A Glimpse at Life in East Germany 20 Years After the Wall Fell

Perhaps because this was the very week of the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago, attendance at the one year old Museum of the DDR (German Democratic Republic- the official name of the East German Communist government) was way above average. Virtually every space was packed this afternoon with German college students, older German adults, families with young children, and some foreign tourists.  The museum sits by the River Spree in what was once a block from the People’s Palace, the now torn down entertainment and government complex where the parliamentarians of the old regime met and grandiose Communist events were staged. It is to be found on the appropriate Karl Liebknecht Street, a block named after the martyred Red leader of the 1918 attempt at a Bolshevik style revolution led by the Spartacists in the post World War I years.

The museum catalog sets out its purpose: “The DDR Museum is the only museum which concentrates on everyday life in the GDR. We don't only show the crimes of the State Security or the border defences at the Berlin Wall but we display the life of the people in the dictatorship: Maybe you know the spreewald pickles, nudism beaches and the Trabi - the rest of the life in this socialist state is unfamiliar to most of the people in the world.”

Going through its space is a rather surreal experience. A major success after one year in operation, the museum combines what Germans call “ostalgie” or nostalgia for the old Communist state that divided the capital of Germany with a somewhat critical perspective revealing the failure of the socialist dream.

For example, one exhibit shows a Stasi operation- in which the secret police regularly took photos of attendees at rock concerts, whom they scrupulously sought to identify, assuming that at some future time they could emerge as regime critics:


Another exhibit covers the well known insistence of beachcombers to swim in the nude. The text explains that the nude beach movement was a form of rebellion against prudish Communist protocol, a way of asserting individuality for those who lived in a regime that sought to control most aspects of life, in order to break down any independent civil society and create as thorough a totalitarian regime as was possible.


Strangely, though, the museum curators do not seem to realize that nudism was to some extent favored by Marxist ideologues, who building on the attempt of Wilhelm Reich to fuse Marxism and Freudianism into a coherent ideology, believed that nudism was one mechanism for advancing the cause of socialist revolution. Indeed, in the 1960s in this country, the late Lee Baxandall created a Nude Beach Movement in which he asserted just such an argument, and sought to translate the East German reality into protests in Cape Cod and elsewhere that he thought would easily move its adherents towards revolutionary socialism.

One of the most interesting exhibits takes place in a replica of an East German cinema, in which one gets to watch an official propaganda film made in the late 1970s that details the plans for future apartments and other dwellings prepared by State employed architects. The film emphasizes, as the narrator says in its closing moments, that socialism means “fulfillment of one’s dreams,” in which the Party plans massive and humane dwellings for the citizens of the future socialist Germany. By the year 2000, those who saw the film when it was made were told, the DDR would have built great new apartment dwellings in areas that were then vacant land, nicely landscaped centers that included ample space for greenery and children’s playgrounds.

In truth, those who have seen Brezhnev era worker’s homes in Moscow can see immediately that both the interior and exterior of the DDR homes and apartments were so far superior to that built by Stalin’s successors, that Russians who worked in East Germany must have been shocked at the disparity.


The apartment shown above is supposedly typical of what the interior of the cement block apartments were like in areas like Stalin-Allee, the massive complex of worker’s homes provided by the regime for its citizens who worked in factories. Of course, the museum does not show us the mansions lived in by Erich Honecker and the top Party cadre, who lived in luxury in leafy suburbs like the Pankow area, or along Lake Wansee, where celebrity artists like the American born defector and country-folk singer, the late Dean Reed, lived.