Ostalgie: Revisiting East Germany
By Matthew LongoOctober 1, 2023
The Wall is everywhere in Berlin, even today. The space where two closed-off edgelands once butted up against each other is now the heart of the unified city. Remnants of that erstwhile division are hard to miss, especially for older locals who remember the barriers.
When the tram lurches forward, I discover on the transit map that my route will shortly dead-end. In Berlin, the tramlines largely run in the East. In most cities, such a scheme would be unimaginable. But here it somehow makes sense. Tramlines weren’t maintained in the West, so after reunification the tracks weren’t extended. The city had bigger issues to negotiate.
Once I recover from my frustration at missing the talk, a sentiment creeps in at this glimpse of the former city: divided Berlin, a place I never myself visited yet feel for all the same. In Germany, there is a word for this—“ostalgie,” or nostalgia for the East. You find it across Eastern Europe: in museums and public ceremonies, in the stories people tell, in the items they keep in their houses. It afflicts everyone who had once lived on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Increasingly, I find it affects me too.
Over the last years, I have spent a lot of time in the old East doing research for my book, The Picnic: A Dream of Freedom and the Collapse of the Iron Curtain (forthcoming from W. W. Norton in November). The Pan-European Picnic was a giant party held in the Hungarian borderlands in August 1989 that set the stage for the first major breach of the Iron Curtain, when hundreds of East Germans dashed to freedom in the West. My research involved scores of interviews with the people involved, conversations often steeped in nostalgia for life before the transition to democracy, for how things might have been had the Wall never come down.
These sentiments are understandable. More interesting is that this feeling—this ostalgie—is something I increasingly come across in the West too. The old socialist East speaks to us somehow. Some of this is simply a response to the return of Cold War themes, preponderant after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. But there appears to be something else going on, specifically in relation to East Germany, as evidenced by a host of new books on the subject—notably, Katja Hoyer’s first-of-its-kind history, Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949–1990 (Allen Lane, 2023), and East German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck’s Kairos (released in English translation by New Directions in June). The first English translation of Brigitte Reimann’s Siblings, a 1960s East German classic, was published by Transit Books in March.
What is it about East Germany that resonates so strongly today? Was something lost in that society? Or is it more a reflection of our own circumstances? I appreciate the Cold War allure, but I think it is something deeper, connected with our present fascination with socialism. It has been a few decades since the revolutionary days of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall—the Mauerfall—which was supposed to usher in the end of history. The liberal West today is hardly the bastion of freedom and democracy once imagined. It’s no surprise we find ourselves revisiting this not-so-distant past, curious about the point of rupture, wondering what went wrong.
Katja Hoyer was just four years old when the Wall came down on November 9, 1989, but she remembers that time vividly, especially the rally on Alexanderplatz the month before. She was in Berlin with her family, and they had gone to the top of the Fernsehturm, the landmark TV tower. While gazing down upon the square, Hoyer called to her father: “Papa, come and see! All those people look like little ants! […] And look! There are police cars everywhere!” These words drew a cautious look from her father, who swiftly ushered them home—who understood that if such a rally grew out of hand, the police might use force. Little did they know that, within a month, the mighty Berlin Wall would crumble, and shortly thereafter the entire experiment of socialist East Germany would end.
Hoyer’s Beyond the Wall is a sweeping history of East Germany (the German Democratic Republic, or GDR) from its emergence out of the rubble of World War II through German reunification on October 3, 1990. It is also a deeply nostalgic book. Hoyer feels that the GDR story has been largely mistold, dismissed as simply the losing side of a Manichaean divide, placing drab, gray, socialist East Germany on one side of the Wall and vibrant, free West Germany on the other. Instead, Hoyer wants to present the GDR in living color. This is part of the power of the book, especially for readers from the West who might wonder: if it was so awful, why do so many people feel (n)ostalgic for it?
To give texture to socialist life, Hoyer takes us into the living rooms and thoughtscapes of ordinary people. It is a world of sputtering Trabants—Trabis, the iconic East German cars—and Vita Cola, the GDR’s response to (forbidden, capitalist) Coke. She writes of men frustrated that they’re too broke to get girlfriends, and women upset when their favorite doctors migrate to the West. As though speaking to Western readers who might wonder how anyone could feel nostalgia for such a place, Hoyer writes: “The citizens of the GDR lived, loved, worked and grew old. They went on holidays, made jokes about their politicians and raised their children.”
This intimate telling is especially powerful in the early days of the republic, 1948–61, before the building of the Berlin Wall—a period of hope and promise, in which anything was possible, even as future fault lines were already visible. Most resonant today, it was also a time when ideological positions were earnestly debated—before the polarization that came later. When we reconsider our own feelings about the old East, this is part of what we are nostalgic for: earnest discussion of ideas and ideological systems. This largely disappeared in the GDR after 1961 with the building of the Wall, just like it feels impossible in the West today.
Reimann’s 1963 novel Siblings is set in 1960, at precisely this juncture, when division was in people’s minds, and in the air, but not yet on the ground. The book stages a row among siblings—Elisabeth (a dedicated socialist), Konrad (who has already defected to the West), and Uli (who is caught in the middle). The unformed nature of Uli’s thinking generates the core tension of the novel. He wants to leave, but his vision is indeterminate: it isn’t exactly a dream of the capitalist West, just of somewhere else.
The family drama mirrors the debate in the country at large. The GDR economy is flagging, and scores of East German workers are emigrating west. Uli, who is not a Party member and feels persecuted by the state, is unhappy in the GDR. But home represents family—a life he also loves.
Neither society is faultless. Integration is hard for Konrad in the West, where he is labeled a “refugee from the East Zone” and struggles to find his place in a not-always-welcoming new society. But there are also difficulties in the East. At the factory where she works, Elisabeth must negotiate petty power politics within the socialist machinery.
One day, Elisabeth’s school friend, Gregory, invites her to join him in the West. Gregory’s portrayal of the GDR is hardly flattering: it is a land of inefficiency and corruption. But their discussion is revealing in another way as well, indicative of a critique Reimann develops about the West, that it is a place entirely without moral commitments.
“Gregory is now building his bridges in ‘underdeveloped countries,’” Elisabeth narrates later, after receiving a postcard. She wonders whether it would have made a difference to him “if he’d built missile launch pads instead of bridges.”
Gregory’s mercenary attitude sits in stark contrast to that of Uli, who wants to leave even though he still believes in socialist ideals. “I’m giving up on our people, but not our cause,” Uli says to Elisabeth. “I’ve never doubted, even in my darkest moments, that the future will be communist.”
It is a confused statement but also a profound reflection on the depths of despair in East Germany: by 1960, the state wasn’t losing just would-be capitalists; it was losing socialists too.
Uli’s dilemma is instantly recognizable to us in the present, certainly for those of us with some leftist leanings, and it helps to contextualize our curiosity about this era. Uli loves the idea of socialism but not its lived experience. He wants to save socialism—including from socialists—but doesn’t know how.
For all our interest in the emotional quandaries that accompanied the building-up of the Berlin Wall, we are still predominantly concerned with the story of its fall. Hoyer’s treatment of 1989 focuses not merely on the kind of society that we left behind but also the way we did so. Did we have to abandon socialism as quickly as we did? What might a reformed GDR have looked like? This brand of ostalgie is paradoxical: it is nostalgia for a state that never existed (a post-Mauerfall, reconstructed GDR) coupled with regret that we never tried. That we—all of us—gave up on socialism too soon.
After the Wall came down, East Germans woke up to a difficult new reality. Suddenly they could go to the West whenever they wanted, but what would happen to their lives and livelihoods? Hoyer narrates this moment through the lens of a young mother, Ines, frightened by what transition might bring. “Everyone knew that the state didn’t work,” Ines recounts, but “everything we had banked on and planned for was now uncertain.”
Less than a month after the Mauerfall, a group of intellectuals—including novelist Christa Wolf—put out a public appeal, “For Our Country,” to save the GDR as an experiment in socialism rather than capitulate to capitalism. Instead, within a year, East Germany was officially incorporated into West Germany—now, Germany—and the GDR ceased to exist. This brought a political rupture of a magnitude rarely seen in politics—the collapse of an entire ideological system and the triumph of another. But, as Hoyer shows, it raised more questions than answers. After the Cold War, liberalism became hegemonic, expanding unfettered across the world and morphing into the system we have today—marked more by inequality than anything resembling freedom. Now, with the vantage of hindsight, it’s natural to wonder whether we wouldn’t have been better off if something of that old society had been retained.
Erpenbeck’s novel Kairos revisits this consequential period with a story of star-crossed love between Katharina, a young woman, and Hans, an older man, that straddles the fall of the Wall. The love affair is foregrounded, at least at first, but politics lurks, ever-present, in the background. The book begins with a reference to the god of fortunate moments. “Kairos,” Erpenbeck writes, “is supposed to have a lock of hair on his forehead, which is the only way of grasping hold of him. Because once the god has slipped past on his winged feet, the back of his head is sleek and hairless, nowhere to grab hold of.”
Erpenbeck is talking about the chance encounter between her two protagonists, one rainy July afternoon in 1986—a love affair of such force that, once set in motion, they are each hopeless to escape. But she is also alluding to the Mauerfall. For, though Kairos is the god of fortunate moments, he could just as easily have been the god of nostalgia. Erpenbeck wants us to revisit that moment of rupture and wonder what might have been had reunification not stormed forth so quickly—had the world of Erpenbeck’s youth, a setting she is nostalgic for, not slipped away.
Like Hoyer, Erpenbeck is keen to change the tenor of our perception of the socialist East. When Katharina speaks of the Wall, it isn’t just hideous and brutal but also a place she grows up beside, watching birds cross willy-nilly over the foreboding boundary. It is a structure that created a cul-de-sac, ideal for roller-skating. Erpenbeck is well aware of the excesses of the East German state. But she wants you to know it was also a place that could furnish a good childhood.
Early in the book, Katharina gets permission to take a trip to West Germany to visit her cousin, whom she knows mostly through letters (an epistolary relationship enabled by the Wall, in lieu of a physical one foreclosed by it). Upon arrival, Katharina is confronted by beggars in front of the cathedral in Cologne. Inequality, Katharina learns, is the price of freedom. Later, the sight of these beggars doesn’t bother her in the same way: “Does one so quickly get used to being more fortunate than others?”
The critique is incisive. Seen in this light, capitalism is not natural or inevitable but circumstantial. In leading you through those first steps on West German soil, Erpenbeck takes you on a trip she once took herself.
By the end of the 1980s, Hans and Katharina’s relationship sours. In spring 1989, the love story and the political story begin to converge, especially with reforms to the Iron Curtain in Hungary, which help precipitate the fall of the Wall. These are world-historical events. But for Hans and Katharina, the moment registers as terrifying uncertainty.
A few months after the Mauerfall, Katharina has a dream: a building crumbles, the walls collapse. She recalls “standing by a second-floor window, in a halved room, with her back to a wall that no longer exists. […] [P]laster dust crumbles on her hair, and then bigger chunks as well.”
The Wall has fallen, and so too has her relationship. New questions emerge: is there something to be reclaimed after the great collapse? Katharina and Hans support the appeal, “For Our Country”: “It’s not too late for us to present a Socialist alternative to West Germany.”
Katharina walks around post-Mauerfall Berlin alienated and dread-stricken. Rather than take the new metro lines that cut through the West, she sticks to the creaky and inefficient GDR trams. Writes Erpenbeck: “[S]he prefers to take the old trams and wobble around in the East, where she knows where she is.”
Ostalgie is everywhere in the old East. One day, after wrapping up an interview, I visited the N’Ostalgie Museum in Leipzig, filled to the brim with GDR-era oddities. It features a fully stocked living room, pickled in time to appear exactly as it would have—you are invited to sit on the sofa, as in an ostalgic IKEA showroom. Before I leave, the woman behind the desk asks what brought me. Do I love the East? she wants to know.
The experience of spending time in the former GDR has changed my perspective on things. I no longer view the fall of the Berlin Wall as triumphantly as I once did—as an unadulterated emblem of liberalism’s victory over totalitarianism. Nor am I convinced that the West has an ironclad claim on freedom. I wouldn’t say that I am ostalgic for the GDR, but rather for the juncture in time, 1989, when that entire history came crashing to a halt. Like Hoyer and Erpenbeck, I wonder what might have happened had reunification not come so fast—whether a working version of democratic socialism might have been possible.
Like Reimann, I long for a time when real discussion about ideological systems was possible—if difficult—contra the forces of polarization and stagnation that beset our political present.
These days in the United States, we talk a lot about democratic socialism—words that had for years been exiled from our lexicon by the Cold War. I am sympathetic to these movements, but I also find myself adrift in them. I can’t yet imagine what socialism would look like in the United States, what such a commitment might entail. When I try to conjure an image, I revisit 1989. Mine is less a search for models (the GDR is no one’s idea of a success story) than for clues—something to aid our own journey toward the equitable society we might one day become.
Perhaps it was the weight of this search that I felt that day in Berlin when riding the dead-ending tram, as though the old relic was a portal to a bygone world—maybe a future one too.
Matthew Longo is assistant professor of political science at Leiden University. He is the author of two books: The Picnic: A Dream of Freedom and the Collapse of the Iron Curtain (W. W. Norton, 2023) and The Politics of Borders: Sovereignty, Security, and the Citizen After 9/11 (Cambridge University Press, 2018).
Featured image: Berlin Wall art by Kani Alavi titled It’s happened in November, 1990. Photographed by contributor.
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