At Richard’s request we visited the DDR museum in Berlin this summer. Now, usually I am not amazingly keen on museums and the kids hate being cooped up inside, so, unless they super hands on, they tend not to suit us so well. I was quite relieved then, when Richard told me it was a ‘touchy-feely, life experience, type of museum‘. I’m pretty sure those are the words he used to sell it me!
He also reminded me that earlier in the year, we had enjoyed the three part series Deutschland 83 which depicts east German life in 1983, under communist rule. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.
As a child I remember the wall coming down. I remember watching people climb on it and tear it down with their hands and knock it down with sledge-hammers. I remember it being a monumentally spectacular occasion and people around me being very happy. But what I didn’t remember was why it was there in the first place. I knew it had something to do with communism (the iron curtain) but I was a bit confused as to why WWII and communism were interlinked. In case you are too, I shall try to explain it as quickly and as simply as possible.
- WWII finished on the 8th May, 1945. However, it divided Germany into FOUR zones.
- Those four zones were controlled by the USA, the UK, France and the Soviet Union (now know as Russian Federation).
- The soviet zone (east Germany) developed into a communist dictatorship and many residents were dissatisfied.
- Those who could, voted with their feet and left eastern communist Germany for the west.
- In 1961 east Germany was given permission by the Soviet Union to build the wall, entrapping thousands of eastern Germans and preventing them from leaving.
- Those in the west were freely able to visit those in the east however those in the east could not leave.
- On eastern Germany’s 40th birthday (7th Nov 1989), mass demonstrations took place in and around Berlin and the amount of demonstrators forced open the eastern border.
- On the 9th November, 1989, eastern Germany announced that all its citizens were free to visit west Berlin and Germany.
This is a very simplified version of events and of course I have glossed over many of the other facts that happened, mostly for time’s sake but this is roughly what happened.
The DDR museum
True to Richard’s word the DDR museum is hands on. It is a dynamic and informative introduction to experiencing what life was really like for the east Germans. The whole museum is full of 1980’s soviet artefacts and requires that you read and look as well as touch. You can pull out drawers, open closets, sit in a car, listen to music, pretend to be a spy, make phone calls, use a typewriter and watch films. It’s of no surprise that it has been nominated twice as the European Museum of the year.
You will learn how children were all toilet trained at the same time on a row of potties; how students were or weren’t able to go to school and how this inhibitied their life choices; how people’s lives were controlled and how futile it was to vote. You are totally immersed into a world of communism and gain a considerable insight into what life must have been like. There was a lot to take in but it was in an interesting way.
How it makes you feel
The museum is very dark with lots of effective spot lights. The ceilings are quite low which enhances feelings of powerlessness and oppression. At times the museum can be quite busy as well which exacerbates feelings of escapism (which for me were already quite high). Although I found the museum fascinating, I had to take a break and go outside for 5 minutes. It was an awful feeling of constant surveillance and control. I had to remind myself that it wasn’t real and these feelings were just temporary lol. It sounds ridiculous but I was fine after I’d had a break outside.
My kid’s favourite part of the museum
A Trabant, the most common vehicle in the former East Germany Photograph is on display in the museum. You can attempt to drive it down a street and turn left with use of a projection screened onto the windscreen – which is almost impossible and then if you haven’t crashed, it’ll run out of petrol.
Spying and being surveyed were large parts of life under comunnist regime. The museum has a small booth set up with hand written, spy notes and headphones listening to the lives of others.
Family life was an important aspect of living in east Germany. It was one of the ways to exist with a degree of happiness and normality. In some cases I found the information signs to be mocking of east German lives and I think it’s important that we don’t. People had to live like this or face death or extradition to the west. Normalising a very difficult situation is a beneficial coping strategy and we shouldn’t take away from east Germans that this was their life but that there were elements that were fun and happy.
As explained the eastern Germans never went without jobs or money but there was little in the way of ‘things’ to buy. As a result they became immensely resourceful. In the face of adversity they learnt to create their own wallpaper!! I guess in a land where everything is supposed to be the same, a touch of personal kept you sane.
Everything is brown and orange
A big chunk of my early memory is brown and orange! I’m sure those are not my only memories of the 80’s but brown and orange featured strongly in clothes, curtains, carpets and any decor. Here is no different. Step back in time and see how old fashioned it all now looks.
We got there early but when we came out there was a large queue. I suggest getting there early before the people, if you can or you might face a wait time. Ticket prices are VERY reasonable at €9.50 for adults and €6 for children.
I really recommend visiting the museum. There are still a large number of countries in this world that are communist run. Spending time in the museum gave me a much better understanding of what it must have been like for Eastern Germans but also an inkling into what it must be like NOW. If you’re in any doubt as to why some people want to flee their countries (aside from the war, famine, terror and inability to work) this will make you more empathetic to their plight.