Love Letters to Socialism?

The sidewalks of Rosenthaler Strasse are rainswept and empty. It's a particularly dreary day—the kind that leaves you despairing about life in any European capital, when a curtain of misty drizzle falls over the city and the streets are Sunday-bare. Neoclassical houses nestled side by side are reduced to shuttered displays, grey lattices over the glossy storefronts. Suddenly, a lone open store appears, a low-ceilinged cavernous affair in a 1960s concrete bunker building. Its orange display glows, crammed with pilot helmets made of cheap pleather, sequined belly-dancer costumes, and orange candles in the shape of the Berlin TV Tower. In the corner, Technicolor rooster-shaped egg-holders jostle each other next to plastic radios and floral dinnerware jumbled together in a colorful smorgasbord of retro kitsch. Iconography spills over countertops—hammer and sickle badges, Sandmännchen and Pittiplatsch themed kitchenware, once prized by East German children as they wolfed down dinner above their animated bedtime heroes. Each item in this store is just a bit out of the ordinary: the objects more folkloric in their brightness, the plastic more brittle around its edges, the pleather unabashedly declaring itself the best—and the only—luxury material of the time.

This is Wahnsinn Berlin, one of many stores that carries gently used, mostly East German goods from the 1970s, a  repository of ostcool. Wahnsinn's various offerings are artifacts of a badly remembered past, items both highly prized and ordinary that once uncomplainingly inhabited some East German's lace-curtained, walnut-bookshelved, state-issued apartment. Though they are still the cheerful debris of that partially forgotten era, laden with nostalgia, today they also clamor for re-adoption by young post-reunification Berliners. They are quintessential symbols of Ostalgie, a sense of cultural nostalgia and longing for the German Democratic Republic.

Popular German culture is still struggling to understand the historical legacy of the GDR in the context of reunified Germany. Contemporary, Western-dominated rhetoric portrays life in East Germany as primitive and totalitarian. Former East German citizens are framed as helpless, repressed victims of a socialist state, with an infrastructure crippled by reparations East Germany made to the Soviets. How can one reclaim personal memory of a place whose political, cultural, and geographic markers have been almost completely eradicated? Former East Germans often struggle with the fact that they no longer have a territory to call their own or a shared material touchstone to help them re-imagine their past.

Enter Ostalgie, this compelling sense of nostalgia for the East. It softens the contours of memory under actually existing socialism and provides an alternate way to read and recollect  this history In the last 10 years, there has been an explosion of ostalgic products, stories, and movies in Germany. It is a deeply problematic form of recollection, however, one that runs the danger of sentimentalizing or trivializing hardships and injustices of life in an undeniably repressive East German state—from the politicized kindergarten education to the constant surveillance and supervision by neighbors, friends, and bosses. Ostalgie has evolved into a curious combination of memory politics, identity exploration, and consumerism that endorses an alternative, retro-cool subculture. 

I. Photographs for Osaka

A camera shutter immortalizes two boys running beside a bus, hands outstretched, greedily grasping, faces apparently distorted by hunger pangs, mouths agape with suffocated yells. The bus drives on as tourists press their faces against the smeared windows, as they loop through East Berlin and finally back over the border again.

Western tourists, horrified by the scarce conditions behind the iron curtain, hand around the Polaroids they’ve taken of scenes like this to relatives in Osaka, Pittsburgh, or Barcelona, commenting on them with the helpless sadness of the shocked but disinterested tourist. Look at those children, they sigh. This is what socialism has reduced them to. In the mean time, the boys have run away laughing, back to their rooms where they smoke and listen to Exile on Main Street in the lazy glare of the afternoon sun. Mario and Micha, who have lives surprisingly similar to those of their West German counterparts, are the protagonists of Thomas Brussig's novel Sonnenallee, which focuses on the process of coming of age in East Germany and satirizes the interaction between East and West.

Brussig is a poster-child for Ostalgie: Sonnenallee, written in 1999 and made into a movie in the same year, was the first mainstream German film to engage with GDR nostalgia, as well as one of the highest-grossing hits of that year. Brussig's novel, a comic account of teenage life behind the wall that veers from blatant slapstick to dark humor, washing a gentle sepia tone over the difficult memory of a socialist past. Micha and Mario’s first love affairs and discoveries of existentialism are dramatic events, while the socialist governance appears only in silly tangential episodes:  Micha's mother insists on calling him “Mischa” to get him just one step closer to the elite Russian prep school she dreams of, and his petrified West German uncle smuggles suits and chocolates (all legal) over the border.

Sonnenallee may have been wildly successful, but it endured a wave of harsh criticism in its wake—wasn't Brussig simply trivializing the totalitarian past? The threat of creating what Anna Saunders terms a 'Kuschel-DDR', or cuddly GDR, is justified. The film version of Sonnenallee was even subject to a lawsuit by Help e.V., an organization for victims of political violence, which claimed that the film was offensive to political dissidents and others who had suffered at the hands of the East German state.

To deny that part of GDR history would simply be wrong. Instead, Ostalgie is always highly anecdotal and personal in its attempt to get away from the myth of the Stasi-state; it declares that individualism is not just part of a Western framework. However, its alternatedepictions are invariably of a happy socialist childhood. When memory narratives become programmatic, the line between personal remembrance and mass cultural consciousness is blurred, the promise of individuality betrayed.

II. Stasi Tapes and Summer Camp

Staged photographs, Western video footage, Stasi supervision tapes—private images are overlaid with public ones in a memory palimpsest. When my mother looks back on the dissolution of the GDR, she has difficulty discerning the boundary between her personal memories and those created by endless hours of video footage documenting the political breakdown. Recollections dissolved with the country, to be restored physically in the form of video projections or frozen, full-page newspaper pictures. Media images, usually western, crystallized memories of the GDR that fit neatly within its Stasi-state mythology. These pictures provoked crises of faith in individual testimony and massive memory gaps for some East Germans.

Zonenkinder, Jana Hensel's popular autobiography chronicling her post-wall identity crisis, charts the disappearance of her personal memory in generalized recollections. Instead of showing visiting Western friends the landmarks of her childhood and her everyday life, she takes them to the Secret Police Museum and the St. Nicholas Church where the Monday night demonstrations took place in 1989, pointing out surveillance towers, monitors, and cameras. Her friends are happy to have witnessed real GDR landmarks, whose pictures they had until then only seen on TV. But Hensel’s own memories have in turn become “a series of strange, larger-than-life anecdotes that didn’t really have anything to do with what our lives had been like.”

At dinner with her West German boyfriend and his family, Hensel is unable defend her past circumstances when faced with the father’s gentle but firm condemnations of GDR's repression, surveillance systems, and weak infrastructure. The conversation about her former home ends as she weakly smiles and nods. Every one of her memories has been co-opted into an alternate framework in which she was once a naïve victim of political circumstances. How could she compete with the cultural capital of the fashionable West German girls, who still put a premium on bourgeois family heritage and learned French instead of Russian? Outdone in every arena—political, cultural, and historical—the only way Hensel can cope with her sudden memory loss is to rebuild her personal history from the ground up, and critically examine her childhood to rediscover the positive aspects of her East German past.

Maybe this is also why my mother used to tell me detailed stories from her childhood, rather than her student days in East Berlin. She skipped over how she learned to speak Russian or shoot a rifle. I recently found a languishing, yellowed invitation embossed with officially-endorsed socialist vocabulary, flowering over the page in ceremonial cursive. It's the invitation to her socialist coming-of-age ceremony, or Jugendweihe. She doesn't mention this much either; it's a banal, common artifact, and the ceremony was probably equally forgettable. But these are the sort of relics that many Germans now cling to in order to remember the GDR, relics that are unequivocally emblematic of the happy socialist childhood.

Despite this, though, all former East Germans (ostalgic or not) must concede that their recollections are never universal, but clearly tinged with the neat order of a socialist system. My mother suffered through typical history classes, but she was also shown movies documenting the heroism of the Soviets during World War II. She had school off on national holidays, but would sometimes have to put on a red bandana and parade in the streets with her classmates as part of a mass demonstration for the glory of socialism.

III. Mokkafix Gold

As socialism slowly becomes a more exotic concept in the Western European imagination, Ostalgie develops a dangerous undercurrent—that of commodification. It claims certain consumer objects as its own and imbues them with implicit cultural significance to trigger a stream of lost memories. Mass-produced items, exotic and alternative as they might be today, are weirdly expected to become containers for personal memory, functioning on the most intimate level of recollection.

The unquestioned distinctness of GDR products and brands makes them a comfortable cultural foothold for reconstructing a personal universe of memory. This is satirized in Ostalgie's biggest international hit to date, Wolfgang Becker's 2003 Goodbye Lenin!. The film centers on Alex, a teenager whose mother dedicates her life to the socialist party of the GDR and collapses into a coma just before the fall of the Wall. When she wakes up many months later, a doctor tells Alex that his mother has a weak heart and might not be able to stand the further strain of learning about the dissolution of the country. Alex elaborately constructs a pseudo-GDR around his mother, confined to bed rest in her apartment, surrounding her with old Eastern products and television shows until he has cocooned her in a bizarre, patched-together version of her former reality.

This alternate world is inevitably doomed. Ordinary consumer products seem to carry the potential to recreate a believable cultural reality, but cannot fully succeed. After his mother wakes up from her coma, Alex is faced with organizing a birthday party for her, replete with East German presents and traditions. He goes to exorbitant lengths to recreate the now unavailable East German goods, frantically buying up old packages and labels for Mokkafix coffee, Spreewälder pickles, and Rotkäppchen sparkling wine (“the Communist champagne”), and decanting Western products into Eastern packaging. Alex’s mother picks up the gold Mokkafix package, face crinkling with delight, and uncorks the Rotkäppchen, sweet and bland in its deceptively genteel, cursive-inscribed bottle. Unlike the party’s guests (an alcoholic school director, some slightly decrepit neighbors and two very confused young boys), the objects are reliable, completely trustworthy in their quiet ability to faithfully replicate the past. Throughout the entire sham, Alex’s co-conspirators nestle mutely in the gift basket, material renditions of the cultural illusion he is perpetuating.

Unexpectedly, Goodbye Lenin! actually spurred sales of Spreewälder and Rotkäppchen, brands that have reemerged in the German consumer market. East Germans use old GDR products not just because they are used to them, but because these products form one of the only ways for them to legitimate their memories in the present. For former East Germans, they are a cheap way to validate the past in the present; for younger generations, they are an easy way to buy into an exotic, idiosyncratic past.

IV. Smoked Glass Mirrors

Most public markers of the GDR, like the bronze bust of Lenin that Alex's mother despairingly watches recede from her, have disappeared by now. Lenin, arm grandly outstretched, is at the mercy of the helicopter carrying him off into the sunset, presumably to the dump. Even more significantly, the Palace of the Republic—the GDR's grand political hub and convention center in Berlin—was dismantled two years ago amidst huge protests, one smoked glass window at a time. East Germans are powerless against the literal dismantling of their territory. Jana Hensel writes about the urban redevelopment in her childhood street that left her feeling lost and disoriented, reflecting that “home was a place we only knew for a short time”—culture, history and geography go hand-in-hand, all suffering from a process of simultaneous eradication.

In this environment, the Ampelmännchen has emerged, functioning as both a high-profile tourist consumer item and a symbol that resists the complete erasure of GDR markers. He’s the little man on streetlamps, who wears a porkpie hat in East Germany as he walks or stands. After reunification, Western streetlights replaced East German streetlights and signs in order to create a more cohesive and homogenous urban aesthetic. Markus Heckhausen, a West German graphics designer, took up the Ampelmännchen in 1995 and created new lamp models that he championed in design magazines and city councils. Slowly, the Ostalgie movement adopted the Ampelmännchen as a forgotten cultural symbol of the GDR, and Eastern-style streetlights returned to Berlin, as well as other cities. However, the Ampelmännchen is not only infiltrating Germany's streets, but also the international fridge magnet, coffee cup, bag and t-shirt market. He is a commodified symbol of the GDR, endowed with a bizarre cultural capital that he did not originally possess.

Nonetheless, the Ampelmännchen, radiating a benign red and green, is one of the only highly visible, and probably last, testaments to a country whose infrastructure and buildings have been completely torn down and rebuilt after reunification. In the same way that Ostalgie mythicizes the happy childhood to construct a communal narrative of identity, the Ampelmännchen is a shared symbol that each East German can potentially use to personally evoke the lost arena of his or her past.

V. Communist Champagne

On January first, I wandered through the sleet of frosty Berlin streets and counted the empty 3-euro bottles of Rotkäppchen littered in the snow. There were bottles scattered throughout the city, sitting on top of power generators, thrown into backyard bushes, peeking out of overflowing trashcans. Perhaps Rotkäppchen is a fetishized, ostalgic drink—or maybe it’s just cheap.

The scattered bottles around Berlin, remnants of the new year's revelry, are part of this tenuous, vacillating web reclaiming cultural memories through everyday life. It becomes a form of idealistic protest for East Germans, a way of repopulating their world with positive memories. “The bakery is gone; the school is gone. It’s all been replaced,” Hensel writes. “The only constant in our lives is something we ourselves constructed: the feeling of belonging to a generation.”