I've had a soft spot for Eastern Europe for as long as I can remember. I grew up in the years before peristroika (the Berlin Wall fell while I was an undergraduate) and the idea of these forbidden lands suddenly opening to the world was very attractive to me. Unfortunately, I haven't had many chances to travel there (I was in Prague as a tourist in 1999, and was in what was once East Berlin on business in 2001). Still, through books and music I've learned a lot about the culture of Eastern Europe, particularly that of the former GDR (East Germany).

GDR -- The German Democratic Republic


One of the reasons why I've always been interested in the GDR was the stories my mother used to tell me about visiting East Berlin when she was a student in Germany before the Wall was built. One of the stories she told me about seeing an East German movie has always stuck with me. The movie was a typical spy action story in which the hero foils the nefarious plot of the villains. Of course being an East German film, the hero was a loyal communist and the bad guys were the Americans and their lackeys. When my mother told me this story when I was a child, it was very eye-opening -- I hadn't considered the idea before that nobody sees themselves as "the bad guy".

A more recent reason for my interest in the GDR was my discovery of the works of the German writer Peter Schneider. Around 1995 I purchased a remaindered copy of his collection of essays entitled "The German Comedy", written at the time of German unification. Besides the excellent prose, what was interesting about the essays was, unlike the majority of pundits at the time, Schneider realized that the 40 years of separation from West Germany had produced a genuine East German culture that simply wasn't going to disappear after unification. History has shown Schneider to be correct -- over ten years after unification, there still exists a distinct cultural difference between Ossis and Wessis. Schneider's essays and novels have lead me to read more about the GDR. I have recently read Mary Fulbrook's "Anatomy of a Dictatorship: Inside the GDR", and John Koehler's "STASI: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police".


But despite these grim sounding titles, there is a growing movement in the former East Germany called Ostalgie, a pun on the German words for "east" and "nostalgia". Why is this so? Well certainly there is the high unemployment rate in the East -- communism, for all its faults, at least provided jobs for everyone -- but I think plain nostalgia for a lost culture is the primary reason. Imagine if most of the institutions and products of your youth were no longer around -- that's the situation that the Ossis find themselves in. East German cars like the Trabant and IFA Wartburg are no longer produced, and this is the same for most other East German goods. And while the FDJ (Free German Youth), a sort of communist version of the Girl or Boy Scouts to which nearly every young East German belonged, still exists, it is a pale shadow of its former self and attracts few members now.

Recent news about the GDR

The Ossis have a sense of humor and have made many jokes about the GDR. I've translated some here

Here is an interesting site (in English) about various locations in the former GDR: http://www.ddr5.homestead.com/files/index.html


Here is an interesting Ostalgie site. You can view pictures of various East German consumer goods, money, and various paperwork.