Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, almost all symbols of the former German Democratic Republic (DDR in German) have been removed. Regardless of the fact that former inhabitants of the DDR now live in a predominantly free-market economy, many still prefer to purchase household items that remind them of life in the old republic.

This socio-economic and sociocultural phenomenon is known in Germany as Ostalgie; it is a portmanteau that describes nostalgia for East Germany combining the German words Nostalgie meaning ‘nostalgia’ and Ost meaning ‘east’.

‘Now some people are longing for the old hermit’s cell like a childhood treehouse. That’s harmless; West Germans find it horrifying, East Germans find it touching.’ – Christoph Dieckmann (10 December 1993) “Der Schnee von gestern”, Die Zeit

‘The archival practices of collection and display can have a similar, if unintended, implication. Imagine what it must be like for many eastern Germans to walk into a museum and be surrounded by the things in their own living rooms. The effect of such historicizations of the present is uncanny (in the sense of a ‘strangeness of that which is most familiar’ [Ivy 1995:23]); The past is connected to the present by distancing it in space and time. […]

‘Ostalgic’ practices reveal a highly complicated relationship between personal histories, disadvantage, dispossession, the betrayal of promises, and the social worlds of production and consumption. These practices thus not only reflect and constitute important identity transformations in a period of intense social discord, but also reveal the politics, ambiguities, and paradoxes of memory, nostalgia, and resistance, all of which are linked to the paths, diversions, and multiple meanings of East German things.’

– Berdahl, Daphne (1999) ‘(N)Ostalgie’ for the present: Memory, longing, and East German things, Ethnos, 64: 2, 192—211

1 thought on “Ostalgie

  1. The following insight about life in the DDR compared to life in modern Germany is best read in the original German:

    “Ich denke keinesfalls, dass es hier besser ist.” Mit “hier” meint er das wiedervereinigte Deutschland, das er fragwürdigen Vergleichen aussetzt: “Früher gab es die Stasi, heute sammelt Schäuble[1] unsere Daten – oder die GEZ[2].” Einen grundsätzlichen Unterschied zwischen Diktatur und Freiheit sieht er nicht. “Die Menschen, die heute am Existenzminimum leben, die haben doch auch keine Reisefreiheit.”

    Birger[3] ist kein ungebildeter junger Mann. Er weiß von Bespitzelung und Repression und findet es “nicht gut, dass man da nicht rauskam und viele Leute unterdrückt wurden”. Schnöde Ostalgie, sagt er, sei für ihn kein Thema: “Ich habe zu Hause keinen Schrein aus Spreewaldgurken stehen.” Aber wenn die Heimat seiner Eltern kritisiert wird, dann regt sich in ihm Widerspruch: “Man kann nicht sagen, die DDR war ein Unrechtsstaat, und heute ist alles gut.”

    – Julia Von Bonstein (29 June 2009) “Heimweh nach der Diktatur”, Der Spiegel

    [1] Wolfgang Schäuble, German politician of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) who has served as Germany’s Federal Minister of Finance in the second and third Merkel cabinets since 2009.

    [2] The Gebühreneinzugszentrale der öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, also known as the Beitragsservice von ARD, ZDF und Deutschlandradio, is responsible for the collection of license fees.

    [3] A 30-year-old man from Mecklenburg who is being interviewed here.

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