Posts Tagged ‘German Democratic Republic’

Has German Ostalgie run its course?

Monday, February 1st, 2016

German Ostalgie has largely run its course according to a recent poll commissioned by Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster. Deutsche Welle aims at audiences outside of Germany and is available via television, radio and the Internet.

What is Ostalgie?

“Ostalgie” is a hybrid word that popped up following German reunification in 1990. It implies nostalgia for the former east and a longing for a prior way of life. After having been absorbed by, but not totally integrated into, West Germany, many former East Germans began to fondly recall the “bad” old days. They felt nostalgic toward certain aspects of their former lives that had suddenly disappeared: They felt a loss of community and equality; they missed certain foods that were no longer stocked; GDR-themed (East German) items became popular; memoirs of growing up Ossi (Eastern) began to fill bookstore shelves, they missed familiar television shows; and a general yearning for the lost socialist system of government developed.

Ostalgie turned into cash - Ampelmann Shop in Berlin-Mitte with the beloved East German traffic light man as a theme. photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

Ostalgie turned into cash – Ampelmann Shop in Berlin-Mitte with the beloved East German traffic light man as a theme. photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

An example of Ostalgie was the 2003 German blockbuster movie, “Good- Bye Lenin.” In this fictional story, a young man tries to keep political reality from his mother after she suffered a serious heart attack and coma. His mother, a dedicated socialist, experienced the coronary event just before the fall of the Wall. When her doctor suggests that the slightest upset might cause another, possibly fatal, heart attack, the son invents elaborate schemes to sustain his mother’s illusion that the German Democratic Republic still exists. When the mother unexpectedly wanders outside while the son is asleep, she sees the giant statue of Lenin being helicoptered away (to read about the real-life fate of the Lenin statue, visit

Has Ostalgie run its course?

Twenty-six years later, the answer is – Mostly. The use of terms like “Ossis” for East Germans and “Wessis” for West Germans – so common after reunification – has greatly decreased. In September 2015, Deutsche Welle commissioned a survey to find out how Germans see their society 25 years after reunification. The pollsters questioned more than 1,000 Germans aged 18 and older about their attitude toward reunification. They found the younger generation to be more positive about the reunification than their parents and grandparents. The 45-59-age-group is the least satisfied. Seventy-nine percent of 18-29 year olds (born just before or after reunification) think that German reunification was an overall success while 69% of 45-59 year olds (in their twenties and thirties when the wall came down) agreed. When asked whether German reunification brought them personal advantages or disadvantages, 65% of 18-29-year-olds saw mainly advantages while 14% saw chiefly disadvantages. In the 45-59-age-group, 53% perceived primarily advantages while 21% saw predominantly disadvantages.

Overall, 90% of the 18-29-age-group felt that Germany’s reunification set a good example for other countries, while 77% in the 45-59-group felt that way. Differences between responses from the former East and West had decreased. It appears that the former East/West divide no longer shapes people’s identity and that Ostalgie is largely a thing of the past.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.




Beate Ulbricht’s golden cage – Part 1

Monday, October 5th, 2015

Beate Ulbricht – alias Maria Pestunowa – alias Beate Matteoli, was the adopted daughter of Walter Ulbricht, former East German head of state, and his second wife Lotte. Beate was born in 1944 in Leipzig, Germany, under the name of Maria Pestunowa. The Ulbricht’s renamed her Beate and gave the girl their last name. Beate remained the couple’s only child. These facts did not become public knowledge until the Berlin Wall fell.

In many respects, Beate Ulbricht lived a privileged life. She went to the best schools, enjoyed splendid vacations with her parents and enjoyed many advantages in the socialist state – with one exception. Beate was not allowed to be herself. She was brought up to be the First Child of the Nation. Her parents expected her to be the perfect daughter, the impeccable student, the model pioneer. Her mother told her to always be “useful and cheerful.” Every aspect of Beate’s life was on public display. A slip-up was out of the question. The young girl came to feel trapped in her golden cage, had difficulty coping and finally succumbed to the unrelenting pressure. Shortly before she died in 1991, Beate Ulbricht said in the only interview she ever gave, “Ich hatte zu essen, zu trinken, anzuziehen – aber in diesem goldenen Käfig war keine Liebe – I had food, drink and clothes, but in this golden cage there was no love.” She died a few months later under mysterious circumstances.

The infant Beate Ulbricht

Beate Ulbricht came into the world as Maria Pestunowa, a citizen of the Soviet Union. Her mother was a Ukrainian forced laborer in Germany. The identity of her father remains unknown. Soon after Maria’s birth, her mother perished in a bomb attack. The baby was first placed in an orphanage, then with a foster family in Dresden. In January of 1946, Walter Ulbricht and his partner, Lotte Kuehn, applied to adopt the girl. At the time, Walter was still legally married to Martha Schmellinsky, although the couple had separated years earlier. As his political career was taking off, he planned to wed his personal assistant, Lotte Kuehn, once the divorce was final.

Beate Ulbricht’s adoption

Walter Ulbricht’s political star was on the rise (see last week’s post Having a family was likely to further his career. Since Lotte was unable to bear children, adoption looked like the perfect option. It all happened quickly. Walter pulled some strings with the youth authorities in Dresden. Although not yet married to Walter, Lotte already identified herself as Lotte Ulbricht. In January of 1946, the youth authorities took baby Maria from her original foster family and placed her with the Ulbrichts. In 1950 the adoption process was finalized though Walter and Lotte Ulbricht did not legally marry until 1953.

Read about Beate Ulbricht’s tragic adult life at

For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.

Image-challenged Walter Ulbricht

Monday, September 28th, 2015

Walter Ulbricht was a 20th century East German politician who always knew which side his bread was buttered on. By instinctively understanding whom to defer to and which efforts to pursue, he became East Germany’s postwar leader. Loyal to Leninist and Stalinist principles, he was described by peers and populace alike as an inflexible, dull and unlikeable man. It didn’t help that he spoke with a squeaky falsetto voice due to a childhood diphtheria infection. Still, he remained East Germany’s chief decision maker until 1971 – a period of more than twenty years. A joke made the rounds in East Germany during those years. It went like this: An airplane crashes carrying the presidents of the United States and France and the British Queen. They all perish. Which country mourns the most? The answer: East Germany because Ulbricht wasn’t on the plane.,postext,herbst89,artikel_id,12915.html

Who was Walter Ulbricht?

Walter Ulbricht came from humble beginnings. He was born in 1893 to a tailor in Leipzig, Germany. After graduating primary school, Ulbricht trained as a cabinetmaker. Since both his parents were active in the Social Democratic Party (SPD), young Ulbricht joined the party as well. He was 19 at the time. Eight years later, in 1920, he left the SPD and joined the newly created KPD, the Communist Party of Germany. By aligning himself with the “right” people he rose swiftly through party ranks.

Walter Ulbricht, East German Statesman 1950-1971

Walter Ulbricht, East German Statesman

Walter Ulbricht’s political life

Walter Ulbricht quickly became an important member in the party. In 1923, he was elected to the Central Committee and five years later to the Reichstag (German parliament). He remained a member of the Reichstag until 1933 when the Nazis came to power. When they imprisoned other KPD leaders in connection with a high profile murder, Ulbricht fled to France, Czechoslovakia and finally Spain. Between 1937 and 1945, he settled in Moscow and resided in the famous Hotel Lux. While there, he worked on a variety of communist causes.

Walter Ulbricht – leader of East Germany

In April 1945, Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, chose Walter Ulbricht to lead a group of party functionaries into Germany to begin reconstruction of the Communist party in Germany. Within the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany and the Soviet-occupied sector of Berlin, Social Democrats were pressured into merging with the Communist party to form the new Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). After the founding of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1949, Ulbricht became Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers. In 1950, he became General Secretary of the SED Central Committee and First Secretary in 1953. After the death of Stalin that same year, Ulbricht’s position was in danger. However, the East German Uprising of 1953 helped him to gain the Kremlin’s support. With Moscow’s backing, Ulbricht suppressed the uprising and secured his position in East Germany. From that point on, Walter Ulbricht was East Germany’s chief decision maker.

Ulbricht continued to plot his course. By 1952, he had nationalized 80 percent of the industry, which resulted in an economy that was short of consumer goods and often produced goods of shoddy quality. When his economic measures proved flawed, millions of East Germans fled to the west. Aware of the possibility of a total collapse of East Germany, Ulbricht pressured the Soviet Union in early 1961 to stop the outflow or workers and to resolve the status of Berlin. This led to the construction of the Berlin Wall, only two months after Ulbricht had emphatically denied that there were such plans when he stated, “No one has any intention of building a wall.” The Berlin Wall became a public relations disaster for Ulbricht and the Soviet Union. By the late 1960s, Ulbricht found himself more and more isolated, both at home and abroad. His refusal to work with West Germany on Soviet terms infuriated Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev. In 1971, Ulbricht was forced to resign from virtually all of his public functions. He was only allowed to remain head of state as Chairman of the Council of State in an honorary capacity.

Walter Ulbricht was a survivor

Image-challenged Walter Ulbricht came close to being toppled several times, but he always landed on his feet. His private life was beset with difficulties as well. Next time, I will write about his relationship with his wife, Lotte, and their daughter, Beate.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.


German reunification

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

At the beginning of 1989 German reunification was on no one’s mind. Hardly anybody in Germany or elsewhere anticipated that the Berlin Wall would disappear in the near future. During the course of the preceding twenty-eight years, the East German government had continually “improved” the Wall. Now, in its forth generation, the Berlin Wall was higher, stronger, and even less surmountable than ever before.

Reunification within one year

On October 7 of the same year, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) celebrated its 40th anniversary. Despite preceding unrest and demonstrations, no one expected it to be the GDR’s last anniversary celebration. But only one year later, on October 3, 1990, the two distinct German states were reunited after forty years of separation. East Germany had collapsed like a house of cards in the space of just a few months, and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) had added five new federal states by accession. They were: Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia.

The cost of reunification

Initially, reunification brought forth nothing but exuberance among the people on both sides of the dividing line. East and West Germans assumed that the reunification process could turn into an administrative nightmare, but that it would be a manageable undertaking. But it tuned out that the social and financial costs of reunification were enormous. Within a brief period, people in the East and West were forced to come to terms with their past, present and future without so much as a precedent in history.

Next time, I will discuss some of the problems East and West Germans had to face during the reunification process and for many years thereafter.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.