Because I want this blog to be light-hearted and sort of ironic and sarcastic, let’s begin on a very happy subject: Communism and the authoritarian surveillance state.
Warning: I very rarely take any pictures because I hate looking like a tourist. I highly recommend you look up pictures on Google, since they’re of a higher quality than anything I could ever hope to get from a camera phone.
The Deutsche Demokratische Republik, or for those poor souls who don’t understand German, the German Democratic Republic, was founded in 1949 against the will of the Soviet-occupied zones of the former Third Reich. This is a fact you will hear every five seconds in this country and it is written on every sign wherever you go. Yet another fact you will hear every five seconds is that many people are very nostalgic for that forlorn country. The DDR Museum, located perhaps very appropriately in a basement on the Spree River, attempts to show how terrible the régime was in the background but how normal everyday life was. Life was bearable, as it was in the Soviet Union under Brezhnev, so long as one consciously avoided politics at all costs.
For those of you who have watched “Goodbye Lenin”, this museum is virtually walking onto the set of the movie. All the standard furniture is located in a mock apartment at the end of the tour. The rest of the museum is a germaphobe’s nightmare, as you must open multiple information-covered doors with your own grubby hands to learn about the objects behind said doors. And these doors are constantly being slammed shut by snot-nosed children from the Czech Republic and, worse, German high schools.
But anyway, what strikes one most about the museum’s content is the extent of the East German sense of humour. It is a well-known stereotype that Germans have no sense of humour or comedic timing, which perhaps makes them even funnier when they do crack even the slightest joke. And much of this humour was entirely unintended.
For example, the Trabant, or Trabi, was called the “Renner aus Plaste”, or “Plastic Racer”, because it was mostly made of plastic in order to keep production costs low. A century of German engineering was stifled entirely by this one car, which didn’t even have a petrol gauge, so that drivers had to guess when their tanks were near empty. The only analogy I can think of is that it was an expensive version of those little fake cars children drive on their lawns in summer and, just like the children, the Germans had to wait up to ten years after the initial request before they’d receive this Hot Wheels with a motor. Furthermore, the engine was a two-stroke which, apparently, is code for “very inefficient”. Some clever jokes are as follows: Q: “How do you double a Trabi’s value?” A: “Easy! Fill the tank!”; or, my personal favourite, Driver: “Hey, petrol station operator, could I get two windshield wipers for my Trabi?” Petrol guy: “Yeah, actually that sounds like a good deal!”
Similarly, one of the most common ways for East Germans to rebel against the established order was nude bathing. I didn’t see that coming either. Now that you know they rebelled in this way, it’s fairly obvious why: The established order demanded a certain established morality which this sort of freedom obviously contradicted. For an American, raised by prudes and only recently coming out of it, turning the corner in the museum to see fully nude family photographs was rather surprising, and I read the signs as quickly as possible to, on the one hand, show I was interested in the history, but on the other to show that I wasn’t louche and becoming aroused by a historical fact.
A very common toy in the DDR, and their response to Lego sets, was a system of building blocks that let you build communist block housing. I kid you not, this was a toy. Sometimes, when I studied this era, I would look at what I had just read and say to myself, “I would never have thought on my own that this existed, but now that I know it does, I am entirely unsurprised.” Such a moment occurred when I saw the set of Plaspi Großblock Baumeister. Absolutely hilarious.
Many of you won’t find this funny, but I was rather amused by it. Every country in the Warsaw Pact had its own main vehicular export, e.g. Hungary exported Icarus busses to the rest of the nations in the Pact. Czechoslovakia, the important country for the joke, exported tram cars. Just to give you a very very brief background, Czechoslovakia in 1968 was the site of an anti-Soviet revolution, which ended with Soviet invasion and the expulsion of Alexander Dubček (imagine Prince Charles but with an even worse nose), who had attempted to reform communism and render it less belligerently ideological. The tramcars from Czechoslovakia were, obviously, pretty terrible. This gained them the name “Dubčeks Rache”, or “Dubček’s Revenge” among the East Germans.
I don’t know. I laughed more loudly than was necessary.
For some reason, in one of the mock apartment bedrooms, a mirror that puts your face on clothes from the era. It’s either really funny or downright terrifying, depending on the angle you give it, and I’m not exactly sure what the impetus to install such a machine was.
One final thing about the DDR Museums funny surprises was the Lipsi. Since ballroom dancing, especially swing-related dances, were seen as far too Western, the Communist Party at some point commissioned the invention of a new, socialist ballroom dance called the Lipsi. It is by far the most white activity I have seen in my life, complete with fake socialist smiles and stilted music that avoids formalism. I would post a link from YouTube but I am afraid I must repress all memory of ever having seen it.
After this museum, I trekked over to the Stasi-Museum. The Stasi, short for Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, represented an expansive secret police force in East Germany. I thought this was common knowledge, but most of my American friends don’t seem to know what it was, so I had to clarify. East Germany boasted a population of approximately 16.000.000 people in 1989, and the Stasi comprised 91.000 workers and 100.000 informants. At least one per cent of the entire population were complicit or actively suppressing free thought in their nation and spying on their neighbours.
The Stasi were housed in a large complex of buildings near Magdalenestraße U-Bahn. The moment one walks out of the station, it is obvious one has stepped thirty years into the past. All the buidlings, more than forty of them, remain in their original location. The Museum is located in Haus I, which I think was shown at some point in Das Leben der Anderen. It’s a typical box-shaped building, and looks like communists built it.
The shocking thing about the museum is that the complex is the museum. All the secret records, made public during lustration in the 1990s, are housed in the complex. I have a terrible selfie of myself with a bust of Lenin in relief outside the Director’s office and personal chambers (a kind of silly side note is that the one of his four secretaries had to make him breakfast, and there was a certain organisation of the plates which was compulsory). The conference rooms, offices, and private quarters house the exhibits, and one instantly feels a visceral reaction to what occurred and what was decided in these rooms where, on the particular day I went, German and Australian high schoolers were now making loud jokes and taking selfies left and right.
Another, quite impressive, really, thing was the gadgetry. Remember the Plastic Racer? Because it was made of plastic, the Stasi could place infrared camera systems in the doors. Every time the door opened or closed, it would take a picture, a tactic which made surveillance by following entirely discreet. The infrared emitters were placed like this:
in a few rows, each O being about five inches in diameter.
Another interesting piece was the 120-degree camera in the form of a long stick no wider than a milimeter in diameter. This particular camera was used for the purpose of inspecting packages without opening them, by inserting the stick in any hole or seam of the tape. Every letter sent was inspected, and every package sent was probed. Letters with compromising material or Western sentiments was simply not forwarded.
At the DDR Museum, there was a reconstruction of a Stasi gaol cell with an interrogation room. I am unsure what came over me, or what exactly about the rooms so irked me. But having spent a full ten seconds in the gaol cell, I immediately wanted to confess to crimes I had never committed; and this is after I had had a full night’s sleep! It was such a powerful, fight-or-flight experience that drives one immediately to flight.
All in all, both museums were excellent and were very cheap, each costing €5 or less. Walking through Berlin, sometimes, it is difficult to fathom just how much has occurred in such a small area of earth, and that only about twenty-five years ago this city was split between two inimical nations, and that there was an enormous and heavily guarded wall splitting families and a people at arbitrary points. These museums in some way reconstitute the other side of the Wall, the side that disappeared, in a way I never thought a museum could.