Ostalgie? What’s that, some kind of infection?
Not exactly. In the words of Wikipedia, Ostalgie is a German term referring to nostalgia for aspects of life in East Germany. It is derived from the German words Ost (east) and Nostalgie (nostalgia).
Oh right. ‘Good Bye Lenin’, Trabants and pining for the good old days of the GDR…
Amongst other symptoms. The trouble is that visitors to Berlin can quite easily miss learning about the realities of life on the other side of that infamous Wall. This is particularly true of younger tourists who did not experience the Cold War era. Berlin has done a good job in selling itself as a place to party with a little history on the side. Nothing wrong with that, but just as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe should be on every itinerary to the German capital to ensure that the horrors of the Nazi past are not forgotten, these places convey the dark side of East Germany in a way that provides a much-needed counterpart to the idiotic spectacle of actors in uniform posing for photographs outside the fake Checkpoint Charlie guard house.
But this Ostalgie – it’s just harmless fun, isn’t it?
Certain aspects of it are – but the most dedicated Ostalgie supporters are probably too young to remember life in the GDR. Plenty of them grew up in West Germany too and one of the most famous stores selling replica and genuine GDR products sprang up in Hamburg…
That’s a long way from the former border…
Quite. Yet a desire for food products or other items which disappeared from the shelves after reunification is understandable for people who once enjoyed them. It has also brought some employment to hard-hit areas in the former GDR and saved manufacturers who would otherwise been forced to close. I have no issue with this; I also think it’s great that the wonderful Ampelmännchen was saved in all his/her forms and even spread into western Berlin. It was a shame that it was a West German who founded Ampelmännchen Ltd and made a fortune selling everything you can imagine plastered with the symbols but that’s the free market for you.
Ostalgie (understandably) erases the totalitarian regime from the picture – but we must not. Back in 2003 when the nostalgia was at its height, several TV programmes glorified life in East Germany, the most controversial being a chat show led by the “beautiful face of socialism” Katherine Witt.
As well as former pop stars, politicians and regular east German citizens sharing their memories a heartbreaking reality check was provided by Erika Riemann who shattered the programme’s rose-tinted sentimentality. She was just 14 when she was imprisoned by the communist regime for defacing a portrait of Stalin hanging in her school by painting a red lipstick bow over his moustache. She suffered over eight years of rape and torture as a ‘political prisoner’ in three East German prisons including the former Nazi concentration camp of Sachsenhausen. Riemann, then 73, recalled how she was even forced to endure a mock mass extermination in a gas chamber.
From such horrendous stories as hers right down to the everyday oppression meted out on its citizens, the GDR regime and its Stasi secret police scarred a generation for the rest of its days. It is this senseless waste – this abuse of a country’s own people that stays with me most of all after visiting these places. Forget sports or industry, the crowning achievement of the GDR was surveillance – its unrivalled ability to keep tabs on its own citizens. When the regime finally collapsed in 1989 the Stasi had 91,000 full-time employees and 180,000 informers in East Germany – by way of comparison the Gestapo (while more ruthless) only had 7,000 in its ranks.
Theo Mitrup, who runs a support group in Berlin for those persecuted under the communist regime, explained the problem with Ostalgie thus, “it’s very difficult for some people that the GDR is being glorified in this kind of way. There’s nothing wrong with recalling the past – indeed – people even probably have happy memories of everyday life under the Nazis – but it’s a question of balance. This nostalgia seems to ignore the oppression, the secret police, the intimidation – history somehow is being rewritten.”
On the other hand, many see positive aspects in East Germans finally being allowed to reminisce in a positive manner. It’s easy to understand that many people in the east yearn for the secure jobs and futures offered by the regime when unemployment remains high and capitalism seems to have failed them.
Okay, so where should I go after my Trabi safari to get a balanced view of the GDR?
As well as such essential and well-known sights as the Mauer Museum and DDR Museum, make sure you don’t miss these:
Step One: Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer (The Berlin Wall Memorial)
Forget the East Side Gallery. To fully comprehend the physical division of the city visit the Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse.
Officially opened on the 50th anniversary of the Wall being built, it contains the only section of the Wall with the ‘death-strip’ intact and you can see how the border fortifications developed until the end of the 1980s. The events that took place here together with the preserved historical remnants and traces of border obstacles on display help to make the history of Germany’s division comprehensible to visitors. There is also a bookshop that also shows a short film, a documentation centre with a comprehensive interactive exhibition and a viewing tower.
Often overlooked, the nearby Nordbahnhof S-bahn station houses an exhibition on the ‘Ghost Stations’ which were closed off while the city was divided – the U-bahn passed through without stopping and guards could be seen in the dimly-lit stations.
Visitor centre, Bernauer Straße 119, 13355 Berlin. S-Bahn, tram or bus to Nordbahnhof, U-bahn to Bernauer Strasse or Naturkunde Museum. Free admission.
Check website for details: http://www.berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de/en/index.html
Step Two: The Stasi Museum
Next, take the U-bahn to Lichtenberg and the enormous Stasi headquarters site. One of the buildings is now open to the public and houses an excellent museum; the sickly colours and dated décor make it hard to believe it was in use until 1990 and Stasi chief Erich Mielke’s apartment and office is just as he left it. The exhibits range from spying equipment to a van used for surveillance and all bizarre points in between.
Here the divergence between quaint communist ideals and brutal oppression is clear – you’ll find yourself smiling at the propaganda and toys for children one moment only to recoil in horror the next when you see a photograph of a would-be escapee who had his feet blown off my a mine and was left to bleed to death.
Ruschestraße 103, Haus 1, 10365 Berlin. U-Bahn to Magdalenenstrasse. Admission 5 EUR.
Check website for details: http://www.stasimuseum.de/en/enausstellung.htm
Step Three: Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen (The Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial)
Finally, travel further out into the eastern suburbs to see the full horrors of Stasi oppression at the former prison. After being used as a Soviet Special Camp in which suspected Nazi sympathizers were held in atrocious conditions (mostly with little evidence against them) it was taken over by the Stasi and wiped from city maps. This is where those who dared show any sign of opposition were locked up – many because of some words written in a personal letter that was opened and inspected. The usual tactic was to swoop on victims while they were on their way to work and bundle them into a van – next stop Hohenschönhausen. You need to take part in a guided tour and as these are led by former prisoners you will come away with a real understanding on the psychological torture they suffered. Rather than physical abuse the methods employed here included isolation, limited exercise space and endless interrogation.
Genslerstraße 66, D-13055 Berlin. Tram from Alexanderplatz, Hackescher Markt (see website for other options) Admission with tour 3 EUR.
Check website for details: http://en.stiftung-hsh.de/document.php?cat_id=CAT_233&special=0
So what do you think about Ostalgie? Harmless fun or offensive re-writing of history? Let us know by adding your comments below:
This Post Has 20 Comments
This was definitely worth a Stumble Andy. Excellent!
Why thank you very much! Glad you enjoyed the article – watch this space for more 🙂
Thanks for sharing, I have yet to visit step one. Most chilling are the details, like the letter openers in the shape of kalashnikovs in the Stasi offices.
I find Berlin the most interesting European city to visit right now, particularly with young family members.
Thanks for the comment Knut Albert. I agree, rather like the Nazi era it is the small things that hit home – the way these people viewed their tyranny as completely normal. It’s amazing to see how quickly the Stasi grew too. You should definitely see the Berlin Wall memorial and the station exhibition next time; it’s like the city finally has a real memorial after all this time. And I agree, we took our daughter to Berlin last summer, it’s like a history education in a weekend. Great blog you have by the way, as beer is also a favourite topic of mine I have bookmarked your site for future reading! Have a look at the post here on the Copenhagen beer scene too – one I am sure you are familiar with!
Being North America it all feels really far removed for me, and while I would not feel nostalgic I would still like to see the historical sites.
Hi Ayngelina, Yes it’s definitely worth seeing – actually Berlin was pretty much kept alive during the Cold War by the USA so there’s a lot of history between Berlin and North America. Anyway, there is so much to see in Berlin it’s really a great destination.
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Wish I could visit Berlin too. It look so old. Thank you for showing pictures.
A really intersting post, Andy. I found it through a comment you made over at http://theplanetd.com
So many articles on Berlin just look at the “usual suspects” visiting Berlin, but you’ve included a great list for anyone interested in the more serious side of Berlin’s Communist history. When I visited Hohenschönhausen prison our group was shown around by an ex inmate. He spoke only German, so this sadly isn’t for everyone. But we could ask him all sorts of questions about his time there and he answered everything calmly and honestly. His stories were gripping yet terrifying.
You have a great blog, Andy! Keep up the good work.
Thanks so much Miles. Yes, I could write about Berlin for ever, the couple of years I lived there left a real mark. It’s not the most attractive European capital, but it has so many stories to tell…
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I remember when the wall came down – whenever I visit somewhere I need to see the history and try and understand what happened, I have never visited Berlin but having been at school when it was happened it is a piece of what happened in my lifetime that I would welcome understanding from the point of view of those affected, before and after
There are so many good educational tours in Berlin but you do need to seek them out. The first ones that often pop up in searches can be the tacky ones with little depth. It’s a fascinating place that rewards repeated but focused visits, otherwise it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the wealth and weight of history…
You write so very well and this article is no exception. This has left me feeling quite disturbed and distressed. When you think about lifestyles ..then ..it is just wrong on so many levels. You had me with the little girl defacing the Stalin picture. Ostalgie? Hmmm
It’s often the individual stories that stick with you. I just got back from Berlin again and was on two tours, one was dedicated to escape stories from the DDR using hand-dug tunnels, the underground train tunnels and even sewer pipes. Just the very idea of being desperate enough to try something like that and risk your life is bad enough, but the actual tales of those who tried – and many who failed – were heartbreaking. But extremely important to hear…
Thanks for the education, Andy… I visited Berlin for the first time last year and had so little time that I must confess to doing the usuals such as Brandenburg Gate and East Side Gallery. Now I know what else to look out for when I next visit… the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer sounds like a must to get a sense of scale of the death strip, and a greater sense and appreciation of what times were once like.
Everyone should see the main sights too of course, but on a second or more lengthy visit the memorial sights are a must. I will be writing about some tours I took part in soon and these give a really good perspective on the city and are highly recommended.
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