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Berlin and the East : Ostalgie in the Free World
Berlin and the East : Ostalgie in the Free World
In 2003 the biggest movie in Germany was not a Hollywood blockbuster but the film "Good Bye Lenin", a home-grown tragicomedy.
It told a fictional story of a man who, in the early 1990's, recreates an imitation of the old Communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the bedroom of his ill mother.
His mother is a passionate socialist who went into a coma just before the Berlin Wall came down.
When she awakes the son takes extreme measures to keep the GDR alive in her bedroom as the shock of the fall of the Berlin Wall could prove fatal to his mother. He returns the house to the drab decor of the Communist days and dresses in old clothes.
He even hires children to serenade her with Volksongs and creates fake news broadcasts on TV with the use of a video player.
Part of the reason for the popularity of the movie was been ascribed to the phenomenon of 'Ostaglie' currently in vogue among some sectors of German society. The term is a hybrid of the words for 'east' and 'nostalgia' and unsurprisingly has been strongest among the older generation who lived under Communism in the East.
The word describes an atavistic longing for the past as people ruefully reflect on the positive aspects of their lives under the old regime.
A Left Field run
However this is not just a diffuse collection of anonymous and informal remembrance societies thinking wistfully of the old good days. Communist and left-wing parties have successfully made gains in general elections in Germany.
Not only that but left-wing parties are actually the most popular in eastern areas such as Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia that were once part of the GDR.
How can this be, since surely the advent of freedom and democracy could only have been a release from a harsh and authoritarian regime. When we talk of East Germany we are referring to the same country that killed over 1,000 of its citizens who were trying to escape to the West.
This was the government, under Soviet leadership and control, that divided families and put dissenters into prisons and psychiatric wards.
They controlled the country with the notorious 'Stasi', the Ministry for State Security, a secret police force who infiltrated every aspect of daily life for the East German people and were recognised as one of the most repressive and ruthlessly effective government agencies in the world.
Aside from the daily routine of mass surveillance, maintaining a network of thousands of informants, arrest, detention and torture of suspects there occurred the horrendous Berlin massacre of 1953. This dark event in the history of the GDR was sparked by a strike of construction workers over pay and production quotas which quickly accelerated into a call for a general strike all over the country.
But the industrial action by the workers also transformed into a demand for the resignation of the East German government. The latter called in the Soviets for help to quell what had become a political uprising against their regime and which had spread to other cities.
Let the blood run red
Consequently on 17th June 1953 in East Berlin, with the aid of the 'Volkspolizei', Soviet troops using T-34 tanks conducted a slaughter of the demonstrators in Unter den Linden and Potsdamer Platz.
Officially 51 were killed but other estimates claim 267 deaths plus ensuing executions that took place. An evaluation of documents recovered after the fall of the Berlin Wall puts the figure at 125.
However reprisals continued after the massacre and around 1,000 people were imprisoned. Furthermore, even some Soviet troops who had refused to open fire on the unarmed civilians were subsequently executed.
Then there were the many individual stories reported from the banal such as a man sacked for having a West German 'Dr Oetker' pudding in his larder to the serious in the treatment of a young girl who, at the age of just 14, was imprisoned for 10 years.
Her crime was putting lipstick on a portrait of Stalin which was hanging in her school. She served over 8 years of this sentence with a sizeable proportion at the old Nazi concentration camp at Sachsenhausen.
Tear down the wall
With the collapse of the Communist East came freedom, freedom of the press, the freedom of speech, opportunities to earn money, build businesses and the possibilites of travelling the world.
The material wealth of the new western consumerism could now be enjoyed as well as the glamour of its popular culture and lifestyle.
However, many obviously now feel that although unification brought these freedoms and more wealth for some, they feel it also brought a crass materialism accompanied by social breakdown, unemployment of more than 10%, drug problems and prostitution.
The social benefits of the old days are missed by many East Germans as in the GDR there was full employment and everyone had a home. There were freedoms to be coveted under the Communist state
Free medical care, free school places, free university places and free creches for children for working mothers as there was equality for women long before the west tackled the issue of gender discrimination.
The quality of consumer goods were generally poor but the GDR was a leader in some products. For example the famous camera lenses of Carl Zeiss Jena were once considered the best in the world.
In the old GDR a spirit of improvisation was fostered due to a lack of finance and materials and the East built a strong reputation for expertise in science and engineering under difficult circumstances.
Keeping up with the Johans
The economy in the east was weaker but then West Germany contained the huge industrial base. With the advent of the Marshall Plan and beyond it also enjoyed billions of dollars from the USA in aid and international trade becoming the generator economy of Europe.
During the Cold-War era it also benefitted from the investment and disposable income available from hosting massive NATO forces stationed in the country.
The GDR had a more rural, agricultural system which was not helped by a Soviet-style planned economy that reduce its wealth. However it was never likely to be able to compete with the comparative advantages of West Germany.
In fact the Communists claimed that the Berlin Wall was actually built to stop the west flooding the east with currency, thereby attempting to destroy the economy of the GDR.
How ironic then that the Eastern area received the blame for weakening the economy of the whole of Germany after reunification when the transfer from the West of more than $200 billion was required in subsidies.
What might have been?
The proponents of 'Ostaglie' may question that the repression of the old regime was inherent to Socialism. Could Socialism not provide freedom? Many East German citizens demanded Socialism in its ideal form in the GDR, not the totalitarian bureaucracy that was imposed upon them by a foreign superpower.
Political commentators speculate that maybe if the 'Leninist Capitalism' that is practised nowadays by China had occurred in East Germany then consequently the country could have enjoyed an altogether different economic history in the post-war period.
The 'Ostalgie' supporters perhaps seek a perfected model of modern Socialism combining enterprise and economic freedom with true equality and social protection.
But then again perhaps they are looking backwards and not forwards through rose-tinted spectacles to a misremembered past. Re-writing their history through selectively cherry-picking the glowing positives from the ashes of suppressed negatives.
Choosing issues important to their contemporary imperatives of the 21st Century which they feel are lacking under an impersonal Capitalist system that allows some to be left behind.
It seems that the power of the post-Communist myth can be persuasive to those seduced by the comforts of the past in an uncertain future.
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