Back in the GDR, remembering a divided city

The classic end of communism comedy, Goodbye Lenin, is critical viewing for anyone moving to Berlin. It was first released in 2003, a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but with memories of communist rule still ever present. The film charts the final days of the German Democratic Republic through the eyes of a family that represents two conflicting, and conflicted, views of the totalitarian state. The mother of the family, a convinced communist party member; her two children, rebelling against the tedium and repression of GDR society.

GDR Council of State building, Berlin, Germany

GDR Council of State building, Berlin, Germany

GDR Museum, Berlin, Germany

GDR Museum, Berlin, Germany

Stained glass mural, GDR Council of State building, Berlin, Germany

Stained glass mural, GDR Council of State building, Berlin, Germany

GDR-era mosaic, Berlin, Germany

GDR-era mosaic, Berlin, Germany

GDR Museum, Berlin, Germany

GDR Museum, Berlin, Germany

GDR Museum, Berlin, Germany

GDR Museum, Berlin, Germany

Much of the comedy, and the tragedy, comes from the fact that, after the mother wakes from a coma during which she ‘slept’ through the fall of the Berlin Wall, the family have to find ever more inventive ways to recreate every detail of former GDR life to protect her from a relapse. This sparks a quest to find food, drinks, toiletries and many other items from the former GDR that had all but vanished as Western commodities flooded the market. This involves a near-futile search for a special type of pickled gherkin.

Today, the film remains a poignant reminder of a world that has rapidly disappeared in the 28 years since the reunification of Germany. Communist East Germany existed for only 41 years, and the self-styled socialist “workers’ and peasants’ state” that emerged from the Soviet Occupation Zone at the end of the Second World War, disintegrated with few tears shed. Unless they were tears of joy as the Berlin Wall fell, and thousands of East Germans exercised a sudden and unexpected freedom to travel.

A recent viewing of Goodbye Lenin reminded me to visit the small, informative and fun GDR Museum, which sits opposite the Berliner Dom cathedral in the former eastern part of the city. The museum explores the history of the GDR through personal stories and everyday objects. One of the highlights is the reconstruction of a typical East German apartment from the 1960s. In the living room a TV blares programmes from the era, and is decorated with wonderfully period designs.

Housing was in short supply, and the woefully inefficient centrally planned economy incapable of providing material goods. When new apartments were built they were all identical, choice was a Western decadence. A common East German joke ran that if you woke up in bed and your wife had a new hairstyle, the chances were that you were in the wrong apartment. More seriously, there’s also a listening station as used by the State Security Service, the Stasi, to spy on citizens in their homes.

The museum is fascinating, but small and can get very crowded. That said, I learned a lot, including nuggets of wisdom such as East Germans were the heaviest consumers of alcohol in Europe, some 17 litres of pure alcohol per person per year, presumably to anaesthetise themselves from the reality of daily existence. Then there is naturism, and how being nude in public turned into a subversive political movement – a freedom of expression in a country where there were few other freedoms.

Outside the museum, reminders of the GDR are increasingly scarce – if you discount the regular sightings of Trabant tours. Segments of the Berlin Wall remain, as do the jolly green and red Ampelmännchen road crossings, and some iconic GDR buildings and artworks. We passed statues of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels en route to the former GDR parliament, in an ironic twist now a business school. Here symbols of the GDR regime have been preserved, and occasionally it’s possible to visit the interior to see stained glass windows as propaganda.

1960s mural at the Haus des Lehrers, Berlin, Germany

1960s mural at the Haus des Lehrers, Berlin, Germany

Stained glass mural, GDR Council of State building, Berlin, Germany

Stained glass mural, GDR Council of State building, Berlin, Germany

Ampelmännchen, Berlin, Germany

Ampelmännchen, Berlin, Germany

Statues of Marx and Engels, Berlin, Germany

Statues of Marx and Engels, Berlin, Germany

Socialist Realism at the Platz des Volksaufstandes von 1953, Berlin, Germany

Socialist Realism at the Platz des Volksaufstandes von 1953, Berlin, Germany

Socialist Realism at the Platz des Volksaufstandes von 1953, Berlin, Germany

Socialist Realism at the Platz des Volksaufstandes von 1953, Berlin, Germany

Today, these leftovers from the former GDR seem almost exotic, and it’s easy to forget the misery and repression that they represent. Near our apartment is an old GDR-era building that has a beautiful mosaic of a dove of peace, a much used and abused symbol of a regime that was anything but peace loving. It sits neglected and largely unnoticed by a main road, a relic like the country it once represented.

10 thoughts on “Back in the GDR, remembering a divided city

  1. Another sad thing is how little (we) West Germans know not only about East Germany as a historical entity, but also about eastern Germany today.

    I grew up in the west in the 1970s-90s and even after reunification, I had never been to eastern Germany until some work trips came up. Still, I have spent more time in countries like Abkhazia, Montenegro or Iran than in the eastern half of my own country.

    I have just realized recently how abnormal – and possibly dangerous for the cohesion of the country – that is: https://andreasmoser.blog/2018/10/03/eastern-germany/
    When I will return to Germany this spring/summer, I will try to change that, preferably with a long walk through all five new states.

    • That’s an interesting point. My German isn’t good enough to follow the national political discourse, but the rise of the AfD is very much an eastern thing, even in what people assume is liberal Berlin. It’s clear that significant differences between east and west continue to exist – but it’s only been 28 years, so that’s not so surprising. I do get the feeling that the east is still a little bit like ‘uncharted territroy’ for many in the west.

      • Oh yes, that wall is still there in many minds.

        At school in the west, we really didn’t learn much about the east, except for the 1953 uprising, the wall and scarcity. That was all.
        We learned much more about the coal industry in the north of the UK, about the different states in the US and about the regional peculiarities or Bretagne.
        And when we went on holidays, it was Italy, Spain, France or, for those less interested in good weather, Britain or Ireland.

        Somehow, that mindset hasn’t changed all that much.

      • One of the most interesting radio programs of the past years was one on Deutschlandfunk, where they looked at interviews done with British exchange students in 1988. These students had gone to West and to East Germany and could thus speak about the difference, but with the fresh perspective of outsiders.

        Unfortunately, the program is only in German, and so far, I have only written about it on my German blog: https://andreas-moser.blog/2018/01/17/drueben/
        I should probably translate that because it was absolutely fascinating.
        In the end, the interviewer asks the British students in which part of Germany they would like to live and work. All of them, without any exception, would prefer the East. One year later, the country of their choice no longer existed.

  2. I am not sure the West was/is so great on choice when it comes to housing, though. Walking through North American suburbs or most streets in Britain, with millions of near-identical narrow brick houses, it seems that capitalism also leads to conformist consumers.

  3. “Goodbye, Lenin” is one of my favourite films, though I think for a better reflection of what life was like, the go-to film has to be “The Lives of Others”. I can still recall the letters and parcels we used to send to my East German family in the 1960s, and how so often they would either not get there, or would get there without the gifts we’d sent. Their letters tended to arrive intermittently if at all, and when they did would be heavily redacted.

    • The Lives of Others is brilliant and depressing. I think the Stasi listening post in the GDR museum is based on the one in the film. I suppose it’s no surprise that gifts wouldn’t reach their rightful owners during that time, there will be families in Berlin that benefited, just not the right families! Viewed from 2018 it all seems so strange, but it’s still so recent.

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