To get an idea of what everyday life was like in East Germany, a visit to Berlin’s DDR Museum is a must. With hands-on exhibitions where visitors can touch objects, open drawers and closets, view films and experience a Stasi secret police jail cell, this museum provides a fascinating overview of what East Germans had to experience daily. With a government ruled by the Communist party (specifically the Socialist Unity Party, or, SED for short), life was very hard.
Group thinking was taught early and individualism was discouraged. As an example, day-cares used collective benches for potty training where everyone remained seated until the last child was done. Children as young as age five were taught to play with wooden grenades and how to count soldiers.
While some goods were heavily subsidized by the government like bread (which was even fed to pigs because it was so cheap!), many goods were in short supply. The museum includes a diary where the author notes that sliced cheese, toilet paper, frying pans and guitar strings were not available in stores. Dentists lacked the materials to make crowns. A joke at the time was that the GDR economy was like a steam engine, which unfortunately used 90 percent of the steam for the whistle. Fresh fruit and vegetables were in scarce supply for the average East German (party bosses could shop elsewhere). One exhibit is particularly disturbing outlining how produce suddenly appeared in East German shops following Chernobyl which the West wouldn’t buy.
Cotton was limited so clothing was made of synthetic fibers. I found it interesting looking through the closets of what a typical East German wardrobe resembled. While there was a demand for westernized goods like Levi’s jeans, wearing Levi’s was considered subversive by the government. The museum includes an example of GDR manufactured jeans; however, there were troubles with the dye bleeding and ruining any other clothes in the washer.
The Trabant was the car manufactured to compete with the West’s VW Beetle. While the Trabi was supposed to be cheap, this car was still out of most salary ranges and had major defects like weak brakes! The exhibits allow visitors to sit behind the wheel of a Trabant and imagine driving a Trabi. Ironically, the SED bosses didn’t drive Trabants—they tended to favor Volvo limos with a sample on display.
I didn’t realize that nude holidays were common among East Germans like swimming and volleyball. Nudity was considered a protest against the government’s conformity so nudist beach vacations were popular.
A movie theater is included with actual chairs from an East German cinema. The “documentary” I watched was actually a propaganda film about building new apartments for residents.
Sports were a major source of pride for East German leaders as star athletes could provide national prestige. Unfortunately, winning was not always “above board”, as athletes could be drugged.
The darker side of DDR life is also emphasized in exhibits with an interactive exhibit of the Berlin Wall, a Stasi interrogation room as well as a jail cell. Interrogations were horrific, with no lawyers or outside contacts and confessions came quickly. Roughly 250,000 people served time as political prisoners.
Privacy was a foreign concept as salaries were known, mail could be randomly searched (or plundered by the Stasi), informants were everywhere and each resident had to keep a house book, recording who visited their home (for the Stasi to review at any time). For any Easterner staying for three days plus, this needed to be recorded, while any Western visitors had to be recorded immediately.
The pictures on display of families split by the Berlin Wall are heartbreaking as families were torn apart between East and West Berlin. I found it hard to look at some of the pictures. While West Berliners could enter East Berlin, East Berliners could only head east to other Eastern Bloc countries.
Next door to the DDR Museum is the DDR Restaurant which gives visitors an idea of what foods and beverages were being consumed in East Germany. Apparently a popular children’s dish was sugar pasta, which was pasta with sugar on it. I couldn’t bring myself to try this. A grilleta is the East German version of a hamburger made of pork and beef in a bread roll with salad garnish and a spicy sauce. I tried the vegetarian krusta which is the GDR version of a pizza. The dough is thicker but I thought the tomato sauce was much blander.
The competitor to Coca-Cola is Vita Cola, which the menu describes as having a lemony taste. I personally didn’t care for this, as to me, the cola tasted flat.
For alcohol, wines were typically from Bulgaria or Hungary. East Germans could also be known as “world champion drinkers” as on average, men and women consumed 17 liters of pure alcohol yearly.
This museum is informative and I liked it so much, I went twice. For an admission of six euros (discounted by 25 percent with a Berlin Welcome Card), the DDR Museum makes visitors appreciate what they have. Life under the German Democratic Republic was difficult as people tried to do the best they could under a regime offering few freedoms. This museum should be on any Berlin itinerary.
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