Witt's nostalgia for Stasi days sparks fury
Saturday 30 August 2003
The Olympic skating champion Katarina Witt will bring to a climax a wave of Communist-era nostalgia sweeping Germany with a television show next week highlighting the bright side of life in a totalitarian state.
A batch of films, TV shows and series is cashing in on a wave of popular sentiment for the East German Communist era, and nearly all have avoided painful subjects such as the infamous Berlin Wall.
The programme's uncritical stance has angered those who suffered under Communism. Former dissidents who have studied East German Stasi secret police files say the shows are an insult to the more than 1,000 East Germans shot dead trying to escape to the West.
Walter Momper, Berlin's mayor during the fall of the Wall 14 years ago, has derided the programmes for making the former East German regime appear harmless. Erich Loest, an eastern German writer, said the producers of one nostalgia show should be sacked for their uncritical portrayal of a totalitarian era.
Günter Nooke, an eastern German conservative Christian Democrat politician, said: "What would be the reaction in Germany if television produced similar programmes about the Third Reich?"
Ms Witt, 37, who was among East Germany's great sporting heroines, will provoke more criticism next week when she appears on RTL television's GDR Show as the in-house expert on the former German Democratic Republic. Her show will kick off with shots of a socialist-made Trabant car spluttering across the screen, and footage of the former East German leader Erich Honecker waving at workers.
During the four-part series, she will interview former East German personalities but avoid politics.
"It is an entertainment show," Ms Witt said. "It is time to show we also had fun in the German Democratic Republic." To drive home the publicity message, the ice-queen sports a blue communist Free German Youth movement shirt.
The nostalgia or Ostalgie wave took off this year with the hit film Goodbye Lenin, which takes a satirical yet lighthearted look back at the former East Germany through the eyes of a teenager. It was followed by four nostalgia TV shows running concurrently.
The programmes have interviewed East Germany's first astronaut, discussed the problems of obtaining a car during Communism and praised East German cigarettes, sparkling wine and pickled gherkins. Even the questionable fun of being in East Germany's compulsory Free German Youth movement has been a topic. "Honni's happy world," is how Germany's Die Zeit newspaper described the phenomenon last week with a play on Erich Honecker's nickname.
German television has leapt to the defence of its Ostalgie output. Hans-Hermann Tiedje, the producer of a nostalgia programme on ZDF television, said: "Almost everything has been said about the totalitarian nature of East Germany, its indescribable Communist regime and its crazy secret police system. People want to remember how the East Germans coped with everyday life. It wasn't all bad. In fact, it was quite the opposite."
Ms Witt has her own reasons for not dwelling on politics. As a double Olympic gold medallist, she was East Germany's sporting icon and enjoyed numerous privileges. These included a red West German VW Golf and a passport enabling her to travel freely. She is widely suspected of having collaborated willingly with the Stasi. Once known as "Socialism's most beautiful face", Ms Witt now appears in advertisements for cosmetics and clothes. Two years ago, she posed nude for Playboy.
Eastern German intellectuals and politicians have vied to offer explanations for the Ostalgie boom. Stefan Liebich, an eastern German who is head of the reform Communist party for Democratic Socialism in Berlin, said: "Life in East Germany has been demonised and dramatised so much that the nostalgia wave appears an almost natural reaction."
Leander Haussmann, director of the Ostalgie film Sonnenalle, said: "The East German system was dreadful and I hated it. But people don't want to be permanently reminded of the bad things. When they die, they want to look back on a happy life. They look for the right life in what was essentially the wrong one."
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