Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Once Upon A Time

Today, partially goaded by a blitz of recent postering, I headed to Berlin's brand-new DDR Museum, located in a truly odd underground bunker beneath the Radisson SAS Hotel on Karl-Liebknecht Str., with a branch of the Spree River separating it from the Berliner Dom. It's a brand-new, wired kind of bunker, though, with a flat-screen displaying the museum's logo to catch the eye of anyone who might be walking alongside the Spree in the rain these days. (A noodle restaurant a little further along had tables set for about 150 people and was completely empty).

It's an odd place. To call the lighting "muted" would be an understatement. It's not quite gloomy, but it sort of forces the eyes towards the exhibits, not all of which are on eye-level. Some of its displays aren't very intuitive, either: I walked in and saw a very good model of the Berlin Wall, with all of its between-the-wall barriers and security devices, and wanted to know more. It wasn't until I'd spent some time in the museum that I noted that these bars fixed onto the wall with captions on them were actually handles for various drawers and cabinets which contained exhibits, so I had to head back and check the one by the Wall model. It's a good way to conserve space, but it can also block aisles and cause congestion.

But what's even odder is that it doesn't really seem to take a stand on the DDR -- which I admire. (For you Americans, DDR stands for Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the name given to the East German nation. The museum has it as GDR, German Democratic Republic, in the captions, but I've always preferred the German abbreviation). It may be a bit naive to assert, as they do, that "the DDR never knew misery and poverty," since that sure wasn't the case if you lived outside a handful of cities which were kept (relatively) well-provisioned by the central government, but they give equal treatment to the upside and the downside. There's a Stasi secret-police listening-post in an obscure corner as well as an exquisitely fitted-out model apartment, its TV showing a nice sample-reel of DDR TV shows, and all of its cabinets and drawers filled with artifacts and consumer goods. One wall of the kitchen has some great old DDR cartoons dealing with women's place in the daily life of the country, and the bookshop has a DDR cookbook for the very brave. There's also a couple of exhibits about resistance to the regime, from the rather apolitical punks to the "environmental" magazine (really part of a nationwide movement centered in Leipzig) that was secretly printed in the basement of the Zionist movement's office. The sports section has a drawer which opens to show one box of anabolic steroids, the killer drug which the nation's sports officials used to try to bring their athletes to Olympic glory, but backfired into cancers and weird gender-altering problems.

One particularly educational exhibit is a Trabant automobile, which you can wedge yourself into if you're so inclined, with an unsentimental account of the problems of ownership (mechanics were apt to ask, if you brought yours in, whether you'd brought the parts; they were apparently very difficult to obtain). There's also an unusually large part of the museum given over to the FKK (nude beach) movement. Was the DDR really so big on nudism?

All in all, it's an odd thing to see this impeccably preserved collection of artifacts so lovingly assembled, and then to step outside, gaze slightly to your left, and see the skeleton of the soon-to-vanish Palast der Republik, the DDR's main administrative building, in its last throes of demolition. And to walk back home, musing on the things you didn't see: the DDR and foreigners, the DDR and minority groups (including Jews), the DDR army... In some ways it's a counterweight to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. In others, it's yet another odd statement of the Burden of History.


Unknown said...

Ed, your comments have made me decide to return to the museum and give it a closer look. The first time I went, I remember waiting in line while surrounded by a bunch of laughing (obviously West) Germans. It brought back the same feeling that I had at the Holocaust Museum in DC about 10 years ago, when an old lady in the crowd said, "At least they burned the right books."...a feeling of callous "triumphalism," if I can call it that. But your comments make me want to go back and see if the museum is really so "lovingly" put together. Thanks.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the review... the place opened since my last visit and it's on my short list for a stop during my next one.

Given that over the years I've heard enough gripes about the ideological bias of other berlin (history) museums notably Checkpoint Charlie & Karlhorst maybe the ambivelence will be refreshing.

I too prefer DDR over GDR

Anonymous said...

oh yes the DDR museum is a delight and not only to a german history obsessed auslaender such as myself. when i was there shortly after it opened i enjoyed it in the company of many former Ossis. Particularly evocative for many was the simulated Plattenbau apartment. Much oooing and aahing over many of the furnishing and products. at lot of 'we had one just like that!' and so forth. conversations were struck up between strangers and there was an oddly warm and cozy familiarity among the assembled museum goers. (Did you pick up the telephone in the apartment Ed? Erich Hoenecker was on the line for you!). and FKK was a big thing in the DDR - and one can easily understand its importance to a 'classless' society when one thinks of today's brand obsessed consumerists. in fact the pictures i took of the FKK diorama are my most popular at Flickr
(what that means I am afraid to ask).

Ed Ward said...

Oh, so that's who that was on the telephone! I should have figured it out: it was red, after all.

Josh, your comment is very interesting; I still know lots of Wessis who can't stop denigrating life in the DDR. Yeah, it wasn't as luxurious as theirs, but if nothing else, the surveillance society made bonds between people who trusted each other stronger and more genuine, which I think is something a lot of people in the West missed out on.

And the experience of visiting a museum can really vary depending on the other visitors. Mine were all French high-schoolers, and it was very enlightening watching and listening to their reactions.

Anonymous said...

i was once in a turkish bath in istanbul with a cadre of french high school travelling companion (who is a little light in the loafers if you know what i mean) was quite taken. but they were all rushed out again when one of them got a bloody nose at the hands (and what large masculine hands they were!) of an over enthusiastic turkish masseur

Ben said...

I've been wanting to visit the DDR Museum ever since it opened earlier this year. Guess I'm gonna have to double-time it now. Thanks for the tour, Genosse.

Olaf said...

I visited the DDR Museum this past summer a couple weeks after it opened, and while I loved learning about the Trabi (actually quite a clever use of materials), and sitting in the listening post hearing conversations in the living room (ah! shades of my youth), what really got me was how much the museum humanized East Germans. Remember that they were cast as some real devils of the Commie world.

But looking at that apartment and seeing their nudist recreation and looking at polyester dresses and hip (but not edgy!) shoes, I was struck by the pleasant ordinariness. People are people, and whatever the ideology or material level, they still have the same desires, value much the same things, and just want to get along with maybe a little more happiness than sorrow. The DDR Museum was a high point of the most recent trip.

Olaf said...

Oh! I forgot--also, if ever in Leipzig, be sure to visit the little Stasi Museum. It's quite a treat. My wife's cousin and her husband--born and raised in East Berlin--were with us, and their commentary was fascinating. One thing that they laughed about was the horrible boring nature of most surveillance. They actually expressed sympathy for the tedium of writing reports that informers had to endure.

Ed Ward said...

The place you want to visit in Leipzig is the almost unpronounceable Zeitgeschictliches Forum Leipzig. It's right there on the main street of the inner city, Grimmaische Str., next door to the M├Ądlerpassage. It grew out of an exhibition I saw in 1994 in the now-demolished tourist center in the main market square, and it deals with opposition in the DDR and the various movements to bring the government down, which, of course, culminated with the Montagsdemos at the Nikolaikirche and the march on the Runde Ecke, the Stasi headquarters. I've never seen history so well presented, and the only down side is that, for non-German speakers, they give you a loose-leaf binder with a bunch of translations in it. Given how informative and contrary to the way the American media, anyway, has presented the story it is, this is a major shortcoming; I once guided some random American tourists I ran into who were visiting friends in Leipzig (who didn't speak very good English when it came to this stuff) around the thing, and the three-way dialog between me, the Americans, and the Leipzigers was very cool indeed. The place is free, too, and it's just about worth the trip to Leipzig all in itself.