The Lives of Ost-ers

June 20, 2010

I watched the Lives of Others the other night, and was impressed by a couple of things. One, I’m ridiculously sentimental – it totally made me cry – and two, I do not understand “Ostalgia” one bit.  It seems to me that living in the GDR completely sucked.

For those that really didn’t care much about Socialism: waiting 6 years for a Trabant, living in a brown and polluted waste and living with the perpetual knowledge that an ill-timed comment would get the Stasi after you, must have felt like a rather unfortunate lifestyle.

For those that quite honestly believed in the system and wanted Socialism to work in the GDR, how did they reconcile their ideology with what the GDR actually had become? 

I’ve read the various theories about generations growing up without knowing anything else, and the security of the system for those employed by it, and that many people remember it as not being so bad.

But really?  Really?


Maybe the people they spoke with never looked at their card-files in the Stasi archives; obviously those that were shot in the Death Strip couldn’t voice their opinions.

Hannah Arendt says that totalitarian states won’t collapse under the weight of their own lies simply because the whole world created and maintained by totalitarianism is itself a fiction (and people sort of like that).  The wall, then, went up not only to keep East Germans in the East, but also to keep reality out.  Facts are irrelevant in a state in which an environment is fostered through terror and surveillance to maintain a population both gullible enough to believe the initial lie and cynical enough to excuse it if it’s found out to be patently false (thanks Hannah).  This system is best maintained, of course, if you stave off the detrimental impact of too much reality – and, of course, prevent people from leaving in droves.

If that’s the case, though, I would still think that the system in the GDR would collapse under the sheer weight of its own kitsch…  This is not to say that capitalism doesn’t have its own share of self-congratulatory kitsch (motivational sales seminars anyone?)  

But a system that co-opts informants to spy on other informants, that transfers children from parents with incorrect political opinions to “good” families, and  gives two weeks holiday pay to border guards for murdering attempted escapees all the while propagandizing that “The peoples of the world can always count on the first socialist workers’ and farmers’ state on German soil in the struggle for secure peace, for the strengthening of socialism, for progress and a happy life” (Honecker speech, 1984) is too monstrous to be borne.

Maybe normalization did occur – and thus the greatest triumph of totalitarianism in the GDR: that after all that was done,  (the corruption of ideology, destruction of the environment and economy, torture and imprisonment of hundreds of thousands, perversion of the family dynamic and the usual bonds of fidelity and trust)  citizens of the former GDR actually feel nostalgia for it. 

(In the end, Winston loved Big Brother.) 

 Or, perhaps Ostalgia was instead actually assumed simply as way of rebelling against the social, political and economic takeover (more or less) by West Germany after 1989.   This makes much more sense to me.


One comment

  1. Ostalgia as a way to rebel against the capitalist takeover… Hm, that makes sense. However, that would not explain why ostalgia is especially popular among younger people who were not even in their teens when the Wall came down. Maybe, and this would be quite ironic, ostalgia is a marketing gag, a very successful one, for sure.

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