Excerpted from WHAT REMAINS by Jonathan Bach. Copyright (c) 2017 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.


The GDR never existed. Nonsense, of course — the German Democratic Republic, aka East Germany, existed for forty cold war years as the front line of the Soviet Bloc, as West Germanysocialist double and as a lived reality for sixteen million people. Yet, eighteen years after German unification in 1990, this phrase could be seen sprayed in foot-high letters on the remaining foundation of the recently razed East German Palace of the Republic, smack in the middle of Berlin. This wry provocation expresses how unification created a ghostly situation: the GDR became a present absence, invoked mostly to be disavowed. When in 1990 the most advanced socialist country dissolved with breakneck speed, the artifacts it left behind appeared as debris, detritus, suddenly out of time and out of place, anachronistic remnants of a failed dream for socialist modernity. This book concerns the aftermath of such radical discontinuity. It looks at what happens when the state vanishes, leaving behind a material legacy that both resists and demands a response from ordinary people. I trace this response through contemporary encounters with things and places from socialist everyday life as they become repackaged as nostalgia items, redeployed as social criticism, and reused in ways that transform the meaning of coming to terms with the past.

When the prominent former East German activist Joachim Gauck, soon to become Germanys president, was asked in an interview whether nostalgia for the GDR was a danger for democracy, he replied, Self-evidently. Nostalgia for the East — Ostalgie — diminishes everything that constitutes our democracy. Through selective memory, trivialization, and denial we risk losing the political judgment that can distinguish dictatorship from democracy. This common refrain extends to the discussion of everyday life under socialism, leaving little space for ambiguity: The only people who could possibly have regarded everyday life as normal in the closed society of the GDR, reads a 2014 educational publication onEveryday Life from the think tank associated with Germanys main conservative political party, were those prepared to acquiesce to scarcity, pollution, surveillance and shoot-to-kill orders, or who repressed or accepted this reality as inevitable.

At the same time, public opinion polls twenty years after unification show half of former GDR citizens, about eight million people, see more good than bad in their memory of the failed state. Ostalgie, a major social phenomenon characterized by the neologism that combines the German words for east and nostalgia, has lasted decades, encompasses commerce, media, and tourism and is a perennial topic of political and cultural discussion. The sentiments that socialist intentions were in principle laudable, or that friendship was more genuine in the East despite the surveillance state, or that specific GDR social welfare programs such as childcare were more progressive than in the West, are not limited to recalcitrant regime loyalists. To appreciate what is at stake in the profoundly unhelpful . . . polarization of positions that has emerged around the legacy of the GDR, especially concerning everyday life, it is important to locate contemporary discussions in the context of the double inheritance of the Nazi and socialist past. While ideologically opposite, these regimes are often colloquially bundled together as Germanys dual dictatorships. For a nation whose current identity rests in large part on its substantial accomplishments in coming to terms with the past, this contentious comparison haunts and shapes debates over remembering the socialist, and by extension the National Socialist, eras, with implications for a wider European ethics of memory that relies heavily on the German model.

The everyday is thus far from an innocent subject. This book sees the everyday as neither a site for damnation or redemption. The everyday transcends and transgresses the boundaries of the political through its malleability — the everyday as refuge, as false consciousness, as a space for liberation and collusion, retreat and restlessness. Material culture offers a unique vantage point on the workings of the everyday in situations of radical discontinuity because it confers on ordinary things an important yet under-explored role in working through the living legacy of contested pasts.

In exploring how the past is appropriated in the present, this book shares a core concern with memory studies about how symbolic meaning is produced and attached to places, objects, and people. It enriches such approaches by looking at how different modes of engagement with material remains take the forms of commodification, display, and performance — what I refer to as acts of appropriation — explored in this book. These modes of engagement add, displace, and challenge the settling of symbolic meaning. Whereas memory studies is often concerned with how such engagements produce new narrations of the past, I want to show how material culture from the past comes to circulate in overlapping economies of the present: the marketplace for “East products, the symbolic economy of national symbols, the creative economy of twenty-first-century Berlin, and the global memory economy.

The effect of circulation is not to settle on a new narrative about the past (even if it advances contenders), to make money (even if some money is to be made), or to keep the past alive (even if some historical awareness is amplified and transmitted across generations). Rather, it is to keep the present unsettled, to keep narratives from congealing. The material culture I examine in this book sits uncomfortably between different poles of value. Some items from the past, like antiques, have value and circulate but are not unsettling (unless perhaps they are looted). Other items, like certain obsolete products, have no value and cease to circulate (except perhaps as waste). The orphan artifacts from the former GDR examined in this book have an ambiguous value, and their circulation increases that ambiguity. Their value, so to speak, lies not in exchange but in their ability to unsettle.

These objects unsettle because everyday objects and places — here household products, television sets, buildings, and even the Berlin Wall itself — are (mis)used in ways not anticipated or sanctioned by their makers, original users, or mainstream society. As they move between invisibility and visibility, they reveal how vestiges of socialism become vernacular forms of remembrance and chart a different trajectory alongside, and often against, official public memory discourses. This book traces the unsettling effects of these artifacts unmoored from their vanished state and demonstrates how ordinary people use the spaces of the everyday to create memory from below.

Tricks of the Trade

A hallmark of Ostalgia culture in both its modernist and postmodern form (nostalgia of style) is its pervasive, self-conscious irony, starting with the neologism ostalgia itself. Even in the most serious of exhibits or store displays there is humor that serves to dislodge the slogans, symbols, and styles of the regime and make them usable as contemporary persiflage. In the apartments of hipsters, GDR flags became shower curtains, and tourist shops sell iconic brightly colored plastic eggcups, model Trabant cars, magnets with phrases such as “Wessi Free Zone,” and the ubiquitous green and red Ampelmann (traffic light men) products. A specialty store’s very name Ostpaket (East Packet) plays on the phenomenon of “West packages” (Westpakete) sent by relatives from West to East during GDR times. Its logo is the iconic Trabant against a silhouetted map of the GDR accompanied by the motto “good things from the East!” and it offers several ironic varieties of East packets for consumer to send as gift baskets. Similarly, the company Ostprodukte Versand (East product shipping) offers a “Hero of Labor” set of six products, including Hero shower gel, a bottle opener, and a certificate that adapts socialist language, for example: “The superhuman and exemplary tasks rendered by the bearer of this honorary title are worthy of emulation and continuous improvement. To learn from the hero is to learn victory,” echoing the famous GDR slogan “To learn from the Soviet Union means to learn victory.”

Humor accompanies East products in all its stages, from knowingly ironic appropriations, clever names, tongue-in-cheek advertising, and novelty products to redeployment of socialist slogans such as condoms bearing the Young Pioneers motto “be prepared — always prepared!” or GDR schnapps in four flavors: Agitator, Proletariat, Subotnik, and Black Channel, all under the motto: Never Backwards, Always Plastered! Humor, of course, works to strip official symbols of once feared power. This was especially important in the early years after the GDR’s collapse, when sarcasm was tinged with schadenfreude and the recently toppled structures needed to be dismantled discursively as well as administratively. In one sense, East products at their most ironic are the very opposite of nostalgia, conventionally conceived as abject longing: rather they convey the open expression of the kind of humor and irony that coursed through GDR society through countless jokes for which the GDR is justly famous. The absurdity, pettiness, and moral bankruptcy  of the regime was the constant butt of jokes that turned ideological somberness backed by force into caustic caricatures emptied of their self-importance. East products play on these once sacred images and slogans, turning busts of leaders and emblems of power into paperweights, gags, and reversals.

Such sarcasm is a form of transgression after the fact, since the GDR leaders are no longer around to become inflamed when their human flaws are exposed through mockery. Yet while the power of these symbols diminishes it also lingers, and even more than two decades after the GDR’s disappearance the ironic use of GDR symbols can elicit an angry response. In 2010, members of the conservative political party the Christian Democratic Union (the CDU), in power for most of the first two decades after reunification, called for a ban on all GDR symbols as “antidemocratic” (verfassungsfeindlich, literally, hostile to the constitution) and “supremely insulting and injurious for all victims of the SED regime.” “Nazi symbols were also banned for good reasons,” says Kai Wegner, a member of parliament from the western Berlin suburb of Spandau. “We cannot forget the past,” agreed the head of the CDU youth organization, calling for the use of logos of the former Ministry for State Security, National Peoples Army, and the ruling Socialist Unity Party to be subject to punishment.

This CDU demand shows one of the key contemporary boundaries  of social acceptance that ostalgia troubles with its ironic, commodified forms: the memory politics of Germany’s identity, especially the question of comparison between the Nazi and communist past — a central theme discussed further in the next chapter. The accusation that ostalgia amounts to apology for both dictatorships is always raised by critics, such as a fairly typical letter to the editor responding to an article on ostalgia in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “Would the ostalgia-interested reader also seek further historical-emotional experiences in a Gestapo suite or in the [Nazi] Reich’s party convention lounge, which also had Kathreiner’s Karo Coffee (grain beverage) with folksy stews [volkstümliche Eintopfessen] and Chlorodont toothpaste in the bathroom?” A commonplace remark after the success of the 2003 film Good-bye Lenin, which pushed ostalgia into the mainstream, was about how hard it would be to imagine “Good-bye Hitler.” The film provoked those who saw in Good-bye Lenin a dangerous reduction of GDR symbols to harmless, miniaturized forms of kitsch. Though this might seem a venial sin, for those disturbed by ostalgia it undermined government-sanctioned rituals of memory by making the GDR past more accepted, more mobile, and less controllable and raising anew the older trope of German susceptibility to “antidemocratic” sentiments. In this context the CDU demand to criminalize GDR-era symbols draws attention to how ostalgia irony works against the implicit comparison of the fascist and the socialist past simply by making it possible to make fun of the one and not the other.

Ostalgia, then, gains its force in part by crossing the line that separates good and bad taste at both the social and aesthetic level. It also (re)draws the line(s) by creating intimacies and in-groups (“Wessi Free Zone!”) as well as by erasing or moving the line (e.g., “Wossis,” a word that combines pejorative terms for Easterners and Westerners). This boundary crossing/drawing/moving function is characteristic of the mythical spirit or archetype of the trickster. Ostalgia, of course, is not a mythic figure in the sense of Hermes or the coyote. It may be a category error to think of a phenomenon as a “trickster” in the strict sense, since a phenomenon lacks the agency of an archetypal protagonist. And yet ostalgia is suffused with a humor-filled, underdog spirit that prods and needles straitlaced interpretations of the GDR past. It is hard to pin down what it really means, and in ostalgia one sees the traces of the socialist-era mimetic practice of stiob (a Russian term), a form of parody that drew its strength from the ambiguity over whether the actor was being sincere or ridiculing the powers that be (or both). This could be maddening for those who dont get it.

As Ivor Stodolsky points out, “stiob’s ‘unhinging’ effect derives mainly from a momentary misrecognition of sincerity.” We see this in the media and academic debates about ostalgia, forever asking whether the purveyors or customers of ostalgia products are themselves nostalgic. Is the joke on them because they are misguided, or on the critics for taking them too seriously? When people making and selling kitschy ostalgia products claim what they are doing is not part of ostalgia, how are we to understand this? Perhaps a clue can be found in the philosopher Konrad Liessmann’s analysis of kitsch as a “subversive aesthetic strategy.” Kitsch, in Liessmann’s analysis, is a double movement: in its naive sentimentality it seeks to “get back that which modernity refuses us… to enjoy what the radical modern and the political enlightenment wanted to deny” and is thus inherently antielite. To “enjoy” kitsch qua kitsch, however, requires a minimum of self-distancing in the form of irony. Kitsch, in the standard analysis, is dangerous because it speaks directly to maudlin human emotions that threaten to blunt our capacity for judgment. Yet, writes Liessmann, it “requires only a wink to become beyond reproach, that is, to become acceptable.”  This irony ameliorates kitsch’s inherent danger, turning bad taste into something so bad it is good again.

In the spirit of the trickster then, if not as a quasi-trickster itself, ostalgia performs two social trickster functions through the deployment of irony and humor: First, it interrupts the establishment of smooth narratives, opening space for rearticulations and reversals, wordplay and iconoclasm. This is classic trickster territory, known as disarticulation — the removing of an object from its predictable place, whether it is the past where East products were said to belong and not today’s store shelf, or the normative spaces such as schools or museums where the emblems and images of the Communist dictatorship are supposed to be encountered and not, say, on chocolates or condoms. Second, once disarticulated, ostalgia serves to reinsert objects into the mainstream as commodities. The more “normal” these products come to seem, whether as part of the souvenir landscape or as regional products, the more they disavow their very exceptionalism, ultimately losing the very scent of nostalgia as such. Following Lewis Hyde’s analysis of the trickster, we can see this as rearticulation, in which the story, here the GDR past, is connected in new ways to “larger social and spiritual articulations.”

The trickster at work: on the one hand, ostalgia redraws the boundaries depending on where you stand — communist sympathizers versus defenders of the constitution, Ossis versus Wessis, post-nationalist Wossi hipsters versus those who still think of themselves in national terms. On the other, it moves and blurs the lines, as when an anonymous contributor to an online forum wrote, after viewing the film Good-bye Lenin, “and what am I really: an Ossi? a Wessi? A Wossiossi, ossiwossi, WOSI, Ostelbiger, Oderwestlicher? I myself do not know anymore,” or in the detaching of the object from its original context and letting it float “free” of its former political content, as with ironic appropriations of symbols on T-shirts and tourist products. In the pop culture designs, we can see the workings of what Serguei Oushakine calls the “retrofitting” of socialist symbols, which in their new guises “offer a recognizable outline without suggesting an obvious ideological strategy of its interpretation.” This allows socialist symbols to be redeployed in new contexts and for new generations. More to the point, ostalgia as trickster allows GDR identity to remain in circulation, neither fully dissolving nor persisting into the new era. Ostalgia becomes part of modern rituals of consumption, and by staying at that level, rather than being incorporated into formal rituals such as school, flag, or political speeches, it allows forms of GDR identity to persist and be questioned at the same time.

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Jonathan Bach is an Associate Professor in the Global Studies Program at The New School in New York. In addition to What Remains: Everyday Encounters with the Socialist Past in Germany he is co-editor of the recent volume Learning from Shenzhen: China’s Post-Mao Experiment from Special Zone to Model City (University of Chicago Press).