera industry used the 70s to increase the adoption of electronics to do what previously had be done mechanically (timing, metering, automation), Pentacon was left pretty much standing2.

As a result, while Praktica cameras kept selling well in both the East and also in some Western countries, in the West the Prakticas kept slipping into lower and lower consumer segments. To keep up with the increasing pressure to economise, almost all product development conducted in East Germany was focused on rationalising production, going as far as outsourcing some of the production to Romania – a concept that the proud East German engineers had little admiration for. There was writing on the wall, but no-one wanted to raise their gaze and read it.

1983–1990 – Star wars and the escalation to a collapse

The George Lucas movie ‘Star Wars’ premiered in 1977 and former western movie actor Ronald Regan became the president of the US some years later. After first putting a tourniquet on the haemorrhaging US economy, Ronald Reagan set out to escalate the Cold War by taking it to new heights, quite literally.

One of Reagan’s pet projects was the ‘Strategic Defense Initiative’, abbreviated SDI but colloquially referred to as ‘Star Wars’ because it aimed at weaponising satellites in the hope of using them to disable Soviet ICBMs in flight. Under Reagan, the US set out to spend the Eastern bloc into the ground, by outlining several escalations that the Eastern bloc were ill-equipped to match.

But the East Bloc did try. Starting in 1983 the entire Eastern bloc tried to reorient their industry increasingly toward high-tech military ends. In the case of the East German camera industry, this resulted in the 1985 merger of VEB Pentacon with VEB Carl Zeiss Jena, and that an increasing share of that colossus’ attention and means would be spent on military development and that the consumer goods production would be relegated further down the priority list.

Not surprisingly, this neither produced the hoped for results in terms of military aims, but it also was further bad news for East bloc citizens who had been starved for consumer goodies for too long. The resulting civil unrest might not have toppled the East bloc system as a whole, had not too many things started breaking at the same time: from Chernobyl to an ignominious retreat from Afghanistan to – of all things – a picnic.

Back to the future beginning

I started this whole story with showing you a picture of a decidedly consumer-grade lens carrying the name ‘Carl Zeiss Jena’ and promising to tell you a story.

The simple version of that story is, that those lenses are indeed Carl Zeiss Jena lenses, but manufactured after 1985 (when all of Pentacon – after a fashion – became part of ‘Carl Zeiss Jena’)3.

Importantly, the management at Carl Zeiss Jena knew that they were allowed to use the name Carl Zeiss Jena in some export countries, and were well aware that the name ‘Carl Zeiss Jena’ had more cache value than that of Pentacon, and that rebranding Pentacon lenses (even those manufactured in Romania) as ‘Carl Zeiss Jena’ might lead to an increase in sales and an added influx of hard currency.

These lenses were typically sold in countries such as the UK, often together with Praktica cameras named ‘Jenaflex’.

Telling apart Carl Zeiss Jena and ‘fake’ Carl Zeiss Jena lenses?

Those who know their GDR lenses are unlikely to be fooled, but even if you don’t it’s easy when you know what to look for. It’s all in the ‘P’

Pentacon lenses rebranded as ‘Carl Zeiss Jena’ always have an added letter P on the name ring. See images above. This does not hinder unscrupulous online sellers from trying to make a quick buck.

To help people not be hoodwinked,
Carl Zeiss Jena P 1:2.8 f=28mm MC ==> really Pentacon Prakticar 1:2.8 f=28mm MC [data sheet]
Carl Zeiss Jena P 1:1.8 f=50mm MC ==> really Pentacon Prakticar 1:1.8 f=50mm MC [data sheet]
Carl Zeiss Jena P 1:2.8 f=135mm MC ==> really Pentacon Prakticar 1:2.8 f=135mm MC [data sheet]
Carl Zeiss Jena P 1:2.8 f=29mm MC (m42) ==> really Pentacon auto 1:2.8 f=29mm MC [data sheet]

Note please: This legend is based on samples that I own, or have seen on online classifieds. Looking at the samples of Pentacon lenses rebranded as ‘Carl Zeiss Jena’ it is clear that the ‘unholy trinity’ of 28, 50 and 135 mm primes for the Praktica B mount make up the bulk of samples in the wild.

However, there are also some examples of the M42 mount Pentacon 29 mm f/2.8 that have likewise been branded as ‘Carl Zeiss Jena’, meaning that it is not entirely unlikely that the M42 Pentacon auto 50mm f/1.8 and Pentacon auto 135 mm f/2.8 might not also have been offered as ‘Carl Zeiss Jena’ lenses between 1985–1990.

Conclusively identifying a 50 mm f/1.8 Pancolar?

For those who have even a rudimentary knowledge of DDR lenses, there is really little risk of confusion regarding most of these ‘Carl Zeiss Jena’ lenses, as the real Carl Zeiss Jena never offered a 28 mm f/2.8 lens or a 135 mm f/2.8 lens, not to speak of a 29 mm f/2.8.

But with the Carl Zeiss Jena P 1:1.8 f=50mm MC the story is a bit different, because Carl Zeiss Jena did offer a 50 mm f/1.8 lens, namely the well-respected Pancolar. Hence, a ‘Carl Zeiss Jena’ lens with the specifications of 50 mm f/1.8 could either be a Pentacon or a Carl Zeiss Jena.

Luckily, there are two conclusive identifiers (unlike unscrupulous online sellers, the East German industry never aimed to entirely confuse you):

First, there is that extra P on the name ring of a lens that (while carrying the name ‘Carl Zeiss Jena’) really is a Pentacon lens. But name rings alone cannot always be trusted.

Second, there is the IR indicator. With the 50/1.8 Pancolar, the IR indicator is that the entire number 4 on the right-hand side DOF preview scale is coloured red, whereas with the Pentacon 50/1.8 the IR focus point is indicated with a red dot under the right-hand-side number four (see above).


  1. See Shapiro, Isaac (1973). Zeiss v. Zeiss— The Cold War in a Microcosm, The International Lawyer
    Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 235-251 ↩︎
  2. This is not to say that Pentacon were unable to use electronics in their cameras, simply that it came a lot easier for the Japanese. Full disclosure: I own a Praktica EE3 a shutter priority automatic m42 camera and it’s one of my favourite cameras. On the other hand, its design is decidedly old-fashioned, and the reputation of the reliability of its electronics is simply dismal. ↩︎
  3. This is – in effect – in no way different from Daewoo cars being sold as Chevrolets. ↩︎

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