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An East German Writer Deplores GDR Nostalgia (2003)

East German writer Thomas Brussig criticizes German television networks for trying to boost their ratings with “Ostalgie shows.” Instead, he argues, networks should make a real contribution to inner unity by recognizing East German achievements in their regular programming.

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German Unity, a Mess

Saying goodbye to the GDR is OK. But the Ostalgie shows are a full-blown abomination.

A street poll in Potsdam on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the unification of the two German phone networks on July 1, 1992. One man, a blue-collar type, says that he had already gotten his phone during the GDR – six weeks after he had applied for it. Excuse me??? It’s true, says the man, and adds: “Not everything was bad.”

July 1, 2002, was a historic day, a milestone, an endpoint of Ostalgie* : If the GDR phone network, of all things, wasn’t even bad (out of every 1,000 inhabitants, 27 had phones), then what was? Not even this kind of statement will remain: “Full employment was certainly all right, but that thing with the phone network was really annoying.”

Ostalgie existed before television discovered it. The Dresden cabaret artist Uwe Steimle coined the term more than ten years ago, and the mood it describes has been virulent for at least as long. To explain the boom in Ostalgie shows, you have to understand how television people think. They see that the movie “Goodbye, Lein!” was a huge box office hit, and they jealously think: “Oh, we’d like to have six million viewers, too.” And then they use the methods of television to create what they think they saw in “Goodbye, Lenin!” First and foremost, they overlook the fact that this movie did not insult our taste. And the success of this film – my theory – results from the fact that it did something that no one did in 1990: it bade farewell to the GDR. The GDR was laid to rest with dignity. Then a handful of sand on top and the “Sandman Song.” Closing credits.

My Nausea is Here and Now

The GDR shows are digging the casket up again. When Dagmar Frederic** shows up on the screen with one of her song-and-dance numbers, it has nothing to do with nostalgia: my nausea is here and now. Part of nostalgia is that it is gone, over with, vanished, done with. But Dagmar Frederic is still East German television today, even if she has more wrinkles and is a little heavier around the hips than she was back then.

Am I being unfair? No way: “Do you know who my biggest fans are?” she asked the woman interviewing her as a test question. “It’s women. There are never fights or fits of jealousy on my account – my skirt always covers my knees!” That’s why Dagmar Frederic is East German television: only GDR television could produce a moderator who boasts of her unattractiveness. Still, her answer is truthful, in two ways, no less: I (male) do not count myself as one of her fans, and fights never break out on her account: we change the channel in harmonious agreement.

Except recently. ZDF*** was airing one of these nostalgia shows, and because I figured that every newspaper/radio station/TV station would be calling me for pertinent comments regardless, I wanted to prepare myself. But I hardly saw anything, because I had to constantly flee the living room. And I always returned believing that the worst was over – only to flee again in short order.

These nostalgia shows are not only a full-blown abomination, they are also a misconception. Would you like an explanation? Gladly. Almost everyone – this is my theory – has feelings of nostalgia. Everyone knows that things used to be better, and Grandpa even thought that World War I was terrific. People are simply made that way, and that includes people from the East, as well. Remembrances – this is my theory – are an organ of the soul, just like the stomach is an organ of digestion: remembrances process what was experienced in such a way that we can create a “meaningful life” or a “life story.” Remembrances are not interested in how things “really” were. They deceive, cheat, flatter, suppress, omit. As a rule, they secretly want to help us be happy.

* Ostalgie: Nostalgia for East Germany, a play on the German words Nostalgie (nostalgia) and Ost (East) – eds.
** Dagmar Frederic (born 1945), a singer, dancer, and entertainer, was also a famous television host during the GDR – eds.
*** ZDF: “Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen,” i.e., “Second German Television,” a public television channel based in Mainz.

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