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Communist Kitsch

Almost 15 years after the fall of the Ber-lin Wall, the German Democratic Republic, a vanished country, has become a state of mind. Young people who were only children when the wall was up are throwing "Ost Partys" and chugging Rotkäppchen, East German bubbly. Pictures of Karl Marx and former GDR leader Erich Honecker hang on the walls of Ostzone, a very funky bar that—like all cult hangouts—opens and closes without warning. At the Prenzlauer Berg secondhand shop Mega Trend Humana, the pièce de résistance is a purple nylon wraparound dress, last seen in an East Berlin disco circa 1979. And over at Schönhauser Design—where people scavenge the back room for old orange plastic lamps and black leatherette sofas—I find myself coveting a pair of authentic Communist sunglasses.

The trend is called Ostalgie, and it means nostalgia for the East, as in the socialist East German state that fell soon after the wall came down in November 1989. Nowhere has Ostalgie been expressed with more wit, humor, and irony than in Good Bye Lenin! the recent Golden Globe-nominated German film. The characters are obsessed with the good old, bad old days of their youth: the clothes, the patriotic songs, even the food. The hero spends the film searching for Spreewald pickles—a brand beloved by East Germans—for his Communist mother, who emerges from a coma and doesn't know the wall has fallen. It's a funny, moving portrait of the period; like the Ostalgie phenomenon itself, the movie is about coming to grips with childhood, memory, and history.

In the unified Germany of the 21st century, there is high unemployment and high anxiety, especially in what was once the East. Ostalgie represents a yearning for another time, when—in the rosy glow of hindsight—everyone had a job and there was more leisure time, less capitalist frenzy, and fewer assaults from a celebrity-crazed media. There is even nostalgia for the Trabant, the East German car made from 1955 to 1991 and constructed mostly of plastic. Discarded with disdain in the months after the wall came down, the Trabi has become a sentimental icon. Intrepid tourists can embark on a Trabi-Safari, a drive-yourself tour of Berlin. (I once navigated a robin's-egg-blue Trabant through Germany; it was a sardine can on wheels.)

Back in the 1980's, when the Berlin Wall not only separated the city but also defined the world, I visited East Berlin half a dozen times. It looked as it was: repressive, gray, frightening, a place locked in for 28 years by its own government. Almost a mile of that wall is left; it runs along Mühlenstrasse and is decorated with murals celebrating its fall, a kind of outdoor gallery. Needless to say, the original wall was topped with barbed wire, watched over by soldiers in towers with guns and dogs, and its purpose was not art.

For a while, as the Eastern bloc crumbled, I, too, was taken with Communist kitsch. It seemed a delicious nose-thumbing gesture to possess a forbidden piece of the system—a bust of Lenin, or a military uniform. I'm mesmerized by this new, mocking nostalgia for the East, which crops up at places like White Trash Fast Food, a late-night bar in the fashionable Mitte district, with great cheeseburgers and a mix of Communist and American memorabilia. The fact that it's housed in a former Chinese restaurant once frequented by the Party faithful is what really gives it street cred.

There are other businesses around Berlin flogging Ostalgie. At EastBerlin, a spare, recently opened boutique in Mitte, there are chic sweaters and scarves imprinted with the Alexanderplatz television tower, symbol of the East. Friedrichshain's Mondos Arts sells a "GDR box"; it contains authentic trinkets and a reprinted GDR newspaper. The Ampelmann Galerie & Shop in Hackesche Höfe is dedicated to the figure on East German crossing lights, known as Ampelmann. (After the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, the East designed this icon, a cheery little man in a hat, more impish and welcoming than the stiff West German fellow.) Now Ampelmann is back, not only as a signal at many crossings but also as one of the symbols of the new Berlin, available on shopping bags and T-shirts.

Ostalgie is a campy, sometimes defiant, reinvention of history, and it pops up everywhere in the former Communist world: in the KGB uniforms worn by a rock band I once saw in Moscow; in the videos of ex-Soviet leaders shown at a gay bar in St. Petersburg. Like so much that plays off the Cold War period, Ostalgie is shot through with ambiguities, ambivalence, and profound longing for a golden time that never was. For hip Berlin youth, it's about trend, about fashion; wearing Communist-era sparkly nylon pantsuits and pointy beige bras is a mildly seditious statement with no risks. Sedition as kitsch, not as politics. It's not so different from the way Americans sentimentalize fifties clothes and music without acknowledging that the era was also a period of institutionalized racism in many parts of the country.

"For very young people, to remember the old days is to be cool," says Ulrika, a stylish taxi driver. For older people, Ostalgie is different; for them it's an affirmation that their lives under the East German regime were not completely meaningless, and a reaction to the currently depressed economy. In the Ostkost shop, the Spreewald pickles, Othello cookies, and Mokka Fix Gold coffee—all produced by old East German companies making a comeback—taste of home. They are also cheap, as are the pots and pans, aprons, Rotkäppchen, candy, and cleaning products available at 1000 Kleine Dinge (1,000 Little Things), a kind of East German Woolworth.

"The culture was the creation of separation," says Stefan Elfenbein, a leading Berlin journalist. "People were locked away for many years. When the wall came down, East Germany'sbusinesses were squashed. Our parents' generation knows this is much better, a free unified country, but they lost their country, their culture. They miss certain things. Ostalgie is not associated with Communism; it's about heritage."

Maybe. But I'm not so sure that you can separate culture from politics, heritage from history. Where does the joke end and the terrible reality begin?I head for Checkpoint Charlie; East Germans trying to get over the wall were once shot dead here by their own soldiers. I remember the way grim guards used to inspect the underside of your car with mirrors on wheels.The border has since been recycled as a little theme park, where actors in uniform pose for pictures with you. There's a museum there, too; the souvenir shop sells key chains that contain a supposed piece of the Berlin Wall. A mile or so east,Alexanderplatz, the heart of East Berlin, shows remnants of the old days: a mosaic mural of heroic workers; the television tower; the former Stadt Hotel (now the Park Inn), a high-rise monstrosity where important visitors to the GDR stayed. Beginning here and stretching for over a mile is Karl-Marx-Allee (once Stalinallee), a grandiose boulevard designed for massive military parades.

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