A new exhibition on East Germany has just opened in Berlin's German Historical Museum. Unlike many other shows of its kind, it does not deal exclusively with state repression, but focuses on everyday life.
The exhibit focuses on the daily lives of everyday people
To museum director Hans Ottomeyer, the new exhibition in the German Historical Museum plugs an important gap in the way that East Germany has been presented up to now. In part, it is a response to the lack of a museum devoted to the history of the former communist regime.
"There is no museum of East German history. On the one hand, there are calls for such a museum to be set up. On the other hand, it is also vehemently rejected," Ottomeyer said. "Until the permanent exhibition in the German Historical Museum, no one had begun to tackle this."
Last year, Peter Kenzelmann, a political scientist from southwestern Germany, set up a private museum in the German capital to look at this more personal part of East Germany, which had been mostly neglected. But he was accused of failing to make the brutality of the regime clear in his permanent display.
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The aim of the exhibition in the German Historical Museum, according to Ottomeyer, is to explore the interface between people's everyday lives and the influence of the East German state.
"The GDR had 17 million inhabitants on average. That amounted to 17 million daily lives," said exhibition organizer Jörn Schütrumpf. "The question we asked ourselves was what did these daily lives - or at least the majority of them -- have in common?"
For him, it was important to show that life in East Germany was not only affected by a massive concrete wall that divided the city, but also a second wall in the form of the state that tried to influence the lives of its citizens.
"We kept on being asked how we would present the Stasi, the East German secret police. That is, of course, a theme without which you can't define the regime in the GDR," said Schütrumpf.
Files from the East German secret police headquarters are among the displays
Alongside such exhibits as a filing card cabinet from the headquarters of the East German secret police, there are also more banal articles, such as a school satchel made out of cardboard.
All 550 items come from the museum's own archive and were donated by members of the public after the collapse of the communist regime.
"The public was asked, on television and in the newspapers, to bring to the museum what they saw as the most important objects relating to GDR history," said curator Regine Falkenberg. "You can also find little things such as meat stock paste, tins, TVs, darning utensils and vitamin preparations."
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The show covers the period from 1956 up to the end of the communist regime. But its 550 exhibits are not arranged chronologically. Instead, it is grouped according to thematic blocs such as work, the collective and the family.
The exhibition, which runs until July 29, also shows how ordinary East German citizens sought to resist the demands of the state. That was not an easy task, since the Stasi secret police had some 100,000 regular employees in addition to around 500,000 to two million collaborators in a country whose 1990 population was just over 16 million.The activities of the secret police were obviously no laughing matter for those who ended up in its custody. But humor was one weapon that ordinary citizens used to deal with so-called "real existing socialism" and there is a special section especially devoted to jokes.