Review: Ostzeit - Stories From A Vanished Country


Book Reviews, Photobooks


We are not unfamiliar with new countries emerging from the break-up of older ones, or from parts becoming independent. In fact, after the fall of Communism, a whole series of new countries emerged. But a country vanishing? As it does turn out, the country formerly known as the German Democratic Republic - aka East Germany - did disappear. Mind you, its people and cities remained where they were. But in the course of what Germans call “re-unification” its political and economical system, along with large parts of its social fabric, were made to disappear. A very good way for non-Germans to get an idea of what this meant is to watch the movie Good Bye, Lenin!.

I will admit that as someone who grew up in West Germany, I don’t think I can grasp what this all might mean for East Germans: Every time I had a longer discussion with someone born in East Germany I noticed the signs of a confusing, very deep loss. I was talking with people who, for example, had decided to work in astronomy because trying to become a physics professor would have involved having to become a party member (apparently, astronomy was deemed sufficiently bizarre for the Communists not to bother), people who have little (if any) sympathy for East Germany’s former Communist party.

The consequences of East Germany disappearing, of most of its institutions becoming dismantled without any kind of debate or process around it, are becoming ever more apparent in Germany now: There is a political party “Die Linke”, which originally emerged from the East German Communist Party (which never properly dealt with its past), and which now has come to attract many people disillusioned with, for example, how Germany reacted to the latest economic crisis. Just a few weeks ago, its share of the national vote was 11.9%, edging out the well-established (and formerly West German only) Green Party.

The German language is noun-based so if Germans want to express a concept, they create a noun. So now we have “Ostalgie” - nostalgia for the East (the German word for nostalgia - Nostalgie - contains the German word for East - Ost). Unlike many other people, I find it hard to dismiss Ostalgie across the board. Of course, it completely escapes me how one could long for the kind of Communist dictatorship East Germany had. On the other side, I can easily see how people long for a society where there was more trust between people (simply because you really had to know where to place your trust to be able to find like-minded people - remember, the Stasi was everywhere, trying to catch those who would deviate from Communist orthodoxy). I think the fact that “Die Linke” still is so strong in East Germany is because politicians dismiss “Ostalgie” instead of engaging with the topic. As a friend - a highly educated architect - told me “Not everything was bad in East Germany”.

Ostzeit: Stories from a Vanished Country might thus come at the right, or at least a good time. Ostzeit contains photography by five East German photographers, who later went on to form Ostkreuz, a photography agency (they just started their own blog, btw). Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with some of Harald Hauswald’s work. Ostzeit presents how Hauswald and his four colleagues saw East Germany. There are photos of dissidents meeting, and there are photos of Communist parades. There are fashion photographs. In total, about a dozen different photographic stories are told, seen through the cameras of those five photographers, and it is up to the reader to decide how to react.

Having witnessed Germany’s refusal to deal with its East German past since “re-unification” (I’m talking about what I outlined above and not about bringing soldiers shooting at refugees to court), Ostzeit hopefully might trigger some long overdue discussions, some debates that move beyond simple accusations of people just longing for communism. Reality is much more complicated than that, and while people who did not grow up in East Germany might have a hard time comprehending “Ostalgie” (or whatever you might want to call it) leaving it to be dealt with by a bunch of shady, opportunistic politicians from “Die Linke” is the worst solution of all.