An Online Symposium 30 Years After the Fall of the Wall

Katrin Bahr, Victoria Rizo-Lenshyn, Claudia Sandberg, Juliane Schicker

This project examines political, social, and cultural movements and tendencies that existed in the German Democratic Republic, teasing out potentials, frustrations, disappointments, and the many ideas that shaped the 1980s and the end of the GDR. Which stories existed and how do they stand vis-à-vis the current master narratives of a peaceful revolution, the wish, and euphoria for newfound freedom and the need for a market-driven economy? Much happened in the years immediately preceding the years before and after the Fall of the Wall, but little is known about the vibrancy of this time and the repercussions for recent developments on local, regional and global levels. This project is a contribution to the counter-narrative that tries to offer a more nuanced understanding of the social and cultural aspects that led to the Mauerfall and the unification of the two German states.

For this project, we interviewed former East Germans citizens from all walks of life, ages, and professions, active in organizing and participating in a range of social movements in East Germany in the 1980s. Beyond the well-documented Monday demonstrations in Leipzig, people were involved with environmental and women’s issues, the gay rights movement, among others. The interviews give insight into concrete actions and activities individuals and groups – such as the squatter scene in Potsdam – from before the Wende until the present time.

To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall, this collection of interviews hopes to contribute to the current memory debate by bringing together a range of ideas and actions that took shape in GDR society in the time leading up to the Wende. These revisions and differentiated views are also important in light of hopeful events and disconcerting developments in current Germany and worldwide – populist leaderships, nationalistic and anti-Semitic tendencies, the increased consciousness to save a dying planet, and a new feminist understanding expressed in the MeToo movement. Our interviewees also share with us thoughts and insights about why it still matters to talk about the GDR and how they connect GDR history with the current development in German society.

We are extremely grateful to everyone who was willing to talk to us about their memories and experiences. We would also like to thank the feminist archive FFBIZ in Berlin, and the DEFA Stiftung for allowing us to use their photographs. While many voices still need to be included, these responses created a narrative of diversity and give a sense of the richness of ideas and experiences that should defy the image of a “joyless dictatorship.”

Read the interviews here Symposium – 30 Jahre Mauerfall.*

*The interviews are in German with some parts translated into English. 



Poetic Visibility: East German Poetry and Blackness in Farbe Bekennen (1986)

In 1986 a group of Black German feminist poets stirred up the West German literary scene. As a result of the encounter with activist and poet Audre Lorde in the mid-1980s in Berlin, May Opitz (later Ayim), Katharina Oguntoye, and Dagmar Schulz published Farbe Bekennen: Afro-Deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte [Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out (1992)]. The anthology is composed of poetry, oral histories, and socio-historical treatises and is especially noteworthy for including material by black artists from East Germany. One of them is Raja Lubinetzki who contributed an interview and selected poetry (Graue Tragik, fragment) to the anthology’s first edition under her alias Katherina Birkenwald. Lubinetzki trained in typography and sculpture art while writing poetry since the age of fourteen. The artist published some of her drawings and poetry in several East German underground magazines before contributing to Farbe Bekennen. With the publication of her work in the founding document of the Afro-German movement, she helped create poetic visibility of an ignored reality: ethnic minorities in the GDR.

Lubinetzki was born in Kropstädt (Sachsen-Anhalt) in 1962 to a German mother and a Cameroonian father. She was abandoned by her mother after birth and grew up with a white foster parent. Her foster mother struggled to financially provide for the small family of two. At the age of fourteen, Lubinetzki learned about her biological mother and two biracial siblings. One of the sisters was given up for adoption, and the other one remained with her mother.

Black Germans are part of East German history but have received little attention from the general public in former East, West, and later reunified Germany. In her 2016 essay Making African Diasporic Pasts Possible: A Retrospective View of the GDR and Its Black (Step-) Children, Peggy Piesche points out that the Black East German minority emerged in the 1960s. Black German children were born as a result of multi-ethnic relationships between German women and young men who came to the GDR for work (e.g. from Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia) or to pursue their studies (e.g. from Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia). What most people do not know is that interracial couples were not allowed to marry or share a home. Foreign workers and students faced many restrictions based on the treaties between East Germany and their respective countries of origin. Additionally, Piesche notes that based on Paragraph 6 of the GDR Ausländergesetz (aliens act) from 1979, a “… foreigner could […] lose his or her right of residence at any time, or it could be limited geographically, as well as in duration” (232). Because of these circumstances, Black German children mostly grew up with just their mothers or they were given up for adoption. These children were GDR citizens but due to their skin color most of them were perceived as “Others-from-Without” (Wright 190). Similar to Black German experiences in West Germany, those children were viewed as exotic foreigners in the GDR.


East German blackness also signifies a sense of invisibility that results from a colorblind ideology within the state. In his 2015 essay Social Chromatism: Race, Racism, and the Racial Rainbow in East Germany, Quinn Slobodian points to the paradoxical nature of race discourse in East Germany. “On one hand, East German authorities officially denounced ‘race thinking.’ On the other hand, they continued to rely on stereotypes of phenotypical and folkloric difference to illustrate themes of internationalist solidarity” (26). In East German society, such views became modes of operation that helped to reinstate the dynamics of white superiority. The majority of Black German children and adolescents lived in white families, had white grandparents and German names but had no contact to the black side of the family and no one who would talk to them about their experiences of racism or othering they surely had experienced. According to a study by Jeanette Sumalgy, Black German adolescents in the GDR experienced a lack of support from their social environments during crucial periods of their identity formation (“Afro-Deutsche Jugendliche” 24-25). The limited availability of information about the history and culture of the African diaspora, as well as the clichés associated with blackness, hindered the parents in recognizing and supporting their biracial children.

To come back to Raja Lubinetzki: her poetic fragment geburt combines moments of destruction and creation with Black German experiences and creates a poetic prominence to East German blackness. The material quality of poetic expression, namely the Black German existence it calls into being, disrupts the power of invisibility and simultaneously exposes a colorblind discourse.



spiegel barsten, gewohnheitshäute platzen                            

pigmente entsetzt übergestrichen                                          

mittelmäßige augen lynchen, böshassende sprüche reißen   

stempel geprobte worte bäume, blutschlingende gräser reißen

mulatte ist geboren

mulatte ist da

krausgewellte haare brechen

negroeuro rhythmen sich schämen

notverlassene lieder schweigen

mulatte ist geboren

mulatte ist da

The poem reflects that workings of colorblind racism weigh heavily on biracial children and the public discourse, as well as define the notion of East German blackness. As such, blackness is met with denial and rejection: “pigmente entsetzt übergestrichen“ and “mittelmäßige augen lynchen, böshassende sprüche reißen“ (pigments appallingly covered, mediocre eyes lynch, evil hateful remarks tear, 2-3) [1]. The birth of a biracial child calls East German blackness into being, “mulatte ist geboren/ mulatte ist da” (5-6). At the same time, the use of the term “mulatte” in reference to a biracial child illustrates the reliance on racial classification and physical difference within East German public discourse. Racializing practices continue and cause more damage over time as “krausgewellte haare brechen / negroeuro rhythmen sich schämen / notverlassenene lieder schweigen” (frizzwaved hair breaks / negroeuro rhythms are embarrassed /abandoned songs keep silent, 7-9). The harmful tension between black minority and white majority is marked by a chain of crippling actions: “brechen,” “sich schämen,” and “schweigen” (break, to be embarrassed, to keep silent). As harm and neglect intensify, the presence of a biracial child breaks and ends the vicious cycle.

Lubinetzki interweaves poetic moments of destruction and creation with minority experiences. Her work reveals that Black East German poetry utilizes the potential of poetic expression for effect. Its transformative power is generated by exposing colorblindness in East German society and by giving Black East Germans a presence and a voice. Lubinetzki’s fragment geburt evokes dynamic poetic visibility. It makes East German blackness visible and in a general sense, contributes to advancing a broadened definition of East German cultural identity.

Works Cited

Birkenwald, Katherina. “geburt.“ Farbe Bekennen: Afro-Deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte, by Katharina Oguntoye et al., Orlanda Frauenverlag, 1986, p. 223.

Piesche, Peggy. “Making African Diasporic Pasts Possible: A Retrospective View of the GDR and Its Black (Step-)Children” Remapping Black Germany: New Perspectives on Afro German History, Politics, and Culture, edited by Sara Lennox, University of  Massachusetts Press, 2016.

Slobodian, Quinn. Comrades of Color: East Germany in the Cold War World. Berghahn Books,  2015, pp. 23- 39.

Sumalgy, Jeanette. Afro-Deutsche Jugendliche im Schulsystem der ehemaligen DDR – unter Berücksichtigung ihrer bi-nationalen Familiensituation und die Bedeutung für ihre weitere Lebensplanung. 1996. Katholische Fachhochschule Berlin, Diplomarbeit.

Wright, Michelle M. Becoming Black: Creating Identity in the African Diaspora. Duke UP, 2003.

[1] This and all subsequent translations are my own.

Memory Making and the Marketization of Socialism in East Germany

From NVA-inspired fashion, GDR-themed hotels and restaurants, GDR-product fairs and mail-order companies, to relaunched and newly created GDR brands like Halko’s DDR Schulküchentomatensoße: why do so many consumers in East Germany, and other former socialist societies alike, insist on socialist products and brands today when they were considered inferior alternatives to their western counterparts back then? Reviving a brand with previously negative associations and unfavorable product attributes defies conventional marketing and business logic. Hence, the standard explanation offered by consumer sociologists and historians is that these thriving socialism markets stimulate political opposition, a yearning for the “better” socialist past. From this perspective, when consumers interact creatively and playfully with the socialist past and engage in highly emotional consumption to revitalize themselves through socialist products and brands, they actively critique, resist, and in the process, invariably destabilize the capitalist status quo.

Although this explanation is certainly valuable, it has little to say about why socialism today is predominantly transported as a market-based consumption experience. Moreover, what alternative modes for expressing the relationship between the socialist past and the capitalist present are muted over time and why? What kind of socialisms are transported in these commercial images and meanings and what is their impact on the conditions of capitalism? What are the underlying cultural and ideological dynamics of this marketization? Intrigued by this fascinating subject, we, Katja H. Brunk (Europa-Universität Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder, Germany), Benjamin J. Hartmann (University of Gothenburg, Sweden) and Markus Giesler (York University, Toronto, Canada), examined the development of the German Ostalgie market over the past twenty-seven years. Based on an analysis of empirical data including advertising material, movies, books, media articles, and consumer narratives, we developed a multi-stage, multi-actor model of hegemonic memory making.

The Ostalgie market, one of the largest socialism markets in the world, emerged after the German reunification. When the Wall came down in 1989, consumers were finally able to buy long desired Western goods, which led to a period of hyper-consumption and the disappearance of socialist products and brands from the East German retail market. This phase of enchantment was short-lived, however. The shiny façade of Western consumer culture began to crumble when many East Germans were faced with harsh consequences of economic and political restructuring. This resulted in a hangover phase, characterized by the realization that capitalism was far from the land of milk and honey experience previously envisioned. It is during this time, the early 1990s, when the previously inferior and rejected East German consumer goods re-appeared, allegedly evoking feelings of nostalgia – a romanticized yearning for the “better” socialist past. Today, thirty years after the Wall was toppled, some products from the GDR era are still being relaunched (e.g., Undine cosmetics, Simson Schwalbe). Most consumer sociologists have taken this remarkable renaissance of East German products and brands as incontrovertible evidence for East Germans’ discontent and criticism of social and economic conditions in post-reunified Germany. Gathering the family around a simple socialist meal, rejecting West German food and lifestyle brands, or vacationing in a no-frills GDR-style retro hotel are seen as practices of resistance against West German preferences for efficiency, hyper-individualism, and status consumption.

However, we observed that the Ostalgie market’s romantic venerations of socialism changed considerably over time. They were crafted in West German marketing departments, advertising agencies and film studios who retailored political dissent into consumable emotional-nostalgic market resources in an attempt to restore political unity in four phases, each triggered by a historical disruption:

  • Phase 1: the privatization of East German industry (1991-2000)
  • Phase 2: the dismantling of German social security (1999-2005)
  • Phase 3: the publication of Stasi informants (2003-2009)
  • Phase 4: the Euro and global financial crisis (from 2008)

In each of these phases, a particular nostalgic image of the socialist past was crafted in response to East German political critiques of capitalism and was subsequently offered for mass-market consumption.

In phase 3 for example, the 2003 iconic Ostalgie movie Good Bye Lenin! transformed East German critiques of the hyper-individualism inherent in capitalist societies —which, according to an East German perspective, comes at the expense of the social and collective—into a banalized contrast between capitalism’s shallow consumer culture and socialism’s caring neighborhood idyll. Importantly, this highly therapeutic narrative did not naturally emerge from the memories of former GDR citizens. Rather, it was carefully crafted and popularized by a team of West German scriptwriters, producers, and promoters—at a time when West German politicians, journalists, and intellectuals, critically unpacking the activities of the famous “Stasi” (Ministry for State Security), condemned the GDR as a ruthless surveillance state of citizen spies, subsequently triggering a debate on the portrayal of the GDR as an “Unrechtsstaat”. This debate framed the socialist past purely in terms of mechanisms of repression and power structures and portrayed the GDR as a society of betrayal where nobody—not even family members—could be trusted. Commercial mythmakers (i.e. filmmakers, marketing agents, media professionals, brand managers) addressed this growing political tension and began refashioning the critical Stasi debate from the political level to that of consumption. They did so by cultivating consumable nostalgic memories that spotlight camaraderie and care, a re-imagination that was prominent in Good Bye Lenin! and thanks to which East Germany could then be channeled through consumption by revalorizing socialist brands like Spreewald pickles or the East German care package (the so-called “Ostpaket”) as tokens of a communal utopia, as nostalgia-framed identity salves that allow consumers to regain pride as former East German citizens.

Thus, the East German political resentment nurtured a hegemonic memory-making process that promoted a new consciousness of the bygone GDR as a morally superior alternative, a social paradise undergirded by social bonds and togetherness. These romanticized reconstructions paved the way for naturalizing the capitalist status quo by offering consumable identity salves that allowed East Germans to resolve identity stigma and express both their symbolic resistance to delegitimizing portrayals of an East German society of spies as well as their critique to capitalism’s individualism through consumption. Rather crucially this implies that marketing agents never just simply serve and respond to consumers’ nostalgic desires through emotional products and brands. Instead, they operate as powerful historians who frequently re-design how we can or cannot imagine the past, illustrating that history is malleable material.

With mythmaking of socialism being a multi-billion-dollar business, spanning industries such as entertainment, film, cultural heritage, advertising, consumer goods, food, product design, fashion, and the creation of extraordinary consumption experience, sociologists and historians need to adjust their theories on the political significance of socialism markets. The ability of socialist goods to help consumers challenge capitalism’s social and economic conditions must be questioned. While, on the surface, socialism markets may look like attractive avenues for consumers to take an active stance against status consumption, hyper-individualism and competition, they are ultimately strategies for capitalist societies to transform political dissent into highly emotional consumption adventures, thereby depoliticizing critique and nurturing consensus for the capitalist market system. Re-invoking innocent, emotional, and apolitical tales about the good life in socialism, these brands have a vital function for securing social order in turbulent times by giving citizens a sense of pride, control, and identity as consumers.


Why studying the GDR still matters today – The GDR as Lived Experience

In their introduction to the volume The GDR Today: New Interdisciplinary Approaches to East German History, Memory and Culture (2018), the editors Stephan Ehrig, Marcel Thomas, and David Zell ask if GDR studies has run its course. While current research on the GDR (including the aforementioned volume) proves otherwise, there is still room for incorporating GDR Studies into the German Studies curriculum. In teaching the GDR, there seems to be a canon of cultural production (be it literature or film) that either depicts the GDR as a state of oppression as seen in the film The Lives of Others (dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006) or through the lens of Ostalgie, as seen in Good Bye Lenin! (dir. Wolfgang Becker, 2003). This leads to what I call an exoticizing of the GDR and its culture on the one hand and an oversimplification of what the East German state was on the other hand. In order to understand contemporary German culture and history, one has to continue examining the factors that shaped GDR legacies and resist such exoticization. In this short reflection, I would like to suggest two ways of diversifying our teaching and study of the GDR.


Today there are a number of texts by a younger generation of East Germans who grew up in the GDR (for an overview see Bahr and Lorek, 2016), which present a more complex picture of GDR life. One example is Jana Hensel’s 2002 autobiographical book After the Wall. However, this developing canon still remains primarily white and only focuses on white East Germans. Texts featuring non-white experiences in East German literature or in literature about East Germany are rarely included in reading lists for courses or are the target of research. Nonetheless, those texts exist and inform about various lived experiences, such as those of Black East Germans. Autobiographies by Black East Germans not only expound on the narrative of the Black German experience as a whole, but also challenge the narrative of what it means to be East German. Additionally, in order to understand how structural racism works in today’s Germany, it is important to not only consider the history of Black West German lived experiences but also the history of Black East German life. The Black East German canon contains, among others, work from Gerd Schramm’s Wer hat Angst vorm schwarzen Mann (2013), Andre Baganz’s Endstation Bautzen II: Zehn Jahre Lebenslänglich (2010), Detlef D. Soost’s Heimkind, Neger, Pionier (2005), and Abini Zöllner’s Schokoladenkind: Meine Familie und andere Wunder (2003).

In addition to Black East German experiences, other People of Color of non-European descent also lived and worked in the GDR as so called Vertragsarbeiter (contract workers), students, refugees and children (most famously the Schule der Freundschaft [SdF] in Stassfurt). Studying their lived experiences through histories or cultural products provides not only insights into complex transnational encounters and exchanges with countries in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America, but also sheds light on the practical implementation of international solidarity as a concept of success and failure in East German political and private life. Some of the texts in this canon are Ibraimo Alberto’s Ich wollte leben wie die Götter. Was in Deutschland aus meinen afrikanischen Träumen wurde (2014), Stefan Canham and Phuong-Dan Nguyen’s Die Deutschen Vietnamesen (2011), as well as the edited volume Mosambik – Deutschland, Hin und Zurück. Erlebnisse von Mosambikanern vor, während und nach dem Aufenthalt in Deutschland (2005). Additionally, documentary films have proved to be a great medium for teaching everyday life experiences. They provide instructors and students with access to witnesses in order help undergraduate students connect with new and unknown lived experiences and perspectives. Some example are: the Webdoku Eigensinn im Bruderland (2019) about the lives of migrants in the GDR; Claudia Sandberg’s documentary film Películas escondidas. Un viaje entre el exilio y la memoria (2016) about DEFA’s ‘Chile’ films; and the production Omulaule heisst Schwarz (2016), a documentary by Beatrice Möller, Nicola Hens, and Susanne Radelhof; Christoph Schuch’s documentary Namibia – Return to a New Country – Namibia – Rückkehr in ein neues Land (1997) about Namibian children sent to the GDR as refugees. Including those voices into the teaching of German cultural history expands commonplace narratives about the GDR by considering the complex lives of people informed by race, gender, cultural, and generational divide.


In Socialist Modern: East German Everyday Culture and Politics (2009), Katherine Pence and Paul Betts suggest that the GDR was “a uniquely modern state,” thereby challenging a more singular idea of modernity as part of liberal capitalism (3). This research has inspired scholars to not only look differently at political, cultural, and social structures within the GDR, but also to consider the private aspect in order to understand ways of living in the GDR. GDR popular culture is a particularly rich resource in this regard because it can shed light on previously undervalued dimensions of GDR life. A detailed retrospective description of daily life, which comments upon various components of GDR socialist modernity and innovation, takes place in Thomas Brussig’s Das gibts in keinem Russenfilm (2015). But material produced by the DEFA film studios and GDR television also introduces viewers to different meanings of socialist life, while offering contemporary critiques towards the state as people were living it. For example, this has already been studied in the so-called banned films, those censored DEFA films that only came to light after the wall came down (for a full list, please see the DEFA Film Library’s Themes and Genre section). Further use of genre cinema, avant-garde cinema, and television may expand on this approach to studying the GDR. East German media not only gives insight into the society from within but also challenges the narratives of an oppressed society that was silenced to challenge the states’ political and social issues.

So, why do GDR studies matter now? By bringing in different examples of the many lived experiences of GDR cultural and social life, we will enrichen ongoing debates about and interrogations of Germaneness, identity, and shared values in contemporary Germany. By studying GDR material and literary culture alongside other canonical texts, students will be able to learn and discuss different ideas of societies and lived experiences without putting one over the other.


Katrin Bahr and Melanie Lorek. “Ja, wohin gehen sie denn?”- Die ‘3. Generation Ostdeutscher’ zwischen Suchen und Finden am Beispiel des 1.5 Generationskonzepts.” In Die Generation der Wendekinder: Elaboration eines Forschungsfeldes, eds. Adriana Lettrari, Christian Nestler, and Nadja Troi-Boeck. Wiesbaden: Springer, 2016. 255–77.

DEFA Film Library.


“This post was simultaneously published on the Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum (DDGC) Blog edited by Regine Criser and Ervin Malakaj.”

Kunst und Macht. Lutz Dammbeck in Australia


How and when do artists become complicit with power, entangled in its strategies that sometimes surpass their awareness? German filmmaker Lutz Dammbeck’s perspective is unique. Perhaps it is the result of Dammbeck being part of a minority of artists that were able to leave socialist East Germany in 1986 for the Western liberal-capitalist part of the country. The director allows us to share his viewpoint which, although highly subjective, appears nonetheless cautiously observing, impartial and even strangely ahistorical at times. From 1992-2003, Dammbeck created a four-part series in which he traces the ways art merges with power, talking to artists and intellectuals who, after the heights of their careers, sometimes abruptly find themselves marginalized and sidelined by an unforeseen historical change. In the process, he uncovers a complex of creators, institutions and a legacy of ideas from Nazi to GDR art, Viennese antimodernist actionism, to Silicon Valley Hippies and cybernetics, and invites us to step outside, to estrange ourselves from our own historical context.

Lutz Dammbeck’s documentary tetralogy Kunst und Macht Zeit der Götter/Time of Gods, Dürers Erben/Dürer’s Heirs, Das Meisterspiel/ Master Game, Das Netz/The Net) was screened at the University of Melbourne in four consecutive weeks in August 2018. This event was convened by writer Giles Simon Fielke (Artist Film Workshop and critic and curator Nicolas Hausdorf (Arena— Australian Magazine for Political, Social and Cultural Commentary –, and organized in cooperation with the  Goethe Institute Melbourne, the University of Melbourne, and the Artist Film Workshop. Each time, the room was filled to the brim with students, alumni and art enthusiasts engaged in discussions how far Dammbeck’s powerful images can be transmitted across time and place, and what remains of their influence at the end of the 20th century and beyond. Nicholas Hausdorf’s essay reflects on the practices of an exceptional artist and his ideas about the allures of power and art.

Kunst und Macht. Lutz Dammbeck in Australia

“We tend all too easily to forget that our reality comes to us through the media, the tragic events of the past included. This means that it is too late to verify and understand them historically, for precisely what characterises our century’s end is the fact that the tools of historical intelligibility have disappeared.” (Jean Baudrillard, “Necrospective around Martin Heidegger”)

In an odd paragraph of his book “Finis Germania” that topped German book reading charts for months, despite being blacklisted and taken off the prestigious “Spiegel” bestseller list, the controversial German author Rolf Peter Sieferle asserts that the world is divided into two camps: tragic and non-tragic peoples. The tragic peoples include the Germans, the Russians and the Jews, Alternatively, Anglo-Saxons like those who continue to decisively shape contemporary Australian culture, are described as non-tragic. History drips from them, Sieferle implies, like it does from a raincoat. [1]

Admittedly, it would be rude to argue that Australian culture is static and not pervaded by the ongoing trauma and tragedy of the colonial experience and legacy, but it is certain that for Australia the idea of history is also marked by a strong sense of continuity. Its cityscapes, for example, lack Berlin’s or Leipzig’s drastic iconoclasm of eclectic experimental styles as a result of bombing campaigns, lost wars, regime collapse and ensuing overtly stylized and ostentatious new beginnings.

This discontinuity and tragedy of German culture might become most palpable when, as is the case in those current unbearably hot European summer months, tourists stroll along Berlin’s boulevard Unter den Linden: The visitor might stop at one of the avenue’s neoclassical portals and find the “Neue Wache” (New Guardhouse) monument. This building – one amongst many by the great Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel that coin this central part of Berlin – is a particularly interesting witness to the profound changes that have swept the city’s recent history: Originally constructed by Frederic William III for the soldiers killed in action during the Napoleonic wars in 1816, the memorial shifted its meaning to commemorating the soldiers of WWI in 1931, to become the memorial for the victims of fascism and militarism during the period of the socialist German Democratic Republic in 1960. Finally, after the reunification of the two German states in 1990, it was again reimagined in 1993 to become a memorial for the “victims of war and dictatorship”.

The place has thus become reinterpreted under every different ideological regime in modern Berlin. We may therefore imagine the New Guardhouse as a place of commemorative promiscuity. The incisive ideological transformations in Germany in the 20th century have left a legacy of uncertainty and instability that must seem rather abstract to nations with more continuous recent histories such as Australia. Meanwhile, a history that is moved and varied in this way is bound to favor the adoption of a rather critical and distanced stance vis-à-vis the status quo. Similar to the child in a divorce, who lost the familial emotional safe place, the citizen who has experienced the radical break of regime change adopts a more cautious distance to the present, away from cozy ideological-political certainties. This citizen knows that morose and inflated institutions can sometimes seem more stable than they are and quickly collapse under the weight of rapidly shifting economic and geopolitical realities. How would a future regime look at the present one, this citizen might come to ask. Which events would it highlight and commemorate positively, and at which would it frown in horror?

There could hardly be any artist who embodies the historical instability and uncertainty of German history better than Lutz Dammbeck, born in Leipzig in 1948. Leipzig was part of the Soviet-occupied territory before the socialist East German state was founded in 1949. After graduating from the Leipziger Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst, Dammbeck worked as a freelance artist in the DEFA Studio für Trickfilme in Dresden and created animated short films. Back then this was a space for critical artists and dissidents to produce subtle sociopolitical reflections and commentary on the repressive East-Berlin dictatorship. Some of Dammbeck‘s work fell victim to censorship and a few of his exhibitions were prohibited. In 1986, Dammbeck and his family were finally allowed to leave East Germany. They profited from East Germany’s policy of selectively granting exit permits to relieve the country of some of the mounting pressure of increasingly organized and popular anti-government movements. Three years later, the popular movements would play a central role in the fall of the Berlin wall and the subsequent reunification of the German state.

Arriving in West-German Hamburg, Dammbeck meanwhile refrained from the temptation of many a dissident to uncritically (and profitably) join in the pervasive chorus of early 1990s liberal-capitalist triumphalism. Rather, he retained a more nuanced and critically observing position. This distance of the observer is what characterizes a series of documentaries he produced between 1992 and 2004, later assembled as the tetralogy “Art and Power”.

The perils of suspending judgment 

(…) I happened to see a documentary on television about the first Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt am Main. I saw gray and blurred pictures. The trial seemed soberer and more unspectacular than the staged theatricality and the pomp of the Nuremberg Trials, more like a work situation. It was late, and I was a little drunk. I turned off the TV. Yet a thought stuck in my brain: Wouldn’t my generation have the same thing to do with their fathers? Go there and ask questions about why it did go wrong, but not repeat the mistake of the 1968 generation and cast a judgment. Just leave the story like it was told. (Lutz Dammbeck, Durer’s Heirs)

To this day, Dammbeck’s documentaries have frequently attracted the ire of critics and viewers alike. Reading the original response of the press in the 1990s to contemporary criticism, the most infuriating aspect of Dammbeck’s work seems to be his lack of an overtly critical commentary of his interview partners. Whether it is observing Nazi or socialist GDR art, critics have accused Dammbeck of being too complacent and uncritical with his protagonists. Perhaps, this too is the position of a person who has become ideologically homeless, suspicious of power, someone who does not want to identify with the self-righteous position of the current winner, the unchallenged meta-voice behind the camera, allowed to produce definite meaning.

Arguably, to this day, to be a quiet observer and seriously engaging with marginalized positions while suspending judgment continues to risk infuriating all sides and has little space in a culture that thrives on the social media logic of polarization, echo chambers and badge commitments to political phraseology. Communist Capitalist! Fascist!: More than ever, these words have become mere catch-all phrases and empty-meaning-and-selective-history containers which can signify something different to everyone who uses or identifies with them. Rather than clarifying the conceptual debate, they increasingly act to prevent any sort of meaningful political discussion which attempts to reconcile, nuance and synthesize instead of divide.

Lutz Dammbeck’s method could not be more contrasting. When talking to the protagonists, we can hear his own voice inquire skeptically and stoically, but there is no easy wholesale judgment from this position of historical retrospection, no feelings of superiority. When investigating the Nazi sculptor and Hitler protegé Arno Breker, for example, instead of condemning and demonizing the entirety of philosophical and aesthetic influences culminating in Nazism, Dammbeck does something infinitely more subtle and precise. He asks “at what point did it become monstrous?”

Modernity and its discontents

“It seemed increasingly clear to me that we actually know nothing about this relatively short period of time. (…) This idea seems absurd and curious, of course, given the number of books, films and explanations about fascism and the years between 1933 and 1945, which grow daily and pile up into high mountains, but we know (almost) nothing about it. And we won’t learn much more about it either.” (Lutz Dammbeck, Film Diary)

 In many ways, Dammbeck’s documentaries read like an archeology of what contemporaries have dubbed the culture wars – the frictions of the politically varied radical reappraisals and critiques of the present whose main logistical vector is the internet as a crowdsourced archive and alternative civilization excavation/dream machine. Even formally, Dammbeck anticipates the internet age’s aesthetic of ‘post-critical’ enclave culture: His investigations are as highly personal and subjective, as they are non-linear and rhizomatic – hyperlinked – of sorts. Perhaps prototypical of the more recent works of Adam Curtis or Mark Lombardi, in Dammbeck’s work research becomes an art form in and of its own.

In terms of content, “Art and Power” constructs the 20th century as an aesthetic-political antagonism between the forces of modernity and antimodernity. It thereby renders intelligible current cultural-political debates in the same legacy. By investigating the champions of antimodernity and its (German) romantic intellectual center, Dammbeck portrays the origins of a great deal of today’s political (and proto-political) movements assembling those enemies and losers of modernity: the alt-right, ethno-nationalists, traditionalists, luddites [2],  MGTOW [3] etc. He thereby portrays modernity in all its ambiguity, this force dubbed a “positive barbarism” by Walter Benjamin which has arguably both lead to unprecedented levels of societal freedom and liberation, but, in its permanent and ruthless challenge to tradition and iconoclastic desire to desacralize, revolutionize and overthrow, also created a legacy of instability, alienation and uprooted cultural anxiety.

By pursuing the legacy of anti-modernism in the West [4], with all its internal contradictions [5] and obliterated cultural grievances, he inevitably arrives at an investigation of modernity itself.

The last part of “Art and Power” mysteriously and evocatively subtitled “The Net – LSD, the Unabomber, and the Internet”, which managed to propel Dammbeck to a certain underground fame beyond the German post-reunification context, excavates modernism’s neglected material substructure and investigates in how far the current cultural trajectory is also the result of the very real experiments in cultural engineering (now often an accusation leveled at progressives by ‘liberal’ conservatives).

Such an enterprise again risks causing disquiet and unease. After all, while it is generally accepted that fascist and socialist regimes maintain a tight grip on their cultural and artistic production, the role of liberal regimes remains comparatively shrouded in mystery. Isn’t it precisely the claim that liberal states grant full freedom of expression? “The Net” answers to this claim by revealing how the contemporary Western anti-authoritarian personality has its origins not in mere chance and an arbitrary cultural trajectory usually associated with emancipatory 1960s youth culture. Rather, viewers learn that the development of culture has been “helped along” by hidden forces of the CIA-funded Macy Conferences with the active participation of a techno-scientific elite. Inspired by the horrors of the Second World War and Theodor Adorno’s study on the authoritarian personality and to forever avert the dangers of fascism, this complex of creators and intellectuals supported by the parapolitical institutions of the state devised a concerted effort of a scientific destruction of the authoritarian personalitytype associated with the specter of fascism in general and Germany in particular.

 Dammbeck thus dispels the last myths of the 20th century of an autonomy of the cultural sphere in the Western world and joins groundbreaking works such as those by Francis Stonor Saunder [6] on the CIA’s funding of abstract expressionism during the Cultural Cold War, or Gabriel Rockhill’s recent investigation of the CIA’s anticommunist promotion of postmodern “French” theory in US universities [7]. Dammbeck’s work thus forces us to radically reevaluate the Western cultural legacy of the 20th century which continues to exert its influence on aesthetics and politics today.

The filmmaker thereby reasserts the (ultimately very modern as ruthlessly critical) perspective of the internet age as one of popularized radical disenchantment. Exposed to the meticulously crowdsourced archives of internet information, political theory, philosophy, and culture lose their innocence as independently developing ideas and instead become reattached to a network of people instrumentalizing them for concrete interests and the pursuit of political power. As viewers, we witness a sort of Deep Sociology, a materialist critique of ideas, which is re-connecting thinkers and the formation of ideas to institutions: the usually hidden process of the creation of a superstructure by a network of individuals working for state, cultural and economic institutions [8]l’eternel retour du concret.

With Art and Power, Dammbeck invites us to observe his careful and evocative snapshots of culture-as-power-constellation: an assemblage of personalized portraits, interviews and institutional connections constituting Gramsci’s historical blocks as tales of cultural dominance and hegemony. In the puzzled faces and unstable positions of the protagonists, who suddenly find themselves disenfranchised from the apex of power and cast into suspicion, we can read the tales of a volatility of ideological hegemony and dominant narratives with creators as their sometimes unconscious and tragic protagonists.

Ultimately, we should view their example as one of political hope. One that allows us to step outside and estrange ourselves from our own historical context. It reminds us of our own active role in constantly creating and reassessing culture – and those things can change, and a final judgment has not yet been cast.

Nicolas Hausdorf is an editor, analyst and essayist living in Melbourne. His essay Superstructural Berlin was published by Zero Books in 2015.


[1] See also “Kultur und Skandal“ in arena – Australian magazine of political, cultural and social commentary (no. 152)

[2] Paradoxically often inspired by Dammbeck‘s interviewees and the pop-culture status of Ted Kaczinsky, the US anti-technology terrorist, aka the Unabomber.

[3] Men Going Their Own Way, a movement that interprets men as being structurally disadvantaged in the war of the sexes and proclaiming a sort of gendered secession from women corrupted by contemporary culture.

[4] In Nazi Art (“Time of Gods”), GDR art (“Durer’s Heirs”) and a circle of 1990s right-wing avantgardists based around Vienna’s Akademie der Kunst (“Master Game”)

[5] The modernist situationist strategies of Viennese antimodernists shown in “Master Game”, for example.

[6] See for example “Modern Art was CIA “weapon”, The Independent, 22 October 1995 and “Who paid the piper. The Cultural Cold War, 1999.

[7] “The CIA reads French Theory: On the intellectual labor of dismantling the cultural left“, The Philosophical Salon (2017) available from

[8] Dammbeck in this way also anticipates philosophy’s New Realism of the late 2000s.


Picture 1 – ”Versuchsanordnung (1), 1978“, copyright Foto: Karin Plessing

Picture 2 – ”Versuchsanordnung 3, 1988-1990″, copyright Foto: Bildmischer LKA Düsseldorf

Picture 3 – ”cabin, 2006“, copyright Foto: Christoph Irrgang

Picture 4 – ”Versuchsanordnung (2), 1978“, copyright Foto: Karin Plessing

Other Sources

Goethe Institute Melbourne Link to the event Kunst und Macht –

DEFA-Stiftung, biography Lutz Dammbeck –

Lutz Dammbeck: Herakles Konzept –

Traveling Mozambique: Family History and Search for Traces

“For all of us there is a twilight zone between history and memory; between the past as a generalized record which is open to relatively dispassionate inspection and the past as a remembered part of, or background to, one’s own life.” Eric Hobsbawm

It is June 5, 2018 and I am preparing for a one-month research trip to Mozambique. While I have planned this trip as part of my dissertation on the Cold War relationships between Mozambique and the GDR, I chose to take along my father, who had worked in Beira, the fourth largest city in the northeast of the country, during the 1980s on the construction of the railroad line Beira-Dondo. As part of his contract, he brought his wife and his two daughters along. Our family stayed in Mozambique for two years before returning to the GDR in 1984. What would he recall after all those years? Would he be able to remember the places he worked? Would those places still look the same, will they have vanished, or changed completely? And what would I remember, as I was only three years old when we left for Mozambique. Although he had shown us slide after slide in the 1990s, those images and stories had faded over time. Would I remember anything? I decided to bring some of these photographs with me in the hopes of locating some of the places from my childhood.


In the early morning, we arrive in Maputo. As the capital of Mozambique, it is our first stop. All East Germans arrived in Maputo first, stayed there for a couple days before departing to their final destinations. Although it is winter season, the air is hot and humid. I catch myself thinking, “thank goodness I did not choose to do field research here in the summer”. We settle into the apartment, and then take a walk through an upper-class neighborhood. We travel through the fenced and highly-secured embassies, passing women selling fruit and vegetables on the street. I can feel my father’s happiness returning after all those years, as well as his eagerness to explore the city. His excitement is contagious; I cannot wait to explore the country with him and rediscover all the places from the photos.

Looking for Rubi

copyright Katrin Bahr

One of the most intriguing photographs I bring with me is of a building with a sign that reads RUBI. Once the tallest building in Maputo, it is located on a corner along the Avenida Samora Machel. Illuminated, the big four red letters resemble an advertisement. Beyond receiving the photo from my father’s collection, I am unfamiliar with its details. Similarly, all my father remembers is that it was taken in Maputo. I know tracing down images without any details would be a difficult task, but I am nonetheless hopeful. One day, after finishing some research in the Arquivo Histórico de Moçambique, we see a small park with a craft venue in the middle. Suddenly, I freeze, trying to contain my excitement. There it is: my RUBI building. Its colors had faded but the structure of the building is still intact. RUBI’s discovery motivates me to look for more places, buildings and signs corresponding to my photos. Over the next two weeks, as we travel to Beira, Dondo, Mafambisse, Messica, Chimoio, Manica and Machipanda, I take my own photos of places, buildings and signs I discover. In doing so, I myself restage moments of family-time my father captured and change narratives.

Dom Carlos Hotel

copyright Katrin Bahr

Our second stop is Beira, the city we called home for two years. The airport is small. In comparison with Maputo, everything seems more provincial. As soon as we sit in the car that brings us from the airport into the city, memories begin to resurface for my father. We drive along a bumpy-sandy road, passing people on bikes and a modern Chinese hotel complex. My father is shocked at how much has changed and repeatedly comments that the city “did not look so run down in the 1980’s”. We pass the Dom Carlos Hotel where new incoming East German families had stayed until they were able to move into their assigned houses and apartments. The next day, we visit the Dom Carlos while taking the “Macuti neighborhood” tour. One of the pictures I have with me is of a hotel and was taken by one of my father’s colleagues. It depicts the modern architectural building sometime in the early 1980’s, painted blue, and surrounded by trees. Once a hotel on the rise in Beira and a destination for many foreign aid workers, today it stands abandoned and in an unsettled owner-and-property situation. Even the attempt to put some fresh paint on the walls does not prevent the hotel from looking like ruins. The roof and windows are absent, and the outside walls are plastered with cell phone advertisements.

copyright Katrin Bahr

My Memories

When it comes to abandoned places, I am the first one who wants to take a closer look and explore the inside. I am curious to see if I would remember anything there. I step inside, and immediately I am drawn to a painting on the wall, amazed to see that it is still in full display, completely untouched. I would imagine that in Germany this type of abandoned building would have already turned into a graffiti project. As I take a picture of the painting, I remember that I had gone through some photos earlier showing East German families celebrating Christmas at the Dom Carlos Hotel. Later on, back in our hotel, I go through my digital collection and locate the image I thought I remembered seeing. It is a photograph my father had taken during a Christmas get-together at the hotel. East German families and their children sit in the lobby, gathered around a table with an illuminated, plastic Christmas tree. Someone is playing the accordion while others unpack their presents and take pictures. Looking at both images, one can decipher the beauty and destruction of the hotel over the passage of time. It is both fascinating and odd that the only piece that survived it all, is this painting; it is as if it holds on to the memories of that time—those now forgotten and buried in rubble.

copyright Katrin Bahr

My Mother

Over the next days, I still wonder if my memory of Beira was constructed through the photographs from the 1980’s. I receive an answer to this question once we visit our old home. Driving along a road at the shore, I am surprised to see that our former house is closer to the beach than I expected. I had also pictured the neighborhood differently with only one side of the street spotted with houses. The other side—I imagined—must have been just bushland with banana plantations. Right there, I realize that my memories are misled and made up from the stories my mother had told me. The entire street consists of terraced houses which have been there since the Portuguese occupation. Respectfully approaching the current tenants, we explain to them that we lived “here in this house”. I ask for permission to take a picture of me standing on their balcony, the very same way my mother once stood there being photographed by my father. The shade-giving papaya tree at the house’s front was taken down and replaced by a small palm tree. The house still looks the same despite its barred windows having undergone some color changes. Now, the garage is closed off and the small gate replaced by a larger one. The house continues to host families who work for the Caminhos de Ferro de Moçambique (CFM), the railroad company my father worked for.

My Father’s Happy Place

copyright Katrin Bahr

We then go further into the country to stop at different project sites my father worked at. My father worked for the CFM in Beira and occasionally traveled throughout the country for work assignments. With difficult road conditions en route to projects and security measures at the project sites, these assignments sometimes took days and weeks to complete. For this, he had to leave the family behind. Therefore, we only heard the stories about these places and later saw photos he took. I realize the importance of documenting his return journey once I see his reaction to these places. I begin to restage the photos of him in the same locations today. This means placing him into pictures—a reversal, as he had photographed his daily work and family life behind the camera. I choose two older pictures I have of him and restage them.

The first one is a reenactment of a 1983 photograph at Ifloma—a wood factory one-hundred-fifty miles from Beira—in Messica. My father had worked here for several months, though he cannot remember the details of when the picture was taken. He surmises: maybe a quick stop after a long workday on their way back to Beira or the project housing they stayed in. The image seems a little bit off since the other person in the photo either did not want to be photographed or did not realize that a photo was being taken. He is bending down, distracted by something. To reenact the picture is easy since only the car and the shoes seem to be different. Later, when I compare the two pictures, I realize that my father has always worn checkered shirts.

My Father’s Defeat

copyright Katrin Bahr

The second photograph I take of my father is connected to a longer story at one of his work sites. In Beira, my father and I have permission to join construction workers from the CFM in Dondo on their repair and maintenance machine to the Pungue Bridge. One of the best visually documented projects, I heard stories of its construction, bombing, provision and final repair. It feels natural to go and see the bridge today. When we hear that the organized trip with the CFM fell through, we try to get to the bridge ourselves on a dam through the sugar cane fields in Mafambisse. Unfortunately, a regular car is only able to get you so far. So, the picture I take in comparison with the one from the 1980s portrays both, pride and defeat. Pride—after finishing the project of reconstructing the bridge, and defeat—as we are not able to get to the bridge on our own. I again realized how important it was for my father to revisit these places when I talked to him on the phone the other day. I asked him how, after a month of being back in Germany, he reflects on it. His first sentence is: “We could have made it!” It had really bothered him to not be able to visit the Pungue Bridge again.


The importance and impact of this trip differed for me and my father. I desired to see places my father had worked at and revisit the city we lived in. In sum, I was searching to validate my memories. What made the trip so special was that I was able to do this with a close relative – my father – who had lived and worked there. I was able to see the places in photographs and listen to the narratives from the photos he had shown me; they had fascinated me ever since. Furthermore, I also learned new things about my father. Not only that he’s been wearing plaid shirts since at least the 1980s, but also his gratitude of being able to visit Mozambique one more time. He never talked about going back, but I know now that it had been on his mind for an entire year since he left.

For me, the trip resurrected memories that I heard from my parents but was only now able to place into a geographical and social context. It is a family history that creates its own narrative separate from that of the collective. It is an individual approach of retracing (East German) history. Using private photographs as a visual narration aid is not just a tool for documenting personal lives; it is a powerful agent of historical change and challenges prevailing narratives that go beyond times and spaces, bridging past and present as a continuing story.

I would like to thank Feling Capela who inspired me to write this story down.

The Art Installation Beyond the Wall – Looking into the Eyes of the GDR Border Regime

Using the biggest, still preserved piece of the Berlin Wall, the 2017 open-air installation Beyond the Wall stretched alongside the back of the East Side Gallery, located at Mühlenstraße in Berlin-Friedrichshain. On the flip side of what forms one of Berlin’s main tourist attraction and background for innumerable selfies, Stefan Roloff’s project re-situates spectators into the anxieties associated with the Wall during the Cold War era, when it separated the sovereign territories of the GDR and FRG. An exhibition that was supported by the society “Kunst darf alles” and the Kulturprojekte Berlin Ltd., Beyond the Wall was symbolically framed by two dates that marked the beginning and end of the Wall’s political existence. The installation opened on 13 August, when in 1961 the East German sector became physically sealed off; and ran until 9 November; when in 1989 events occurred that are referred to as Fall of the Wall, one of the key historical events of the twentieth century.

© Stefan Roloff und Ireneusz Adamski

Beyond the Wall integrates materials that Roloff, a German-American painter, photographer and filmmaker, collected since the early 1980s. Roloff, whose interests as an artist concern Germany’s political past linked to the Holocaust and the Cold War, uses documentary film, photography, video installations and painting as artistic incursions into his subjects. Born in West-Berlin and grown up in a city that was surrounded by a cement wall, he was one of the artists who dared to decorate the wall with graffiti when this was considered a transgressive, disrespectful act. In the early 1980s, at the time living and working in New York, Roloff came back for a spontaneous visit to Berlin with the plan to film „life at the Todesstreifen (death strip), this absurd, kafkaesque world, where people sat waiting to kill other people.” His footage, taken at former checkpoints such as Oberbaumbrücke and Bernauer Straße, documents the intimidating presence of this zone as a heavily guarded area, complete with searchlights, dogs, and electrical fencing. Some of the images catch daily activities of GDR border patrol officers, who seemed to be bored and lethargic. Roloff had no idea what to do with this material, not knowing that the wall would lose its political significance in a few years’ time, and that one day, he would project this material in this same spot.* In 2007, the visual artist made video portraits of former GDR citizens whose lives were marked by the wall and who tried to escape the GDR. Roloff interviewed more than seventy people, among them Mario Röllig, who had been caught in an escape attempt at the border between Austria and Hungary, and civil rights activists Ulrike Poppe and Birgit Willschütz, who were imprisoned because of oppositional activities. These reports are aesthetically stunning, showing the interviewees as silhouettes.**

Stills selected from the video portraits, citations from the reports and video stills of the Todesstreifen footage formed part of the 2017 installation, Beyond the Wall. In order to make grainy video stills he had filmed with a VHS camera, fit the proportions of the three-meter-high wall, Roloff developed a technique that transformed them into paintings. The 229-meter-long strip consisting of text, stills and silhouettes evoked a space that spectators could almost walk into. The images invited them to peek into a territory that was forbidden to enter, exposing passers-by to the scrutinizing look and bodily presence of patrolling officers.

© Stefan Roloff und Ireneusz Adamski

While today the remains of the wall and the surrounding area appear as apolitical, harmless space, this project evoked the Berlin Wall as a daily experience and part of Berlin’s urban landscape. More than 200,000 visitors came to see Beyond the Wall that ended with a symbolic finale. On 9 November 2017, Roloff projected a documentary about the democratic movement in 1989, over the image of a GDR border patrol officer. The people whose portraits formed part of Roloff’s exhibition, among them Mario Röllig, lighted five hundred candles – a symbol of peaceful protests in autumn of 1989. The installation was critically acclaimed nationally and internationally.***

Roloff’s installation is a reminder of the Berlin wall as a desperate attempt of preventing East Germans from walking out of the socialist state – and a human experiment that claimed the lives of hundreds of victims. While commemorating German historical events, this exhibition was a timely affair. In our current world, marked by a climate of political confrontation, civil wars and mass migration, once again plans about the building of walls are becoming more concrete, reflecting anxieties of the Western world over their resources. Solutions need to be found to alleviate human suffering instead of locking people in or not.

* In 2005, this material was used as a first prototype in an installation at the Villa Schöningen in Potsdam:

** See for example the interview with Birgit Willschütz:

*** More information and additional photos can be found here:

Behind the Mask: East German Art and Potsdam’s Neo-Baroque Urban Fabric

Roughly one year ago, on January 23, 2017, the latest addition to Potsdam’s museum scene opened its doors to the public: The Barberini Museum, an impeccable reconstruction of the 1770s baroque palace which was destroyed by an allied bombing attack in World War II. It is now one of Germany’s largest private art museums and home to the private art collection of the SAP[1] founder and former CEO Hasso Plattner. Yet what I am about to discuss here is not its baroque facade but what it has on display inside. After an opening exhibition on impressionist art in spring 2017, from October last year until this February, the museum presented its major collection of East German paintings and sculptures under the title Behind the Mask – Artists in the GDR. On display were works by more than 80 GDR artists, including many famous names such as Bernhard Heisig, Wolfgang Mattheuer, Gerhard Richter, Werner Tübke and punk legend Cornelia Schleime. The show was divided into categories such as Individuality and Historicity, Self-Portrait and Alter Ego, Art and the Collective, and Adaptation and (Trans)Formation.

The fact that the majority of exhibition space was dedicated to a permanent collection of East German art is remarkable for a German museum. More important, the exhibition represents an attempt – after major exhibitions in Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie (2003), the MdbK Leipzig (2009) and Weimar (2013) – to appreciate East German art for its artistic values. Through this approach, East German artists and their works, and in effect the GDR itself, become linked to various lines of art historical traditions and international movements. Simultaneously, the curators allow for the works to be interpreted in regard to the artists’ aim of creating a communist society, despite the often difficult political and ideological constraints of real existierender Sozialismus (“real existing socialism”).

The individual descriptions accompanying the art works are simplistic and one-dimensional interpretations, contradicting the efforts of releasing socialist art from its ideological cage. However, the works themselves are able to overcome such simplification. A particular success of the exhibition is the combination of individual and independent art works with two rooms dedicated to the sixteen huge paintings commissioned for Berlin’s former Palace of the Republic which housed the GDR parliament chambers, several cultural institutions, restaurants and bars. The building was demolished in the early 2000s and is currently being replaced by the Humboldt Forum, a modern museum in the shape of the former baroque Prussian city palace.

To be able to see these works in the spaces of an art museum provides a neutral context that is needed to observe them with “less prejudice,” something that so far happened mostly outside the German borders. This “paratext” of institutional appreciation creates an entirely different context for the psychological and physical visitor experience that many similar exhibitions often lack: the viewer is there not to see exhibits from the “other(ed)” Germany, but rather works of high artistic quality. The Barberini museum features large commissioned works that engage with utopian themes, moments of artistic crisis and local art school pride. It thus makes a major contribution to the appreciation of East German art on its own merits, rather than relegating it to the status of a historical remnant of regime that was colonized by overcome by Western culture, an idea that resonates with Thomas Oberender’s recent remarks.[2]

Indeed, when the Federal President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, opened the exhibition, Plattner told a journalist that he thought East Germans and East German cultural contributions to 20th century culture had too long been neglected in unified Germany. Plattner emphasized that it was time for a re-presentation in an appropriate museum space in former East Germany. This view represents an appreciation of the unique East German cultural heritage that is long overdue and part of a wider trend. In her article in the German weekly DIE ZEIT, Anne Hähnig[3] argues that a paradigm shift is taking place particularly in the major East German museums when it comes to East German art, with large museums in Leipzig and Dresden heavily debating[4] or taking action to display East German art prominently as part of their permanent exhibitions.

Yet Barberini’s contribution to East German culture comes with a bitter aftertaste, for which one need only to look outside the museum’s large windows. Outside, the new and renovated buildings on the Alter Markt—also largely a product of Plattner’s generosity—are accompanied by the remains of a 1970s modernist university building which now faces demolition in order to be replaced by more neo-baroque facades. By destroying one of the few “historical” buildings in order to make the area look more coherently historic rather than keeping the tensions of Germany’s twisted 20th-century history represented within the urban, the contrasting approaches to Potsdam’s (built) cultural memory could not be made more apparent. Thus, Potsdam does its very best to erase all prominent traces of the GDR in its city center as if it really had only been, as Stefan Heym predicted, a footnote in world history and not living memory that still shapes the everyday of contemporary Germany. Through this, new tensions arise around how contemporary Germany wants to remember the GDR. The Barberini museum is only the beginning of another chapter in this debate.

[1] SAP is a European multinational software corporation





Views and opinions expressed in blog posts and other publications on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions of other members of the Third Generation Ost network.


Coming to Terms with the GDR Past – Ein Nachruf

Coming to Terms with the GDR Past: Thoughts on the Case Andrej Holm and the Student Occupation of the Institute of Social Sciences at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin in January 2017

This article will discuss the occupation of the Institute of Social Sciences (ISW) at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HU) with a focus on how students at the Institute positioned themselves with respect to the accusations against Andrej Holm.

But first, what was the nature of the accusations and why were they made? From September 1, 1989 to January 31, 1990, Andrej Holm (academic staff for urban studies at HU) was ”Hauptamtlicher Mitarbeiter” in training with the East German Secret Service (Stasi). After reunification, he became active in the squatting scene in Berlin and began studying social sciences at HU (1990-1997). His dissertation (2004), which dealt with aspects of gentrification in the Berlin neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, made him one of the most important scholars and experts in the field of social inequality in the city. In 2016, the left-wing party DIE LINKE wanted to use his expertise and named him State Secretary for the newly inaugurated Berlin Senate.

Copyright by Anne Grieger, Protest gegen Inhaftierung des Soziologen Andrej H.

During the nomination process, however, Holm’s involvement with the Stasi became a media topic, starting with the fact of his involvement and then moving on to the way he handled his past when filling out his personal information when he started his job at HU.[1] Due to public pressure and a request for his resignation from Social-Democratic Berlin Mayor Michael Müller, Holm resigned from the position in January 2017. At the same time, HU looked into whether or not his statements should also lead to his dismissal from his job and on January 18, 2017, the president of the university announced that Holm was being fired.

In direct response, 200 students and activists occupied the ISW). Being members of the institute as students and employees, during the occupation, we found ourselves oscillating between solidarity, responsibility to our instructors and colleagues, missed chances to get involved, alliances and gainful employment. While the occupation was underway, we mostly tried to engage by organizing events on topics that were related to the issue or participated in discussions and talks.

The media, however, portrayed the students as naïfs who did not know what they were talking about with regard to the Stasi, the GDR and the “Unrechtsstaat” (a derogatory, post-reunification term for the East German “unjust state”). One critique that kept appearing in the comments was that the students were displaying naïve, uniform solidarity with a former member of the Stasi—that they were left-wing extremists who had learned nothing from the past and were therefore ridiculing the victims of the GDR.

But a closer look at the events and the students’ involvement reveals a different image. A roundtable discussion organized by the Robert Havemann Foundation in January was well attended by ISW students. In our opinion, most of the students who attended wanted to hear directly from Holm regarding how he would position himself and what he had to say about the accusations. There was a heated discussion as to whether to accept his statements or to believe historian Ilko-Sasch Kowalczuk, who argues that Holm had not forgotten his past but rather did not want to remember, and what doing so would mean for Holm’s integrity and students’ trust and faith in their assistant professor. The students’ desire to engage in that discussion was not met that day (they were made to wait outside for a long time) and the university did not initiate a discussion in the weeks that followed. As a result, students from the ISW and other institutions both within Humboldt and at other Berlin universities initiated discussions outside official university spaces.

At no time was there just simple partisanship. Instead, we had exchanges about the GDR that felt rewarding, given that students had occasionally discussed the Institute and Humboldt University’s GDR legacy and that the ways that GDR ideology had shaped scholarship at Humboldt University had been addressed rarely and only through the engagement of a few people. Students and colleagues with whom we had usually discussed contemporary politics, exams, the conditions of academic employment or bars in the Berlin’s Neukölln neighborhood suddenly started to talk about their own or their parents’ lives and the related questions of identity.

How much of the GDR have we inherited through our parents? At a historical moment when the state is drawing new borders between people of different origins, students were discussing the circumstances under which their parents found the courage to resist, escaped or invented ways to get their needs met. And how much courage do we show by comparison? We wondered how we could make these stories—our stories—more accessible to us and how we could come to terms with our own past. Is it enough to only engage with our own family history? How can we gain access to our parents’ Stasi files and what purpose would doing so serve if the people who were affected cannot talk about how they experienced it and what for them seems true or false when reading those files? What else needs to be known and researched? What would a critical analysis of the Marxist-Leninist history of the Institute look like?

We are the children of SED (Social Democratic Party) members, Stasi informants, civil rights campaigners, convicted political refugees and correspondents; West Germans, East Germans and migrants with more than one passport and identity; parents and children who grew up in different states where they were also recognized differently. Those few days marked the first time we recognized the similarities we all share through our experiences with the GDR. Yet it also became clear how differently we all perceive our world and our environment as we discussed why it is so important for some of us to call the GDR an Unrechtsstaat while others feel that such a classification misrepresents the GDR and delegitimizes their own family history. One thing we have in common is that none of us want to legitimize or glorify the wall’s death toll, the prisoners or the arbitrariness of the state. The simple comparison of Unrechtsstaat und Rechtsstaat, however, easily leads us to a rash assignation of the FRG (Federal Republic of Germany) as a Rechtsstaat that also glorifies a nationalistic perception of the FRG. It also silences unconstitutional paradoxes, exclusions and the discomfort and critique of such comparison. The students developed ideas for new term papers and theses regarding questions of identity and statehood and interdisciplinary dialogue and cooperation projects.

So, is it true that we and the students of the ISW do not know what the GDR was like? That may be so. We have a lot of questions. We and the students know that our knowledge is situated and that experiences shape our perception. We occupy a white perspective and racist and colonialist ideas structure our thinking. Critically questioning our own thinking pattern is an ongoing process. That is why we reject simplified arguments that suggest continuity without ruptures—such as between the young man who once worked for the Stasi and the person who is Andrej Holm, scholar and State Secretary who has ideas for monitoring the real estate industry using the existing laws. We reject the sweeping condemnations of people who spurn public debate or are dismissive of protests against the nearly incomprehensible, legally thin reasoning behind a dismissal that, moreover, misses the point of academic integrity and honesty.

With the help of both a critical methodology and the teaching scholars at the ISW and other institutions, we have learned nuanced and critical ways of examining individual biographies and historical placement in terms of both individual and collective memory. The study taught us to critically analyze political and administrative decisions in different political systems. Democracy theories, the vulnerability of state power and the danger of populist movements are all part of the curriculum. We learned to analyze facts before passing judgments. Taking a closer look at the “university from below”[2] program, one has to acknowledge that coming to terms with the GDR as a political construct has become a main focus. It shows a willingness to critically confront the ruling system of the GDR and to make well-informed (rather than generalized) assessments of lived experiences such as those of Andrej Holm. We know that a complex question needs to be understood in its context and that the answers we find are more likely to raise additional questions than to generate easy answers.

[1] By failing to note explicitly that he had worked as a ”Hauptamtlicher Mitarbeiter” Stasi employee, Holm did not provide accurate information on his position within the organization when the university hired him in 2005. The question of the usefulness of such questionnaires in the retrieval of East German biographies has only been a matter of peripheral discussion and cannot addressed here due to limited space.


Views and opinions expressed in blog posts and other publications on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions of other members of the Third Generation Ost network.

Relaunch and New Blog!

Welcome to our new blog! Since the beginning of the Third Generation network initiative, we have connected with different scholars in the US and abroad. We are also working on new projects and have been busy with our own research. Now that the foundation for our network is set, we would like to try new avenues.

The idea for this blog came out of a trend we have observed in recent years, in which scholarship and perspectives about the GDR are more and more disconnected from what is happening in present-day Germany and from the people itself who experienced this time. For this reason, we will use this blog to provide information about new projects, to share thoughts on recent discourses and present exciting research, and fresh ideas that go beyond the boundaries of time, space, and generations without losing sight of its subject. The blog is intended to be a loose form of academic and non-academic dialogue, welcoming a broader audience of people who would like to contribute to this subject.

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