By Stephan Resch

In November 2019, the 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, I came across a curious piece of non-news which made me pause and think. It was about the person most searched on Google in relation to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Several people could be candidates of course, most prominently the former General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, who with his politics of ‘perestroika’ and ‘glasnost’ paved the way for profound changes throughout the Eastern bloc countries. Günter Schabowski, the East German Socialist Party Official who announced mistakenly during a press conference on 9 November 1989, that GDR borders were to open with immediate effect, would be another credible contender. So would be Erich Honecker, GDR Head of State, who proclaimed earlier in 1989 that the Wall would still be there in 50 or 100 years. Or maybe East-German political activist Bärbel Bohley, who was instrumental in coordinating the civil rights movements that culminated in mass demonstrations and the peaceful revolution that eventually toppled the regime.

However, the person most Germans seem to connect with the fall of the wall today is David Hasselhoff. The apparent absurdity of this requires an explanation to non-German readers. Germans have had a long-standing love affair with the US actor and singer. Popularised in Germany through his TV-appearances in ‘Knight Rider’ and ‘Baywatch’, Hasselhoff hit a nerve when his pop-song ‘Looking for Freedom’ became something of an unofficial anthem for overjoyed Germans in the autumn of 1989 when, within a matter of weeks, the wall and indeed and the entire state of the GDR started to disintegrate. This anecdote would be nothing more than a curious footnote of German history if it didn’t reveal a more unsettling aspect of coming to terms with the demise of the GDR: for a large part of the population, the GDR and its downfall are increasingly becoming the object of a feeling rather than the sum of its historical facts. When a pop-song and its singer appear to dominate the recollections of the most decisive event in Germany in living memory, we need to ask what happened to get us there.

To be sure, the majority of the population in both East and West Germany were ecstatic about the speed with which the rule of the Socialist Unity Party crumbled. This was accompanied by a general sense of euphoria around 1989 when in South Africa, the end of apartheid was in sight and in most of Eastern Europe, the repressive communist regimes fell apart. Former chancellor Willy Brandt announced enthusiastically several days after the wall had fallen: “Jetzt wächst zusammen, was zusammen gehört – What belongs together will now grow together”, referring to the unification of Germany that was not only a stated goal of the West German constitution but very quickly became the only option of political negotiations.

One of the few critical voices of the time came from GDR writer turned politician Stefan Heym. With reunification looming, he saw the GDR-identity as doomed and described the process as that of a snake eating a hedgehog”. The hedgehog would disappear but the snake would get digestive problems.[1] What Heym referred to was the fact that reunification was not a process of growing together on equal terms, it was instead the East being taken over by the West on western terms. From one day to the next, the West German constitution applied in the former GDR, and many qualified jobs in the East were no longer needed in a modern market economy. What came from the East was almost always deemed inferior to what came from the West. GDR citizens saw their country disappear irretrievably without ever leaving it, many felt like second class citizens in a united Germany. Such hegemonial tendencies of the West gave rise to the term ‘Ostalgie’ – ostalgia, a nostalgic, often rose-tinted view of life in East (“ost”) Germany. According to Wolfgang Emmerich, ostalgia resulted from a “West German refusal to acknowledge and respect the different habitus and the cultural heritage and memory of the East Germans.”[2] According to Kathrin Kohl it is “a means of giving GDR citizens back a sense of personal identity.”[3] ‘Ostalgie’ can manifest in a variety of ways, for example through the revival of East-German brands, the ironic treatment of goods, songs, clothes, food and other artefacts from GDR everyday life that are now used as affirming an identity and forming an association with a country that no longer exists. Even symbols of the repressive regime such as military paraphernalia are now sometimes regarded with a sense of nostalgia as their original context has long been forgotten.

Such personal and often idealising nostalgic memories are of course one valid and legitimate way of remembering the GDR: as long as they do not obscure the memories of a very different public history of the GDR. As Jens Bisky has pointed out, there is a dualistic and fundamentally disconnected way of remembering East Germany.[4] On one side, the private histories, on the other side, the disturbing legacy of the Stasi, the memory of systematic repression of personal freedoms, of those who died trying to escape the country and that of an entire state that as Mary Fulbrook points out, had “an essential disregard for human worth.”[5] If the GDR is becoming the object of a nostalgic “memory industry” (Bisky) then indeed the disturbing realities of everyday life must have long been forgotten.

In 2009, a survey commissioned by the German magazine Der Spiegel found that 57% of East Germans felt that life was better under the Communist regime.[6] A 2008 study found that a large proportion of East Germans still felt disadvantaged, underappreciated and not properly integrated.[7] And another study, commissioned in the same year found that younger generations of Germans knew surprisingly little about the GDR, concluding however that “the more young people knew about the GDR, the more critical they tended to be.”[8] These results, collected more than ten years ago, pointed towards a worrying trend. Many in the East felt that the promises given by West German politicians of “blühende Landschaften – flourishing landscapes” had not or only partly been delivered on.

While western liberties were introduced and large eastern cities such as Dresden revitalised; unemployment, removal of social safety nets and divestment especially from rural regions were another reality of reunification East Germans had witnessed. The studies also highlighted the difficulties of remembering the GDR. Timothy Garton Ash pointed out with a reference to remembering the National Socialist past, that the Germans could be considered world champions in remembering their past: “No nation has been more brilliant, more persistent, and more innovative in the investigation, communication, and representation—the re-presentation, and re-re-presentation—of its own past evils.”[9] And while there have been numerous highly successful attempts in capturing the trauma caused by true day-to-day GDR socialism through film and literature, such efforts seem to be largely disconnected from the memories and perceptions of many East Germans.

30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a timespan slowly approaching the entire 40-year existence of the GDR, it appears that the snake is still having digestive problems, to quote Stefan Heym. The German term “abgehängt” is now frequently used to describe the feeling of discontented East Germans. Loosely translated to mean “stranded”, it is normally used specifically to describe train carriages left behind from a train that is heading for new destinations. Tapping into the discontent is the far-right party AfD (Alternative for Germany) that received 25% of the votes in the recent state elections in East Germany. The AfD is rallying on a ticket of xenophobia, simple solutions to complex problems and a highly problematic reinterpretation of the German past. One of their slogans refers to a popular chant of peaceful demonstrators against the GDR regime: “wir sind das Volk – we are the people.” It was meant as a message against an autocratic regime that ruled over its people without any regard for their desires and wellbeing. It is now used by the AfD, a party of authoritarian and undemocratic tendencies, as a populist slogan against the established democratic parties. As German President Frank Walter Steinmeier stated, “if political groups attempt to steal the legacy of 1989 in order to create fear, that would mean a perfidious misrepresentation of history.”[10] The AfD, especially in the East, is feeding on and amplifying the discontent of those who feel, that life was better in the GDR. There is a growing belief, nourished by the AfD, that there is less freedom of opinion today in Germany than there was in the GDR, a state in which any critical utterance with political content, even as a throw away remark, was likely to attract a prison sentence and a black-listing by the Stasi.

It is a timely reminder of the importance of “Erinnerungsarbeit” – an active effort to remember the past. This applies not only to the historically documented past, the history of oppression, deliberate manipulation of citizens and destruction of human relationships through the state but also the private histories. Few families were untouched by the omnipresent apparatus of surveillance and social engineering that was at the heart of the GDR. And even Germans, whether they are “world champions in remembering” or not, have a long way to go in coming to terms with the GDR, the wall and its peaceful revolution as long as David Hasselhoff is the first person they remember.

Footnotes 

[1] http://germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/docpage.cfm?docpage_id=3301&language=german

[2] Wolfgang Emmerich: “Cultural Memory East vs. West: Is what belongs together really growing together?” Oxford German Studies 38/3, 2009, p. 251

[3] Kathrin Kohl: ”Conceptualising the GDR“, S 270, in Oxford German Studies 38/3, 2009, p. 265-277

[4] Jens Bisky: „Zonensucht – Kritik der neuen Ostalgie“, Merkur 2/58, 2004, p. 117-127, here p. 118

[5] Mary Fulbrook: Anatomy of a Dictatorship – Inside the GDR 1949-1989, Oxford University Press 1995, p.28

[6] https://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/a-633180.html

[7] Heitmeyer, cited by Emmerich, p. 253

[8] Schroeder, cited by Jan-Werner Müller: „Just another Vergangenheitsbewältigung? The Process of Coming to Terms with the East German Past Revisited”, Oxford German Studies 38/3, 2009 p. 334-344, here p.336

[9] Timothy Garton Ash: “The Stasi on our Minds”, in: The New York Review of Books, 31 May 2007

[10] http://www.bundespraesident.de/SharedDocs/Reden/DE/Frank-Walter-Steinmeier/Reden/2019/08/190813-Geteilte-Geschichten.html


Stephan Resch is a Senior Lecturer in European Languages and Literature at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in modern German literature. 

See Also:

Q+A: History as battleground: How does memory shape today’s politics?

Q+A: Scars of the past: What is historical memory and how does it change?