„Die Klänge von gestern“ - "The sounds of yesterday"

Introduction to My Research on Nostalgia for Life in the Former East Germany and Reflect on My Research So Far
„Die Klänge von gestern“ - "The sounds of yesterday"
Like

Share this post

Choose a social network to share with, or copy the shortened URL to share elsewhere

This is a representation of how your post may appear on social media. The actual post will vary between social networks

Introduction 

On 3rd October 1990, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) ceased to exist, with its former territory being subsumed into West Germany. However, “the memory of the GDR has not faded away” (Kocka 2010:38) and Ostalgie – defined as nostalgia for (life in) the former East Germany – is a phenomenon explored in popular culture, such as the 2003 film Good Bye, Lenin! 

Good Bye, Lenin!, which I studied during my German A Level in high school and was the initial inspiration for my research project, sees the main character Alex recreate East Germany in his family’s apartment to hide the truth of the collapse of the socialist regime from his ‘true believer’ mother. While the film certainly has some critiques of the GDR, it generally takes a more positive view than other films depicting life in the East. Despite wide popularity in Germany and beyond, and positive reviews, some (West) Germans criticised the film for its positive portrayal of the GDR regime: the GDR, they argued, was an oppressive totalitarian dictatorship that should not be remembered fondly. 

Still from Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye, Lenin! (2003).

Credit: X-Filme Creative Pool. Distributed by X Verleih AG (through Warner Bros.)

This criticism – which persists to this day in response to most ‘Ostalgic’ materials and sentiments – seeks to consign memories of East Germany firmly to the past, but this ignores the simple fact that East Germany was more than just the Stasi (secret police) and 5-year plans: it was the Heimat (home/homeland) of millions of people whose personal experiences and continued attachments should be taken seriously. 

My research project is titled: Ostalgie and Ostpolitik: Exploring Germany’s Complicated ‘Special Relationship' to Russia’. It is a multi-disciplinary project, drawing in particular on International Relations and Social Anthropology, investigating how nostalgia influences the politics of reunified Germany. In particular, the project will seek to answer the question: what are the effects of Ostalgie on German foreign policy towards Russia? Thus, this research will connect Ostalgie with Ostpolitik, the German foreign policy tradition of relations with Russia. Since German reunification, the international relations between Germany and Russia have been marked with contradictory elements of closeness and tension: often the two states prioritise different values, and yet have centuries of historical and cultural ties to each other which means they cannot ignore each other. Therefore, this research seeks to develop a more holistic view of German-Russian relations by exploring the interconnections between culture, history and politics, as well as more broadly exploring the continued legacy of the Cold War in Europe.

What I have been doing so far 

In many ways, it feels like i have been doing research for much longer than a week and a half. I may have only officially started research last week but work to prepare for it has been a significant part of my last couple of months. For example, the ethical approval process was fairly extensive because my project will involve ethnographic research in Berlin such as interviews and participant observation with former East German citizens. I also needed to contact many people in Germany to potentially work with them during fieldwork.

Now all this is out the way, research has begun! However, unlike many of my fellow scholars for whom research beginning involves going to a lab and running experiments, for me this has involved sitting in my room and reading lots of books and articles to review the current literature - which is definitely a bit less exciting!

In the first week of research, I focused on getting a good grounding in the history of East Germany and the chronology of German-Russian relations. This week, I’m deepening this knowledge by discovering more about the academic debate on nostalgia as a concept and how it is lived and experienced in Germany. To go beyond books, this has also meant engaging with Ostalgie personally, so this week I am working through films that explore East Germany, as well as the Eastern bloc more generally – a personal favourite is ‘The Death of Stalin’ which I would recommend for a satirical look at internal power struggles in the Soviet Union. By watching these movies, I want to see if any common themes arise or particular aspects of the communist Cold War past that are repeatedly invoked positively. Moreover, I want to find out what material items have been particularly closely associated with the past. 

Promotional image for Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin (2017)

Credit: Entertainment One Films

What’s to come

This first stage of the research is focused largely on the past: gaining an understanding of history and how nostalgia for this past manifests for former East Germans. To connect nostalgia with the present, the next research stage will focus on the second concept in my title: Ostpolitik, or the German policy tradition focused on relations with Russia. For this stage, my research will be much more inspired by political science and will involve the analysis of government documents, such as briefings, press releases and speeches by those who determine and enact foreign policy as I explore how elements of Ostalgie feature in their foreign policy responses to Russia and justifications of actions.  

Finally, the last stage of my research will bring the two concepts together as I conduct fieldwork in Berlin, a unique space where former East and former West Germany coexist in a relatively small geographic area. During my fieldwork, I will be exploring the cityscape and the traces of the GDR that remain: for example, when crossing the road, you can see the Ampelmännchen (little traffic light man) which originally was unique to the East but became so popular after reunification, it has become an iconic symbol of Berlin. Fieldwork will also involve interviews and participant observation with former East German citizens to discover how they experience Ostalgie in their daily lives and their attitudes towards Russia. 

Photo taken by author in February 2024 in Berlin of an Ampelmännchen (little traffic light man)

I am only at the very beginning of my research journey and at this early point, I cannot fully predict where it will end up. There have already been some challenges, and I am sure that as I progress there will be roadblocks and dead ends that will require resilience and adaptability. At this early stage, I am both excited and nervous about what is still to come, but above all, I am grateful to have this opportunity to research something that has fascinated me since I was in high school.

References

Kocka, J. (2010). Civil Society and Dictatorship in Modern German History. Germany: University Press of New England.

Please sign in

If you are a registered user on Laidlaw Scholars Network, please sign in

Go to the profile of Princess Agina
18 days ago

Loved reading your post, Sophie! It's cool to see how Good Bye, Lenin! inspired your research. Your insights on Ostalgie and its impact on German-Russian relations are very interesting. Can't wait to see where your work takes you! 

Go to the profile of Sophie Cooper
18 days ago

Thank you, Princess! I am very excited to share the research process over the next couple of weeks

Go to the profile of Rachel Clinton
18 days ago

This is fascinating content, thankyou! I love that its a brake from the norm' and that you explore an interest held since high school. You have inspired me to rethink my research direction and also to watch the films mentioned. 

Go to the profile of Sophie Cooper
18 days ago

Thank you, Rachel! I would definitely recommend watching the films because they are some of my personal favourites even beyond research