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February 2004 • Vol 4, No. 2 •

‘Ostalgie’ and Political Trends in Germany, East and West

By Einde O’Callaghan

The following communication appeared on the Marxist Digest (also known as “Marxmail,” a freewheeling Internet discuss list in which mostly socialist-oriented participants exchange views. It’s open to anyone who abides by certain reasonable rules. Louis Proyect is in charge of organizing the distribution of material (www.marxmail.org).—Editor.

Louis Proyect wrote in reference to a review of the movie, Good Bye, Lenin, [regarding “Ostalgie” a contraction of the German words for East (for East Germany) and nostalgia; i.e. Ostalgia in English]: “It is 1989 and Communism is crumbling everywhere except in the heart and mind of Christiane Kerner (Katrin Sass), a middle-aged Berlin resident who has a picture of Che Guevara on her bedroom wall and is fiercely loyal to party leader Erich Honecker.”

Living as I do in former East Germany, I’d just like to make a couple of comments on the film.

Firstly, it’s an incredibly popular film here. Even in second-run cinemas every performance seems to be sold out.

The film is so full of cultural references to popular products and common products in the GDR that even West Germans have difficulty getting even a fraction of the references. So I’m not at all sure how these will be understood in the U.S.

Having lived here for 12 years I managed to get most of the references but since I didn’t live here in GDR times there are certain things that I only know from hearsay. For example, early in the film there is a scene viewed through a very young Daniel’s eyes of a visit from some Party members after Christiane’s husband (a doctor) fails to return after attending an international conference in West Berlin.

There is a subtle subtext running through the film of living a lie. So after her husband’s defection Christiane, a teacher, becomes a fervent Party soldier organizing the Pioneer’s, the party organization for children (a bit like the Boy Scouts or Girl Guides). I don’t want to reveal the plot, but she reveals towards the end of the film that she was living a lie—a fact that parallels in a way the “lie” that Daniel and his sister lie to prevent her finding out the truth.

In general I found it a very touching film about love and disappointment and making the best of things. And it also obviously touches East German viewers very profoundly. But deep down there is both a rejection of the harsh competitive capitalist present and a recognition that the GDR wasn’t a paradise (workers’ or otherwise)—the latter is particularly reflected in the tragedy of Christiane’s life that only really emerges towards the end of the film.

Although the phenomenon it reflects is usually called “Ostalgie” I don’t really think that it is fundamentally a question of nostalgia. It is more a question of people demanding recognition that they too have a history, that biographies didn’t start in 1989. On one level this is very political, but not in any party political sense. It’s more a rejection of the present that parallels the form of inner exile that many ordinary people experienced in the GDR [for German Democratic Republic, the official name of the former East Germany]—a profound alienation from the existing political set-up combined with a feeling that there is very little that they can do to change things.

But change things they did in 1989—in a matter of months they destroyed what had seemed to be one of the most stable societies in Eastern Europe.

Many of my comrades who were in the opposition in the GDR feel that the situation now is very similar to that during the 1980s—the profound alienation is there. But there are differences—every now and then this alienation finds expression in, for example, demonstrations—but also in cultural forms such as this “Ostalgie” described in the article Louis quoted.

One interesting phenomenon that seems to be happening—not living in the West I can’t judge how deep this process has gone there—is an Easternization of West Germany that parallels the Westernization of East Germany over the last decade and a half. The alienation with the existing political set-up seems to be growing as a result of the “reforms” of the welfare system, the health service and the tax system that are being hammered through by the Red/Green government and which will inevitably lead to a massive shift of resources from workers, the unemployed, the poor—in other words, ordinary people—into the hands of the employers, the wealthy, etc.

I’m not certain how long this sort of process can go on without provoking a backlash—after all, as some people here in the East (a growing number too) say: “We swept away one bankrupt political system in 1989, we can do that again!”

On one level my report above is based very much on impressions and I can’t predict how things will go. But if there is no adequate response from the left (however we might understand that) the right-wing populists and the Nazis are waiting in the wings to profit from this alienation. So far the move seems to be towards the left, towards self-activity as witnessed by the massive demonstration against the destruction of the welfare state in Berlin at the beginning of November, but as yet there is no real national expression of this movement.

Perhaps Johannes or some of the other readers of this list from West Germany would care to comment both on the film and how they see things developing politically (in the West as well as in Germany as a whole).

Einde O’Callaghan, lives in Chemnitz (formerly Karl-Marx-Stadt).

—The Marxism List, January, 25, 2004





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