This is my dissertation. I began writing this in May 2017 and I finished it in March 2018. I received a 2:1 for my work, and I think its time I shared it with you.
Nostalgia is the remembrance of past times which evokes feelings of pleasure, and sometimes pain, as well as recognition of personal and societal evolution and change. For the modern-day country of Germany, having been reunified almost 30 years ago, there is a form of nostalgia originating from the citizens of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR); commonly referred to as East Germany. It is called Ostalgie; Eastern Nostalgia.
Throughout this dissertation, available primary and secondary sources have been obtained to discuss the unprecedented preservation of East German life, unique to former communist states, and why the memory of East Germany remains almost 30 years after reunification. In Frank Furedi’s book ‘Mythical Past, Elusive Future: History and Society in an Anxious Age’ he argues that individuals create their own history based on their actions, and when times change, these people either fight for that change or they fight against the change that progress and entropy bring. In examining Ostalgie within this context, historians can understand why Ostalgie has become a capitalist enterprise, and why people are willing to fund the retention of East German iconography.
‘The Little Trafficman that Could’
Visitors to Berlin for a city break will be likely to see the Ampelmännchen traffic lights throughout the entire city, as well as in many souvenir shops. Over many years, they have become the symbol of East German nostalgia (Ostalgie) in post-reunification Germany, achieving a cult status like other East German icons such as the Trabant car. The adoption of the Ampelmännchen by Germany is perhaps one of the few items which had survived the process of reunification. When the politics of the two countries united, much of the infrastructure associated with the GDR was absorbed, including law, state businesses, and even television channels. Despite the wide removal of East German iconography and culture in favour of Pan Germanism, the Ampelmännchen has remained and has been in existence for 57 years, not only to direct pedestrian traffic and also as a symbol of Ostalgie and East Germany.
The Ampelmännchen was designed by Karl Peglau in the 1960’s, as a way of directing pedestrian traffic. When his plans to create a new system of traffic lights for cars and vehicles were rejected, due to the high cost of replacement he instead created a new pedestrian traffic light system. The lights were designed to be like two hat wearing men; one with his arms stretched as a barrier, and the other in a walking motion. These were designed to be a universal symbol, recognisable for children, the elderly, and the handicapped. The key defining feature of the Ampelmännchen were the hats that both traffic men wore; which Peglau would later go on to explain were inspired by the leader of the GDR, Erich Honecker, wearing a straw hat(SEE APPENDIX).
The Ampelmännchen was very popular with children in East Germany during the country’s existence, which perhaps represents the origins of the cult following for the symbols. During the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Ampelmännchen became advisors to teach children how to be safe around traffic, with several cartoon strips and even short films made for that purpose. The animated films showed the red Ampelmänn appearing near roads and other potentially dangerous environments, while the green Ampelmänn acted as an advisor figure, instructing children on how to stay safe.
After the reunification of the two Germanys, the Ampelmännchen were considered for replacement with a pan-German traffic light symbol. This began in the mid 90’s, which sparked some controversy; with the new pan-German symbols being referred to by Saxony Transport Minister, Jürgen Heyer, as ‘genderless beings with bald heads’. Similarly, protests occurred regarding the removal of other East German institutions and symbols. The protesters were sections of the former Eastern population, notably a pressure group, aptly named ‘Save our Ampelmännchen’, led by artists and businessmen. This campaign was successful, perhaps due to the existing commercialisation of the symbols by Markus Heckhausen, a German graphic designer, who used excess stock to build lamps. These lamps sold rapidly, and proved very popular, as news outlets reported on the work of Heckhausen. Heckhausen’s usage of the Ampelmännchen symbols led to the creation of shops selling memorabilia, using the iconography of the traffic symbols.
As Paul Cooke says, ‘The Ampelmännchen are now iconic figures to be found on a range of items, from t-shirts to table lamps’. The commercialisation of the Ampelmännchen by individuals such as Heckhausen has led to the traffic lights becoming a popular symbol to not only describe Ostalgie, but Berlin as a whole, and there are many examples of online shops and physical shops which sell items with the Ampelmännchen iconography.
When discussing Soviet nostalgia, historian Svetlana Boym noted that the campaign for the recovery of the memory of past events under the communist regime had evolved from observing history with an accurate viewpoint to an idealised perception of the past. In translating this to the East German memory, one can make an argument that the commercialisation of the Ampelmännchen is an example of a romanticised East Germany, much like Russians have with the memory of the Soviet Union. In recent years, with the rise of far-right politics in Germany, mainly through the increased support of Alternative Fur Deutschland (AFD), the voting demographics of East Germans elected this party to be the third-biggest in the 2017 German Bundestag, thus demonstrating the longing for a return of ethnic nationalism. Ethnic nationalism was a concept formed by philosophers during the 19th Century and included people such as German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte who referred to the sharing of a common language, culture, religion, as well as a shared history which binds groups together. Professors İnaç and Ünal discusses the concept of nationalism further, connoting that the idea of ethnic nationalism is an attempt to retain ethnic identity, and a rejection of other cultures co-existing within the cultural, social, and economic aspects and strategic alliances with those of different cultures, which may be left out because of their ‘differences’. There is a tension between the drive for a more globalised and multicultural society and a society which is more closed off and retaining its own independence and culture. The symbol of the Ampelmännchen is part of another drive to retain an ethnic identity, whilst conversely being part of a capitalist economic success story.
As previously mentioned, nostalgia is also a factor in the sustained popularity of Ampelmännchen. When creating the term ‘Nostalgia’, as a Greek alternative to the German word ‘Heimweh’, Johannes Hofer used the term as a way of describing how, when an individual is forced to leave a geographical or social area from their youth that creates a sense of moral decay, when faced with the prospect of leaving home. In the context of the East German example, it was not the citizens; who chose to remain of East Germany, who left the country, it was the country which had left the people behind, and a new country took its place, with very different ideas and concepts which were alien to many people. The very word nostalgia comes from the Greek words ‘Nosos’ and ‘Algos’, the former word essentially meaning homecoming, and the latter referring to disease or illness, respectively. In his field, Hofer wrote about the nostalgia of those who had been forced to serve in wars across Europe. Hofer’s definitions refer to the disease of nostalgia, negatively impacting people. In the example of East Germany, war could be described as the culture war between East and West during the cold war, the global ideological battle between communist and capitalist spheres. The retention of the Ampelmännchen being one of the few things to survive the cultural war between the East and the West was created out of this idea of nostalgia being an illness, and as the symbol of Ostalgie, This has created a fixed image of an idea of what East Germany was, rather than the realities of the communist dictatorship that was in power during the country’s existence. The fixed image of East Germany, captured by the Ampelmännchen, could lead to ideas of the country being altered to a more idealised manner, disregarding the harsh realities of the communist regime.
An example of this idea of altered perceptions of East Germany can be seen in the museums that exhibit a social history of the former East Germany, which is also referred to as DDR Alltag, or the everyday lives of people from the former East Germany. Museums, such as the DDR Museum in Berlin, have numerous exhibitions, including a recreation of a typical East German house, as well as interactive features, such as a driving simulator where visitors can drive a Trabant car. Chloe Paver makes the distinction between two different ways of DDR Alltag museums. Museums such as the DDR Museum in Berlin provide a narrative analysis of the history of East German life, with a curated selection of artefacts, whereas other museums, examples of which include the DDR Museum ‘Zeitreise’ in Dresden, are privately run, and rather than showing the best-preserved items in a curated selection, they show more of their collection, leading to instances where there are multiple items of the same artefact. The common feature of these two types of DDR Alltag museums is that both promote and glorify the idea of Ostalgie, be it intentional or not. Museums like the DDR Museum in Berlin, while they have exhibits and collections discussing the more negative aspects of East Germany, focus on the social lives of East Germans, rather than the political climate which they lived under. Museums such as the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial; the main prison for the political prisoners of the Stasi are examples of viewing the darker side of the regime, not covered in DDR Alltag museums (See Appendix ):
Another aspect of this argument is the promotion of museums, and the usage of colour as a descriptive term in the depiction of DDR Alltag referred to by Paver in her chapter, as well as by ‘The Lives of Others’ director, Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck. Both individuals remark that the stereotypical western view of the former East Germany is that of a grey country, and of a drab society. Donnersmarck remarking that in his studies of East Germany, during the development of his film, that the television programmes broadcasted lacked vibrant colours. The depiction of a grey East Germany clashes with the portrayal of DDR Alltag museums, something which is referred to as the ‘Grau-Bunt’ spectrum by Paver. While the stereotypical depiction of the former East Germany is that of a grey and drab country, the social and cultural history portrayed by its museums is much more colourful.
This is perhaps another reason for the survival of the Ampelmännchen as a colourful cultural icon of the former East and the unified Germany of today. The suggestion of a colourless, communist vacuum directly contrasts with the idea of the symbol. In an article for the magazine ‘Psych your Mind’ regarding the history of the Ampelmännchen, by Kate Reilly, her tour guide remarked that Peglau’s creations were designed to be large, and authoritarian by the East German Government, to ensure obedience when crossing the road. This could be construed as a remnant of Western bias towards Easterners. Had people in unified Germany not protested the attempted replacement of Ampelmännchen in the mid-1990’s, with a pan-German traffic symbol, the loss of the symbol would have become another remnant of East German society that had been removed. The Ampelmännchen is, therefore, an oddity of reunification, a symbolic spectre of a red, communist past, and a part of a green, capitalist-oriented, future.
‘A Lasting, yet Unfinished Legacy’
In 2017, the far-right political party Alternative Fur Deutschland (AFD) won its first seats in elections for the Reichstag. While most of these seats were won due to Germany’s two-stage voting system, three of these seats were local constituency seats, won in the former East German region of Saxony. Although, there are several factors which could explain these seat gains. The gaining of constituency seats in Saxony, a former part of East Germany, raises questions about how the AFD accomplished victories there. Additionally, there are also questions raised about the support of another party in the East; Die Linke Partei (Die Linke), which is a successor of the former Socialist Unity Party (SED) that oversaw East Germany between its inception and its demise.
Both Die Linke and AFD have an interesting history within East German Politics. Die Linke was formed by a merger of two left-wing parties; those being the Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS) and Labour and Social Justice- the Electoral Alternative (WASG). The former of the two merged parties was formed as a democratic successor to the Socialist Unity Party, who had ruled East Germany before reunification, and is considered ‘the leftist party of the former east’. AFD was formed more recently, in 2013, and was created to oppose German federal policy concerning the Euro crisis. Both these parties were formed in very different time periods, and with different reasons for their existence. Die Linke is a successor party, and AFD formed as a protest party. Both; however, hold populist policies to appeal to wide demographic of German people. When the PDS existed, it had dropped much of the symbolism associated with the SED, including much of its policy and many of its key leaders. Unlike the SED, the PDS was a democratic party, which rejected Marxist-Leninist teachings and the idea of a police state which had been prevalent in the former GDR.
There are several factors which could explain the popularity of parties such as Die Linke, as well as the recent successes of the AFD. Factors include the regional economic performance of the former East. Despite efforts from the national German government, the people who lived in the former East are less financially affluent, therefore making people more receptive to populist policy. Unemployment is also a factor, with statistics from 2014 illustrating that East German unemployment figures are higher at 9% in the East compared to 5.6% in the West, despite Government programmes in the area to stimulate the regional economy. According to Washington Post Foreign Affairs Reporter Rick Noack, this can be attributed to the previously mentioned failure of formerly state-owned East German factories. These factories did not have the modern mechanisation for higher productivity, like businesses in the West, leading to closures which displaced thousands of jobs. Wage discrepancies between the two Germanies have existed since the countries were split, and according to Paul Gleye, the East German Mark was worth much less than the West German Mark, despite officially being of equal value. The true value of the East German Mark was 9 Marks to 1 single West German Mark. Furthermore, recent economic crises within the European Union (EU) have impacted the confidence of German people in general, though especially those who lived in the former East, wherein 2013, AFD won their first state parliament seats in Brandenburg and Saxony. The want of Germans to dissolve the monetary union with the EU, as well as end integrationist policy associated with the foundation of the EU appears to have fostered the rise of AFD.
Unlike the AFD, Die Linke’s support relies on the already established support of its merged constituent parties, the PDS and WASG, as well as appealing to the nostalgia of East Germans from the former GDR. Its lack of success, at least on par with the recent successes of the AFD, can be attributed to its history as the successor of the SED, the governing party of the GDR. This has turned many of Germany’s older voters, who remember the cold war, against it. Unlike the AFD’s populist appeal, Die Linke’s support is a niche in comparison, despite being Germany’s fifth largest party, in terms of membership.
As earlier stated, the support for the AFD is partially attributed to its resistance to integrationist policies within Europe. This anti-globalist and xenophobic rhetoric, shared with parties such as Die Linke, has got a long and entrenched history with the reunification of Germany and with the former GDR. Perhaps one of the most infamous xenophobic incidents in the early years of reunited Germany was the Rostock riots in 1992. Rostock, a coastal town in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, was an important port town for the former East Germany, however, the economy suffered a large downturn following reunification. In the early 1990s, unemployment in Rostock approached 50 percent. Rostock also housed hundreds of asylum seekers, such as Roma travellers, many of whom lived in a large, 11 storey apartment complex, which was notorious for its poor living conditions and overcrowding. These factors led to a 3-day riot where neo-Nazis attacked the complex, setting it alight, cheered on by residents of the area. While no one was killed, the events that occurred were indicative of the far-right resurgence in the newly unified Germany. This is not a unique phenomenon in Germany, as other Eastern bloc countries who have rejected communism for a more democratic constitution, have also experienced far right-wing violence, such as the Hădăreni riots in Romania.
The rise of far-right groups in reunified Germany gives an interesting insight into the legacy of East Germany and of Ostalgie, relating to the ethnic nationalism that was the genesis of an all-German state in the 19th Century. During the era of communism, East Germany was one of several countries that were closed off to the rest of the world, with travel outside of Eastern Europe being heavily restricted. Reunification of the formerly two Germanies and the rest of the Eastern bloc has opened the country to outsiders, be they immigrants, capitalist businesses, and new influencers that were not readily available to East Germans previously. By the mid-1990’s, there were 7 million immigrants living in Germany, out of a population of 79 million. The opening of Germany to immigrants has led to an ethnic backlash on the part of some far-right Germans, many of whom come from the former East Germany, leading to events such as the Rostock riots and the election of the AFD in former East German states. Parties and groups like the AFD, advocate tighter immigration laws, and promise a Germany for the German people, directly thereby, touching on elements of Ostalgie and of a time when the country was closed off and ‘simpler’.
An example of this is evidenced in an interview with a former East German citizen, Christian Lorenz, keyboardist for rock band Rammstein. He discussed, in a 2005 interview, his fondness for the simplicity of the East German state. Discussing this simplicity in relation to the music scene of East Germany, he stated that ‘The increased size of the world also brought the danger of being compared to all of the international acts. The bands which were in the east were the only ones there, and if you were successful there, you were successful. I miss the simplicity.’ Andreas Pickel discussed the nature of a national collective identity, depicting it as a natural and homogeneous whole, which by nature is unchanging in its characteristics, with common origins and a common outcome. In a sense, the East German identity is built on the philosophy and policy of the SED, as the collective ideological monopoly of the former East Germany. Despite the reunification of Germany taking place almost thirty years ago, this identity remains and is reflected in the modern-day politics of Germany, through populist, extreme left and right-wing parties.
Memories of East Germany are built around its defiance of Western capitalism and its support for communism, itself being a German invention. Its former status as a closed-off country has led to the creation of the backlash against the outside influence of immigrants and foreign individuals. The recent migrant crisis from the middle east, which has seen many Muslim refugees immigrating to Europe has provided an impetus for right-wing ideas of a closed-off country to become prevalent again and to gain prominence in German politics, partially due to the status of the former East Germany, a country where industry collapsed after
‘Kinder, Liebe Kinder’
In an article for Deutsche Welle, published in 2017, journalist Ben Knight remarked that, despite the efforts of political institutions over the last 27 years since Germany’s reunification, there are still major splits between the people of Germany. Colloquially called ‘The Wall in the Head’, the sense that despite sharing one country, many Germans maintain that they are two peoples within one country. Referencing an interview with local Berlin newspaper, Berliner Zeitung, quoted Social Democratic Party Minister Thomas Krüger, a former East German, who claimed that “The domination of West Germans elites is still felt as cultural colonialism”. This cultural colonialism described by his theory is his reason as to why Alternative Fur Deutschland (AFD) had become the third largest party in Germany’s Reichstag, and the second most popular party in the East of Germany. If the cultural colonialism of the West is taken for granted, this could be considered another factor in the survival of cultural symbols of East Germany; such as the Ampelmännchen, and other objects such as the Trabant Car, or the Sandmännchen.
A factor for the survival and remembrance of East German culture and the prevalence of Ostalgie is the idea of social identity theory, developed by Henri Tajfel. Tajfel theorised that an individual’s social identity derives from their sense of who they are, based on being affiliated with a group; for example, an individual’s family can be considered a group, and being a member of a family or a group of people can be a source of pride for an individual. Social identity theory also extends to nationalities and being a part of a nation or an ethnicity and can provide similar pride for individuals. In this context, being an East German with the remembrance of East German culture through Ostalgie, this could be a source of pride for citizens of the former East Germany. The reactionary politics of Germany’s election of the AFD (discussed in the previous section) could perhaps be a manner of increasing the self-image of East Germans. By voting for AFD, a party which considers itself to be against the established political sphere of Germany, under the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the SPD, the East German population is attacking and criticising the values of West German politics, based on the values and ideologies espoused by the former East German government, relating to censorship and isolationism. Relating to the first section, where the idea of the grau-bunt spectrum depicting East German society was discussed, the proliferation of Ostalgie amongst the Eastern population is defiantly bunt; or colourful, especially when in a 2009 poll conducted by Der Spiegel, 57% of those surveyed believed that East Germany had more good sides than bad.
Alongside the Ampelmännchen, there are numerous other surviving pieces of East German history and culture which have survived reunification, all of which add to the identity of the East German people. Besides the Ampelmännchen, the other major symbol of Ostalgie is the Trabant car. Nicknamed the Trabi, this was one of two East German car brands, the other being the Wartburg. Like the Ampelmännchen, the Trabi was another symbol of East Germany, but unlike the popular symbolism of the Ampelmännchen, the Trabi became a symbol of national embarrassment, poking fun at the quality of the car. East Germans referred to the Trabi as the cardboard race car, since the car was made not from sheet metal, but from hard plastic. Johnathan Zatlin referred to the poor quality of the car as an example of Socialist Unity Party’s ineptitude in trying to placate the consumer market, but lacking resources to do so. The quality and quantity of East German consumer goods was an issue which had contributed to the protests which began the process of reunification. Reports from the last year of the GDR noted that the lack of quality consumer goods was a point of critique amongst the populace of East Germany against socialism, and a point to promote capitalism, which could have been more beneficial to the people during this time.
Economic factors and people’s Ostalgie for the former East has been exploited by politicians to gain support. In recent years, Alternative fur Deutschland; the third largest party in the most recent Bundestag elections, has used economic factors to attract wider support in Germany than it ever had before. A recent study by the Hans Böcker Foundation; which surveyed just under 5000 AFD voters, found that half of them had elected the party based on socio-economic factors. By taking advantage of the socio-economic fears of German people in the East, as well as a fear of ‘outsiders’ and ‘foreigners’ coming into their country, AFD has been able to use Ostalgie as an effective campaigning platform. If we take the idea that nostalgia; and by extension Ostalgie, is a disease, a melancholy towards a sense of home and belonging, the election of parties such as AFD can be contextualised as a sickness derived from forced changes in society, due to reunification.
AFD, however, was not the first political party to use nostalgia and the sickness of nostalgia as a campaigning tool. The Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor to the Socialist Unity Party, was the first party to do so. The party was derided as being weak, especially as it lost its parliamentary majority in East German elections in 1990. PDS eventually became the third biggest party in parliament, with just over 11% of the vote. PDS’s successes mainly came from local elections in eastern states, such as Saxony and Thuringia, as well as in the East of Berlin. Much like AFD’s success in 2017’s federal elections, the local election victories of the PDS came from fears over socioeconomic factors, as well as the loss of social identity, within the reunified Germany, due to the process of reunification. As mentioned when discussing the economics of the East in modern Germany, the decline of Eastern industry, especially in favour of the more efficient and private capitalist Western industry, led to many jobs being lost, jobs which would have been guaranteed under the old system. With reference to the earlier discussion of the preservation of the Ampelmännchen, in opposition to the pan-German road and pedestrian signs, the election of PDS representatives in local parliament could be considered resistance to reunification, something which historian W.C Thompson theorises.
Thompson discusses in his article that the success of PDS in local elections after 1994 suggested that the electorate were not supportive of the new capitalist system. People had rejected Christian democratic parties, who were depicted as anti-communist, as well as social democratic parties in the centre left, who could not establish a foothold in the new German states after reunification, leading to a return of support for the former communists. Thompson concluded that Western parties were enforcing a new identity on the reunified Germany based on the identity of West German people, as opposed to the social identity of East German people. This again can be used to explain support for the AFD today, as the idea of allowing foreign people to come into Germany remains an alien idea to some Germans, creating disillusionment and a need for Ostalgie. One form is that of East German television programming.
The continued popularity of East German television programming and depictions of East Germany in the media have become a staple of Ostalgie in everyday life. During the process of reunification, many East German media institutions began to close or were purchased by the Western private enterprise as the market opened. As John Sandford remarks, the closure of East German radio channels, state television and newspapers were caused by the continuing relinquishment of state control by the SED, causing these broadcasters to lose their reason for existing, contributing to another loss of East German identity. East German state media was the carefully filtered source of news and propaganda for residents in the East German state. As the only form of media, the state media had the power to influence national opinion and could focus attention on a few key issues of the state’s choosing.
While much of the programming that DDR TV produced ended after reunification, some programming survived. The most notable of these programmes was ‘Unser Sandmännchen’, which began broadcasting in East Germany in 1959 after a West German programme of the same name began broadcasting on West German television in the previous year. The continued popularity of the Eastern Sandmännchen after reunification led to Unser Sandmännchen overtaking his Western counterpart, Das Sandmännchen, in popularity, with old episodes of the former being repeated online and on television. ‘Unser Sandmännchen’ is an example of the East German social identity becoming a part of the shared pan-German identity, like that of the Ampelmännchen, being one of the few symbols of East German culture to survive and thrive in the reunified Germany.
The popularity of the Sandmännchen by Germans was part of a study by Delia Chiaro, which surveyed different groups of people, some being West German and some being East German, who watched the film ‘Goodbye, Lenin!’. Their reactions to the opening scene of the film, featuring astronaut Sigmund Jahn and Unser Sandmännchen differed amongst the separate groups, with 55% of East Germans smiling at the sight of the character, and 27% being emotionally moved, demonstrating continued popularity of Sandmännchen for East Germans. Television programmes and films that feature East Germany prominently have also been a popular source of Ostalgie and entertainment. The 2015 television programme, Deutschland ’83, set during the able archer military games of 1983, has been argued to have nearly caused war between the East and West, was an internationally renowned series, winning a number of awards. Many other programmes and films have depicted East Germany and Ostalgie in different ways and can be looked at comparatively.
‘The Sendoff it deserved’
Depictions of East Germany in cinema have been very varied over the years, since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. Filmmakers from the country have created differing accounts of what life was like in East Germany, with other accounts still being made to this day. 2015’s Deutschland ’83; a fictionalised espionage story concerning the Able Archer incident, was the first German-language drama to be televised on an American network. Deutschland ’83 is by no means the first German film or television programme which depicts East German life to gain recognition outside of its country of origin. There have been several notable, critically acclaimed films each of which have depicted an aspect of East German life or the East German state. Two of the most notable of these films being ‘The Lives of Others’, and ‘Goodbye, Lenin!’.
‘Goodbye, Lenin!’ and ‘The Lives of Others’; released in 2003 and 2006 respectively, both feature different portrayals of the memory of East Germany. While these contrasting portrayals create different images of East Germany, related to the idea of the Grau-Bunt spectrum, both films manage to portray their characters as victims of the system that they lived in or grew up in. All characters, to some extent, suffer because of East Germany.
Goodbye Lenin’s plot focuses on the story of a young man; Alex, his family and friends, trying to protect the protagonist’s ailing mother from the backdrop of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the westernisation of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and the eventual reunification of the country. This protection involves the elaborate staging of East German life, including the redressing of the family flat, the repackaging of food items with familiar East German brands, as well as recreating East German television with the aid of a filmmaker friend that the protagonist knows through work. A commonality between this movie and The Lives of Others is that the history of the period is not the main feature of this film, in the case of ‘Goodbye, Lenin!’ it is instead a family drama with the history of the period acting as the main backdrop. Much of this film’s popularity is built on the appearances of iconography and aspects of East German life, making it a popular Ostalgie film.
Roger Hillman’s journal article on Goodbye Lenin suggests that the film’s view on history is in the subjunctive, wishing for things to have happened in a certain way rather than in the manner that they did happen. A line said by Alex in the movie supports this suggestion, he says he ‘created the East Germany that should have existed’. Hillman notes, as well, that the subjunctive view of history that Goodbye Lenin uses may not come from a place of Ostalgie, but, from a Western perspective. The purpose of the film could be interpreted as a Western subjunctive interpretation on how East Germany should be remembered by Western and Eastern Germans. Further evidence that Hillman highlights are the final news broadcasts that Alex produces, featuring a taxi driver who looked like Sigmund Jahn (a hero of Alex as a child) being the General Secretary of the GDR. This lends further credence to the idea that Alex created his ideal depiction of East Germany by having a childhood hero of his as the country’s leader.
This creation of a triumphant end of the GDR contrasts with the reality of the occurrence, touched upon in parts of Goodbye Lenin. There are scenes which show the eventual relaxation of East German border guards allowing people in East Berlin to cross into the West. We see further erosion of the East German state in a scene where Christiane, the mother of Alex, leaves her flat for the first time, observing a large collection of East German furniture discarded by residents, and a statue of Lenin flying over her with his arm reaching out, portraying the idea of East Germany being dismantled.
The illusions created by the protagonist in the film are not the only illusions portrayed during the film. In the opening scene, we see Christiane as a very loyal Socialist Unity Party member, instilling her party values onto her children. However, we also find out that the father; who had escaped to West Germany, had planned with the mother to take the entire family over to the West, seemingly exposing her illusion of being a hard-line supporter of the East German system which the protagonists believe, and in response try to replicate (with their own illusions) for the ailing mother after her heart attack. They create a sense of Ostalgie for someone who perhaps is not as ‘Ostalgic’ as the viewer and the protagonists in the film initially thought.
The illusions that the main characters create is indicative of the GDR, as a country which was portrayed, through state-sponsored propaganda, as a prospering Eastern bloc socialist country, hiding the internal fractures within the system, such as the overall lack of money and the poorer living standards compared with the more affluent Western bloc. The impressions created by the characters illustrate a romanticised image of what was already an idealised state, over exemplifying the good aspects and the pleasant memories associated with the protagonist’s childhood, and the idyllic values depicted in the film by Christiane.
The Ostalgie demonstrated in this film showcases the first half of the definition created for this study, that of evoking feelings of pleasure and sometimes pain. For the protagonist, referring to the past to keep his mother alive, is painfully regressive for the main characters, as they return to wearing uncomfortable clothes, figuratively and literally, representative of the old system. The film’s story does acknowledge, to an extent, the societal evolution of the GDR throughout the process of reunification. Throughout the scenes in which Christiane is in her coma, a montage of clips occurs whereby the main characters replace furniture and clothes for more fashionable Western designs, and the main characters are seen working for Western companies who had just entered the East German economy such as Burger King. While the film shows these changes in a very condensed timeline, it does acknowledge some of the societal change that occurred in reality. In the six months that Christiane was in a coma, much of the system that she apparently idealised to her children is dismantled. The film looks back fondly at the past, but the story does not acknowledge the change in society for the better, though it could be argued that it is not what the film was trying to do.
‘Goodbye Lenin’ portrays a positive assessment of the old system, something that is not done by ‘The Lives of Others’, which has less sympathetic characters and a less sympathetic story. ‘The Lives of Others’ portrayal of Ostalgie represents the other half of the definition of nostalgia used in this thesis, that it acknowledges the societal change and evolution since that period. Some have criticised ‘The Lives of Others’ for its humanisation of the main character, a Stasi officer who becomes increasingly disillusioned with the system when spying on a writer over a long-time period.
However, writers such as Lisa Sternlieb deny that the film is about Ostalgie. She argues that the film is a piece of self-reflection from the director, an outsider, his perceived version of East Berlin and East Germany that was created through his visits as a child and teenager to the country. This is something which Donnersmarck admits came from the observation of fear from adults both living in East Germany, as well as fear demonstrated by his parents when visiting friends across the border. The plot and themes of The Lives of Others borrow stylistic and narrative elements from Western cinema rather than East German depictions of life. There are also subtle allusions to the George Orwell book 1984 within the film, with the plot of the film starting during the era of Konstantin Chernenko as Soviet leader, whose brief tenure as leader of the Soviet Union between 1984-1985, brought about more severe control over Eastern citizens. Sternlieb notes, in her article, that many of the films that Von Donnersmarck used for inspiration are all Hollywood films, though most are in some way connected with the wartime and immediate post wartime experience. This does not discredit the fact that the director; Florian Maria Georg Christian Graf Henckel von Donnersmarck studied the topic for four years, during the production of the film. Compared to Wolfgang Becker’s Western subjunctive interpretation of the GDR as an outsider looking in, von Donnersmarck’s portrayal of the GDR is bleaker, with more muted colour palettes to evoke a sense of realism. There is a starkness to the film and the country of East Germany is portrayed as such. Unlike ‘Goodbye Lenin’, this is not a film about individual people but is more about a system. We see the protagonist; Gerd Wiesler’s use of Zersetzung techniques; a process of psychological torture used by Stasi members to create compliance in suspects of counter-revolutionary activities, this creates the vision of the character being compliant with the regime. At the start of the film, during an interrogation, Weisler portrays a similar character to Christiane (from ‘Goodbye, Lenin’), as a seemingly loyal member of the East German state, and facilitator of East German values and propaganda, who, the viewer eventually sees become disillusioned with the GDR, although in very different ways. While Christiane’s duplicity is revealed as a twist, and fitting in with ‘Goodbye, Lenin’s’ theme of illusions, we see Weisler’s beliefs tested and changing throughout ‘The Lives of Others’.
Much like ‘Goodbye, Lenin’, the film portrays only aspects of the subject matter. While Stasi spying is at the forefront of the plot of The Lives of Others, its sole focus is on spying in East Berlin. Von Donnersmarck admits in an interview that while spying was prevalent across East Germany, it was more obvious in the smaller towns.
The difference between ‘Goodbye, Lenin’ and ‘The Lives of Others’ is that while they both portray Ostalgie, they do so in contrasting ways. In the former film, we observe the lives of individuals in a family setting and their life in relation to the GDR and the fall of the GDR, whereas the latter film’s portrayal does not invite the viewer into the personal lives of the characters, but it does show how both officials in the GDR system; particularly the Stasi, had their views tested and changed by their work. Weisler (In the Lives of Others) is portrayed throughout most of the film as a Stasi agent, not as someone living under the system, and the film has a top to bottom approach at depicting the GDR. The viewer observes in ‘The Lives of Others’, members of state agencies and their interactions with the world, while ‘Goodbye, Lenin’ highlights the GDR from the bottom to the top, showing the characters consuming propaganda propagated by the state, rather than seeing the state creating a compliant regime.
‘Sorely Missed’- Conclusion
Ostalgie is not a unique phenomenon, at least amongst former communist countries, where the desire for a structured and a controlled environment appears a preference for those voting for political parties such as AFD, who seek to return their countries to a previous era, an era which is viewed as better. Evoked by symbols such as the Ampelmännchen, there is the memory of a country, a regime, which for 41 years, had ruled its people with total control, under a communist, authoritarian system, one which incited suspicion of surrounding countries, and even fellow citizens. Despite the many weaknesses of the GDR, its lower standard of living, its restrictive press, as well as the looming presence of a concrete wall surrounding a city, a prison of sorts where the inmates were ‘free’, it was still home for these people. People grew up in East Germany, and their lives were instilled with the propaganda and values of the culture, controlled by the Socialist Unity Party, and the Soviet Union. The strength of East German social identity, even almost thirty years after German reunification, can still be seen by the sales of symbolic memorabilia, the voting patterns of the Eastern regions as mentioned, and viewing figures for Sandmännchen, being only several examples. Symbols like the Ampelmännchen have become part of the pan-German identity, due to its commercialisation and the resistance of people who had lost their home country.
Nostalgia is defined as homesickness, and the proliferation of East German memories have not just become a part of pan-German culture, but increasingly are evident in the international cultural sphere through programming such as Deutschland ’83, as well as movies such as ‘The Lives of Others’, ‘Goodbye, Lenin!’, and many others have fuelled the continued international debate about East Germany, Ostalgie, and the memory of communism. People hold on to these structures and ideals because it is part of them, it is their social identity, something which cannot be taken away, until the last of the generation passes away. It will possibly be only at that point where a real pan-German culture can develop. It is still too recent in the past to get rid of ‘the border in the head’, the shared idea of there being an ‘us and them’.
Recent evidence suggests, through the election of AFD as the third largest party of the German Bundestag, that the East German debate has been reinvigorated in the academic world. The popularity of the party in the East, much like the successor parties of the communists, has only just now been researched, presenting a new frontier for academics to debate the memory of East Germany, and how Ostalgie is a continued obstacle in the German reunification. Furedi suggested that as societies evolve, a fight will begin to facilitate societal evolution or retention of old ideas. As can be seen through the election of the AFD, as new individuals, ideas, and customs move into an increasingly globalised and united Europe, people are beginning to resist.
Hester Vaizey says in the conclusion of the book ‘Born in
the GDR’, ‘For all that joining a
democratic system opened the door to new opportunities that had been
unavailable to them under SED rule, GDR citizens lost a specific culture that
will be sorely missed’.
It can be concluded, with reference to the quote, that Ostalgie will remain a
part of the reunified Germany for many years to come, and that the study of
Ostalgie in post-communist Germany will also continue. As society continues to
evolve and change. East Germany will be remembered, and the Ampelmännchen will
‘Sorely Missed’- conclusion
 Hester Vaizey, Born In The GDR, 2nd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 161.
The sendoff it deserved
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