Ossi life beyond the Stasi

PHOTO GALLERY! Is a dispassionate look at the GDR finally possible? A film project and an exhibition take a more empathetic look into the everyday lives of East Germans.

Image for Ossi life beyond the Stasi

Photo by Open Memory Box. Open Memory Box: An Online ‘Anti-Archive’ is a collection of 8mm film footage shot by East Germans themselves.

“Most people from the West weren’t that interested in the GDR, and why should they be? The GDR, Poland, Russia – for many they were one,” says Barbara Langerwisch, a retired East Berlin teacher, on the decade that followed the Fall of the Wall and the collapse of the country she had lived in for the first 40 years of her life. It’s a sentiment Jürgen Danyel, a historical research­er and fellow East Berliner, agrees with. “Westerners felt like they knew the story, and it was uncomfortable for me to talk about my own, normal life under the dictatorship. It’s a part of the psychologi­cal suppression that happened. For me it is much harder to talk about my childhood, my life and my career in the GDR than it is for people from the West.”

Stasi-centric narratives

In the aftermath of the Wende, public discourse was (understand­ably) dominated by the dictatorship of the regime. The first muse­ums that sprung up aimed to document its political workings in the very locations where the one-party state was operating – the Stasi headquarters in Lichtenberg were turned into a museum in 1990, and the Stasi prison Hohenschönhausen followed suit in 1994. It wasn’t until 2006 that the DDR museum in Mitte opened its doors with a new promise: “Everyday Life, the Wall and the Stasi! All under one roof”, exhibiting cash registers and Trabis alongside a life-size GDR prison cell. Then, six years ago, the Kulturbrauerei Museum opened with a permanent exhibition supposedly dedicated to “Ev­eryday Life” in the GDR. But the museum didn’t escape the temp­tation of framing exhibits in political terms – a pair of flat lace-up suede ankle boots is said to have been “typically worn by ‘dropouts’ whom the Stasi regarded as ‘enemies of the state’”. But Heike, a 53-year-old Ossi who fondly remembers her own two pairs of ‘tramp­ers’, as they were called, disagrees with the exhibition text: “I wasn’t a dropout or an enemy of the state. I was a 15-year-old who wanted to be cool! It was fashionable among the youth. We’d wear them with ripped or patched-up jeans and a striped button-down shirt.” She remembers how she was the only one in her class who’d man­aged to score them – two pairs even! She’d queued for a full morning the minute she’d heard they were in stock at a shop on Schönhauser Allee. “Skipping a few lessons that morning was the only ‘rebellious’ thing about it,” she laughs. “They were not expensive but hard to get hold of and you weren’t allowed to buy more than one pair of the same size. I bought two pairs, a light brown one for everyday wear and a dark one, a size up, for going to the disco.” She immediately spots the scoff marks on the shoes in the museum – the tell-tale sign that they too had been bought too large. Heike was, like Barbara and many fellow Ossis, never violently subjected to the repressive aspect of the regime. “The Wall, the Stasi, and the SED of course played a role and they’ve got to be mentioned. But there was also normal life. I, for example, didn’t come into contact with the Stasi or the police or anything. I didn’t try to cross over to the West because I didn’t have any relatives there. For many of us, life in the GDR was mundane, but it was our life!” says Langerwisch. So when she heard about a call out asking people from the GDR to send in their old 8mm home videos so they could be digitised and released as part of an online “anti-archive”, she immediately submitted hers.

Opening the GDR memory box

“I was really surprised that so many years after the Wende, the relations between East and West were still quite polarised” remem­bers Alberto Herskovits who grew up in West Berlin. In the year of reunification Herskovits had made a film about a small GDR town. After living in Sweden for 20 years, he came back in 2011 to make a follow-up. But he was taken aback: Ossis were reluctant to talk about their experiences in the GDR. “I think they were sick of being stereo­typed. Over the decades, the whole story about the East was always the same. The Stasi, the control, the Wall, the border. The lack of freedom, all of this.” So he decided to take history into his own hands and initiated the project Open Memory Box: An Online ‘Anti- Archive’, where he would collect 8mm film footage shot by East Ger­mans themselves. When he and his partner, Canadian professor Lau­rence McFalls, put a call out to the press in 2014, they were hoping optimistically to get maybe 10 hours of film. “But within less than 10 days we had 2283 rolls of film, and 415 hours of footage!” exclaims Herskovits. “We were overwhelmed!” Turning all those rolls of film into the Open Memory Box took years of work, during which a team of up to 30 people tagged and organ­ised the footage into 2700 categories. The result is an uncharacteristically enjoy­able archive that shows a very different side of life in the GDR than we typi­cally see. The website, live since September, offers a variety of unconventional categories that pop up as thumbnails on the homep­age. For example, clicking on ‘kiss’ will conjure up a compilation of Ossis of all ages kissing across years, moments, ages, and places. The same goes for the tags ‘hike, ‘beach’ or ‘beer’. An extensive range of life experiences is there to be explored, and each clip includes links to the unedited roll of film that it came from. “In the raw footage you can literally see the moment a guy falls in love with a girl and she with him,” Herskovits marvels. The 8mm films Langerwisch shared were shot between 1968-71, the period when she and her hus­band were just beginning life together, both as university students in Leipzig. We see them visiting sites in East Berlin like Karl- Marx-Allee, a walled-off Brandenburger Tor, and a bustling Friedrichstraße; Langerwisch playing with their infant son on the grass, in a stylish long-sleeved minidress, and later a sleeveless turtleneck and a pleated high-waist skirt; the couple hitchhiking on their way to a Prague holiday, and later explor­ing a hilly, snowy winter wonderland (in Sächsische Schweiz) on their honeymoon. In each scene “you can see that somebody had the urge to capture what is important for that person in that moment, and that’s very human,” says Herskovits.

Westerners felt like they knew the story, and it was uncomfortable for me to talk about my own, normal life under the dictatorship.

Everyman’s life

Bringing together a more nuanced range of experiences and transcending the tendency to frame everything in terms of state power or opposition to it was important for Danyel, the vice director of the Leibniz-Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung, when curat­ing the exhibition Ost-Berlin that opened at the Ephraim Palais last May (which runs until November 9th). On a tour of the exhibition, Danyel points to the things on display that populated his everyday life until he turned 30 – like the old coin drop machine with which you paid for transit in East Berlin, (and how you could get away with not paying for it). A panorama photo of Greifswalder Straße has visitors realise how many small privately-owned shops once lined the street. The Willy Bresch Eckkneipe, on the corner with Danziger Straße, and the typical Prenzlauer Berg pub Metzer Eck a few blocks away, are the only remaining businesses of the time. The exhibition presents Berlin as an important centre for fashion and design, with bustling shopping days at Alexanderplatz, where you could get Salamander shoes but rarely any Western brand jeans, and showcases how people would fashion their own colourful clothes at home and sell them at concerts. It also covers the big urban proj­ects of the time, like the reconstruction of the Nikolaiviertel, where the Ephraim Palais once stood as East Berlin’s most sought-after restaurant, and the construction of the Friedrichstadtpalast, a luxury Plat­tenbau that was used to record popular TV shows and where Ossis (and visiting Wessis) were treated to state-of-the-art ballets and glamorous shows. Nonetheless, the exhibi­tion does not avoid the controls on life – it presents Schrebergärten as the rare places where people could relax, free from the prying eyes of the regime, and explains how they would point their antennas to the West so they could pick-up West-German TV pro­grammes like the Tagesschau. There’s also a section on the Palast der Republik, the site of the GDR Parliament which was torn down to make room for the new Humboldt Forum after a controversial vote by the German Bundestag in 2003. For Danyel, the decision to destroy the building was symptomatic of the West’s perspective, who saw it solely as a symbol of a repressive regime. “What they didn’t understand was that for many East Berliners and people from the GDR, it was a different place. There were restaurants, concerts, family events and a bowling alley. And that’s a totally different side to the same building.” Thirty years post-Wende, is reunified Germany ready for a narrative of the GDR that, without forgetting the Stasi, acknowledges the experience of the past as shared and remembered by a large section of its once divided population? “Well, this exhibition could not have been set up in the early 1990s,” he reflects. “It would have been too open-minded. But as time goes by, our society now has other problems, and that al­lows us to look at things in a more nuanced way.”