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.”

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.


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.

Please enjoy, share and comment!