Rethinking East Berlin

by Mike Crowley

On the first day of class at NYU in Berlin, I asked my teacher, a lifetime resident of East Berlin, “Is it true that there was only one soap, one car, and one kind of beer you could drink back in the days of the DDR?”
I got an answer much longer—and more interesting—than I had expected. He confirmed that there was little variety product choice, but everything cost the same price. Anyone could go to a store and be sure to find the “official soap” at the same price as it would be across town. Things were consistent. He had heard rumors that in West Berlin there were various types of every product, and he found it absurd. He did not consider socialism a bad thing. It was what he was used to.

I have realized that what I had been taught about politics, government, and United States history while growing up was simple and one-sided. When I think about the Berlin Wall, I envision East Berlin as a place where people wanted to leave so badly, they jumped out of buildings onto the west side. There was no freedom, not even in what you bought. I thought Communism made every part of life predictable, controlled by the state, and depressingly dull. What I have finally come to realize is that the issue is more complex and convoluted.

An example of East Germany’s complicated past is what author Stacy Bentz calls the “slow, ugly death” of Berlin’s Palast der Republik. The Palast was an important building for East Berliners. It hosted political forums and housed art galleries, restaurants, auditoriums, and even a bowling alley. According to Bentz, “many former East Berliners feel that it embodied the idealism of a socialist state.” Today, only the skeleton of the building can be seen, with the former walls mere piles of rubble. An expensive reconstruction of the historic Prussian City Palace, the Stadtschloss, is being built in its former place. I agree with Bentz, and wonder whether this renovation is symbolic of the selective forgetting of things, like the DDR and Nazism, for the sake of “Disneyworldisation.”

The more I learn about unification, the more it seems that both East and West Berliners wanted the wall gone. However, not everyone wanted the “western” way of living to completely take over the east. Many people did not think socialism was a horrible way of life; nor did they believe that capitalism was a better concept. As a child, I never learned about this concept and it feels liberating to discover a completely different perspective.

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