The Rediscovery of East Germany
TWIG - "Nostalgia for the East," or "Ostalgie," as it is called in Germany, is sweeping television networks this Fall, with practically every major German television station offering its view of former communist East Germany (GDR).
In addition to the already running "GDR Show" (RTL), which is hosted by none other than former ice skating personality Katharina Witt, new shows joining this Fallís line-up include "Meyer and Schulz - the Ultimate East Show" (SAT1), and "A Kettle GDR" (MDR).
The shows feature frequent references to long-lost products, acronyms that have become devoid of meaning, and stars who have slipped into obscurity since the fall of communism.
But the almost cult-like interest in the East reaches far beyond mass media. Last week, the first international Trabant festival took place in Koerpernick, outside of Berlin. The "Trabi" was East Germanyís national car, a cramped, box-like vehicle that was first produced in Zwickau in 1957. The last of around 3 million of the heavily-ridiculed Trabants rolled off the assembly line in April, 1991.
"The Trabi is the quietest car in the world, because you always have your knees in your ears," joked Michael Kaiser, president of Berlinís Trabant Club, about the carís small size. Despite being known for poor engineering and sub par materials, the Trabi enjoys cult status in the former East. The club now boasts 55 members, a number that is growing steadily, membership numbers being naturally contingent upon the relatively few Trabis left on the road. At last count, merely 124,459 registered cars remained.
Some insist that the superficial interest in the GDR as a retro-movement is a trivialization of GDR history. "When Spreewald pickles and Trabi stories dominate these shows, and there is no talk of the dictatorship, the Wall, totalitarianism, and election fraud, one should ask why in fact the people of the East went to the streets back in 1989," said Rainer Eppelmann (CDU), head of the Stiftung Aufarbeitung, a foundation dedicated to the study of GDR issues.
But Ostalgie - as it is fuelled by television, films, and other media - is more than just a cult of East Germany. In fact, even those who warn against an oversimplification of life under communism recognize that what is happening in Germany right now has little to do with a yearning for the daily struggles in the GDR.
"Forgotten Already? Consumer Goods Made in East Germany" is a current exhibition in the Von Guben Museum on the German-Polish border that is capitalizing on the growing interest in GDR culture, showing everything from synthetic blend workerís shirts to the flimsy aluminium silverware that could be found in most East German homes. Exhibition curator Bernd Pilz described how he salvaged the exhibit pieces from the garbage after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when most former East Germans traded in their old things for new ones.
Interest in East Germany has piqued, also among West Germans, with humorous representations of daily life under communism. While the film "Goodbye, Lenin" catapulted the trend to a national obsession earlier this year, a newfound fascination with all things East German was apparent as early as the late 1990ís with the books and film adaptations of Thomas Brussigís "Sun Alley" (Sonnenalle) and "Heroes like Us" (Helden wie wir).
Other non-fiction books have given voice to the generation that came of age during the transition period that followed German reunification. Jana Henselís book "Zone Kids" has graced bestseller lists since its publication last Fall.
The phenomenon has reached academic life as well. Just recently, writers Joachim Walther and Ines Geipel proposed a mass archiving of the literature suppressed by the former communist regime that may shed light on what really went on in intellectual circles of the period. Walther, a highly-recognized yet "enemy" writer in the former East Germany, spent the first half of the 1990ís documenting censorship and national security mechanisms in the GDR. "The unpublished texts in the GDR show a more varied, ambivalent, and polarized view of East German literature than that which the published texts have communicated," Walther said. His colleague Ines Geipel was an Olympic swimmer in the East before fleeing to the West in 1989. Intimately familiar with the Eastís system of enhancing athletic performance through drug use, Geipel wrote the most recognized expose of the doping dilemma among Olympians.
But perhaps the strangest manifestation of the East Germany fad is the theme park being planned by the Berlin company Massine Productions GmbH, a 100,000 square foot replica of East Germany. No details have been spared for the park, which will feature border guards, rigorous customs inspections, East German Marks, and restaurants with the countryís typical foods.
However ephemeral the trend, the fact remains that many East Germans felt like they had to give up their whole way of life after the fall of the Berlin Wall. With the coming of this new fad, many have been able to embrace parts of their past while their Western counterparts develop and interest in a part of Germanyís history that might well have been swept under a rug.
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