On the eve of 9 November 2014 thousands of Germans gathered on the world stage in what was a momentous occasion. In evoking a distant memory, the celebratory occupation of the Brandenburg Gate that night seemed all too familiar to the witnesses of the volatile events of 1989. Whilst the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall appeared to embody the once-envisioned national community, I discuss how, hidden beneath the wave of celebration, many East Germans felt disillusioned with the birth of a reunified Germany after 1990. By reappraising their former cultural experiences, East Germans cultivated a separately distinct identity built on nostalgia – or Ostalgie – for a way of life that once encapsulated and defined their former state, and indeed their former lives.
When Gunter Schabowski made his accidental announcement in a press conference on 9 November 1989, little did the East German official knew of its implications. In a response to a journalist, Schabowksi in fact permitted East Germans to travel to West Berlin ‘without delay’. The streets of Germany received the news with euphoria, and the quasi-invasion led by an endless sea of Trabants packed with hopeful families echoed in a new dawn of hope for a nation defined and divided by concrete. It was an intra-generational experience, and when Rudolf Seiters, the then head of the Office of the German Chancellery and a key figure in the negotiation process, recalled the events as ‘practically a miracle’, we can appreciate how extraordinarily unique 9th November 1989 was.
However, the experience of living in a reunified Germany was received by many East Germans with resistance throughout the years after 1990. For those who witnessed the events or saw them on the television, the formation of a single nation held more serious implications than floods of BMWs and blue jeans, traditional symbols of western culture and mass consumerism. It prompted a fear of departure from a way of life that was relatively stable for many, and the swift arrival of an era much more uncertain. An impending feeling that East German culture was under threat now occupied the mindset of many East Germans and overwhelming distrust of the new era they had been sold into by promises of wealth and security soon grew. It was only natural, perhaps inevitable, that a defence mechanism was nurtured. This phenomenon, first coined by Uwe Steimle in 1992, came to be known as Ostalgie. A portmanteau of Ost (East) and nostalgie, it was a device and means by which East Germans accommodated, embraced, and ultimately rejected their new Germany.
Ostalgie was a countercultural act of resistance that overflowed the minds of East Germans and poured into society in many manifestations. From board games, retro cafés and bars, cinemas featuring East German films, to Honecker-inspired traffic men (Ampelmännchen) with straw hats, Ostalgie revived expressions of a lifestyle unique to East Germans of a forgotten era. It became a central facet of post-1990 identity for former East Germans who were agents in the process of memory-making against western colonisation of identity. The curation of cultural memory by East Germans, as seen in Berlin today for example, sustained their perceived common experiences behind the wall. By defying the asphyxiating nature of West German culture, proponents of Ostalgie sedated an irreversible force of assimilation and sought the palingenetic creation of a collective community. Before the Wende, society was more comprehensible and ordered, with citizens on both sides of the wall able to understand and appreciate their differences. Indeed, such was the sobering effect of the Cold War itself, prompting one well-known voice to regard it as an era of long peace. Ostalgie, then, represented more than material displays of nostalgia – it had the efficacy of transporting East Germans back to a more stable era of binaries.
Cultural nostalgia finds its appeal not only in East Germany, however. Modern-day Russian nostalgic television advertisements feature beer as a way of promoting certain values to large viewing audiences. In his study of such advertisements, Jeremy Morris has found that brand advertisements centre their product around questions of national identity. Several of these beer brands are interested in exploring various historical themes. One Three Bogatyrs beer advert involved three working-class workers in a contemporary Russian bar. Their slogan, ‘together we are strong’, echoed the similarly courageous characteristics of the legendary bylinas. Indeed, we should be cautious in reading every form of Russian culture through a nostalgic lens. Yet we should not ignore their underlying implications. The appeal of these adverts could lie in their subtle critique of an uncertain post-Soviet lifestyle. Further, the adverts seem to validate the culture of a former way of life that is experiencing extinction by suppressing narratives of ‘western triumphalism’. As Morris argues, there exists in modern-day Russian television advertisements a ‘persistence of models of social solidarity, issues of national identity, and significant elements of nostalgia for the cultural forms and values of Soviet popular culture’. In this way, post-Soviet culture is fused with the past and exported to the world which promotes and validates a mythical Russian national identity that seeks to place Russia’s uncertain future in the hands of a more ordered, stable history.
Ostalgie was a phenomenon whose participants were disillusioned with a reunified Germany that anticipated many promises – many of which failed to materialise. By conjuring expressions of East German identity, many East Germans found it difficult – indeed refused – to situate themselves in a new era burdened with dizzying uncertainty. The cases of Ostalgie and Russian beer expose a more revealing legacy, however. They contribute to understandings about how culture and memory are central to the construction of historical identities. The conscious decision of harnessing time and memory enables the formulation of alternative individual or collective narratives based on former experiences, and the East Germans who felt detached from the Federal Republic of Germany did just that to create a refuge for the preservation of culture. For many contemporary Russians, the appeal of nostalgic adverts offers a similarly comforting antidote to an unexpected reality, enabling the survival of a collectivised national identity that once dominated the lives of many for more than seventy years.
Matthew Berks is an undergraduate at the University of Sheffield. His special subject focuses on the End of the Cold War