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

The section on the arts tells museum goers that although the Party emphasized the need of the population to develop culture, and artists were at first enthusiastic supporters of the new socialist regime, they quickly found that to gain employment or commissions they had to adopt to the official Soviet brand of “socialist realism,” the philosophy of art demanded by Stalin’s acolyte Andrei Zhadanov through the 1950s and beyond.  But strangely, the Museum says virtually nothing about famous DDR dissidents in the arts, like the singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann, an advocate of “socialism with a human face” who was given permission to tour West Germany in the 1970s, and once out of the country, was refused re-entry, although he wanted to return and fight within for what he thought was the possibility of a humane socialism.


Biermann came from a Communist family and moved from the West to the East early after the DDR was formed, as his Wikipedia entry shows. He did so to honor his belief in building a Communist future, but quick disillusionment made him a danger to the regime, although he still believed in its official rationale for being. Today, Biermann no longer seems to be a man of the Left; he supported both the Iraq War and the NATO intervention in Kosovo. But whence he was expelled from the DDR, his fate was covered in all the major American papers, an it  made him an international cause célèbre. For many, it was the start  of realizing that the political leadership of the East German government was hopelessly Stalinist and incapable of reform, and that its claims to have any ability to forge a better future for its citizens was simply propaganda.

Indeed, the museum gives its viewers scores of statistics proving that that the regime had no ability to even meet the daily needs of its citizens for sufficient food, goods and basic commodities necessary to lead a decent life. Its factories were in disrepair, its workers hardly worked, and loyalty was forced through its youth groups, propaganda apparatus, and the ever present and ever more powerful STASI, who made the nation that of a country of informers, in which one never knew whose neighbor, friend or even spouse was working and reporting regularly for the secret police. If anything, the DDR Museum does too little to show visitors that aspect of the regime, nor does it even let its visitors know that one can go to two different STASI museums, one in the building that once headquartered the organization; the other in a residential neighborhood that housed its most infamous prison, in which those arrested were interrogated and tortured.

I toured the museum with my daughter and granddaughter, who live in a house that in the years of the DDR, directly faced the Berlin Wall and separated its inhabitants from being able to go to the Western sector they could see from their window. One of her friends grew up in the DDR, and as she told her, “If you didn’t care about anything, you could possibly enjoy life. After all, the government planned your future; you didn’t have to really work because it would lead to nothing, and your basic needs were met, although to a bare minimum.” So if you kept out of politics, did what you were told, marched in the mandatory parades like those on May Day, and mouthed the official required slogans no one believed, you could get by and not worry much. But for those who wanted to forge their own future, travel where they wished and think for themselves, the nanny state left them in a miserable state of being.

So is the museum a success? Does it really serve any purpose? As I said earlier, its very existence is somewhat surreal. After all, the regime it remembers is historically quite recent, and although the text accompanying the exhibits is critical of the old regime, at the same time it seems to be suggesting that it was not all bad, and that the DDR has got somewhat of a bad rap. It tells its visitors next to nothing about the Marxist-Leninist ideology of its rulers, of its aid to terrorists like the Red Army Fraction operating in the West (The Beider-Meinhoff gang) and the PLO in its terrorist heyday, nor the role it played as a surrogate for the Soviet Union and its attempt to gain control in Europe in the volatile days of the early Cold War.

For a museum that claims to teach its visitors something about history, it is strangely a-historical. Hence, it indeed feeds the views of the  small minority of Germans who still believed that the collapse of Communism left a void, and that the disappearance of the DDR was something to mourn. Fortunately, polls show that a vast of Germans, including the DDR’s former citizens, are delighted that it no longer exists, and that they now live in a democracy practicing market capitalism that affords them a future of their own choosing.

Led by a Chancellor who herself was once a citizen of the DDR, the reality shows how far from those days the current Germany is. Perhaps the museum’s curators might have asked Angela Merkel for a video interview, in which Germany’s first female leader could reflect on her life and experience in the DDR, and tell visitors what it was really like, and how growing up in its realm, she could reject its ideology and goals and become a leader in a free and democratic Western nation.  That they obviously did not even think of this is perhaps revealing of the major deficiencies of the DDR Museum.