Ostalgie: A Bad Case of Nostalgia

Harry Wise, BA Politics 

In the third episode of the television series, Deutschland ’83, the East German Secret Service (HVA) is trying to access information stored on a floppy disk stolen from NATO. The disk contains a NATO security report regarding the viabilities of a nuclear attack. It’s extremely valuable information. However, they run into a problem. They realise that their Robotron 5120 computer simply isn’t good enough to access the information on the floppy disk. Instead, they have to use an American IBM 567 to access the disk’s contents. “It’s so cool,” says the East German technician of the American model. “Don’t say “cool,”’ says his stern East German boss.

Like ‘The Americans,’ Deutschland ’83 has us rooting for the bad guys. We want Martin Rauch to not get caught, even though his employers are a paranoid, dictatorial, communist state. You might even like the way the East German society is run. Everyone is provided for and everyone looks happy. Once you begin to have such thoughts, you are suffering from a condition called ‘Ostalgie.’

‘Ostalgie’ is the mostly German phenomenon of being nostalgic for aspects of East German life. It’s usually found in the small pleasures; a t-shirt of Ampelmann and some Trabi postcards. Many articles have appeared in newspapers exclaiming the positive aspects of East German society. And though East Germany was surprisingly progressive in many ways, it was certainly no utopia.

On a superficial level, women were equal in East Germany. More women worked in East Germany than the West. They had access to high-quality education, generous levels of maternity leave, free contraception and special university classes. But this was more out of necessity than genuine ideology. During the early years of the regime, East Germany had a severe labour shortage, caused by the emigration of East Germans to the West. Women were needed to work.

Despite the large female workforce, women did not occupy the top echelons of German society. The government, the Stasi and the military were all male-dominated, and very few women held a high-ranking position in cabinet. And though East German women may have started off in a better position, by the 1970s, West German women had caught up with them and subsequently progressed to higher ranks of state then in East Germany. Housework was still seen as a woman’s domain. The equality of men and women was merely a fantasy.

Women did benefit from the generous child care provision by the state. The East did do child care very well; there were more child care facilities; they were usually open for 12 hours a day, and most children were in after-school programmes. Their reputation is so great, that in 2007, the Family Minister expanded the East German system of nurseries to the West. It’s one of the few Eastern systems to have survived the fall of the Berlin Wall.


Before ‘Ostalgists’ get a bit excited though, let me remind them that at no point during East Germany’s existence were its Ossies better off than the Wessies, even when the West was experiencing economic crisis during the 1970s. And it is in this period, as Alex Clarkson points out, in which one finds one of East Germany’s greatest ironies. “If you look at the period from 1969 through to approximately 1978, there is a period where there was a deep sense of economic crisis in Western Europe. At the very same time, it was a period in which because of high oil and gas prices, the Soviet Union was in a position to subsidise…Eastern Europe to a much greater tune. And it was also a period in which relative political and social stability enabled the GDR…to start taking out loans from Western banks. This was one of the great ironies of the 1970s. The period where the GDR gets closest to the West is when they are restoring economic links with the West, are borrowing money from the West, and are benefiting from the Soviet Unions’ massive oil and gas profits.”

If you were to associate one word with East Germany more than any other, it would be ‘Stasi’ a unique intelligence service. They had their own army. They acted as a public prosecutor. By 1989, there was one Stasi member for every 180 citizens. And that’s not counting its informers. Under the leadership of Erich Mielke, they became extremely powerful. As Anna Funder describes in the book Stasiland, “Its job was to know everything about everyone, using any means it chose. It knew who your visitors were, it knew whom you telephoned, and it knew if your {partner} slept around. It was a bureaucracy metastasised through East German society.”

East German prisons were known for their isolation and brutal treatment of prisoners. The Stasi are hardly something you’d want to feel any sentimental attachment for. Ossies are sentimental for the things that made them happy. They long for the job security. They watch the comedies Goodbye Lenin! or Sun Alley to cheer themselves up. They eat Thuringia sausages while listening to Ostrock and playing Kost the Ost.

Despite having lived in Hanover and East Berlin, Alex Clarkson has no sentimental attachment to the old East. He sums it up bluntly. “You know what, life in East Germany sucked.” He feels Shows like Deutschland ’83 will give people the wrong attitude about East Germany; “There is this UK attitude of ‘It’s exotic!’ But it’s like exoticism of the slum.”

In the first scene of Deutschland ‘83, Martin, who works as a border guard, is interrogating two men who have tried to smuggle Shakespeare books. When the interrogation finishes, he takes the book and gives it as a present to his mother at a house party. His aunt Lenora, an HVA official, gives her sister a jar of Nescafe. It just goes to show how much East Germany was a land of contradictions. It could be very progressive, but every aspect of GDR life could be used against you. It was a society which Anna Funder found reminiscent of a scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; ‘Let the jury consider their verdict,’ the King said, for about the twentieth time that day. ‘No, no! said the Queen. ‘Sentence first – verdict afterwards.’

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