Looking East to the Past

Randall Stephens

"Ostalgie." That's East German nostalgia for the quaint days of communism--drab, bunker-like, late-Stalinist architecture, watches that don't work, tiny little cars, and the romance of scarcity. I encountered a slice of that for the first time in the dark comedy film Good Bye Lenin! Since then I've been curious about this strange sort of public memory. A little like being nostalgic about
the Dust Bowl? (Watch the East German National Anthem scene from Top Secret, embedded here.)

A related travel piece that recently appeared in a UK paper got my attention: Stephen McClarence, "Trains and Trabants," Yorkshire Post, 6 March 2011 19:00

FEW cities are as haunted by their past and their politics as Berlin. Around almost every corner there’s a reminder of its turbulent 20th century history – and one of the most potent of those reminders is being celebrated, if that’s the word, this year.

August sees the 50th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall and I’ve come to explore what remains of it and the divisions it created across the city. It’s not, however, a wholly sober trip. I’ve signed up for a tour in a Trabant, the notorious national car of East Germany, and there’s the prospect of mainland Europe’s biggest department store. . .

The nostalgia flourishes in a movement called Ostalgie – “nostalgia for the East” – which is celebrated at the absorbing DDR Museum. It explores East Berlin life before the Wall came down in 1989. Visitors poke around a recreated 1970s flat, with its floral wallpaper, net curtains, cassette player, copies of Sputnik magazine... and radiators, we’re alarmed to see, exactly like our own at home.

In the late 1990s Daphne Berdahl wrote an influential essay on the phenomenon: "'(N)Ostalgie' for the Present: Memory, Longing, and East German Things," Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology 64:2 (1999). After the fall of the Berlin Wall, objects and goods from the East became instant camp for West Germans. But the shoddy products of the East also took gave some weird, sentimental comfort. "In this business of Ostalgie," writes Berdahl, "East German products have taken on new meaning when used the second time around. Now stripped of their original context of an economy of scarcity or an oppressive regime, these products largely recall an East Germany that never existed. They thus illustrate not only the way in which memory is an interactive, malleable, and highly contested phenomenon, but also the processes through which things become informed with a remembering--and forgetting--capacity" (198).

Sounds like a fun way to get at "memory" vs "history"!