Hello Honni! Goodbye Lenin!

 The text by Iwona Reichardt, thanks to courtesy of "New Eastern Europe"

GDR. Stories from a vanished country. International Cultural Centre, Kraków, Poland. June 22nd - September 2nd 2012. Curator: Monika Rydiger

When Udo Lindenberg, a West German rock musician and singer, in 1983 pleaded to Enrich Honecker (whose popular nickname was “Honni” or “Honey”) with the lyrics of what would become a cult song of the 1980s generation: “Honey, I will sing for very little money at the Republic Palace if you only let me,” very few would have thought that in less a decade such requests would be history, when the German Democratic Republic (GDR) ceased to exist. Similarly in 1990, very few would probably have also thought that along with the reunification of the divided Germany, a new type of sentiment would emerge: the longing for what was built in the once isolated country; a country that was only familiar to a limited number of visitors, and quite foreign to all others, especially those behind the western side of the wall. In German this phenomenon is simply called Ostalgie, an expression coined from two words: nostalgia and the German word Ost (east). Outside the German-speaking world Ostalgie became better recognised after Wolfgang Becker’s poignant film Good Bye Lenin which in 2003 amused – and perhaps even slightly shocked – viewers throughout Europe and in the world.

The gravity of Ostalgie, whose traces can be seen in all post-socialist states, is seen as a particularly East German characteristic, although the need to understand it clearly goes beyond the non-existing borders. The proof of this pudding was found on display in Kraków, Poland; to be more precise, at building number 25 on the Main Market Square and the headquarters of the International Cultural Centre (Międzynarodowe Centrum Kultury).

The exhibition titled GDR. Stories from a Vanished Country (NRD. Opowieści z kraju, którego już nie ma), which was organised by the Centre in the summer of 2012 (from June to early September) along with a few accompanying discussions (some organised at the nearby Goethe Institute – a co-organiser of the exhibition), gave its viewers the unique opportunity to go back in time and peek into the everyday life of a country that – as we all know – indeed, no longer exists, but also one that is still being longed for by some. The exhibition presents a collection of 170 black-and-white photographs by Sibylle Bergmann, Harald Hauswald, Ute Mahler, Werner Mahler and Maurice Weiss. All of them – as the organisers inform us in the professionally prepared exhibition materials – were prominent photographers working with the prestigious East German photo agency Ostkreuz.

The monument of Marx and Engels, Berlin, Gummlin, 1984 © Werner Mahler / ostkreuz.de

For those who knew the GDR (East Germany) even slightly, a visit to the exhibit immediately brings back memories of everyday life under the socialist system. For those for whom the existence of such a state is a chapter in the history books, such a visit can be a valuable lesson. Regardless of the familiarity with the vanished regime, it is indeed a fascinating experience; but also an experience that leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. And this is not, by any means, the fault of the exhibits or the organisers; quite the opposite. The choice of photographs and their organisation into thematic sections, deepened by the adequately chosen quotes, including those from Timothy Garton Ash’s The Germanness of the GDR, should all be highly regarded.

The questions that remain unanswered after a visit are stirred by the images of the everyday life of the GDR, rather than the sections depicting the political oppression or economic backwardness of the once glorified regime. Such questions come, for example, after a walk through the “In the block” section, which basically gives the viewer a taste of the once sought after “P2”, or the “high-rise housing developments first elevated in the 1970s”, as the exhibition materials inform us. They became the symbol and aspiration of East German middle-class families – small but practical. Their open kitchen shows that in the GDR the women’s role was not limited to cooking and the men’s place was not only on the couch.

Seeing the photographs hanging next to another on both sides of the narrow hall sends a chill down the spine. Were these high-rise developments all the same or different? The wallpaper is clearly different and some of the furniture arrangements show traces of individuality. Equalising or limiting? How should they be judged? Should we even attempt to judge them? Or what right do we have to judge the reality that we either are no longer a part of or have never been a part of? Even if we were stubborn enough and wanted to judge that reality, are there any grounds that we could use in making a sound judgement about, for example, Ute Mahler’s 1974 photograph of newly-weds in their modest apartment, decorated with labels of western European products (Living Together cycle); or Harald Hauswald’s 1984 photo of a couple embracing at Marx-Engels-Platz full of Trabants (the longest lived model 601 was produced for 26 years between 1967 to 1990, and is now highly regarded as a cult-like classic car, sought after by collectors); or Sibylle Bergemann’s 1979 cycle depicting dance soirées at the popular, privately-owned, Clärshchens Bathaus dance club in Berlin?

The passage of time has proved, without a doubt, to be helpful here and allows for less ridiculing (as was the case not that long ago when the Trabi was called “the soap dish car” or “Honecker’s revenge”) and a more objective attempt at understanding the history of this European state. Hence, Basil Kerski, the editor-in-chief of the Polish-German magazine "Dialog" and the director of the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk, is right when he writes that “the complex legacy of the GDR, with all its negative and positive aspects is today perceived in a more clear and complex way than it was even a few years ago”.

In the context of the exhibition and the search for answers to the questions that its viewing poses, it is important to mention the newest issue of "Herito", the Centre’s bilingual (Polish-English) publication. The summer issue (7/2012) is also devoted to the countries that are no longer on Europe’s political map. In one of the issue’s essays entitled A Nation Without People. The GDR in the History of Germany, Stefan Wolle, a German historian, while analysing the unexpected emergence of Ostalgie writes:

And this current fascination with the past cannot be changed by scientific research, films, documents or any other memories of the reality of the socialism which once existed. In addition to the simple fact that 30 years ago everything was better because every one of us was 30 years younger, it is also important to understand the disappointments which came with the years of great change. The difference in living conditions is still significant, unemployment in the eastern areas is still consistently higher, and the migration of highly qualified and ambitious young people to the West is ongoing. The city of Berlin and the lands in the eastern part of the country will continue to be dependent on the money transfers obtained from the programme of equalising the budgets of the two German states for quite some time.

All in all, these are the maladies of today. And yet in their background one can still, at times, hear the echo of Udo’s plea: “Hello, Erich, can you hear me? Hellololöchen, hello!”