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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 July 2007, 16:08 GMT 17:08 UK
East bloc baubles woo Germans
By Steve Rosenberg
BBC News, Berlin

Berlin's Ostel hotel
Ostel's exterior is a reminder of the Soviet bloc
In East Berlin they are still demolishing the old symbols of communism.

Besieged by blow torches, chain-saws and drills, the gargantuan Palace of the Republic is being reduced to rubble.

What used to be East Germany's parliament building had become too much of a communist-era carbuncle for reunified Germany to stomach.

But something strange is happening. East German icons may be tumbling, but nostalgia for the GDR past - Ostalgie - is growing stronger.

A few minutes' drive from the demolition site, I check out the "Ostel" - a new bed-and-breakfast with old East German furniture. It is Germany's first ever GDR-themed hotel.

Step inside and you would think the Berlin Wall was still standing. At the reception desk, clocks show the time in Berlin, Moscow, Beijing and Havana.

There are GDR lamps and chunky East German telephones. And an old GDR record player pumps out socialist hits from the 1970s.

Mash and socialist mustard

The rooms are packed with East German memorabilia recovered from attics and flea markets. The wallpaper is original, too, if rather ugly - lots of brown and orange circles.

For anyone on a nostalgia trip, it is the perfect stopover. If you don't mind sharing a room with former communist bosses like Erich Honecker - his portrait hangs over all the beds.

Vita Cola
East German products, like this brand of Cola, are being sold on the internet

"Eighteen years after the Berlin Wall came down, people have nostalgia," Ostel marketing manager Oliver Zander told me.

"When the Wall fell, people put their stuff on the trash. Now they want it back. People come here and say, 'Wow, this is the same bed like my grandma had, or the same cupboard. It's so funny!'"

In Berlin, it is not only hotels promoting the past - shops are too.

The "Ostkost" store is packed with old GDR brands - from communism's version of Coca Cola to East German washing-up liquid. You can even buy GDR instant mash and socialist mustard.

For an even bigger dose of nostalgia, there is a GDR museum which shows old films of East Germans waving and smiling as they march on May Day parades, foxtrotting the night away at tea dances and relaxing at nudist colonies.

Altogether a rather cosy picture of life behind the Iron Curtain.

Of course, people who stay at GDR-themed hotels or buy East German mustard are not rushing to rebuild the Berlin Wall.

There is a big difference between politics and the simple things in life that everyone misses sometime or other about the past.

Dark side

But some people in Germany believe there is a danger here: that all this nostalgia could make people forget about the darker side of life under communism.

Vera Lengsfeld
A dictatorship is, indeed, a real danger for people and this should not be forgotten
Vera Lengsfeld

Vera Lengsfeld will never forget. A former political prisoner in GDR times, today she is a tour guide in her old jail - Hohenschoenhausen - a Berlin prison that was run by East Germany's secret police, the Stasi.

Hohenschoenhausen was no hotel. Over four decades, tens of thousands of political prisoners were locked away here and subjected to psychological torture.

To destroy minds and break opponents prisoners were not allowed to look at each other. A system of red and green "traffic lights" in the corridors ensured that inmates never caught sight of anyone else when they were being led off to interrogation.

There is no nostalgia in the air here, just the smell of incarceration - a mixture of dust and disinfectant that still clings to the walls, floors and cell doors.

Vera later discovered that her own husband had been spying on her and informing on her to the Stasi. No wonder she condemns any attempt to look back with nostalgia at the GDR.

"The danger is that it makes the dictatorship look harmless," Vera said. "And no dictatorship is ever harmless. A dictatorship is, indeed, a real danger for people and this should not be forgotten."

Vera wants as many Germans as possible to see the cells and interrogation rooms of Hohenschoenhausen - as an antidote to East German nostalgia, to stop people growing too sentimental about the past.

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