Back in the DDR

The excellent DDR (German Democratic Republic) Museum in Berlin presents fascinating material. It’s immensely popular, and clearly arouses mixed feelings among those who attend. On the day I visited the crowd was at its thickest around a machine playing the national anthem of the DDR, to which people were responding in different ways. (Similar emotions are raised by the kitsch but oddly attractive figure of the Ampelmaennchen formerly to be seen on traffic lights at pedestrian crossings in the DDR and now enjoying a kind of comeback.) You can see the gadgets employed by Staasi to gather intelligence on the people, which look like standard Cold War issue. But who would have guessed that toilet training in East Germany took the form of a group of infants sitting on their potties together, with none being allowed to get up until all had done their business? Or that the prevalence of nude bathing scandalized West Germans at the time of reunification? Or that a government that presided over terrible environmental degradation began by being very green?

But the problem that undid the country was the inability of the government to deliver what its citizens wanted. The waiting list for a new Trabant car was 14 years long, which so many people tried to circumvent by buying one second hand that a used car was worth more than a new one; this does not sound like a rational economy. Running your fingers across a pair of imitation Levi jeans makes you realise that the reason no-one wanted them was not so much their daggy style as their being made out of sticky artificial fabric, cotton, like coffee, being in chronic short supply.

The museum confronts us with the thwarted aspirations of people a few decades ago which we may be inclined to patronize. It’s as if the lasting achievement of the DDR was to produce an aspirant culture of the kind that Barry Humphries would find it easy to mock in one of his less gentle moments.

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