Parking a Trabant (aka ‘Trabi’ in Berlin) in front of Starbucks or sleeping in a socialist hotel in the heart of a democratic country is probably impossible on your side of the planet.
The owners of Ostel, a Berlin hotel reminiscent of the socialist era, could have never imagined that the guests would start stealing the portraits of Erik Honecker which hung in each room. The former leader of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) himself would have trouble believing that his value in capitalist Berlin is equivalent to that of a Hilton bathrobe. But in the capital of paradoxes, Ostel (Ost is German for East) is not only admired, it’s usually fully booked.
More than two decades after the fall of the Wall, the GDR has become a trademark in Berlin. And, as everyone knows, in an “evil” and “exploitative” capitalist system, competing brands sell, and sell, and sell. Consumers – aka tourists – buy the often distorted image of socialism with the same ardor East Germans would have killed for a kilo of bananas in the 1980s.
The already famous hotel in East Berlin is certainly not the only (n)ostalgic good available for purchase in the city. Add a Trabant safari to the Stasi Suite you’ve just booked and the fun will be complete. Almost.
Collecting grey nothings
Treasures from the past can be found all over the city. And I’m not talking here about the Pergamon from Ancient Greece or the Nefertiti’s bust. I’m referring to a much less glamorous era. No matter how grey and drab, GDR fashion, furniture, food, shops, cars and souvenirs are everywhere.
And sometimes the more useless they are, the more expensive. A friend of mine was very proud when, after years of tirelessly scouring Berlin’s flea markets, she finally found (for an outrageous sum) a hairdresser’s chair from GDR times. What for? Well, I’m still not sure – but who cares? It’s an object from the GDR and one day she will probably leave it to her descendants in her will.
Flea markets, by the way, are one of Berliners’ favorite destinations for weekend mornings. And admittedly quite a journey that starts with antique pieces and unusual jewelry and ends with empty boxes of East German detergent, posters, music and even shirts and shoes from the past. In those times, a pair of imperialist jeans, sent by auntie on the other side of the border, was received like something from an exotic island.
Nowadays, it’s just as exotic for those thousands of tourists who pay a few euros to get a GDR border stamp on their passports at Checkpoint Charlie. All the money in the world wouldn’t have been enough to get you across this main border point on the Berlin Wall during the Cold War.
Cold or warm, the Russian fur hats along with former military uniforms and decorations are constantly in high demand at all the top sightseeing spots in Berlin. Street salesmen trade them for unbelievable prices. Does anyone really wear them? I doubt it, but that’s not the point. They have something to do with the GDR.
For those who need a little bit of serious East Berlin history, there are plenty of museums, memorials and even – quite nice during the summer – bike rides along the former Wall.
And if you haven’t grabbed Honecker’s portrait off your hotel wall yet, you can buy a piece of the Berlin Wall in any souvenir shop. If you put all the pieces together, you’d probably have a wall long enough to span the globe.
GDR mania isn’t showing any signs of letting up in Berlin. Perhaps it’s a city far ahead of its time. It’s made up the most fabulous absurdity: a capitalism that successfully sells socialism. And that, my friends, you’ve certainly never heard of before.