Seven places to indulge in selective memory of the socialist state. The GDR was such a (socialist) paradise: cities were run-down and polluted, East Germans were impoverished and paranoid because they never knew which one of their friends was on the Stasi payroll… Not exactly a sexy history to brag about to tourists, yet history is malleable material and, when it comes to making money, our victorious capitalists are conveniently turning a lenient, forgiving eye on the system they once abhorred. Trabant rentals, Ossi eats, Plattenbauwohnung getaway weekends, pieces (real and fake) of the Berlin Wall – it’s an industry unto itself. We tested a full range of Soviet bloc retro-experiences, from tasteful remembrance to in-your-face pandering.
Make a trek to Berlin’s far eastern outskirts on a glorious Sunday afternoon if you’d like to step into a drearier, more ‘authentic’ version of the past. Do try to contain your excitement when confronted with the plethora of Soviet-era wonders within the preserved 1980s flat: East German cookbooks filling shelves, Soviet vacuum cleaners tucked beside “Karat” wardrobes, old newspapers adorning the living room table. It’s a bit like a visit to your grandma’s place – provided she is a hardcore communist. If you’ve seen the brochure, you’re not going to see much new when you arrive and, apart from a few antiquated brands, there isn’t much difference between this East Berlin flat and any retro pad from the same period. That said, it’s far from the garish instances of Ostalgie which can be seen throughout Berlin, and seems geared more towards the genuine nostalgist than the typical GDR looky-loo.
Hellersdorfer Str. 179, Hellersdorf, Sun 14-16, tours in German only.
While Westpakete were the longed-for packages of coffee, clothes, chocolate and even toilet paper sent from West German friends and relatives to pimp up the no-frills lives of Easterners, Ostpaket sells and ships GDR products to citizens of the capitalist world. Located between The Dungeon and Alexanderplatz, about one-third of the shop is devoted to pleasing the tourist hordes – Wall knick-knacks, Trabant towels and patriotic Young Pioneer-style scarves (€4.90). But according to owner Bianca Schäler, herself a native of Thuringia, 60 percent of her customers are denizens of former East Germany, there for her selection of hard-to-find GDR-produced cleaning products, cosmetics and clothes, many of which have achieved cult status. Schäler says they’re bought not just out of nostalgia, but also for their taste and quality, a dubious claim when it comes to the food: chocolate bar Schlager-Süßtafel tastes like chalk even though the current version is 32 percent cocoa (up from 7 percent in GDR times), and making Eis out of the famous Komet-brand powders is a peculiar idea in a city where there’s no shortage of the real thing. At the end of the day, Ostpaket makes for a rather unrealistic GDR shopping experience: missing are the long lines before making your purchase. And you don’t need ration cards to buy anything. And the shelves are actually filled with products…
Spandauer Str. 2, Mitte
As you stand in the reception area of the seven-year- old GDR-themed hostel, staring into the eyes of former GDR leader Horst Sindermann, music pouring out of a clunky wood-panelled radio, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve just stepped into a Stanley Kubrick film. Situated in an original Plattenbau block, Ostel’s walls are crowded with portraits of communist figureheads – they’ve certainly nailed the feeling of being under surveillance. The queasiness increases as you venture further into this exhibition of East Berlin style, with its orange-brown wallpaper patterns, tasselled pink lampshades and tacky furniture salvaged from the back rooms of secondhand shops and private homes. It doesn’t get much more authentic than this, although GDR citizens certainly didn’t have wi fi. Owners Daniel Helbig and Guido Sand are former East German circus performers, and you’d have to be some kind of clown to be into this.
Wriezener Karree 5, Friedrichshain
If there’s one thing that it’s hard to get nostalgic about when it comes to the GDR, it’s the border controls, with East German guards ordered to fire at their fellow citizens if they attempted to escape the country. Yet head to the notorious junction of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße, and you’ll see a parade of tourists cluelessly lining up to take their photos together with actors dressed in period-appropriate American, French, British and, yes, on demand, East German border guard uniforms – with permission from city authorities – in front of a replica of the American wooden guard hut. Ten years ago, the outspoken, eccentric Alexandra Hildebrandt, who runs the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, wrapped the hut in a blue tarp to show her discontent, and she’s still disturbed today: “Would you dress up as Gestapo in front of the Topography of Terror?” Oblivious travellers can expect a hug from the clowning “guards” while getting photographed for €2/person. They may joke about the GDR regime, but probably won’t inform you about the real border guards who shot an 18-year-old East German just a few metres away from this spot, letting him bleed to death for over an hour, in the no man’s land between the Soviet and American sectors. That’d ruin your smile a little. But hey, in an age when most German youth say they don’t even know who built the Wall, and over a third of those with parents born in the GDR wouldn’t even call it a dictatorship, why would we expect more from tourists?
Friedrichstr. 43-45, Kreuzberg
Standing at the crossroads by Checkpoint Charlie, you may hear an ominous rumble in the distance, like cans rattling in a spin cycle; that would be the combined racket of a convoy of Trabant two-stroke engines on its home stretch. The sputtering, polluting procession is courtesy of Trabi World, a company that offers self-driven city tours in hilarious little cars covered with a variety of prints: zebra, giraffe, cheetah, the works. Yes, the GDR was a police state and yes, citizens were imprisoned behind the Wall, but we can all agree the cars were so damn cute. And once you put some safari prints on them, they’re positively adorable. Never mind that back in the day, GDR citizens could be on waiting lists for up to 15 years in order to get their hands on one of these bangers, and kindly forget the fact that Trabis were and still are fuel-inefficient, prone to breakdowns and notoriously flimsy – they’re made of Duroplast plastic due to East Germany’s refusal to import iron or steel. The smelly little car has become perhaps the greatest symbol of the carnivalisation of GDR oppression. “Oh, lighten up!” Trabi enthusiasts might say. And you know what, they’re right. Let’s just have a GDR theme park. We’ll call it Stasiland.
Zimmerstr. 97, Mitte
The brochure for this this privately run ‘interactive’ exhibition poses the following question: was life in the GDR just about Spreewald pickles, FKK and Plattenbauten? Or 100 percent employment and queuing for food? The tone is set: the DDR Museum is clearly not about socialist dictatorship, a prison filled with political ‘dissidents’ or the psychological harassment of the Stasi. A model of the Berlin Wall facing visitors as they enter is just the mandatory overture before the show begins. What comes next might not encourage your critical thinking, but it will put your physical and mental skills to the test: Learn how to dance like a socialist by trying the “Lipsi”, the Communist Party’s ill-fated attempt to keep kids away from the corrupting influence of Western rock ‘n’ roll! Or become the manager of a Trabant factory and fail to meet the annual production quota! Experience the thrill of propaganda songs and learn how to knot the Freie Deutsche Jugend scarf in five simple steps! Kids line up for the touch screen where you try your luck picking the right attributes for a ”new socialist human”. To be fair, the museum does hold a section on mass surveillance – in a hidden corner about as big as the space devoted to fashion – where you play at being a Stasi spy, actually listening in on fellow visitors in another room of the exhibition. Unrealistic detail: They are aware of you doing so. Maybe the nastier parts of living in a police state are just too complicated to explain to the kids (go to Hohenschönhausen for that). Or they would simply poop the party (no pun intended).
Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 1, Mitte
Ever wake up in the middle of the night craving Würzfleisch? Then you may wish to take a trip out to Weißensee, where, since 2000, Osseria has tailored to the needs of Blutwurst junkies and sauerkraut lovers who still long for the bygone era of tin-smuggling and wall-hurdling. The mannequin who greets you at the door seems remarkably welcoming – despite his GDR border guard uniform – as he ushers you into this carefully presented time capsule, complete with household bric-a-brac, military badges, framed East German deutschmarks and the thump of Wolfgang Ziegler’s “Verdammt” resonating as you’re seated. And what a culinary delight awaits – provided you’re a fan of mushy, calorific food. Here you can indulge in the meaty casserole of your dreams (gratinéed Würzfleisch with toast and Worcester Soße, €3.50) and follow up with a real Ossi Jägerschnitzel: not the pork cutlet in mushroom sauce as known in the West, but a plate of pasta with tomato sauce topped with two breaded and fried slices of Jagdwurst sausage (€7.70). Similarly, don’t expect your Rote Grütze to display actual berries – the Komet powder that once rejoiced millions of mini-Ossis (still available at Ostpaket!) makes for a dessert closer to Jell-O and richer in chemicals than the fruity jelly on today’s supermarket shelves. Modern kids might not enjoy it, but there’s a “Pioneer” menu with red or white Pommes (€2.10) that should please everyone. For the parents, it’s protocol to top it all off with a Pfeffi, or an Eierlikör served in a glass as opposed to the traditional chocolate-rimmed wafer cup. Apparently it gets soggy, not unlike this East Berlin gimmick whose novelty gets real old, real fast.
Langhansstr. 103, Weißensee, Mon-Fri 9-23, Sat-Sun 10-23.
Originally published in issue #132, November 2014.