Cookies, candy, and cheap shoes are cool reminders of a lost homeland. There are also memorials to its more brutal realities, none more effective than the Stasi Museum, named for East Germany’s infamous secret police and housed in the force’s former headquarters on Berlin’s Normanenstrasse. Spy cameras, including some that were planted in watering cans, are exhibited here. There’s a boot with a retractable knife in the toe. Most sinister are the “smell jars.” Whenever possible, the Stasi got your scent on a piece of cloth and stored it in a jar. If you tried to escape to the West, their dogs were given the cloth to sniff. Some of these dogs had no vocal cords; the Stasi removed them so the animals could attack you before you heard them coming. The spying was pervasive. In East Germany, one in three or four citizens was in some way involved. Children were encouraged to report on parents, teachers on students, friends on friends.
Ostalgie is, in the end, ambivalent in all its incarnations. Last fall, Katarina Witt, the East German Olympic figure-skating star, appeared on TV for several weeks in her own series, GDR. The show was a curious mix: partly no-holds-barred documentary footage of GDR history, partly a celebration of East German pop culture. On the air, Witt wore a tight top sporting the logo LOVE THE GERMAN DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC.
I can’t help thinking, What if this longing were for the 1930’s and early 1940’s?What if people were buying up outfits worn not by Young Pioneers but by Hitler Youth?What part of history is it acceptable to preserve, remember, cherish?When do the icons of a brutal regime become amusing souvenirs?
Ostalgie raises questions much bigger than a jar of pickles.
REGGIE NADELSON is the author of Somebody Else and a columnist for How to Spend It, the Financial Times magazine.