Ostalgie and Westalgie in a United Berlin
November will mark 28 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Cranes fill the sky above a city that is moving away from being a place of division on the periphery of Europe, once synonymous with the Cold War. Instead, Berlin is now being called the de facto capital of the EU. The physical evidence that for 28 years Berlin was a city separated by a concrete barrier has largely disappeared. The contrast between how life in Berlin used to be, and how it is currently, is getting starker.
Berlin’s rapid change since unification means that it is a city full of nostalgia. And it’s not just the local Berliners who experience nostalgia. Rather, the fact that this city evolved in such a unique way fuels a general fascination for the past. Expats and visitors alike long for insight into how things were different when East and West Germany still coexisted.
Some have recognised the allure of the past and profited from it. Nostalgia has been commodified at the DDR Museum and the Trabi Museum, where the now antiquated eccentricities of East Berlin are fetishised to help satisfy curious visitors. Similarly, the Ostel Hostel proudly offers guests the opportunity to take a journey back in time to the seventies and eighties.
Even those outside Berlin seem to have a wistful affection for how things were in the city pre-1989. Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin, a film that provided insight into how life in Berlin was different before the Wall fell, stumbled into unexpected international success upon its release in 2003. Its sentimental presentation of life in East Berlin is now perhaps the best known example of Ostalgie, a term coined to describe a longing for aspects of East German life.
The commodification of this East German life in Berlin, and its popularity in the media, suggests that nostalgia in the city is firmly orientated around Ostalgie. What attracts less discussion is how life was different in West Berlin before the two countries were unified, despite the fact that it was West Berlin that was enclosed by the Wall for 28 years. Its enclosure gave the area a unique international significance: the political enclave became the western world’s defended island of freedom.
In his book Nostalgia East and West, Roger Cook claims that Westalgie is very much alive today among residents of old West Berlin, arguing that a stubborn anti-modernist tendency towards isolation is a key component of the German identity, post-unification. He adds that taking a nostalgic look back at the past helps people from both East and West Berlin gloss over the lack of social unity of unified Germany.
Tomas Spohn and Constantin Tretter are two Berliners who live in the capital as contemporary Germans in the unified Republic, but who also grew up as West Berliners before the Wall fell. When I contacted them to gain more insight into their life in West Berlin, they suggested meeting at the remains of Blub Berlin - an old abandoned leisure centre in Neukolln that became popular before unification, declined during the 90s and eventually closed down completely. There is a palpable nostalgia for brighter times in the air around the derelict site.
“West Berlin was a very special space, and this pool is a nostalgic place for me”, explained Constantin. “Visiting West Germany felt like visiting a different country. I remember asking my parents if we needed to exchange currency. I felt like we were too far east to be part of Europe”.
Tomas told me about the unique ID cards that were issued only to West Berliners. “I never had the sense that West Berlin was part of Germany. For me, it felt like West Berlin and West Germany. All we shared was the language. In hindsight, it feels special to have grown up on an island.”
When asked about the Wall, Tomas said “I could see it from where we lived in Kreuzberg because it was fairly close. We were surrounded and it was just there. Now it feels almost romantic that it was ever once there. "Thinking about the Wall triggers a kind of nostalgia for the past and the way West Berlin felt special."
Constantin agreed that talking about the Wall triggered a kind of nostalgia in him. “I remember what a mess it used to be to leave Berlin back then! Flights were expensive, and cars had to queue. Now, we’re a part of Europe and it’s so easy to move around. I feel a kind of nostalgia when I leave the city because it reminds me how slow it used to be to get in and out when the Wall was there.”
Their shared sentimentality for life in divided Germany behind the Wall prompted me to ask about Westalgie, and its existence relative to Ostalgie. Both Tomas and Constantin agreed that Ostalgie is certainly the stronger phenomenon in contemporary Berlin, despite also agreeing that the spirit of West Berlin had changed remarkably since the fall of the Wall.
Ostalgie vs. Westalgie
“I am definitely nostalgic about the past but I wouldn’t call it ‘Westalgie’," said Tomas as we walked around the rubble of Blub. “Everything is West Berlin is still here. A few buildings have gone up and a few down, but Kreuzberg still looks the same as when I was seven. I don’t feel much of a difference from when the Wall came down.
Constantin agreed. “I do believe that Ostalgie exists and a lot of East Germans felt that way because certain things went away after unification. Not only did they lose their favourite chocolate and TV shows in the 90s. Many lost their jobs and everything they believed in. There was a sense of longing. West Berliners don't feel like that because nothing really went away for us.”
Their reactions perfectly explain the differences between Ostalgie and Westalgie. Despite the physical upheaval West Berlin experienced after its encompassing Wall was torn down, neither Tomas nor Constantin felt that the social fabric of West Berlin had changed so much. They share a fondness for the past, but don’t feel that much has been lost apart from the Wall itself.
The developments of the early 90s echo their story. Despite the fact that unification was supposed to be a coming together of East and West, the landslide victory of the old West German Chancellor Helmot Kohl in the first election of unified Germany in 1990 left Berliners and Germans alike with the feeling that the spirit and mentality of the West had prevailed over that of the East.
West Germany’s Deutsche Mark was also retained, and the appointment of the Europhile Kohl ensured that unified Germany was firmly pro-Europe. East Germany was rapidly integrated into the EU, and soon after the neighbouring states of the Czech Republic and Poland followed suit, leaving East Germany no longer on the edge of Europe. The mass migration of West Berliners into the cheap and newly discovered East Berlin also perpetuated the sense that a kind of Western colonisation was taking place in the capital.
“West Berliners didn't hope for a better life after unification. My mother was just excited because more European integration meant more safety” explained Tomas. In comparison, unification was seen as a catalyst for real improvement in the East, and the determination of the East German people to achieve this was shown by the Monday Demonstrations of 1989.
Twenty years later, a poll found that more than 50% of the East German population felt life was actually better before unification. Perhaps it was the great sense of anticipation in the East that things would get better after unification and European integration (and Germany’s subsequent shortcomings in achieving this) that makes feelings of Ostalgie so strong.
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