Panel Calls for End to Nostalgia About East Germany | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 29.09.2008
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Panel Calls for End to Nostalgia About East Germany

Nearly 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a growing number of people are romanticising about what daily life was like in the former communist East Germany.

Trabant car

Some forget to mention they had to wait years to buy a Trabi

"Ostalgia," a pun combing "nostalgia and "Ost" (East), is on the rise and numerous businesses and individuals are cashing in on the trend.

Today, you can have your picture taken with a Soviet soldier look-alike at the former Checkpoint Charlie crossing in Berlin or rent a room in a sparsely furnished apartment that is a replica of a 1980s East German accommodation.

You can also take a tour of East Berlin in a plastic-body Trabi car that East Germans had to wait years to buy.

A room in the 'Ostel' hostel in Berlin

The 'Ostel' hostel in Berlin gives visitors a look into the communist GDR

"Ask the people who run those businesses if they would still want to live in an old, small, box-like flat in a concrete high-rise," said Dagmar Schipanski, president of the parliament in the eastern German state of Thuringia. "Most of them now own expensive apartments and drive nice cars."

Missing the historical context

Schipanski makes no attempt to hide her anger when talking about what she regards as "a deliberate exclusion of the real historical context."

The 65-year-old former scientist, who grew up in the German Democratic Republic, the eastern part of divided Germany, heads a commission that drafted a position paper on eastern Germany's future.

The panel, which also reviewed successes and failures in the eastern region since the Wall came down in 1989, was set up by Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Party (CDU).

The document, which has been criticized by opposition parties for failing to examine the CDU's own role in East Germany, also suggests strategies for future development.

Call for better education

A central demand is directed at the education system. "We need to come to terms with the history of divided Germany in our schools, by reforming curricula and teaching practices alike," said Schipanski.

Her call is echoed by another recent study assessing the level of knowledge about East and West German history.

"Pupils know next to nothing," said Klaus Schroeder, the Berlin professor who headed the survey. "Fewer than one in two knows who built the Berlin Wall."

A portion of the Berlin Wall, seen from former West Berlin

Not everyone who lived in East Germany knows that the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 on orders from State Council Chairman Walter Ulbrich

The little they did know they learned from their families or from television shows, which painted a distorted picture, Schroeder added.

Establishments like Die Firma (The Firm), a pub themed after East Germany's dreaded Stasi secret service, which a former Stasi informer opened in Berlin a few months ago, was "utterly tasteless," Schroeder said.

Many students confirmed the findings of the study based on their own experience, Jan Redmann, a member of the CDU's youth organization, the JU, told DPA news agency.

"Pupils tell us that East Germany is often omitted in lessons," he says. "That's also because dealing with the German past for many teachers also means dealing with their own biographies."

The other side of the story

Together with other JU members, Redmann started an anti-Ostalgie campaign three years ago when East German-themed shows first hit German TV screens.

"On these program, celebrities go on about how much fun it was to drive a Trabi and to mix their own fuel," complains campaigner Peter Tauber. "But they never mentioned that you had to wait years to get a car in the first place."

Some 700 people have so far signed up to the online campaign, whose Web site is decorated with a banana, a symbol of the shortage of imported goods in the Soviet-guided East Germany.

Stasi bar 'Zur Firma' in Berlin

The new Stasi bar in Berlin has been frowned upon

"Citizens were never fully informed about the actual state of the economy," CDU politician Schipanski told DPA.

The upheavals they faced in 1989 were very serious and often meant unemployment or starting a new career from scratch, she said. "We have to honor their achievements in adapting to a completely different environment."

She agreed with social scientist Schroeder that unemployment and economic deprivation should not be an excuse to paint a glossy picture of life in East Germany.

Separating state and citizens

"We have to make clear that criticizing the system does not mean criticizing the people," Schroeder said. "But we must improve education about the second German dictatorship, because that's what it was."

Daniel Helbig, who runs the East German-style Ostel guesthouse in Berlin, did not want to be drawn into the political aspect of the debate.

He pointed out another Ostalgie attraction which opened last week in cooperation with his hostel -- a 2,200-square-meter (23,700-square-foot) exhibition of artworks commissioned by East Germany.

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