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Culture

Documenting a Dying Regime

Nostalgia for communist East Germany is dying hard, with many forgetting the dark side of history now that retro is hip. Dispelling the myth is a new version of a book that takes a frank look at the GDR's final years.

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Giving the Trabi a boost -- just one impression of life in the old GDR

The book "East Berlin: Life Before the Wall Fell" by photographer Harald Hauswald and writer Lutz Rathenow was first published in West Germany in 1987 under the title "East Berlin: The Other Side of City."

It soon made its way back across the border, where East German officials were not amused by the photos of punks, rotting courtyards serving as playgrounds for East German kids, and long lines in front of butchers' shops featured in its pages. That certainly was not the image that East Germany was trying to sell to the outside world, especially at a time when authorities in both East and West Berlin were organizing ceremonies to mark the city's 750th anniversary.

Buchillustration Ost-Berlin Leben vor dem Mauerfall

The fountain on Berlin's central Alexanderplatz still exists but is now a favorite gathering place for the city's teenage punks

East German officials designated the book's publication as an "unfriendly act" and issued a ban. Ironically, the furore surrounding the book was never the authors' intention.

"We simply wanted to show life as it was, and that didn't happen in the official press," Hauswald said. "We wanted to show our view of things, and we were aware that it was different. But we weren't saying, 'We'll finish you off.' We didn't really have a hidden motive, we just wanted to present things in an honest way."

Informants and failed ideals

The pair turned an empty apartment into their office, and from there, went out to really look at East Berlin. Hauswald knew every corner, courtyard and bar. The resulting photographs captured a special view of people and situations. Rathenow's accompanying text told tales of informants, gay barmen and failed ideals. For the censors in the former East Germany, it was explosive material.

Buchcover Ost-Berlin Leben vor dem Mauerfall

The cover of the book's new edition

For that reason, the book could not be published in East Germany. But the pair had some West German journalist friends who smuggled the manuscripts into the west, disguised as their own material. Once the book appeared, the authorities moved to prosecute the authors for tax and currency offences.

"Thanks to our many contacts and constant publicity in the West, we had a degree of protection, and we used that to our advantage," Rathenow said. "That probably made some people furious, because we acted as though it was completely normal to do what we wanted. That was so subversive -- not attacking the State, but simply behaving as though there was no censorship mechanism."

Luxury limousines driving past communist slogans such as "Long live Marxism", a frustrated member of the state youth organization -- many of the photographs cast a satirical light on daily life under communism. The wonderfully laconic images gained a cult following.

Buchillustration Ost-Berlin Leben vor dem Mauerfall

"Long live Marxism-Leninism," reads the sign behind the stretch limousines carrying high-ranking communist officials.

Now, almost 20 years later, the book is back, though slightly changed. Today, the images document an important period in contemporary history.

"Most of the photos couldn't be taken today, it really is a history of a vanished country," Hauswald said. "The images had a different significance back then. Now, the country (that was East Germany) is disappearing, both visually and also partly from people's minds."

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