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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 September, 2003, 11:24 GMT 12:24 UK
Germany battles over right to reminisce
By Clare Murphy
BBC News Online

Michael Fruehauf is a happy man.

Goods sold by the Ossiladen
Eastern goods were swept from the shelves after the fall of wall
His business selling products which were popular in the former east Germany is booming, thanks to a wave of nostalgia for everyday life in the now defunct communist state that has enveloped Germany in recent months.

The summer's cinema hit Goodbye, Lenin, which poignantly recalls life in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) - has been followed up by a string of TV programmes celebrating the fashions, food and everyday hassles that characterised life in the eastern part of the country, which was a communist satellite state of the Soviet Union between 1949 and 1989.

The latest, fronted by GDR golden girl Katarina Witt - a former Olympic ice skating champion, was watched on Wednesday night by some 6.5 million people.

Germany's post-war history
1949 - Split into communist east and democratic west
1961 - Berlin Wall built
1961-1989 - More than 1,000 die trying to flee the east
1989 - Berlin Wall falls and Germany is reunified
And after each of these shows, according to Mr Fruehauf, orders at his Ossiladen (Easterners' grocery shop) multiply.

But this nostalgia - dubbed Ostalgie after Ost, the German word for east - is not without controversy.

As the phenomenon grows, so does the debate as to whether it is appropriate to be sentimental about life under a regime which shot those who tried to escape its clutches, and persecuted those who disagreed with its ideology.


"It's very difficult for some people that the GDR is being glorified in this kind of way," says Theo Mitrup, head of a Berlin support group for those who were persecuted under the communist regime.

"There's nothing wrong with recalling the past - indeed - people even probably have happy memories of everyday life under the Nazis - but it's a question of balance. This nostalgia seems to ignore the oppression, the secret police, the intimidation - history somehow is being rewritten."

The debate about Ostalgie has also reached political circles, with a number of regional leaders and MPs weighing in with their views on the phenomenon.

"We really need to be careful that the GDR does not achieve cult status," said Berlin's Mayor Klaus Wowereit as he attended an event commemorating the 42nd anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall.

The Prime Minister of the eastern state of Thuringia, Dieter Althaus, said that while he recognised there was "a great need to recognise the history of the GDR... this cannot be carried out with such nostalgia - it must reflect the reality of the GDR. We must watch out that an inaccurate portrayal of the GDR isn't drawn up and conserved through films and the like."

Although Miss Witt had rejected these criticisms outright, noting that her show was not intended as political debate but to remember how the 16 million people who lived in the GDR "lived, loved and laughed", The GDR Show, which was aired on Wednesday night, did seek to take account of some of the concerns.

Katarina Witt at the Olympics
Witt was described as the 'beautiful face of socialism'
Alongside the politicians, former pop icons and everyday east German citizens reminiscing, the show included a long feature on a woman who, at the age of just 14, was imprisoned for 10 years for putting lipstick on a portrait of Stalin which hung in her school.

She served over eight years of her term, a considerable proportion at Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp for political dissidents set up by the Nazis.

Not all dark

Despite the concessions and the criticisms, there is still a significant body of opinion that believes it right that east Germans are finally being allowed to reminisce in a positive fashion.

"It's a real mistake," said Manfred Stolpe, the German minister responsible for the East, "to always act as if the GDR was just one dark concentration camp."

For years after the Berlin Wall collapsed, Ossis, as they were dubbed, were frequently looked down upon by their Western counterparts, their "backward" tastes and lifestyles mocked.

Their supermarkets were cleared of all the old goods, even their own communist versions of the flashing green men which tell people when to cross the road were changed.

The Ostalgie phenomenon has in part been explained by the fact that people in the east, where unemployment is doggedly high, hark back to a time when their jobs, and their futures, were secure. For many, capitalism has failed to deliver what it promised.

"I think that is part of it," says Hans-Joerg Stiehler, professor of media and communications at Leipzig University.

"But really the attraction is more general. People naturally have feelings of nostalgia when confronted with the things they grew up with and it's inevitable that people look back - it doesn't mean they want to re-establish the GDR."

Indeed, Ostalgie is not restricted to easterners.

"Ossi parties" take place in the west as they do in the east, while vintage communist chic is fashionable on both sides of the former divide.

"We get orders from a variety of people - those who grew up in the east, those in the west who want to see what the products are like - even orders from abroad put in by curious foreigners," said Ossiladen's Mr Fruehauf.

"Of course we shouldn't forget the dark side of the GDR, and I don't think anyone has. But you can't criminalise people for indulging in a little nostalgia or curiosity."

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