Berlin’s GDR Museum

John Feffer explores the split personality of Berlin’s official GDR Museum…

The GDR Museum in Berlin is actually two museums in one. And these two parts, both devoted to everyday life in the German Democratic Republic, subtly contradict one another.

That might not have been the intention of the museum founders. But this tension actually captures the ambiguities of East Germany and the ambivalence that many Germans feel today about the erstwhile communist state.

The experience inside the main part of the museum is quite interactive. You can put on headphones and watch TV shows from East Germany, walk into an interrogation room and a prison cell, and sit at a high-ranking bureaucrat’s desk. You can take a test of your Russian. You can vote in a rigged election.

This part of the museum is also full of objects from East Germany that people either donated or sold to the curators. These objects are very cleverly arranged in the rather small exhibition space. Cabinets and closets lining the wall and dividing up the space are grouped according to topic: clothing, music, books, industrial production, nude beaches and so on. You can peer into glass cases at consumer products that have faded into history such as Wald Gold liquor and Florena Cream.

But you are also encouraged to pull out drawers and open cabinets to reveal even more objects, such as a floor plan of a GDR apartment or a report from the state security (Stasi). In this way, you feel as though you are uncovering a hidden society, which is appropriate since the society was largely hidden from Western eyes for many years.

If you don’t read the accompanying descriptions, you could walk away from this part of the museum feeling that you had just seen an objective portrait of a society. And according to the ticket seller that chatted with me, most people rate their experience at the museum very highly. And there have been quite a few visitors: over six million since it opened in 2006.

“What about people from the former East Germany?” I ask the press officer. “What do they think?”

“80-90 percent of them are very satisfied.”

“And the other 10-20 percent?”

“Well, they are not happy with… the tone.”

The tone of the museum is most evident in the descriptions. For instance, here is part of the description of GDR tourists.

“GDR citizens were not particularly popular in Eastern bloc states. Waiters in Prague could recognize them easily. Western tourists used paper money: Deutschemarks or dollars. East Germans counted their aluminum play money.”

Another description begins with a joke: “The director of the Meissen porcelain factory told Honecker [the communist party leader in the GDR]: ‘Five percent of our production is rejected.’ To which Honecker replied, ‘Is that enough for the whole country?’” It’s no wonder that some people from the former East Germany find the experience somewhat upsetting: it was commonly assumed that the best production ended up as exports to get hard currency.

This tone is familiar to anyone who enjoys Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, or the many similar shows around the world that take a comic look at the news. In these exhibits, everyday life in the GDR comes across as quaint, inefficient, boring, comical—and worthy of a varying degree of derision.

It’s not that people in the GDR didn’t have a sense of humour. They made fun of the system all the time. And they continue to look back at that time with a mixture of humour, dismay, horror and relief that much of that experience is behind them.

But the exhibits at the GDR museum are meant for tourists, specifically tourists from the West. The wall texts invite you into a shared joke: how silly/strange/exotic those “Ossies” were! It’s not just a matter of making fun of the old-fashioned products and notions of a past generation.

At Berlin’s municipal museum, by comparison, a whole room is devoted to how cool and chic the Kurfurstendamm area of West Berlin was during the 1960s. In general, West Germany’s past is treated reverentially while East Germany’s past is treated like an enormous dead end. The proof is obvious: West Germany lives on and East Germany has been absorbed like a disagreeable meal.

Which brings us to the other half of the GDR Museum: the restaurant. Unfortunately it was closed in 2015, but in this replica of a fancy East Berlin hotel dining space, you could sample the best of GDR cuisine, washed down with Vita Cola or Rotkaeppchen, the Coca-Cola challenger and the sparkling wine that are two of the few GDR products still produced in the united Germany.

You could order smoked pork with potatoes and sauerkraut, allegedly Erich Honecker’s favourite dish, or what I tried, the stuffed cabbage in bacon sauce. The food was quite good, at least what I ate there. It wasn’t prepared in a funny or ironic way. After all, the restaurant was designed to be successful, and no one wants to eat bad food, however representative of a country’s cuisine it might be. You could find some mildly amusing descriptions in the menu but there was nothing amusing about the food.

True, these were recipes created for the most elite restaurant in East Berlin. But Vita Cola and Rotkaeppchen were available to everyone. In other words, the restaurant sent a very different message than the other exhibits.

It said there was something good about East German life, something worth praising, saving, and even serving to people today. This isn’t simply “ostalgie,” the nostalgia many Germans—even West Germans—have for Trabants and GDR TV programs. It’s an appreciation for the fact that people in East Germany were not simply puppets but active participants in their lives.

I’ve recently met with many former citizens of East Germany. The vast majority would never want to go back to those times. Many suffered a great deal at the hands of the state security forces (Stasi). Some were jailed, others lost their jobs, still others were sent into exile in the West. But they also married, raised families, went on vacations, hung out with friends. They aren’t happy when people from the West dismiss this part of their lives as if it were simply a bad movie.

It’s worse, perhaps, when the West simply ignores the East, pretends that it never happened, like a 40-year-long pratfall that you turn your eyes from. Travel to the western parts of Germany and many people treat the fall of the Berlin Wall as if it happened in a different country.

A recently formed group of young people from eastern Germany, Third Generation East, is an example of how the GDR will not go quietly into the night. These young people want to have an honest conversation about the country they were born in and which disappeared before most of them were old enough to understand what had happened. They’re not into nostalgia. They’re not ready to put East Germany into a museum. For them, it is still very much part of their lives, and they want to know why they feel like a minority. The same holds true for their parents.

Half of the GDR Museum exudes an implicit triumphalism. The other half conveys a more complicated message, the same message as Third Generation East: that East Germany lives on in many ways and reunification remains very much an unfinished business.