GO EAST YOUNG GERMAN

by Edward Wilkinson Latham

Globe and Mail Review Section

It has been over twelve years since the last Trabant rolled off the Sachsenring Automobilwerke production line in Zwickau, Eastern Germany. The ‘Plastic Bomber’ as it was known, was built from toxic fiberglass with a two-stroke engine thrown inside. The small and temperamental family wagon was the four-wheel symbol of East Germany’s ‘feel good’ dictatorship and for decades the object of western ridicule; “How do you repair your S-Class Mercedes after it's hit a Trabant at 240 kmh?" a West German autobahn driver asks jokingly.“Switch on the headlamp washers!”

Now, as comic as it may sound, former communist era vehicles have become highly collectible items.. This surely isn’t due to a passion for superior engineering that can be said of West Germany’s counterparts like Volkswagen and BMW. Rather it is a symbol of a strange growing wave of nostalgia sweeping Germany for all things made in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). It’s a phenomenon known as “Ostaligie”.

After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, East Germans gorged themselves on the forbidden fruits of capitalism; today many are feeling a vague dissatisfaction with the West and are revisiting their roots. Germany may be reunited, but unemployment in the East is double that of in the West and some see economic conditions as worse than the days when they lived behind the Iron Curtain.

Ostaligie has been simmering for a few years, evidence by the appearance of popular memoirs of former citizens of the GDR, such as Jana Hensel’s book Zonekinder (Children of the Zone). A dozen or so other titles followed, including the recently published Mein Freie Deutche Jugend (My free German Youth) by Claudia Rusch.

However it was the recent movie Goodbye Lenin!, which opened here last year February (and is scheduled to come to North America in late December) that was the main catalyst in attracting many East and West Germans to the retro cool of the GDR. Described as a feel good memoir, Wolfgang Becker’s stylish tragic comedy focuses on a brother and sister's amusing efforts to conceal the Westernisation of East Berlin from their fragile mother, who is recovering after falling into a coma shortly before the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.

Complete with copious reminders of the old GDR chic, including Young pioneers, Mokkafix instant coffee, Spreewald gherkins and kitschy socialist tunes – all props in a plot to fool the mother into thinking nothing has changed –Goodbye Lenin! was seen by 1.8 million Germans in its first two weeks in theatres; over 500 copies of the film were rushed into circulation to ensure noone would be turned away from sold out screens.

Becker has his own theories as to why his film hit a nerve in Germany. “A lot of East Germans still have this inferiority complex, so how could they get along with their own history? With their own past? The film is a symbolic funeral in dignity to all that, I think.”

Riding on the shirt tales of Wolfgang Becker’s blockbuster, nostalgia for the GDR is mushrooming. Along side resurrected GDR-made movies and openings of GDR Art exhibitions, Katerina Vitt, the former East German Olympic skating star, is about to host a new TV chat show called The GDR Show, in she’ll mix interviews with celebrities and dissidents from East Germany with presentations of music, fashion and everyday culture in the East.

The show is moving ahead despite that its producer, private television channel RTL, has come under fire from an aid organization for playing down human rights abuses in the former Communist East Germany. The group Help, an organization for victims of political violence in Europe, said in a public letter to RTL that “the title of the show alone implies an underrating of the terrible dictatorship,” and ended by stating, "We expect – and with us millions of morally-thinking people – that you should neither produce nor broadcast this show that glosses over and underplays the GDR dictatorship."

In the meantime countless stores right across Germany are selling Ostprodukte-products made in the East.

Along side Marlboro cigarettes, there’s Sprachlos and Karo; Swyt and Milwok for Tide and Vita cola competes with Coca Cola. Specialty distributor Ossi-Versand have seen an 85% increase in their business supplying such things as Halberstadt sausages, Agenta Chocolate Flakes, and Zetti Crunchy Flakes.

Even stranger, West German company, Massine Productions GmbH is building a 100,000 square foot replica of life behind the Iron Curtain in the southeast Berlin district of Koepenick. Visitors to the GDR theme park will be forced to change their currency to old East German Marks, which can be spent in the gift shop or canteen and drive a Trabant along a Berlin Street. Actors posing as mean tempered GDR border guards will watch everyone closely. The company told reporters that they “don’t want to create a GDR Disneyland. They’re looking for a genuine sense of East Germany.”

Does that mean that the park will have its own Stasi, the infamous and efficient secret police that used a huge network of informants to spy on and repress the citizens of East Germany? After all they play a big role in the memories that’s its former citizens still have of the GDR. In 1949, a year after George Orwell published his novel 1984, 17 million Germans found their selves living in a communist state that professed to rise above Nazism, but soon substituted similar methods of its own.

Anna Funder, author of Stasiland: True Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, explains that ‘Ostaligie’ hides something very sinister and serious. “It helps to make the memory of the regime harmless. Many East Germans aged over 30 feel that they belong to a nation that no longer exists. They want something to feel proud of. Sometimes they have to invent it…. In current-day politics we swing between left and right on a very narrow spectrum, but it’s worth remembering that extremism is never very far away.”

Indeed former communist parties still receive a lot of support across Eastern Germany but most political analysts dismiss the notion of Marxism gaining a new foothold, instead proposing that Germans will remain selectively ‘Ostalgic’ until economic conditions improve. With the 2012 Olympic Games awarded to the eastern city of Leipzig, ‘Ostaligie’ may fall into the category of just another fashion trend. Winning the Games over West German cities such as Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Hamburg, Leipzig has gained a major achievement for many Easterners and may just help them see the bad old days as nothing to celebrate.

Special to the Globe and Mail

EWL©