Remembering the German Democratic Republic through the Open Memory Box Project
by Lawrence Davis
The scenes of protestors in November 1989 smashing the Berlin Wall into pieces is now an indelible representation of the fall of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). One narrative that is common in the former West Germany and its former allies goes this way: the GDR’s oppressive totalitarian regime fell in the face of liberal democratic values that had existed in West Germany (the Federal Republic to be precise) since the end of World War II.
Western European and American governments have generally characterized the GDR only in terms of its totalitarian characteristics: a one-party communist state; a secret police (known as the Stasi) that made surveillance of the population into a terrifying art form; and the political and military (and to some extent, cultural) domination by the Soviet Union. Certainly, this is one way to look at the forty-five-year existence of the GDR. But what if that was only half of the story?
Recently I came across an interesting online archive called Open Memory Box. A project of German-Swedish filmmaker Alberto Herskovits and Canadian political science professor Laurence McFalls, Open Memory Box is an online film archive that holds hundreds of hours of home movies shot between 1947 and 1990 by citizens of the now-defunct GDR. The archive does a fine job of challenging the persistent stereotypes of the GDR and East Germans. The nation is now gone, but one can find that the memories of East Germans are still strong and distinct, even within a Germany where unification is now thirty years old. The site should be of interest to scholars, students, history buffs and anyone interested in film studies. Despite its flaws, it is a useful example of digital history that reflects the fragmented nature of history and culture and the malleable nature of memory.
I find the fragmented structure of the site to be a fascinating visual representation of everyday life in the GDR. While you can explore the archive and its raw unedited films through over 2,700 search terms, a section called the “Anti-Archive Archive” pulls up curated categories such as “FASHION,” “EROTIC” and “MARRIAGE.” A section titled “ABROAD” captures films taken by East Germans on vacation in Prague, Leningrad and other places both within and outside the former Soviet bloc. What makes this archive compelling is that it documents the sociological spaces within the GDR that people don’t often see because of the ideological Cold War lens through which we often view the peoples of the former Soviet bloc. The bloc was inhabited by human beings whose relationship to the socialist project and to its nemesis, “the West”, was rather complicated.
The images on Open Memory Box provide a window into the everyday events that shaped the reality of average East Germans. I was especially drawn to the films shot by a Mr. Lauterbach, which includes footage from when his children were growing up (including films of cartoons and movies from the West). When asked by a researcher if he was ever afraid of being caught filming a Western movie on his television, he responds, “Not in the least.” He insists that food shortages were common but that bartering was common, too. From his perspective, “We lived well. We really couldn’t complain.” He took his wife and two children on outings to the country that included swimming in summer and sledding in winter. Parties with champagne and food were not uncommon in his world—money made through bonuses at work came in handy. When asked why he thought people considered fleeing to the West and leaving everything behind, he quipped, “It made no sense to me,” and “The temptation was too great I presume.” He was a member of the East German Communist Party, a welder by trade, whose life “integrated into the state” where “…not everything sucked on our side.” Even when he spoke up to his party superiors about problems he saw at work and had to deal with the repercussions of his actions, he said that you could still have a life beyond the strictures of the one-party state.
What makes this archive compelling is that it documents the sociological spaces within the GDR that people don’t often see because of the ideological Cold War lens through which we often view the peoples of the former Soviet bloc. The bloc was inhabited by human beings whose relationship to the socialist project and to its nemesis, “the West”, was rather complicated.
While Mr, Lauterbach was more circumspect about the fall of the wall, his wife shouted “Hurrah!” when she heard the news. Although she is referred to as simply “Mrs. Lauterbach,” her experience was very much her own and in places contrasted to her husband’s relatively upbeat summation of life. Her interpretations of the films her husband shot reveal that her interest in politics was minimal and that in those years she focused more on the health and happiness of her family, especially the children. As a daycare worker, she was required to take the children in her charge to May Day and military parades to fly flags, but often refused to do so and was never reprimanded for her refusal to comply. Many people ignored these “mandatory” events in her retelling. She admitted that her husband, loyal to the party, left the East German Communist Party around the time of the fall of the wall (she was never asked to join the party). Her greatest regret was for her daughter who, despite being a good student, was refused admission to a university without being given a reason. She insists that she had a good life with her husband and children in the GDR despite the overbearing political realities of life there.
The fragmentary nature of the films overall is both a plus and a minus for the viewer. Anyone with a scant understanding of the GDR’s history might feel cut adrift as the films, many without sound, scan city streets, parks, highways, monuments, etc. Human experience is fragmented; people’s memories are never as precise and they might think; imagination seeps in, people remember the good and suppress or embellish the bad. It’s striking to think that many East Germans were proud to live in a nation that provided its citizens social security, as deeply flawed as it was from the perspective of the outside world and to those who lived it themselves. In this sense, the fragmentation of this archive makes it more powerful for those who are interested in the Nostalgie that is a part of the East German collective memory and that is an influence on German politics today. The films bring into focus the contradictions of the reality of the GDR—it was a police state that recruited a large portion of its people to spy on their fellow citizens—but sociological spaces existed whereby the average East German could experience the highs and lows of private life that make an individual’s life worthwhile.
About the Author
Lawrence Davis is professor of history and chair of the History, Government and Economics Department at North Shore Community College in Danvers, Massachusetts. He teaches face-to-face and online courses in European and world history, and has published articles and book reviews in French and European history. He is the creator and host of the podcast, History in Fragments, which features interviews of thought leaders on various topics related to the study and teaching of the past.