‘Berlin – oh, what a great city! I’d rather not be anywhere else’.
Mention Berlin to most people and they will respond in some such fashion.
It is the hip place to be. No matter whether you seek the ultimate shopping experience, a weekend party, a worthwhile property investment as part of your portfolio, or revel in its anti-capitalist reputation, everyone seems to be able to find a reason to go to Berlin. After all, Berlin is now harmoniously one. The monstrous wall – the symbol of the iron curtain, of communist repression – was pulled down more than two decades ago. And so Berlin has at last been able to recover its historical place as a major, global city, with something for everyone.
But live in Berlin for a while – as I did for some months in 2012-13 – and a different picture emerges. Almost every day you are bombarded in an ideological war that seeks to cast the former DDR, East Germany, as a grey, repressed place. The standard of living was low, there was no industry or initiative, people were not free, all they wanted to do was escape. Throughout the city, plaques and denkmale – points of interest – seek to peddle the official, western narrative, the narrative of the victors. Westerners continue to resent the east, spinning a narrative concerning the cost of integrating the east, resenting the tax that still applies for ‘redevelopment’, while rapidly attempting the gentrify to inner city that was part of east Berlin.
Is the story all so grim? In the midst of the denigration and overdone efforts to assert the narrative of the victors, is there not any sign of resistance? Those from the east resent the way ‘reunification’ has been a one-way process, steam-rolling a Western, capitalist agenda on an east that has lost nearly everything. And they fume at the misrepresentations of the east, at how photographs of the former DDR are nearly always in black and white, often grainy and grim and grey. Did the sun not shine there too? Did people not enjoy and make the most of life?
Apart from these individual moments, I was interested in more sustained items of resistance. What about ‘Ostalgie’, the various efforts to recall life in the DDR? Trabiworld, close by the Brandenburg Gate, offers Trabi Tours, parties, hire cars, even a Trabant limousine. Ostel, near Ostbahnhof, presents an ‘authentic’ DDR experience, should you wish to stay there overnight. The DDR museum gives a hands-on display of life as it was supposedly lived. And the DDR shop, which sells all manner of items from before 1989 – from egg cups to school textbooks, salt shakers to writing paper. Plenty of material, to be sure, but is it really a form of resistance? Not really, for it fits within the larger narrative: the DDR is carefully contained, sealed off and located in the past. Relics, kitsch, flotsam and jetsam – all that left from a failed experiment in communism. No resistance here.
Yet find resistance I did, in some unexpected places. While some forms of persistence are more substantial, others are small glimpses, moments that one may pass over without noticing, signals of an approach to life that offers a better possibility. I think here of the cups, jugs and plates that turn up occasionally at the flea markets. Not any crockery, piled in the worn boxes hauled out of trucks every weekend, rain, snowstorm or shine. No, the ones marked ‘Made in the DDR’ are of a simple, functional design. Each milk jug is of the same dimensions as the other, with perhaps different decoration. And each fits neatly within the other so that they may be stacked compactly and efficiently. So too with the cups, plates, saucers, bowls and so on. The same dimensions, the same curve, the same size. So what is so spectacular about that? In the false ideology of choice under capitalism, one finds all manner of designs and shapes, most of them useless, all of them faux variations on what should be a simple, functional item. Simplicity, function, efficiency, singularity – when you have the right item, why change it?
Second is the Ampelmann, the little traffic light man. The West tried to abolish this one, but the innovative design from Karl Peglau, the traffic psychologist, has become more popular than ever. Introduced in 1961, the Ampelmännchen became extremely popular in education, children’s stories, television and so on. Soon they were joined by the Ampelfrau, sometimes sitting on a bicycle at special crossings. After a failed effort by the West to remove the Ampelmännchen and enforce their own images, the Ampelmann and Ampelfrau had the last laugh, since now they even adorn western parts of the city and parts of the rest of Germany. As Peglau put it: ‘It is presumably their special, almost indescribable aura of human snugness and warmth, when humans are comfortably touched by this traffic symbol figure and find a piece of honest historical identification’.
Third – and more substantially – is the truly stunning ‘Stalinbauten’ or Stalin baroque of Karl-Marx Allee. At once grand and very human, elaborate and restrained, these are true examples of the availability of decent accommodation for workers. After the victory of the Second World War, Stalin was handed a gift – a ruined street (previously called Große Frankfurter Straße). His response was to launch an architectural competition for the construction of what would come to be called ‘Europe’s last great street’ (Aldo Rossi). The result was something that draws me back again and again. Stone and architectural tile, metalwork and high quality timber, frescoes and grand stairways, facing facades with traditional Berlin motifs, open spaces and theatres, restaurants and shops, matching towers at either end (Frankfurter Tor and Strausberger Platz) – all of it constructed a distinct sense of proportion that is very welcoming indeed. Everywhere are opening and walkways, leading out to back streets that contain yet more award-winning examples. Apart from celebrating the boulevard, or allee, itself, the Stalinbauten also provides wide green spaces in squares and fields (although one or two of these have been filled in by dolts since). Completed in 1962 and running more than two kilometres along (and back) from Karl-Marx Allee, it became one of the models for Stalin Baroque or socialist classicism – works of architecture that still stand and are acknowledged from east Germany to Siberia.
Then there is nudism. Nudism? Like Lenin and many of the leading Bolsheviks, the East Germans were and remain much more enthusiastic about nudism, or FKK (Freikoerperkultur). Stemming from the naturalist movement in the 19th century, the communists were much more advanced on this score and fostered the tradition. Indeed, they were more relaxed about bodies and sexuality more generally, so much so that the first sex change took place in the DDR, paid for by the state. Probably the best area for nudism still is the Mecklenberg Lake District, particularly the beautiful Müritz National Park. Here one engages in nude camping and hiking, for there are nude beaches and holiday places for the whole family. But one also continues to find nude trains and airlines. My love is nude cycling, not merely since it means you need carry less with you. The trick, as I have found, is not to stand up in the pedals too often, especially when people are behind you.
Finally, the memory and practice of communism still runs deep. Many in the DDR supported it to the end. All the activity during the ‘Wende’ (turn) of the 1980s indicates as much – by groups in the new civic movements (Bürgerbewegungen: Neues Forum, Demokratischer Aufbruch), the Church and the sections of the government working for renewal. They produced a manifesto, For Our Country (Für unser Land), which was signed by no less than 1,167,048 signatures. And it was one effort among many, seeking to renew the socialist project from within.
What is that project? I mean not an ossified government that faced the inevitable difficulties of maintaining legitimacy, that made many mistakes such as restricting travel by its citizens. I mean the assumption of communality, that we are all – especially workers – one. I mean the assumption that each gives according to ability and to each is given according to need. I mean the assumption that whenever oppression and exploitation arise, people will desire liberation. And I mean that a far better way to live is not to produce much, but to desire little. It assumes a simple life shared by all, without the obscene acquisition of useless wealth.