8 Things That Were Better in East Germany*
Remembering the "glory days" of nudity, breast milk, and recycling 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
BERLIN — Living on the east side of Berlin pretty much since the Wall fell in November 1989, I’ve listened to Ossies (slang for easterners) speak both disparagingly and positively about the state they grew up in: the 1949-1990 socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR). Most, of course, are grateful that the police state is history and they’ve adjusted well to life in the Federal Republic. (Polls show former East Germans are happier with unification and the current state of the nation than former West Germans.)
But this doesn’t mean ex-GDR citizens think everything in today’s Germany is simply wunderbar. When confronted with western German snootiness — a we-always-knew-better attitude that rubs more than just easterners the wrong way — they sometimes even go overboard looking for what they miss about the GDR, a phenomenon called Ostalgie and deftly parodied in pop singer Kai Neumann’s 2001 hit "Im Osten" ("In the East") as well as Wolfgang Becker’s 2003 film Good Bye, Lenin!
This weekend, Germans celebrate 25 years since the Wall was breached, paving the way for Germany’s reunification. But when I asked around my neighborhood what was better in the GDR, I got an earful. It’s good nostalgia, but not everything holds up when you check the historical record.
1. Child care. Good nurseries and preschool education are the most regularly invoked of the GDR’s alleged jewels. There were far more working mothers in East Germany than in the Federal Republic and there were free nursery spots for every one of their children, starting just weeks after birth. Moreover, I was told in an adamant tone by my child’s nursery school teacher (an older woman from the East), that parents received 1,000 eastern marks per child upon birth, and children got free breakfast and lunches in nurseries which had longer hours (beginning at 6:00 a.m.) and were open more days than those of today. Moreover, all of the kids apparently received Christmas presents aplenty from Erich Honecker, the leader of the East German Socialist Unity Party from 1971 to 1989, when Christmastime rolled around.
The GDR model indeed looks enticing at first glance, especially in light of the acute shortage of nursery spots across Germany today, a shortfall much more pronounced in western Germany, where fewer women work and there are far too few day-care options. Germany lacks 120,000 nursery personnel — a consequence, no doubt, of the miserably low wages they receive. (In East Germany, the profession was respected and, comparatively, decently compensated.)
Reality Check: In the GDR, the state-run and financed nurseries — the only ones in town, with the exception of a few church-administered kindergartens — were the location of the state’s first phase of ideological indoctrination. And it was laid on pretty thick: One of the approved kids songs, for example, was "I want to be a Volkspolizist." Nursery schools-age kids had to draw pictures of the Grenzsoldaten (the border guards with shoot-to-kill orders). The day-care centers were rigid, authoritarian, and uninspired, programmed to encourage "group-think" and not creativity. Punishments could be severe, too: standing in the corner, no lunch, maybe even spankings. (These days the most draconian a German nursery school teacher gets is speaking in a raised voice.) And no wonder there was a spot for every kid: The adult-to-child ratio was just 1 to 9. Today it’s 1 to 6.3 in eastern Germany and 1 to 3.8 in the west.
2. Recycling. Recycling was vital business in the GDR, and not first and foremost for environmental reasons. The state lacked in raw materials and relied on recycling to bridge the gap. Kids could collect bottles, scrap metal, or paper (as well as aerosol cans, paper bags, books, glasses, camera film, aluminum foil, and more) and get paid for it. Fans of the old system say everyone took part and it was much better organized than the West German model that applies now to the whole country — and truly wouldn’t be hard to one-up. My friend Kristin told me: "Young Pioneers collected bottles and newspapers in the neighborhood and brought the stuff to the collection center. That was a good way to make new use of old stuff, created a community feeling and provided kids with an opportunity to earn some money. In two hours, you could fill your trolley and earn 8 or 10 marks. For 8 marks you could pay for your school lunch for three weeks."
Reality Check: As soon as the GDR agency in charge of recycling stopped paying in 1990, the volume of materials it collected dived by 90 percent. Soon after, it was forced to close all 16,000 recycling centers and fire 11,000 staff.
3. Bockwurst, white-flour rolls, mustard from Bautzen, Spree River pickles. Who doesn’t get a hankering for the foods of their childhood? Cuisine across northern Germany is nothing to crow about — neither in the east nor the west. Berlin’s specialty is a fried hot dog smothered in ketchup with curry power dumped on top. But Ossies say the GDR sausages were tastier and still today swear that the very best come from the region of Thuringia south of Berlin.
Reality Check: The meat products from Thuringia are mouthwatering, especially for any American who grew up with baloney and olive loaf. But the fact is, you can get almost all of the GDR products today in just about every supermarket or specialty store, even if they’re produced now by private instead of state-owned companies. What I remember about East German Bockwurst was not the meat but the thin piece of stale white bread made with cheap flour that came with it — and that it cost about a quarter.
4. Jokes were funnier. People across Central and Eastern Europe say the best jokes were aimed at the Communist regimes and thus had something subversive about them. In the GDR, the butt of the laughs was often Erich Honecker, material shortages, the Communist Party, and West Germans. Here’s one: Why are there no bank robberies in the GDR? Because you had to wait 12 years for a get-away car! One more: What’s the difference between a fox and a Wessi? The fox is clever and pretends to be dumb — with West Germans it’s the other way around!
Reality Check: Ok, maybe these aren’t laugh out loud, but the Ossi gallows humor didn’t die with GDR. Here’s one from post-Wall Germany: The Ossi to the Wessi: "We’re one nation!" The Wessi to the Ossi: "Yeah, so are we!"
5. Mother’s milk banks. Lactating women in the GDR could donate milk for mothers who couldn’t produce it themselves because babies were born prematurely or the mothers were ill. There was a mother’s milk station in every municipality, which would pick up pumped milk (often by bicycle) and pay families for it. 1989 was a record year: GDR mothers donated 200,000 liters of milk. West Germany had nothing comparable. Mothers who couldn’t produce used powered milk — which existed in the east, too, but in smaller quantities. All but a handful of the milk banks shut down in 1990.
Reality Check: Whether this was every good to begin with is contested terrain. Of course, nothing could be healthier for a baby than mother’s milk. But only if the conditions are fully hygienic and the donated milk carries no diseases, like hepatitis and HIV. Apparently, this isn’t so easy to test for, which is why some doctors now steer patients away from it. Nevertheless, you don’t have to live in a Communist country to share breast milk with your neighbors. There are now 15 mother’s milk banks in the unified Germany. In France and Scandinavia, they’ve been using milk banks for decades.
6. Nudism. If skinny-dipping is your passion, the GDR would definitely have been the place for you. No one batted an eye on the beaches of the Baltic Sea or in the Mecklenburg Lake Region when the whole family, junior high school classes, the next-door neighbors, and the postman all stripped down for sunbathing, a swim, and afterwards maybe even a few vigorous rounds of naked ping-pong. The tradition has its roots in leftist, avant-garde culture of the 1920s. For one, it was in-your-face, anti-bourgeois (clothes, so uptight!) and, second, it was radically egalitarian: In the birthday suit all people are equal… There were camps, farms, and holiday packages that were extremely popular — not just among hard-core nudists.
Reality Check: Nudism might not be quite the craze here as it used to be, but there’s still a world of difference between the way most Europeans and non-Europeans deal with the naked body. In eastern Germany today, you still prepare yourself to see some serious skin should you summer along one of its waterways. Moreover, the Ossi nudist roots or its political culture weren’t purely leftist, anyway. The whole back-to-nature thing was a big deal for the Nazis, too. Just look at the bodies in the Leni Riefenstahl films like Triumph of the Will and Olympia.
7. Female models. Several women pointed out to me that GDR models weren’t anorexic waifs or larger-than-life sex bombs but rather average women. There was no East German Kate Moss. In fact, many weren’t professionals at all but hobby models. Leafing through a few old copies of magazines like Für Dich (For You) and Modische Maschen (Fashionable Stitches) most of the clothes look dowdy and, indeed, the models are everyday women — though, naturally, on the pretty side. They certainly wear less make up and show less skin than those in Vogue. There are no sex tips, but rather an emphasis on work, motherhood, and party politics. For all their libertine body culture, it all strikes me as awfully prude.
Reality Check: The GDR women’s magazine Sibylle was in a league by itself and stuck neither to the GDR’s frumpy fashion tastes nor plain-Jane models. In fact, it pushed the boundaries when it came to fashion and was considered vaguely oppositional for doing so. And even though the models may not have flouted sexuality, the figure skaters made up for it. Anyone remember Katarina Witt in the 1988 Winter Olympics?
8. Communal solidarity. The Ossies often refer back to a time when it wasn’t every man or woman for him or herself. They say there was a much stronger feeling of camaraderie and collective identity in the old days — that wasn’t German nationalism. One knew one’s neighbors and chatted with them, for example. This was destroyed by money-first, business-über-alles neo-liberalism, they say.
Reality Check: I can remember the relief, just after the Wall fell, of those who hadn’t fit into the very narrow parameters of the state that they described in terms of an obsessive control-freak. Inexplicably, they’re some of the same people today who say they miss the solidarity of the GDR. And it wasn’t just the secret police, factory bosses, and educators who were all over their backs but rather their neighbors and co-workers. If you didn’t fit in, you were an outcast. Moreover, jealousy was rife in a country where so much cash and consumer goods came from outside the official economy, be it in the form of perks for the regime-loyal or care packages for people with relatives in the West. Lastly, of course, there was the secret police, the Stasi, which had recruited several hundred thousand "informal collaborators" from the population, which created an atmosphere of fear, distrust, and paranoia — not community or solidarity.
Some, of course, don’t have any nostalgia. I asked my neighbor Gerd Poppe, a dissident in the GDR and one of the brave souls behind the democracy movement that eventually toppled the regime, what he missed about life before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Not a damn thing, he responded. Every aspect of the system was imbued with the ideology of the dictatorship, say the regime’s steadfast opponents from way back. No single aspect was imaginable outside of the parameters of the single-party state. There’s nothing to miss about the GDR, even if everything in the united Germany isn’t always wunderbar.