- The Washington Times - Friday, December 12, 2003

BERLIN — A hit movie and TV shows recall with fondness life in the former East Germany. A best-selling book features Cold War-era East German jokes. A planned theme park will commemorate life on the communist side of the graffiti-covered Berlin Wall.

Welcome to the German craze of “Ostalgia” — a play on the German words for “east” and “nostalgia” that translates into a longing for life as it once was — behind the Iron Curtain.

“It is hankering after what once was,” says Juergen Mackert, a German sociologist at Humboldt University, who calls this trend “chic.”

When East Germany reunited with its western counterpart 13 years ago, the euphoria over the Berlin Wall’s destruction slowly dissolved as difficulties arose over integrating two different economies and cultural legacies.

These days, many “Ossies,” as East Germans are known, resent the higher unemployment rates, lower wages and living standards in the eastern part of Germany. They also resent a perceived sense of superiority of those in what was once West Germany.

Ostalgia is the result, and there are plenty of signs marking the trend.

In May, a “GDR Fun” park is set to open, using the initials for the former German Democratic Republic, as East Germany was known.

It will feature East German money, border checkpoints with grumpy guards, half-stocked shops, and tiny, clunky cars called Trabants.

In bookstores, there has been a run on the “Box” — a kit filled with items such as an East German passport, newspaper and worker certificate — designed to bring a little bit of the east back into one’s life.

A book of old East German jokes released last year proved so popular that a sequel recently was released. Other books detailing East German life are flying off the shelves.

And this year, a hit film called “Goodbye, Lenin” won the best film of the year award at the Berlin film festival.

The film is credited with further promoting Ostalgia. It’s a tale of a young man in East Berlin just before the fall of the Berlin Wall and his attempt to keep the truth of East Germany’s collapse from his invalid and fiercely communist mother.

The film’s director, Wolfgang Becker, a West German, said he never intended to create an obsession with the east, but that if such an obsession exists, it is natural.

“It wasn’t all that better in the past, but the human psyche likes to block that out,” he told the German newspaper, Tagesspiegel.

After the film came out, a TV station created a show featuring East German Olympic figure-skating champion Katarina Witt.

The program is the latest of four that chronicles the history of the east and features icons from East Germany’s past.

The shows are hits in the east, with a 33 percent audience share.

Critics of Ostalgia say it “whitewashes the past” and “trivializes history” by not detailing the problems of East Germany.

Nearly 1,000 people died trying to flee the country, hundreds of whom were shot by East German border guards.

Wolfgang Thierse, the German parliament speaker and an East German, wants East Germany to be shown in “all of its inconsistency,” saying there was happiness in the east but also a dictatorship and a shattered economy.

“We were spied on and imprisoned behind a wall,” he said.

Other critics say the trend calls into question why East Germans marched in 1989 to open the Berlin Wall at all.

Still, a poll released in September by the German weekly Stern showed that one-third of people surveyed in the east regret that daily life as they knew it is gone.

That followed a study this year by German news Channel N24 that found two-thirds of easterners surveyed thought that “a wall in people’s minds” still divides the country and 73 percent said they felt alienated from West Germans.

But it isn’t just East Germans who indulge in Ostalgia.

One online company, OssiVersand.de, offers eastern products such as CDs with socialist songs and T-shirts with GDR logos. It sells about a third of its products to western customers, company officials say.

“Wessies,” as West Germans are known, have been moving to now-fashionable neighborhoods of East Berlin — and to the communist-era concrete block housing that was thought so repugnant a few years ago.

They are wearing clothing from the era, visiting exhibitions on East Germany and smoking eastern cigarettes.

“This stuff is interesting because it reflects another time in our history,” said Rolf Baumann, a West German, while perusing East German-themed books in a downtown Berlin bookstore. “And it is ‘in.’”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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