How Consumerism Led to Nostalgia for Difficult Times in Post-Socialist East Germany
When the Berlin wall fell in 1989 after standing tall for 28 long years, it marked the beginning of the end for the German Democratic Republic, otherwise known as East Germany. For many, living in East Germany was not a happy existence. The state suffered from a poor initial economy following the destruction of the Second World War. It struggled to rebuild its architecture and transportation with a workforce that had been depleted by the deaths of countless soldiers, and the looming threat of the Cold War at the time was not easily forgotten. Yet after the reunification of Germany, in the 1990’s old consumer products from the since collapsed East Germany felt a surge in popularity, at times even outselling their supposedly new and improved western counterparts. This change in consumer habits wasn’t just caused by a sudden unanimous epiphany regarding the quality of the products; it was the result of cravings for discarded elements of socialist German society that had been lost in the relentless pursuit of economic growth, and serves as an excellent indicator of how the end of socialism brought about changes in the social lives of the German people.
The differences between socialist and post-socialist East Germany with regards to consumerism may be understood in two ways: through the changing process of consumption itself, and the shift of the goods that were available in either time period. Looking at the former to begin with, it is important to understand that shopping in the German Democratic Republic was not as streamlined a process as it is today. Queueing times were typical as the distribution of more essential goods was carefully managed, and it wasn’t uncommon for even basic items to be either out of stock or unevenly distributed in terms of variables such as clothing size (Dyke 2001). The unpredictability of both waiting times and available stock posed further problems for everyday shoppers, and the homogeneous nature of socialist consumer products made finding suitable replacements for whatever might be missing that day a near impossible task.
But although shopping for consumer goods was difficult in some ways, for the East Germans it also brought out a necessity for cooperation within their immediate community. People in East Germany would share news of sales and in demand goods with each other, and offer to hold places in the long queues for people they knew to make the whole process a little easier (Veenis 1999). With the limited availability of goods comes the lack of the capitalist pressure for the shopkeeper to adhere to the customer’s needs, and therefore the customer would be the one who was expected to make an effort to maintain good relationships with shop staff and fellow shoppers alike. All of these factors encouraged Germans to form positive relationships with each other for mutual benefit, and created memories of nostalgia for better times at a time where the economic outlook was in reality very bleak.
Moving on to the types of goods that were available in East Germany, it is clear that the various products available were designed to reflect the social and economic values that the state wished to instil in its people. Consumer products shied away from variety and novelty decoration, instead prioritising functionality over all else (Veenis 1999). This is in part because the rigid straight edges of furniture and minimalist packaging of food bore the same functionalist values as the ideal East German family, but it is also simply a byproduct of the requirements for cheap production labour in the face of a struggling state economy. In fact, many of these goods were marketed as possessing an important historical and national context to disguise the reality of needing to produce more from less (Merkel 1998). Unfortunately for the East German government, this did nothing to stave the hunger for more luxurious western goods. Floral decorations, softer materials and more refined cooking ingredients were just a few of the things German’s longed for, and with them the public presumed would come the forward movement of capitalist society.
Anyone who was lucky to get their hands on any western products would enjoy the elevation in status having presumed connections to West Germany or Western Europe would bring them, and as such these western goods become much more important than their economic value would suggest (Veenis 1999). Although part of the appeal of western goods was the aforementioned status they brought, clearly there was also a certain level of interest present in the goods themselves. This enthusiasm would suggest that after the Berlin Wall fell and western goods became widely available, their quality and perceived value would make them a mainstay in the German economy.
However, once the novelty of new consumer products wore off, the German public began to change its opinion. Shortly after the fall of socialism and the excitement of the western goods the Germans had once coveted had worn off, a sentiment of disappointment arose around the changes these new products had wrought to the social experience of shopping. The previous way of life that required social communication for an optimal use of time and money was no longer needed, now that consumer goods were not limited by stock and queue times (Van Beek 1996). Furthermore, once East German goods were no longer being bought, a guarantee of permanent employment became less and less achievable. Local German factories and businesses began to shut down as their produce became obsolete in the face of newer western goods (Neely 2019). Choosing to consume western products now came with the guilt of leaving local businesses out to dry, exhausting the already tense social relationships of the German people as many of them would have known or at least heard about someone who lost their job in the face of the new capitalist marketplace.
The benefits of the new products available for consumption quickly wore off too. Instead of waiting in queues and being required to visit multiple stores in one day, German shoppers faced a new problem in being spoiled for choice with products they have never seen or used before. In addition, the ability of the East Germans to express themselves with the products they buy is lost as the once rare western goods become commonplace, and by purchasing these products the Germans end up objectifying themselves (Pyburn et al. 1987). Consumer goods were no longer a means to an end, or sometimes a unique personal treasure for western goods at a time where they were scarce, but became an essential yet shallow way to present oneself. A popular German saying best encapsulates the change that arose in post-socialist Germany: ‘Hast du was, bist du was’, which translates to ‘If you have something, you are something’.
A combination of all these disappointments led to the GDR Revival in the mid 1990’s, where an intense desire for the old products of the German Democratic Republic caused a surge in both the demand for and purchase of old goods from East Germany. This phenomenon can be best understood as a rejection of the western capitalist values that infiltrated East Germany after reunification, and an expression of nostalgia for a different time (Berdahl 1999). Museum exhibits were erected to preserve a rose tinted view of Germany’s history, and board games were created that involved trivia questions regarding old East German products and objectives such as obtaining a trabi, an outdated car that previously took years of waiting to get in the German Democratic Republic.
While the GDR revival may be interpreted as a simple form of entertainment and a way to relive old memories of socialist Germany, on a deeper level that is exactly what makes it an accurate representation of the German attitudes towards the time it chooses to reminisce on. Board games and shopping for old consumer goods provides a reason for the Germans to re-establish the social connections they lost with the fall of socialism and the Berlin Wall, allowing them a second chance to revitalise their sense of belonging within their own community. Having experienced both sides of the coin, voluntarily returning to the old ways, if only temporarily, illustrates how while the presence of socialist policies no longer exists in Germany, a fondness for its past socialist values still remains.
Berdahl, D. (1999). ‘(N)Ostalgie’ for the present: Memory, longing, and East German things. Ethnos, 64(2), 192-211. https://doi.org/10.1080/00141844.1999.9981598
Neely, B. (2019). East German brands thrive 30 years after Berlin Wall fell [Blog]. Retrieved 19 September 2022, from https://www.dw.com/en/east-german-brands-thrive-30-years-after-berlin-wall-fell/a-4752593.
Pyburn, K., Miller, D., Staski, E., & Sutro, L. (1992). Material Culture and Mass Consumption. Journal Of Field Archaeology, 19(2), 230. https://doi.org/10.2307/529987
Ten, E. (2001). Tulips in December: Space, Time and Consumption before and after the End of German Socialism. German History, 19(2), 253-276. https://doi.org/10.1191/026635501678771646
Van Beek, G. (1996). On Materiality. Etnofoor, 9(1), 5-25.
Veenis, M. (1999). Consumption in East Germany. Journal Of Material Culture, 4(1), 79-112. https://doi.org/10.1177/135918359900400105
Cover image: Enker, N. (2019). An icy morning outside of the Berlin Wall [Image]. Retrieved 19 September 2022, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/why-berlin-wall-built-fell.
Figure 1: DW. A sense of belonging that comes with relying on each other [Image]. Retrieved 19 September 2022, from https://www.dw.com/en/1989-in-jeans-and-leather-jackets-a-generation-finds-freedom/a-17721663.
Figure 2: DW. An example of the minimalist packaging of GDR products [Image]. Retrieved 19 September 2022, from https://www.dw.com/en/east-german-brands-thrive-30-years-after-berlin-wall-fell/a-4752593.
Figure 3: Caramalli, A. (2020). Consumer goods restrict personal identity instead of enhancing it [Image]. Retrieved 19 September 2022, from https://www.flickr.com/photos/redcathedral/50088052121.