Behind the Wall of East-Germany

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Photo: the author

“We don’t have that!” was once a typical reply in shops throughout East Germany. Today, there are only recordings of that classical line to be experienced at the newly reopened GDR Museum in Berlin.

Also in the program, if you press a button, you will hear a woman’s voice with a typical GDR-Saxony dialect who says “Well, you’ve been waiting for the electrician … for 14 days.” Yet another voice notes: “No, I already donated to the people’s solidarity fund at my workplace.”

Another one announces: “Of course I’m coming to the subotnick. But because of my bad back, I can only do light tasks.” Visitors to the GDR museum are amused.

The newly refitted GDR Museum in Berlin that was badly damaged by a flood disaster on 16th of December 2022 has been open again for a few weeks now. Some people might remember when, in the early morning hours in a nearby hotel, the world’s largest AquaDom burst with a loud bang. One million liters of water poured over Karl-Liebknecht-Street and adjacent buildings – including the GDR museum situated on the banks of the Spree.

It was “not a nice day,” remembers one of the museum’s administrators. “The water was ankle-deep in the museum at the time,” reported Quirin Graf Adelmann von Adelmannsfelden and Gordon Freiherr von Godin.

Two German aristocrats – of all people – run the place. This is the first surprise that can be experienced at the GDR museum. Both men seem to have a “soft spot” for the fallen East German state. And this seems to include the collectivization of East Germany’s forests and meadows as well as pretentious castles and manor houses of East German aristocrats.

Shortly after the end of Nazism, GDR’s evil communists converted aristocratic leisure palaces into children’s homes, houses of culture, and clinics. They were established in the former Soviet occupation zone that later became the GDR (7 October 1949) – a few months “after” West Germany’s FRG (23 May 1949) was founded. After the end of East Germany in 1990, these feudal properties were largely returned to their previous owners.

Meanwhile, back at the GDR museum run by the two aristocrats, we discover that Gordon Freiherr von Godin grew up in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg. Trained as a hotel manager, he is now the director of the GDR Museum. Quirin Count Adelmann von Adelmannsfelden, however, spent his childhood in Montpellier, France, and moved to Berlin in 1993 to study law at Humboldt University, devoting himself to real estate law. He is the managing partner of the museum.

The GDR Museum was founded in 2006. Both of the museum administrators are convinced that the ideological battles of the past have been fought and forgotten, and that the GDR is viewed more pragmatically today.

Sadly, the end of the GDR also changed East Germany’s premier education system – not for the better – as well as getting rid of the emancipatory equal wages for women, which was part of the gender equality politics in East Germany. Author Kristen Ghodsee even argues that women under socialism had better sex as a result of that.

Today, the real life of East Germans during the existence of the GDR still arouses curiosity. It is also about how the GDR is presented at the museum. To some extent, life during that time was defined by people who had to make a virtue out of necessity. These necessities were often also used as opportunities.

Today, things are different. The two museum managers were able to get the water damage repaired and can now present an extended and updated exhibition. It took barely three months – a record time. Unfortunately, the burst aquarium water also ruined an East German typewriter of the “Erika” brand which has thankfully now been replaced.

With more than 300,000 objects, this museum probably has the world’s largest collection of GDR artifacts and historical items. The wealth of objects at the museum is due to the enormous willingness of former citizens of the GDR to donate items that they still had in their possession.

More than 585,000 visitors a year came to the museum before the COVID-19 pandemic. Both museum managers hope – most certainly not wrongly – to be able to continue the trend and even top that number. Berlin tourists alone should guarantee this.

On the museum’s recent reopening day, queues of people thronged in front of the museum. At the entrance to the museum stands the iconic fiberglass Trabant 601 – the much cheered highlight of the GDR and a Tom Hanks’ favorite. Besides the fact that the quintessential Trabi welcomes museum visitors, best of all, it can drive across all of East Germany via a computer simulation.

Behind the Trabi is the “retro-cult” Simson brand motorbike made by Suhl IFA – a state run cooperative named after the revered communist Ernst Thalmann. The classic Simson can still often be seen on streets in the new East Germany.

However, there is also a rather pretentious Volvo on display. It belonged to the former GDR government. GDR-boss Erich Honecker had to ride in a Western sedan, while Walter Ulbricht and the other government comrades were driven around in the Chaika from the Avtomobilny Zavod.

Beyond the cars, an oversized map informs visitors about the post-Nazi division of Germany into occupation zones. These zones eventually led to the founding of the two German states.

In the GDR, a so-called “People’s Chamber” was installed, which wasn’t much more than a pathetic caricature of a democratic parliament, with no debates, no heckling, and no contradiction. In it, East German laws were simply “nodded through” for the SED leadership. Surprisingly, there once was a vote against a law.

It happened on 9th of March 1972 when some conservative CDU deputies voted against the law on abortion. But the law had been agreed upon beforehand – abortion was made legal in East Germany.

In fact, the GDR was a kind of consent dictatorship. The state-socialist politburo was a kind of a watchdog over the government. But the big question is: Was there democracy in East Germany? The answer might be, in theory yes … but only so far as it suited the party. Still, there were also some extremely progressive labor laws and family laws in the GDR – especially when compared to similar laws in the Federal Republic.

Of course, the museum also shows the now world-famous (and obligatory) photo of the “socialist brothers’ kiss” between Mikhail Gorbachev and Erich Honecker. The running joke was – as often told in East Germany at the time – that after Honecker had departed from Moscow’s airport, Gorbachev turned to his companions and said: “This German guy is an idiot, but he sure can kiss!”

Apart from East German jokes, the museum also informs visitors about the relations between East Germany and the Soviet Union, signified by East Germany’s GSF, or German-Soviet Friendship.

Although the pay for Soviet soldiers stationed in East Germany was not much higher than what they might get at home, they were paid for overtime and received additional benefits. It is notable that the many envelopes and postcards on display testify to the fact that pen-pals were cultivated not only between East Germany and the Soviet Union, but also in other socialist states.

Another display shows East Germany’s army, the NVA, with soldiers marching in uniform armed with an MPi across the front of their chests. When visitors pass through a door, they are provided with insights into the everyday life of someone in military service which, unsurprisingly, does not differ much from that in armies of other states at that time – including West Germany’s Bundeswehr. When a locker is opened, the voice of an officer shouts: “This looks as dirty as the crap under a stone. Soldier Schulz, three weeks of latrine duty!”

Apart from that kind of an insult, East German soldiers were regarded as fighters from the working class. Behind other doors and in drawers there is a military service ID card, a gas mask, and a service telephone. Not far from those items, East Germany’s borders are illustrated by means of a model, which includes mines, telescopes, and passport control utensils.

By far one of the more interesting sections is about economic relations between West and East Germany. It shows, for example, that the famous West German Schiesser underpants as well as Pepsi-Cola have something in common. Both were among many Western products that were actually produced in East Germany. It was called “design production” and it served both halves of Germany well.

West German companies benefited from the lower wages in the GDR, while the GDR received advanced industrial technology. Ordinary East Germans benefitted very little however. Only a small portion of those products made in East Germany remained in East Germany, where they were sold rather expensively in a special store called an Intershop, that had almost everything – at a price.

Meanwhile, East Germany’s standard formula for shopping was the HO or Handelsorganisation in which the typical response to a shopper’s inquiry was “ham wa nich” – we don’t have that.

The GDR Museum also shows visitors that there was neither hardship nor misery in the GDR. East Germany was a state were not every fifth child was threatened by poverty as it was – and still is – in West Germany.

Even though not all goods were always and everywhere sufficiently available in East Germany, ingenuity, barter, packages from the West with goods, as well as foreign exchange – however obtained! – fulfilled many dreams. The museum argues that actually, the lack of western-style oversupply of consumer goods was, in reality, rather environmentally friendly.

Incidentally, a West German shoe company called Salamander was also a beneficiary of the low wage regime. Before that, Salamander had enriched itself during the Nazi dictatorship by exploiting mainly Jewish slave labor.

Worse was the insult of Honecker’s reception at the Krupp Villa Hügel in Essen during his official visit to the Federal Republic in 1987 – Krupp was a super-Nazi.

In the GDR there was a strong emphasis on physical education, starting in kindergarten. There were plenty of grassroots sports, workplace sports communities, and early talent search and sports promotions.

These were part of the success of the GDR in competitive sports – evidenced in East Germany’s proud Olympic statistics and medal tallies. Doping alone would not have achieved all of that.

Meanwhile, East Germans also enjoyed summer, sun, and beaches – often as practitioners of FKK (Free Body Culture – aka nudism). Holidays in the GDR were symbolized by a picnic suitcase, a Frisbee, diving equipment, and a camera. In the GDR museum, everything is authentic East German style with floral and ornamental wallpaper, a practical fitted kitchen and a pass-through to a well-groomed living room.

Above the sofa, East Germans preferred a reprint of Paul Gauguin’s Women of Tahiti, probably together with Walter Womacka’s Couple at the Beach – one of the most common art prints adorning GDR living rooms.

Meanwhile, in the East German kitchen one finds a refrigerator made by “Foron” – the world’s first FCKW-free fridge; and here the visitor can print out classic GDR recipes: spicy meat, goulash, solyanka, etc. There are matching “Carat” cabinets for standard bathroom furniture. And in the bedroom, you can dress up digitally in the chic of PRAMO (practical fashion) or JUMO (youth fashion).

The tour ends in the doom of the GDR and the new beginning after the fall of the wall. The GDR Museum also reports on the emergence of opposition groups, which started at the beginning of the 70s, mainly under the umbrellas of the churches.

You can indulge in real GDR nostalgia in the museum. Unfortunately, East Germany’s rich literature, theater, and film did not seem worthy of a separate chapter in the museum.

Importantly however, the museum shows the much-neglected other side of East Germany – the untold story that is so often missing in corporate mass-media focusing on the negatives of Stasiland and the wall – the good things that were lost.

Thomas Klikauer is the author of German Conspiracy Fantasies.