Berlin: Ost-Block

Posted on December 19, 2006

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by michael scott moore

In Faust’s Metropolis, Alexandra Richie’s fat history of Berlin, there’s a quote from Communist officialdom on the occasion of Bruce Springsteen’s debut in East Germany, with a little album called Born in the USA:

[this] does not represent the importation of bourgeois ideology — neither does it mean that the fans of Bruce Springsteen in the GDR would prefer to have been born in the USA, as the lyrics of the title might suggest. Nor does this mean that we regard Bruce Springsteen as an advocate of Socialist ideology. And least of all should it be seen as an indication of a pragmatic surrender of socialist views.

Priceless. I remember Reagan misinterpreting those lyrics, too.

I’m a big fan of Faust’s Metropolis, but the section on East Berlin sucks. Richie spent time here during the ’80s, so she has no excuse for her one-note description of the place as “dreary and uninspiring.” No doubt it was, but there’s no need to go on about it like a scold. If you want a tour-de-force demonstration of how many changes a historian can ring on the sentence “virtually everything about life in East Berlin was cheap and second rate” (p. 757), read this part of the book. After a while it sounds like she has anti-Communist credentials to prove. She’s so busy holding her nose that you learn almost nothing about the flavor of life in the East.

And here’s a line I think is flat wrong: “Although East Germans had the highest GDP per head in the eastern bloc the people measured their success not against Albania but against images of West Germany projected into their homes every night via western radio and television.” My sense is that East Germans did both: They knew the West was rich, but they also measured their success against Czechs and Poles and Kazakhs and even Russians. For a Communist state, East Germany did pretty well — you can see that, even now, by going to run-down Prague. It wouldn’t kill Richie (or other historians) to explore life under Communism from the mindset of ordinary people, away from the glare of Moscow and Washington. The Cold War’s over, after all, and we all know who won.

For a good portrait of everyday lives in East Germany I suggest the film Jahrgang 45 (“Born in ’45”), by Juergen Boettcher, about marriage among young postwar Berliners. It shows 1960s Prenzlauer Berg in a state of quiet disrepair. In spite of itself it’s beautiful — the Soviets basically took a shattered city and sealed it off, which gave life in the East an eerie, inert sense of floating in time. Boettcher captures it just by turning his camera on.

Posted in: berlin