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East German brands thrive 30 years after Berlin Wall fell

October 29, 2019

Consumer goods from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) had a reputation for shoddy quality and gruesome styling. But decades after the collapse of the communist regime, some East German brands are once again thriving.

German sparkling wine Rotkäppchen
Rotkäppchen sparkling wine is one of the most successful and ubiquitous East German brandsImage: picture-alliance/ZB/W. Grubitzsch

To see what life was like as a consumer in the former East Germany, the best place to start is at a museum. At Berlin's DDR Museum, Stefan Wolle points to a cabinet filled with packages of coffee and sugar covered with simple labeling.

"We didn't have marketing," Wolle, who serves as chief historian for the museum, said. "But the quality was generally better than people said later [after reunification]."

In the years immediately following German reunification in 1990, over 14,000 East German companies were privatized and as many as four million East German workers lost their jobs. Even companies that made well-respected products were swallowed up by the tide of Western goods that soon flooded into what are now known as the "new federal states" in eastern Germany.

"The good items from quality East German brands sat on the shelves and weren't sold," Nils Busch-Petersen, the head of Berlin's retail association said. "People's consumer preferences changed literally overnight."

East German Trabant cars pass spectators during a procession
Both scarce and small, the iconic Trabant came to symbolize life for GDR consumers

Polyester and Trabants

East Germans, who had long had access to West German television and could see, but not sample, Western consumer goods, associated those products with a standard of living that had been denied to them behind the Berlin Wall.

There were plenty of products that consumers had good reason to shun, from the cramped, exhaust-spewing Trabant cars East Germans had to wait a dozen or more years to buy or the polyester clothes that were a staple of East German fashion due to a shortage of cotton.

"I wouldn't really want to have any of the old East German chocolate again," laughed Busch-Petersen, a lifelong East Berliner.

East German 'Knusperflocken' chocolates
They're not for everyone, but GDR 'Knusperflocken' chocolates are still produced — and still have their admirersImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Endig

But at some point in the mid-1990s, things began to change and East Germans rediscovered their love of the products they had grown up with. Although some critics called the trend "Ostalgie" and accused East Germans of wanting to turn back the clock and return to Communism, Busch-Petersen said the charges were unfounded.

"First, they recognized, that emperor has no clothes, that we also cook with water and that many products really were comparable," Busch-Petersen told Deutsche Welle.

"Second, people realized there was a relationship between the quality of their lives and their consumer preferences," he continued. "They'd go buy a different washing powder and suddenly the wash powder factory around the corner was about to close because no one would buy the old East German stuff anymore."

An East German care package

Indeed, East German washing powder is still available and can be found in an entire store full of other goods with East German origins in a store just a few meters from Alexanderplatz in central Berlin.

Known as Ostpaket, the store's name is a play on words and recalls the days when Germany was divided. Families living in the West could send their eastern relatives so-called Westpaket, care packages filled with clothes, western foods and other items — with the East German government collecting a share of the sale of each box.

A 'REMA adagio' radio built in East Germany in 1970
Although GDR goods weren't flashy, many East Germans say they lasted foreverImage: picture-alliance / akg-images

The store is one of dozens across the former East Germany that caters to East Germans who are looking for the goods they grew up with. Inside Ostpaket, owner Bianca Schaeler said the East German goods were competitive with western rivals on both price and quality.

Pointing to a shelf full of various flavors of the East German coffee brand Rondo, she said product development hasn't stopped since the Wall fell and the company has been busy tweaking its offerings to find new consumers.

Many Germans from the "new states," as East Germany is now known, make Rondo and fellow East German coffee brand Mocha Fix Gold their brew of choice, Schaeler said the brands have become popular in western Germany, too, thanks to discount chains which aggressively push the labels as a cheap, quality substitute for Jacobs and other big German coffees.

A sparkling success

Perhaps the most successful brand to have survived communism and thrive since then is Germany's biggest sparkling wine brand, Rotkäppchen, which means Red Riding Hood. The winery, based in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, dates back to 1856 and was expropriated by the East German regime after World War Two.

After reunification, the company was privatized and has thrived since then, selling hundreds of millions of bottles of bubbly annually. In 2002, Rotkäppchen even managed to buy one of its biggest rivals, the West German Mumm winery, which has given Rotkäppchen a lock on about 40 percent of the German sparkling wine market.

That's given Rotkäppchen access to more premium markets for its wares, a strategy other East German brands have tried as well, running in the face of long-held stereotypes of poor quality.

East German models showing off new designs, 1985
Due to a shortage of cotton, many East German fashions were made with polyesterImage: picture-alliance/web

Communist footwear goes high-end

Another company that successfully tried that tactic is Zeha, a shoe company that was once the Adidas of East Germany. Founded in 1897 in the eastcentral state of Thuringia, it become the only sport shoe maker in East Germany after World War Two and supplied most of the country's sports teams and also the Soviet national soccer team but after reunification, Zeha foundered.

"All the people were keen to wear Western brands, Adidas and Nike, and on the other hand they lost their sport market as well, so all of a sudden they lost everything they had and needed to close down," said Torsten Heine, who, along with a friend, bought the rights to the name and re-founded the brand a few years ago.

The shoes are modeled on old Zeha models, including soccer boots and track shoes and combine retro design with high quality materials, such as hand-stitched Italian leather. Prices start around €200 ($222) and climb much higher.

Although Zehas are no longer a shoe for the masses — or for athletes — Heine says that's beside the point and that the brand captures the mystique of the era.

"I always had a pair, and it was forbidden to wear them in your spare time because it was difficult to get a pair, but we did anyway because it was cool," Heine told Deutsche Welle.

The brand has taken off in fashion circles and hip shoe stores worldwide now stock Zehas, including boutiques in New York and Tokyo. But what is perhaps even more symbolic is that the brand is available across Berlin in its own stores and other high-end boutiques across the capital. Decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, an East German brand is being treated as a luxury item.

Author: Brett Neely
Editor: Andreas Illmer