The East Is Chic in Germany

Times Staff Writer

It began, as things seldom do, with communist condoms and a plan to emblazon Karl Marx’s image on thousands of T-shirts.

Why not, Joerg Davids speculated that night in 1992, preserve a glimmer of the dead East German communist state? He would sell busts of Vladimir I. Lenin and tomes on perestroika. Rightly assuming that such memorabilia wouldn’t fly off the shelves, Davids expanded his idea to T-shirts imprinted with East German brands such as Ata pot cleanser, Mondos condoms and the woolly bearded socialist godfather, Marx.

“It was just a thought. I didn’t know it would turn into a real business,” said Davids, whose tiny nostalgia company now sells about 60,000 T-shirts a year. “In the early days after the Berlin Wall fell, east Germans didn’t want any heavy reminders of the past -- that’s why we started with funny products like condoms.... I guess you could say we were trendsetters.”


Reviving the history and trinkets of the former German Democratic Republic, or GDR, is fashionable these days. Beginning with last summer’s hit movie “Goodbye Lenin!” the tale of a son trying to preserve communist life for his sick mother at the end of the Cold War, more and more Germans are wistfully remembering the East.

The trend is spurred in part by east Germans’ desire to reflect on their struggles under a system that disappeared 13 years ago. For west Germans, this retro fascination, powered by advertising and TV shows, is a chance to glimpse -- for some, snidely -- a society that once mystified and terrified them.

There’s a newfound yearning for onetime communist products such as Zetti Crunchy Flakes and Halberstadt sausages. There’s reminiscence of the old Spreewald cucumbers and the once-omnipresent but rank Mokka Fix Gold coffee. An Ossi, or East, trivia quiz is posted on the Internet. A developer is planning a theme park complete with drably dressed border guards and Stasi security agents, a sort of kitschy version of a spy novel scoured of the real-life oppression that permeated the former Soviet bloc.

Some Germans are disturbed by this quaint, giddy peek into the past featuring, among other things, a TV show starring the suddenly ubiquitous former Olympic figure skater Katarina Witt, for years the marquee glitz of the dour East German state.

Memory in this nation is a labyrinth of emotion, evoking the crimes of Nazis and Soviets and the recollections of those persecuted by them. The current interest in East Germany is -- at its best -- a tribute to the collectivized, grinding lives led by millions behind the Iron Curtain. Yet the superficial and commercial zeitgeist of this remembrance is akin to colorizing a black-and-white photo.

The trend -- known as ostalgie, a merger of the German words for “east” and “nostalgia” -- underscores the differences within a people divided for decades by barbed wire and ideology. The German reunification that began in 1990 remains an unfinished quest in a still-unbalanced nation. The unemployment rate in the east is double that of the west, and many easterners believe their past sufferings and insights hold little more than voyeuristic appeal for westerners.

“I think ostalgie is getting a bit too commercialized, and the dark part of the GDR is being filtered out,” said Thomas Schwendemann, a Berlin tour guide for Trabi Safari, which rents by the hour an enduring icon of East Germany: the Trabant car. A 26-horsepower plastic cube on wheels, somewhere between the size of a shoebox and a phone booth, the Trabant runs on a strange brew of oil and gas and was once manufactured so slowly that families often waited more than a decade to buy one.

“East Germans were never free,” added Schwendemann, his pale-blue Trabant bouncing on a cobbled road in the east past an old Jewish cemetery beyond the Brandenburg Gate. “Their lives were miserable. But this side doesn’t fit into the funny, ha-ha aspects of the TV shows. Maybe we are reluctant to look at the dark side too much.” Others voice disdain more bluntly.

“The GDR was a dictatorship,” Guenter Nooke, a member of Parliament and ex-East German activist, told the daily Bild newspaper. “What a fuss this country would be in if instead of Katarina Witt anchoring a GDR show,” programs featuring Third Reich nostalgia were aired.

“Goodbye Lenin!” -- Germany’s entry in the Academy Awards competition -- conjures the tenor of the communist era and its immediate aftermath, told through the experience of Christiane Kerner’s family.

A heart attack leaves her in a coma just weeks before East Germany crumbles in 1989. When she awakens, Christiane is unaware the world has changed. Doctors tell her son, Alex, to keep the trappings of communism alive because his mother’s heart can’t handle more stress.

A charade unfolds as Alex, who has refurnished the family’s apartment and enjoys the baubles of the West, turns back time as images from disparate views of life do battle.

There’s GDR leader Erich Honecker and banners for Coca-Cola; cosmonauts waving in the rigid falseness of communist propaganda and freedom and champagne spilling across a shattered Berlin Wall.

“The GDR in the film is an illusion,” said Bernd Lichtenberg, who wrote the screenplay. “That utopian socialism was thrown into the garbage bin of history. The year of 1990 was a time of very fast change in Germany. Many East Berliners had no chance to say goodbye to the past, and perhaps this film gives them that chance. I grew up in the west and have no nostalgic emotions about the east. But those who were children of the east quickly lost the images of daily life.”

West or east, little has changed for Marianne Koos, who for the last 20 years has endured the incessant roar of subway trains from her underground shop at Alexanderplatz in the eastern part of the city. A stout woman with unblinking eyes, Koos said neither capitalism nor communism has offered riches or redemption. Politics, she guesses, changes more things at the top than the bottom.

“I worked then and I work now,” she said, sitting at a cash register in her narrow store stocked with old communist brands, such as Nuth stain remover, Hermann’s foot bath and Elasan baby lotion. Many old east German manufacturers were taken over by western companies, who peeled the jobs away but kept the product names.

“Of course,” she admitted, “I am better stocked these days. I have my traditional customers. I get about 50 to 70 a day. After the Wall fell, women in the east went and bought western skin lotions and cosmetics. A lot of them got rashes. Now, they’re back buying the old east products.”

“Hey, any Pitralon aftershave?” asked an old man in a leather cap who shuffled in from the subway platform.

“No, sorry,” said Koos, who turned to another visitor. “I’ve been interviewed a lot lately. I had some Chinese TV crew in here a few days ago. Apparently, I’m in some book in China about communist goods.”

The old man ambled away as a whoosh of hot air from a passing train trailed in, blowing over postcards of the Sandmann, who appeared on East German TV nightly to lull children to sleep.

Beyond Alexanderplatz, across neighborhoods of art galleries and cafes, grit and shabbiness have lent a bohemian ambience to pockets of east Berlin. They are places where the avant-garde tries to stay a step ahead of the Starbucks and Haagen-Dazs crowds and away from the scowls of the skinheads.

Christoph Links publishes books, many of them dedicated to the east, out of a renovated brewery. He is not enamored of the lack of intellectual depth in the current spate of ostalgie, marked by vacuous talk shows filled with old film footage and do-you-remember? corniness.

“These TV shows, they are trash,” he said. “I hate them. They only give us half the life.”

The shows, he said, don’t probe the complications of history or the pain of reunification. They don’t illuminate the upheaval and despair faced then and now by east Germans.

“You have unemployment rates in some cities in the east that are 20 and 30 percent,” Links said. “The mood in the east is one of resignation. They don’t want the old GDR back, but they are not happy now.

“There was no ostalgie in the three to five years after the Wall came down. East Germans were too busy trying to fit into the west. They had hope and enthusiasm for the future. Ostalgie started around 1995 with discos and German [Communist] Youth T-shirts. By 2001, the GDR was an artifact, but east Germans didn’t feel accepted by west Germans. We felt rejected from their history.... Although I dislike these shows, I think they are for the first time allowing east Germans to feel part of German life.”

Through a courtyard off Schreinerstrasse, Joerg Davids sat in a small office at a computer near a cat named Lucifer. He was logging ostalgie T-shirt orders from Europe. There were a few from the U.S. and Japan as well. Business, he said, has gone up 15% every year since 1992 and jumped 30% this year. He recently asked his Internet service provider in Bavaria to grant him more Web site space.

Davids grew up in the west, but his parents, who both worked for the German railway, were leftists and often took him to union rallies in the east. He’s noticed that a lot has changed since the Berlin Wall fell. Old neighborhoods in the east are being gentrified, and rents are rising. There’s a new prettiness to things, and Davids said a lot of east Germans are being priced out of a capitalist market they don’t quite understand.

“The fairy tale of the golden west is over. People in the east have sobered up. Many are now thinking that some things in the east weren’t too bad. The wrapping in the east was tacky, but some of the products were pretty good.”