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Ostalgie - a part of a new East German identity?

Seminararbeit 2003 13 Seiten

Ethnologie / Volkskunde



1 Introduction

2 East German identity and the phenomenon of Ostalgie after reunification
2.1 Ostalgie – its meaning and forms of expression
2.2 Reasons for the emphasis on a distinct East German identity after 1989/90
2.3 The purpose of Ostalgie

3 East German consciousness – cyclical trend or long-term element?

4 Conclusion


1 Introduction

After being divided for more than 40 years, two peoples with a common ethnic identity (sharing the same language, large parts of their history and other common features) became one nation again in the course of Germany’s reunification in 1990. One of the most striking facts about this process was its asymmetry, which not only manifested itself in the transference of the entire West German constitution but also in all the spheres of social life in which East Germans were expected to adjust themselves to the new conditions. While everyday life remained unchanged in the West, East Germans changed or lost their jobs and positions, paid higher wages to new renters, elected different parties, bought consumer goods which were unobtainable until then, and so on. After all, it was they who wanted to get rid of the chains forced on them by the communist regime, they who first shouted “Wir sind das Volk!” and later “Wir sind ein Volk!” and who had aspired this reunification, striving to enjoy the same putative freedom and prosperity as their Western neighbours. The unification process was initially accompanied by a wave of optimism which bordered on euphoria. It seems all the more surprising, then, that only a few years after the dream of “ein Volk” was fulfilled, the eastern part of that unified people began to search for a distinct identity, which partly expresses itself in Ostalgie - the revival of products and symbols of the GDR which could at first not be buried quickly enough. In order to understand ostalgic practices it is necessary to look at the specific east German situation after reunification, which was not only characterized by the liberating and enriching changes which usually appear in the media and official discourse, but also by experiences of rupture and losses in everyday life.

What is the meaning and purpose of Ostalgie, why did people begin to emphasise their distinct eastern Identity (Ostidentität) and why did it emerge in the first place? Is it a long-term element caused by the communist social doctrine, i.e. a form of nostalgia and GDR transfiguration, or an after-effect of the asymmetric transformation, i.e. an act of defiance and the result of disappointment? The following essay will try to answer these questions and support the hypothesis that it is neither nor.

2 East German identity and the phenomenon of Ostalgie after Reunification

2.1 Ostalgie – its meaning and forms of expression

East Germans and their special identity became a focus on both the intellectual and academic level and among the East German community itself. Its manifestation at the first level is mainly comprised of professional intellectual research and debates about the values and heritage of the GDR. It also manifests itself in numerous surveys, exhibitions and empirical studies of social scientists and opinion researchers. Although Ostidentität is not a monolithic construct and needs to be differentiated according to criteria such as age, social position, political affiliation and gender, the wide gap between easterners (Ossis) and westerners (Wessis) as regards perceptions of unification, interpretations of the past and mutual stereotyping justify the use of the term in the singular. East Germans as a community only began to identify themselves as such a few years after reunification. This did not merely spring up from forty years of separation during which different opinions formed on a number of issues related to all spheres of everyday life, politics and economics. Eastern identity is comprised of a series of shared values, experiences and common traditions of the GDR past, but also a feeling of segregation – even estrangement – from the dominant culture of West Germany. Today, East German reflections of the common history appear in different ways of thinking and social behaviour and in material form. It is on this non-academic level of everyday life where “Ostalgie” comes in.

The notion of Ostalgie is not a theoretically defined concept in the social scientific discourse. However, soon after its creation[1] it quickly became the word of the day in the everyday language of mass media and society. The reason why this term has survived for so long is because on the one hand, it was able to identify certain newly emerging and still observable phenomena among East Germans, while it was on the other hand totally unspecified analytically. Ostalgie suggests a mixture of “East” and “nostalgia”. Most westerners tend to associate the first part of the word, “East”, with negative images, such as backwardness, oppression and laziness. The second part, “Nostalgia”, is usually defined as a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition ( Some scholars suggest that OstaIgie excludes this real, transfiguring nostalgia (Ahbe 2001: 787). However, a certain amount of nostalgia must surely be one reason why, for example, some purely symbolic products such as card games picturing former GDR packagings have become so popular among many East Germans. I would, however, agree that Ostalgie is in many respects a rather lay and unreflected effort to (re)acquire GDR past that often includes an ironic touch (ibid).

These days, two particular phenomena can especially illustrate the appearance of Ostalgie in public: the revival of East German products and the cult of Ostalgie - parties. East Germans are deliberately buying Eastern products again. According to an empirical poll from 1999, these goods constituted 35 percent of the market base of East Germans. 71 percent of the interviewees declared that they were deliberately buying “their” Eastern products (Gaumann 2001: 764). Aside from products like groceries and drugs and cosmetics whose preferred consumption could also be explained by different tastes and habits, considerable sales are also made with a number of products, which almost exclusively satisfy ostalgic or nostalgic wants. These include certain books, cassettes and videotapes, parlour games (such as the card game mentioned above), cult- and design products. Some of them have the sole purpose of keeping certain symbols, brands and signs of the GDR[2].

The second phenomenon, the celebration of “Ossi-Parties”, is an occasion where people turn back time, and symbols of the perished state, such as the flag and FDJ[3] -shirts, background music in form of the GRD national anthem or the voice of Erich Honecker on tape enjoy great popularity.

Besides these two, there are a number of other appearances which indicate some kind of distinct East German consciousness: there are, inter alia, films (e.g. “Sonnenallee”, “Berlin is in Germany”, “Goodbye Lenin”), ironic books and cartoons, and a wide internet community[4] promoting Eastern products (such as the kind of t-shirt on the cover of this essay) and providing information about many aspects of life in the GDR. Even though it is often misunderstood or condemned as ingratitude by westerners, Ostalgie is part of a distinct East German identity for whose post-reunification emphasis several reasons exist.

2.2 Reasons for the emphasis on a distinct East German identity after 1989/90

Ostalgie and the emphasis on a distinct East German identity (Ostidentität) are neither pure nostalgia nor a desperate attempt at trying to distinguish oneself from “them”-meaning the West Germans. When the slogan “Wir sind das Volk” changed into “Wir sind ein Volk” at the turn of the year 1989/90, people were driven by several motives (internal ones having to do with the disappointment and anger about the communist regime, and external ones, mainly in form of Western temptations) and they had different aspirations in mind. Few of them, however, had any idea how deeply attached they were to the socialist pattern they were voting out, and how quickly and extensively the culture of the GDR would be depreciated by the West and disappear. Despite the fact that parts of this farewell were desired, necessary or at least seen as inevitable, it does remain a far-reaching and radical severance, which happened quickly and without any prior time of inner preparation.


[1] By the East German cabaret artiste Uwe Steimle.

[2] A large variety of such products is offered by .

[3] FDJ stands for Freie Deutsche Jugend – Free German Youth (an organization for teenagers and students).

[4] See for example or .


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
496 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Europa-Universität Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder)
Ostalgie East German Seminar Soziale Bewegungen-Institutionen-Kulturelle Orientierungen



Titel: Ostalgie - a part of a new East German identity?