After the Wall: Nostalgia and Cynicism during the German “Honeymoon,” 1989-1992

Alban Bargain-Villéger

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Ampelmännchen (Trail Life, Weltradreisen)

Twenty-seven years ago, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall collapsed. Twenty-seven is an odd number, so why write a post on this particular topic now, on the occasion of a not-so-symbolic anniversary? One reason is that I had always wanted to write something on the couple of years that followed the Fall of the Wall. But mainly, it was the realisation that the official reunification of the two Germanies actually occurred twenty-five and a half years ago that prompted me to reflect on that particular topic. Indeed, the storming of the Wall did not immediately result in the spontaneous stitching back together of the Germany of old – the question being, what Germany was to be resurrected? The prospect of seeing a strong Germany re-emerge on the world scene did not fail to upset members of the European political élite, many of whom had lived through World War Two. As a result, it took a year and a half for the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) – both founded in 1949 – to negotiate and sign the Treaty on the Final Settlement With Respect to Germany.

This post focuses on the two-year honeymoon period that occurred in the wake of the November 1989 events, which the Germans refer to as die Wende (“the turn”). The Wall was built in 1961 as a solution to the growing numbers of East Germans making their way to the West through West Berlin. Until its fall, the “wall of shame” had symbolized the Cold War and the lengths to which a totalitarian regime could go in order to stifle freedom of movement. The immediate cause of the Fall was the opening, in August, of the Austro-Hungarian border, which triggered an outflow of East German citizens through Hungary. The authorities initially attempted to prevent East German citizens from leaving, but these measures backfired and provoked a series of demonstrations, which led to the resignation of Erich Honecker, who had been at the helm of the country since 1971. However, the situation did not improve, as the new government soon felt obligated to allow passage directly through the various border crossings between the Federal Republic and the GDR. Besides, the government’s spokesman mistakenly confirmed that the changes would take effect immediately, which took the border guards by surprise and resulted in thousands of East Berliners crossing into the western part of the city. This meant the beginning of the end for the Wall and for the regime.

While English-language media have placed much emphasis on the many pop culture interventions before and after the fall of the Wall, German movies, books, and songs dealing with reunification have not gained much exposure outside of Germany. In particular, West German artists’ immediate response to the new situation have been overlooked, compared with those of their eastern counterparts. Many of us have the memory of throngs of mullet-wearing people crossing the borders as in a daydream, of Roger Waters’ 1990 The Wall – Live in Berlin, and other artists rejoicing over the end of a tyrannical regime. But aside from the Scorpions’ “Winds of Change,” few contributions by West German artists made it across the Atlantic. Some performances originating from Germany, like the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in 1990, also received some exposure outside of the country. Nonetheless, while the “free” world rejoiced over the new state of affairs, the reaction was more nuanced in Germany.

It did not take long for some East Germans to wax critical of reunification. According to the political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, “in 1990 the majority of former GDR citizens saw themselves as first of all German and then east German, but by 1994 the inverse was the case.”[1] This phenomenon soon became known as Ostalgie, a portmanteau of Ost (east) and Nostalgie (nostalgia). Ostalgie can be defined as the longing for some aspects of the GDR. While few East Germans probably pined for the heinous crimes perpetrated by the regime and the Stasi (the State police), many undoubtedly regretted some aspects of the pre-Wende era. Ostalgie could manifest itself negatively, as a rejection of neoliberalism. Indeed, the cultural cleavage that developed between the Ossis (East Germans) and the Wessis (West Germans), as well as the rise in unemployment in the wake of the Wende certainly contributed to fostering a feeling of nostalgia for the GDR’s social security system and its supposedly greater sense of community. Other, more superficial manifestations of Ostalgie involve the growing popularity of the much-mocked Trabant, the sale of Ampelmännchen (“traffic light men”) trinkets, or other relics from the pre-1989 period. In some cases, Ostalgie can go as far as to preserve or resurrect bars and hostels from that era, and can at times border on the morbid, with “Wall tours” in the company of guides in border guard uniforms. Some films, like Good Bye, Lenin! (2003), testify to that longing for more or less invented traditions.

Nonetheless, it would be all too convenient to see attitudes towards reunification in terms of a Wende/post-WendeOstalgic dichotomy. In the first place, the periodization of the Wende is still open to debate. If this “turn” meant the end of the GDR’s totalitarian regime and the political and administrative reunification of the country, then the Wende should indeed be confined to the 1989-91 years. But the Ossis certainly did not magically transform into Wessis overnight, as reunification did not result from a compromise, but involved the python-like absorption of the defunct GDR into the Federal Republic. Now, has the python digested its prey? Not quite, as many East Germans over 40 probably still compare the two regimes (consciously or not). Thus, the true Wende will only be complete with the passing of generations. That being said, although inner reunification has certainly not been achieved, the north-south cleavage is older, more ingrained in German society, and will probably outlast the East-West one.

Secondly, German critics of reunification did not wait till the end of the honeymoon period to express their skepticism. Before Ostalgie began to gain momentum in East Germany, some West Germans began to qualify the new state of affairs. An example of this is the movie Otto – Der Liebesfilm (“Otto’s Romance Film”). At first glance, this comedy is a silly, apolitical outlet for Otto Waalkes legendary antics. Though unknown outside of Germany, Waalkes made a name for himself as a musician and stand-up comedian in the 1970s and 1980s. Although Der Liebesfilm is as tiresome as a Benny Hill Show marathon, it does have its moments and, most importantly, provides a surprisingly subtle critique of the Wende. The synopsis is quite straightforward: in heaven, God orders the god Amour (played by Waalkes) to make two people fall in love with each other. His “victims” are none other than Otto (as himself) and Tina (Jessika Cardinahl). The main plot revolves around that particular love story and the attempts by a cynical businessman, Dr. Beierle (Juraj Kukura), to seduce Tina.

Aesthetically speaking, Otto’s Berlin is a thoroughly post-Wende one. All traces of the Wall and of East Berlin’s best-known landmarks are absent from the film, and the city is presented as a normal metropolis. However, a closer look at several scenes reveals another layer in this otherwise light comedy. For instance, a spoof of a milk commercial entitled Bärenmarke (“Bear Brand”) features a man in a bear suit ruining an idyllic breakfast scene by pouring an entire milk churn into Otto’s mug. Predictably, Otto ends up kicking the bear in the crotch, to which it reacts by uttering “Scheiß Werbung!” (“F—–g commercial!”).

In another scene, the Scorpions’ frontman Otto Meine is seen panhandling while whistling the intro to “Winds of Change.” The cameo might at first appear as a random reference to a then-popular band, but the symbolism is too strong to be accidental. Here Otto Waalkes clearly refers to the advent of a laissez-faire approach to the arts. The winds of change in question thus do not just signal the dawn of an age of freedom, but also that of an overly materialistic, profit-seeking one.

Waalkes clearly did not fully partake of the enthusiasm for the state of affairs that pervaded western news reports at the time. Without delving into Ostalgie, the humourist denounced the excesses of the market economy and the vulgarity of rating-obsessed German television networks. Interestingly, contemporary reviews failed to notice Der Liebesfilm’s implicit social critique of the immediate post-Wende era. Most of these focused on the comedic aspects of the movie, panning the actors’ poor performance and opining that “Otto’s engine is running out of fuel.”[2]

As far as the musical scene was concerned, the recording, by the industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten (“collapsing new buildings”), of Heiner Müller’s Die Hamletmaschine (“The Hamletmachine”) was not the result of happenstance either. Written in 1979, this nine-page play clearly satirises the GDR’s anti-intellectualism. An East German author, Müller had had a strained relationship with the regime long before The Hamletmachine premiered in Paris, as most of his post-1961 works enjoyed more success in the West than in the GDR. At face value, then, one could easily interpret Einstürzende Neubauten’s 1990 soundtrack as a tribute to Müller’s courage. Nonetheless, this interpretation does not work, when one takes into consideration the Beckettian complexity of the play on the one hand, and, on the other, Einstürzende Neubauten’s offbeat, iconoclastic worldview. The Hamletmachine mixes elements from Shakespeare’s play with references to the Russian Revolution, the 1956 Budapest uprising, and other events. But Müller’s absurdist prose does not simply call for the destruction of communist totalitarianism by having Hamlet split the heads of the feminized versions of Marx, Lenin and Mao, as the play also criticizes consumerism and Americanism. Overall, Einstürzende Neubauten suffered more from precarity than from the effects of the Cold War and have always kept their distance from official politics, while often sarcastically addressing political and social issues. Their choice to interpret Müller’s Hamletmachine was certainly not innocent, as it betrayed an ambivalence toward the changes that had just occurred.

The band later confirmed their subtly critical perspective on the Manichean rhetoric of reunification by performing in the then-soon-to-be torn down Palast der Republik (“Palace of the Republic”) in 2004. The Palast had a highly symbolic meaning, as it used to be seat of the GDR’s parliament – as well as a cultural centre. The rationale for the demolition was of a political nature, as the authorities wanted to rebuild the Berliner Stadtschloß (“City Palace”), which used to stand in this location until its partial destruction during World War II and its levelling in the early years of the GDR. Although no Ostalgie was involved, Einstürzende Neubauten implicitly (and perhaps unwittingly) contributed to raising awareness of the eradication of East Germany’s architectural landmarks.

Another critique came from the writer Peter Schneider, who studied and worked in West Berlin in the 1960s. During that time, he got involved in the Social Democratic Party and in the German student movement. Active as a novelist since 1970, Schneider gained fame outside of his home country with Der Mauerspringer (“The Wall Jumper”), published in 1982. In 1990, Schneider put together a collection of essays entitled The German Comedy. Each of the ten think pieces discusses various aspects of reunification, including the confusion felt by many Wessis, simultaneously glad to see normalisation on the way and appalled by the hordes of Ossis flocking into West Berlin. Schneider also insists that East Germany was more than just Berlin, which had become a synecdoche for the state’s totalitarianism, and that pro- and anti-unification attitudes could be found in all parts of the former GDR. In a gripping essay, entitled “In Germany, Saigon Wins: The Vietnamese in Berlin,” the author describes how Vietnamese guest workers were subjected to a double standard and still prevented from crossing the border long after November 9 – with the complicity of the Federal Republic. Such not-so-glorious aspects of the Wende lead Schneider to wonder whether the (then) new Germany could “exist without an enemy.”[3]

Over the last two decades, the Wessis vs. Ossis dichotomy has remained a force in German society. That being said, the Ostalgie phenomenon, which reached its apex in the 1998-2006 years, seems to have declined, today mostly eliciting enthusiasm among tourists or foreign hipsters whose idea of “irony” consists of driving a Trabant with a GDR T-shirt on. While the refugee crisis and the rise of the extreme right (now no longer confined to the déclassé strata of the former GDR) have now taken over as Germany’s top priority, one should keep in mind that the “German question” was certainly not resolved on the night of November 9, 1989, and that nation building (in Germany as elsewhere) often raises more questions than it provides answers.

Alban Bargain-Villéger is currently a sessional faculty member at York University, where he specializes in modern European history. His current research project involves a comparative study of Arran, Borkum, and Groix, three small islands off the coasts of Scotland, France, and Germany, respectively.

 


Notes

[1] Paul Cooke, Representing East Germany since Unification: From Colonization to Nostalgia (Oxford: Berg, 2005), 7.

[2] Cinema, “Otto – Der Liebsfilm,” http://www.cinema.de/film/otto-der-liebesfilm,1332600.html.

[3] Peter Schneider, The German Comedy: Scenes of Life after the Wall (London: Tauris, 1992), 18.

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