[Column] Eating History

Posted on : 2013-02-19 06:59 KST Modified on : 2013-02-19 06:59 KST

By John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus 

The GDR Museum in Berlin is actually two museums in one. And these two parts, both devoted to everyday life in the German Democratic Republic, subtly contradict one another. That might not have been the intention of the museum founders. But this tension actually captures the ambiguities of East Germany and the ambivalence that many Germans feel today about the erstwhile communist state.

The experience inside the main part of the museum is quite interactive. You can put on headphones and watch TV shows from East Germany, walk into an interrogation room and a prison cell, and sit at a high-ranking bureaucrat’s desk. You can take a test of your Russian. You can vote in a rigged election.

This part of the museum is also full of objects from East Germany that people either donated or sold to the curators. These objects are very cleverly arranged in the two rather small exhibition rooms. Cabinets and closets lining the wall and dividing up the space are grouped according to topic: clothing, music, books, industrial production, nude beaches, and so on. You can peer into glass cases at consumer products that have faded into history such as Wald Gold liquor and Florena Cream.

But you are also encouraged to pull out drawers and open cabinets to reveal even more objects, such as a floor plan of a GDR apartment or a report from the state security (Stasi). In this way, you feel as though you are uncovering a hidden society, which is appropriate since the society was largely hidden for many years to Western eyes.

If you don’t read the accompanying descriptions, you could walk away from this part of the museum feeling that you had just seen an objective portrait of a society. And according to the ticket seller that chatted with me, most people rate their experience at the museum very highly.

“What about people from the former East Germany?” I ask him. “What do they think?”

“80-90 percent of them are very satisfied.”

“And the other 10-20 percent?”

“Well, they are not happy with…the tone.”

The tone of the museum is most evident in the descriptions. For instance, here is part of the description of GDR tourists. “GDR citizens were not particularly popular in Eastern bloc states. Waiters in Prague could recognize them easily. Western tourists used paper money: Deutschemarks or dollars. East Germans counted their aluminum play money.”

Another description begins with a joke: “The director of the Meissen porcelain factory told Honecker [the communist party leader in the GDR]: ‘Five percent of our production is rejected.’ To which Honecker replied, ‘Is that enough for the whole country?’” It was commonly assumed that the best production ended up as exports to get hard currency.

This tone is familiar to anyone who enjoys Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, or the many similar shows around the world that take a comic look at the news. In these exhibits, everyday life in the GDR comes across as quaint, inefficient, boring, comical, and worthy of a varying degree of derision. It’s no wonder that some people from the former East Germany find the experience somewhat upsetting.

It’s not that people in the GDR didn’t have a sense of humor. They made fun of the system all the time. And they continue to look back at that time with a mixture of humor and relief that much of that experience is behind them.

But the exhibits at the GDR museum are meant for tourists, specifically tourists from the West. The wall texts invite you into a shared joke: how silly/strange/exotic those “Ossies” were! It’s not just a matter of making fun of the old-fashioned products and notions of a past generation. At Berlin’s municipal museum, by comparison, a whole room is devoted to how cool and chic the Kurfurstendamm area of West Berlin was during the 1960s. In general, West Germany’s past is treated reverentially while East Germany’s past is treated like an enormous dead end. The proof is obvious: West Germany lives on and East Germany has been absorbed like a disagreeable meal.

Which brings us to the other half of the GDR Museum: the restaurant.

Here, in a replica of a restaurant from a fancy East Berlin hotel, you can sample the best of GDR cuisine, washed down with Vita Cola or Rotkaeppchen, the Coca-Cola challenger and the sparkling wine that are two of the few GDR products still produced in the united Germany. You can order smoked pork with potatoes and sauerkraut, allegedly Erich Honecker’s favorite dish, or what I tried, the stuffed cabbage in bacon sauce.

The food is quite good. It’s not prepared in a funny or ironic way. After all, the restaurant is designed to be successful, and no one wants to eat bad food, however representative of a country’s cuisine it might be. You can find some mildly amusing descriptions in the menu. But there’s nothing amusing about the food.

True, these were recipes created for the most elite restaurant in East Berlin. But Vita Cola and Rotkaeppchen were available to everyone. In other words, the restaurant sends a very different message than the other exhibits. It says there was something good about East German life, something worth praising, saving, and even serving to people today.

I’ve recently met with many former citizens of East Germany. The vast majority would never want to go back to those times. Many suffered a great deal at the hands of the state security forces (Stasi). Some were jailed, others lost their jobs, still others were sent into exile. But they also married, raised families, went on vacations, hung out with friends. They are not happy when people from the West dismiss this part of their lives as if it were simply a bad movie.

The lessons for South Korea are obvious. It’s all too easy to treat North Korea like a bad joke or like a disabled younger brother. But the people of North Korea don’t want to be treated like second-class citizens, which is how many eastern Germans feel even now 23 years after their country disappeared.

When reunification comes to the Korean peninsula, the people of South Korea will need to listen to their northern brothers and sisters with respect – for the horrors that they endured but also for the sometimes challenging, sometimes joyful, and often ingenious ways they managed to live their everyday lives.

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org) at the Institute for Policy Studies. His articles and books can be found at www.johnfeffer.com. His latest book is Crusade 2.0 (City Lights, 2012).  

The views presented in this column are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Hankyoreh. 

Please direct questions or comments to [englishhani@hani.co.kr] 

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