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.
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.