Atlantic Cities

Searching for Ostalgie

Searching for Ostalgie
REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Any visitor to Berlin will at some point run into the outrageously kitsch Trabi-Safari. Two decades after the fall of the Wall, it's possible to rent a Trabant - now a cult vehicle, it was the sedan that GDR residents once waited years to own - and tool around the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall, accompanied by a live guide whose voice is piped through the radio. The cars have been refurbished and painted in wild colors, and former checkpoints (e.g., Charlie) are spots on the tour.

Afterwards, should one want to continue experiencing the fantasy of life as an East German, there are East German-themed bars and even a “GDR design hostel,” with lovingly restored communist-era furnishings and a "Stasi suite."

Though they may seem oddly theme park-esque for such a cosmopolitan city, these tourist-directed retro-chic experiences are manifestations of a very real sentiment in Berlin: ostalgie, the German term that refers to nostalgia for aspects of life under the East German regime. Of course, locals don't tend to tool around in rickety Cold War-era death traps or bunk down in spartan concrete-block lodgings. But by parsing the wacky surface trappings of the historical East, a visitor can get a sense of the deeper cultural currents behind ostalgie, and why Berliners feel the way that they do.

Born in East Germany, Naima Muenz was 12 years-old when the wall came down, and she remembers her childhood as an uncomplicated one. "My parents were intellectuals, so of course we had interesting discussions of how it would be nice if we were free to travel and so on, but we were happy," says Muenz, who works at the Grand Hyatt Berlin. "Everyone wore the same clothes, and there was no worry or anxiety about jobs or money. It was a simple life."

For her, the onset of ostalgie was relatively recent. "I never understood my friends who had this nostalgia for the past - 'oh, life was better then, there's so much worry now,' complain, complain," she says with a laugh. "I always thought that everything was much freer after reunification, and people could do what they want. But now I understand why there are so many people who feel this nostalgia, particularly because there is a new uncertainty with the economy being so bad. I'm a freelancer, and there's definitely an anxiety around everything to do with money and how to live."

When she feels like escaping the everyday world for a slice of the past, Muenz visits her grandmother in East Berlin. Her grandmother's apartment building is the same one she has lived in since 1959. "My grandmother was depressed when the wall came down—she loves the idea that the health care system, banks, and schools were in the hand of the government. There was no poor and rich,” Muenz says. “When I visit her, I go back to that time, and I feel comfortable and worry-free. That is really nice."

In Germany, the word ostalgie has already taken on a negative association, “like you don’t want to live in the present moment and just want to glorify the past,” Muenz explains. She says her East German friends just want to honor their roots and where they came from. “They didn't have bad experiences, like with the Stasi, so they can honor the good parts.”

Not everyone talks about the East German regime with warmth, of course, and for many young people, the romanticization of the past is a fiction. Take Anya Fischer, a 36-year-old actress, who thinks that a lot of the nostalgia is constructed "for money," directed at tourists. "You have to have a lot of fantasy, because everything has changed so quickly," she says. "At least for me, it's really hard to imagine how it could have been with this wall through the city."

But Fischer's boyfriend is East German, and the "ossi-wessi" relationship does inform her experience. "Thank God he's not one of the guys who has this 'in earlier days everything was better' tone," Fischer says. "But I see that he is still fighting the big fears of his parents, which are very deep—of being controlled and watched."

Ironically, the most potent symbol of Germany's historic split, the Berlin Wall, is largely nonexistent. The physical manifestations that remain are few and far between, and perhaps that explains the popularity of any pilgrimage place: the remaining bits of the wall (most intact at the East Side Gallery, and marked elsewhere by a double row of cobblestones); Checkpoint Charlie (which has a replica guardhouse and sign); the Trabant tour to these places; the many museums.

At the DDR Museum, tucked along the Spree River, visitors crowd the compact galleries, watch old film reels, and pose by a tiny Trabant. In the gift shop, DVDs of Good Bye Lenin! (the immensely popular and sweetly affectionate 2003 film, in which a son reconstructs a semblance of life in the East for his ailing mother) and The Lives of Others (a decidedly more menacing tale, from 2006, about the effects that the Stasi’s activities have on one couple) are sold alongside GDR game playing cards (“A PLAYFUL EXPERIENCE OF HISTORY”). Absent the physical relics, the modern city figures out how to contend with the idea of that time.

Knowing this, where can a visitor get a dose of history and local flavor—avoiding the ossified, wooing the vibrantly alive—absent the kitsch? On a visit in mid-December, my husband and I walked everywhere, through Brandenberg Gate and the lovely Unter den Linden, and through the haunting Holocaust Memorial. Among the museums, the Judisches Museum is an excellent chronicle of Jewish German history, while the little-known Story of Berlin tells the city’s 800-year history through interactive exhibits and an awe-inspiring (and still functioning) nuclear bomb shelter. We milled among the residents speeding through the streets by bicycle (rentals are available everywhere), and joined families sipping gluhwein and heisse schokolade at the famously ebullient winter markets. We ate our way around Prenzlauer Berg, packed with restaurants of all flavors, and checked out the fashions in Mitte, the lively Turkish delis of Kreuzberg, and the many bars and shops of Friedrichshain. We ran through Tiergarten and along the Spree River, next to the soaring, joyful architecture of the Reichstag. And we strolled 1.3 kilometers along the open-air East Side Gallery, the longest surviving stretch of the Wall, famously painted by international artists on one side (and covered in just-folks graffiti on the other).

Naima Muenz says that in her city—more than in the rest of Germany—people are still trying to grapple with the weight of history and its subsequent realities. She has tried to get her grandmother to accept her West German-born boyfriends. Her grandmother, now a youthful 81, is herself dating. But when she posts singles ads for herself, there's one requirement. "He has to be from East Berlin," Muenz says, laughing. "No West Berliners allowed."

Bonnie Tsui is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities. She writes frequently for The New York Times and is the author of American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods. All posts »

Join the Discussion