New Berlin Museum on the DDR: Through the past, not so darkly

Financial Times

A new museum focuses more on daily life than the painful aspects of history

Berlin is not a place that lives comfortably with its history. In other cities – London for instance – political or social upheavals seem to lie far in the past and little energy is spent interpreting long-forgotten events. History is in a box, of interest largely to tourists and schoolchildren.

 In Berlin it is different. It would be surprising if a city that has experienced decadence, destruction, division and unity, all in the past 100 years, had a dispassionate view of its history. Such a city needs time to shake itself down before moving on. For 28 years the city was split into east and west by the Berlin Wall. This period ended in November 1989, nearly 20 years ago, but that is too short a time for arguments to have faded. East Berlin, its communist landmarks and its people are still here but their country has disappeared. How should the German Democratic Republic – and its capital city – be remembered? As a flawed attempt to build communism, as a highly repressive state or as the place millions of Germans called home? For some Berliners such questions can be emotionally trying.

But, standing at a little distance, I like the unsettled nature of Berlin’s relationship with its immediate past, the tangled way politicians, historians, city architects and cultural activists of all political colours play tug-of-war with the meaning of the city’s history. The images of the GDR in recent international cinema successes, such as Good Bye Lenin! and the Oscar-winning Stasi movie The Lives of Others, add colour but no final clarity on what the country was like.

 In this sense, I’m happy that the city now has a new aid in understanding the past in the shape of the small, private DDR Museum (Deutsche Demokratische Republik is German for GDR). It stands out in Berlin’s post-unity landscape of state-funded museums and memorials to East Germany and the Berlin Wall.

 Berlin's most famous landmark, 2017. Picture: Helen Williamson

Berlin's most famous landmark, 2017. Picture: Helen Williamson

A quick pan across this landscape is important in grasping the significance of the DDR Museum. Just as debates in Berlin over the GDR are highly political, so are most of the places visitors can go to find out about life under communism. The chunks of the Berlin Wall dotted across the city remind people of the city’s painful division, while the Wall Museum at Checkpoint Charlie gives a strongly anti-communist view of the GDR regime.

Monuments such as the former Stasi headquarters offer grim reminders of the government’s undoubtedly repressive ways. Meanwhile, statues of Marx and the graves of admired communists are important for those still fond of what the GDR stood for. The DDR Museum, which opened last year, takes a separate course. It focuses on everyday life in the GDR, on how ordinary people lived, worked and entertained themselves. I was intrigued to see whether this approach would add to our understanding of the GDR or – as critics from the more overtly political museums argue – take away from it by presenting the dictatorship in a benign, rose-tinted way.

I visited with two east German friends, Conny and Silke, as I was keen to know whether they thought the museum was accurate and useful for Berlin’s tussle with history. One positive aspect was obvious upon entering – this is an interactive museum, offering an all-round “experience” of living in the GDR. Such museums are still uncommon in Germany and unknown on the East German theme, where the focus is on passively viewing barren interrogation rooms and Wall segments.

Touching exhibits, listening to music, sitting in a GDR living room and learning East German dance steps were all popular with visitors while I was there. I enjoyed sitting in a “Trabi” (the Trabant, the famously slow and polluting East German car), turning the ignition, pressing the accelerator and, as if in a video game, appearing to drive through the streets of Berlin.

The museum comprises just one modest exhibition hall divided into a dozen alcoves, and Robert Rückel, its director, says it should take only an hour to visit. “We want to attract ordinary people with short attention spans, not only art lovers with three hours to spare.” The museum has a serious side. Panels about working life, for instance, neither glorify the worker-state nor look down on it, explaining instead what being a farmer or factory worker was actually like. The section on the Stasi seems chillingly realistic; visitors sit in a darkened corner of the museum and listen via headphones to what is being said in the mock living room – without those on the sofas knowing they are being spied on.

The modern, colourful design takes some getting used to, as it is at odds with the public memory of the GDR’s threadbare greyness. And the exhibit explanations – in English and German – could have been more detailed.My friends were largely positive, however. They felt at home among things they knew from their youth and thought it captured what life was like “living in a niche”, as Conny put it, away from the inquiring eye of the state. Silke said she was reminded “how strange life was, like living in a cage on an island”. I nodded when she added: “Tourists should go to the Stasi and Wall museums but come here too.”

Eighteen years after the Wall’s fall it is time to focus on everyday life, not just on heavily political aspects of the GDR. An independent historical commission last year recommended as much – but was attacked for doing so. Rückel says the museum came about almost by chance when a businessman from southern Germany visited Berlin, asked his hotel for directions to the museum on life in the GDR, was told none existed – and decided to open one. Not a day too soon.

DDR Museum, Karl-Liebknecht-Str 1, 10178 Berlin Tel: +49 30-8471 23731; www.ddr-museum.de