Berlin Days: Ostalgie for the days when they'd never had it so good

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The Independent Online
There are no drinks to be had at Berlin's "Culture Brewery" because the vending machine is bust, yet visitors are flocking to it in their thousands. Capitalism has sprouted an artistic oasis under the roof of the disused beer factory, creating distraction of a different kind for the denizens of the grungy neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg.

The venue is in the East, so what better way to quench the Ossies' thirst for the material side of life than an exhibition on consumerism? Berlin's Humboldt University and the City Museum have put on a a fashion show of the Sixties, displaying clothes as well as household appliances and advertising posters from the era.

Its title - "Miracle Economy" - might be perceived to be a touch unoriginal, except that the "miracle" celebrated by these artefacts occurred on the wrong side of the Wall. All the florid blouses, plywood kitchen cabinets and washing machines with a self-destruct programme were produced by the German Democratic Republic.

There was a brief moment in history when the Russians were beating the Americans in space, and East German industry struggled to keep up with the West in the race to the customer's heart. It was a time when Trabis did not look all that inferior to Minis, when people everywhere spent their holidays in tents, and toy factories on both sides of the Iron Curtain churned out tin robots by the million.

"Modern people buy modern things," proclaims a contemporary advertising poster. Above the caption an elegantly dressed socialist Hausfrau stuffs her trolley full of jars of pickle. Only a closer inspection reveals that the choice on the shelves is limited to four varieties.

How the great leap forward failed becomes apparent after a quick tour. The goods did not evolve, the syrupy pop songs filling the hall remained the same. Frau K, who donated one of the blouses to the exhibition, bought her precious item of clothing in 1960 for a holiday in Romania. She was still wearing it in the Seventies, presumably because she could find nothing better in the shops 10 years later.

It is all rather depressing, but evidently not to the East Germans making a beeline for memory lane. Since the exhibiton opened in August, about 300 people have crammed into the two small rooms every day, and more than 1,000 at weekends. The visitors' book teems with ecstatic comment, thanking the organisers for reminding them of a piece of their history. If anything, the locals view the show with some pride.

"The Wessies who come here are astonished," says the doorman at the entrance to the museum. "They thought we had nothing. But look around you."

"Not everything was bad in the GDR," he says. "Then we didn't have unemployment, homelessness or soup kitchens."

They didn't have a lot of other things, either, but that does not stop some citizens of the New Lander hankering for the past. When they are not feasting their eyes on the achievements of socialist industry, many Ossies relax with a bottle of East German vodka, or re-enact yesteryear in other ways. There are discos in Berlin where customers entertain themselves by bopping in front of pictures of Honecker's Politburo to the beat of Eastern rock.

Some smart Wessi sociologist has coined the term "Ostalgie" - an acronym for "East-Nostalgia" - to describe this growing phenomenon. Its strongest expression is the enduring popularity of the barely reconstructed Communists, the Party of Democratic Socialism. Across the Former East Germany, the PDS gets about a third of the votes.

One would expect that in consumerism, at least, the supremacy of the Free World would be assured. Yet brand loyalties of old linger. East Germany's most visible symbol of affluence - whose value, according to the old joke, could be doubled by filling it with petrol - is making a comeback. From next year, Ossis will be able to trade in their second- hand Golfs for the Son of Trabant, to be built by the factory which used to produce the infamous paper cars

Where the fad will end, no one can tell. But meanwhile, those lacking the resources needed to wallow in old world charm must make do with the show at the brewery. Due to overwhelming demand, the exhibition has been extended by a month. Entrance to the museum is free - just like in the good old days.