Paul Cooke. Representing East Germany since Unification: From Colonization to Nostalgia. New York: Berg Publishers, 2005. x + 236 pp. $31.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-84520-189-0; $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-84520-188-3.
Reviewed by Russell Spinney (Department of History and Religious Studies, Pennsylvania State University)
Published on H-German (January, 2007)
Whose History is it? Ostalgie, German Unification and the Avant-garde
How did the GDR become so hip? In dedicating his book of essays to this question Paul Cooke offers a thought-provoking study of interest to scholars of Germany, Eastern Europe, colonial and postcolonial studies. Cooke aims to trace the development of the ways in which both East and West Germans have dealt with unification through a range of media and cultural phenomena representing the GDR, its past and experience. For those scholars interested in colonial and postcolonial studies this book may come as a welcome surprise or a provocation. Cooke picks up on representations of the GDR and the colonial metaphor among German political elites, select authors, filmmakers, television producers and internet users. The application of postcolonial theory may raise some questions about the limitations of its use in the study of post-unification Germany, but Cooke succeeds in drawing from postcolonial theory to illuminate how both East and West Germans have been hybridizing representations of the GDR as discursive space for working through the past, shaping their own identities, cultural production, political engagement, consumption and entertainment. This book comes at an appropriate time as Germans themselves continue to place the process of unification under the microscope. The September 2006 elections and the relative success of right-wing extremism in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern have raised new concerns about the GDR's past and the East German relationship with political extremism. Cooke's interdisciplinary approach and optimistic conclusions should generate new debates and research in contemporary German studies that will help scholars understand the development of the New Federal Republic of Germany. In even broader strokes, the idea of East Germany as a colonial and postcolonial space speaks to recent calls among scholars of German colonialism and national identity for consideration of eastern Europe through similar lenses. In light of reunification, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the advent of processes such as privatization and globalization, Cooke even makes an argument for viewing East Germany among the avant-garde (p. 7).
The book covers much ground across various disciplines rather quickly, but it is clearly organized into six chapters with notes at the end of each chapter. In the first chapter Cooke introduces the problem of the colonial metaphor in the context of the post-unification Federal Republic. In another recent review, Robbie Aitken reminds us of Marcia Klotz's note on the "lingering power of the ideology of empire" in German discourse. What lingers from Germany's colonial past and what has changed is neither quite clear, nor quite Cooke's aim. Instead, Cooke focuses on the post-unification East German identity of Ossie and the voices that this approach reveals. Cooke argues that postcolonial theory helps explain how both East and West Germans have used the GDR as a discursive space for different purposes. The results suggest a broad range of usage and hybridization including commentary on the development of the new Federal Republic, the orientalization of the GDR, the manipulation of Federal politics, East German defiance and nostalgia, West German intellectual longing for more traditional German values or socialist ideals in the GDR, commercialization and personal forms of communication and entertainment.
The second chapter touches on the wider context of post-communist states and dealing with the past. In this case, Cooke suggests that post-unification East German identity originated in economic issues of reunification and official discussions of the East German past. He argues that the trials of former GDR border guards and political elites fueled widespread East German resentment toward the instrumentalization of history and the perception of West Germany as the colonizer and East Germans as the colonized (p. 28). Cooke does make note of the problem of essentially viewing the process of German unification as a colonial experience of takeover. Cooke recalls how some West German political elites publicly asserted that the GDR was in fact acceding to the Federal Republic and reminds the reader of the complexity of such a large-scale integration project in the attempt to sustain sectors of the GDR economy. He also points out that former dissidents were among the first to demand a public commission that some hoped would promote reconciliation and build greater trust between East and West Germans.
It is at this point in his analysis that Edward Said's concept of the "Orient" proves relatively helpful in illuminating how the memory of the GDR played out in national German politics across the 1990s. In the final majority report of the Enquete Commissionat from 1994, which the German Federal Republic designed to work through the history and consequences of the SED dictatorship in Germany, Cooke sees the stamp of the CDU/CSU ruling government's agenda of de-legitimating the GDR regime while simultaneously legitimating the role of the Federal Republic. In doing this, Cooke identifies an orientalist narrative that depicts the process of unification in organic historical terms, from the policies of Konrad Adenauer to Helmut Kohl, with clear heroes on both sides in the Peaceful Revolution of 1989 and totalitarian enemies from the GDR cast in the mold of the Third Reich (pp. 39-40). Cooke also sketches how the commission reports revealed West German academic splits between the Cold War totalitarian view and the left/liberal consensus of the 1970s and 80s, which tended to view the GDR as a post-totalitarian niche society based more on conditional loyalty rather than state-sponsored terror. From this viewpoint, the result of this commission's work, although not--as Cooke admits--widely followed by West and East Germans, allowed for the apportionment of blame, the identification of heroes and the positioning of unification as a form of redemption from the past of National Socialism. The commission's findings also made relative the understanding of the Third Reich and the GDR, and largely ignored more differentiated voices and views of the East German past and experience across the political divide. As a result, Cooke demonstrates how the PDS, the successor party to the SED in the new Federal Republic, used the commission strategically to present its own highly selective view of the GDR as embodying peaceful, socialist, democratic ideal that the Soviet Union corrupted and also to position the PDS as the only authentic voice for East Germans in German national politics (pp. 48-53). This analysis reminds the reader of why many West Germans were concerned with the electoral success of the PDS and ends with a short assessment of the possible reasons for the more recent and relative decline of the PDS since 2002.
Cooke's strength as a scholar of literature and East Germany underscores his interpretations in the third chapter. Here again, however, Cooke makes novel use of postcolonial lenses to show how some German writers have responded to reunification through the notion of the East. In "Writing Back" he shows how German writers assumed the official representations of the East while others used those representations to question the view of the GDR in the original Enquete Commission and defy western stereotyping. Among the first were the victims narratives, ranging from Rainer Kunze's Deckname Lyrik (1990), with its black and white portrayal of the GDR as a totalitarian state, to Valeri Scherstjanoi's radio play Operational Person Check Futurist (1996), which flips the omniscient and omnipotent view of the Stasi on its head with the play's audible attention to the banal in the author's own Stasi file (pp. 68-71). Cooke also observes a shift among writers to perpetrator narratives such as Wolfgang Hilbig's Ich (1993) and Thomas Brussig's Helden wie Wir (1995) that further jarred the assumption of the black and white of East and West Germany and the all-powerful image of the Stasi. In these works Cooke finds forms of mimicry that can become parodic and subversive, challenging the reader to question underlying western assumptions and more reflexively ponder East German views of the past (p. 82). Cooke also turns to Günther Grass's Ein weites Feld (1995), which paints a wider view of the historical relationship of the writer and state in Europe. It is not clear from Cooke's research how much of a role representations of East Germany play in West German writing, but Grass concurs with the assertion that the East has become a colony under global economic dictatorship (pp. 84-86). Cooke most clearly finds limitations to the identity of defiance in Sascha Anderson's autobiographical Sascha Anderson (2002). Cooke suggests that this book completely and defiantly elides the moral responsibility of Anderson's very well known surveillance of friends and fellow dissenters in the Berlin Prenzlauer Berg scene of the 1980s (pp. 86-94).
The fourth chapter offers readings of German cinema, which make it worthwhile to consider seeing several of these films again, and more fully appreciate their possible messages. Here the postcolonial lens is Hall's "productive hybridity," which posits a postcolonial subject moving beyond the re-excavation of historic identities to a much more interculturally dynamic and productive process of identity formation (p. 103). As in other parts of this book, Cooke effectively sketches the historical context of the medium. In this case, two major trends shaped German cinema at the beginning of unification: the New German Cinema of West Germany and the reactions to that tradition in the New German Comedy (pp. 105-110). Cooke points out some of the earliest depictions of the East, such as the Trabi comedies, which conveyed underlying assumptions of the West and stereotypes of the East. Cooke also notes some of the filmmakers who grew up and trained in the GDR, such as Andreas Dresen and Andreas Kleinert, who have engaged in the auteurist aesthetics of the New German Cinema, but also draw from the Soviet tradition of Sarkovsky and his post-apocalyptic visions of urban space.
Against this background, Cooke offers a thoughtful reading of Leander Haussmann's Sonnenallee (1999) that appreciates some of the ways this filmmaker plays with the archaeology of GDR identity and East German discourse. Cooke's reading goes beyond some early public reception of the film, which saw Sonnenallee as a dangerous form of Ostalgie that skews critical historical analysis (pp. 111-119). Instead, the film presents a universal story through the experience of growing up in the late 1970s, plotting a teenage love story that seeks to de-exoticize the East for Germans. Perhaps more interestingly, the film also visually preserves some of the differences between East and West Germany, in ways meant to provoke East Germans to rethink their fetishization of the past and its objects. Cooke shows how, in the fictionalization of the protagonist's childhood, Sonnenallee still attempts to deliver a hard-hitting image of the GDR past.
On the other side of German filmmaking, Cooke shows how a West German director such as Oskar Roehler returns to earlier filmic traditions to interrogate his parents' generation, the so-called '68ers, their critique of West Germany and the ideal of socialism in the East (pp. 119-127). Cooke demonstrates how Roehler uses a semi-biographical look at his mother, the West German left-wing writer, Gisela Elsner, in the final days before her suicide. Her visit to the East and confession of suffering under capitalism also work, from Cooke's view, in an ironic fashion for the viewer, who would have heard this phrase echoing in contemporary discussions of East Germany since reunification (p. 127). Finally, Cooke offers a reading of Wolfgang Becker's Good Bye, Lenin! (2003) that shows how the film plays with the East German memory of the state and everyday society while also raising questions about West Germany, German values and global capitalism (pp. 128-136). The film depicts a range of East German representations, from the orientalist views of the GDR with its exoticism and totalitarianism to the East German reconstruction of the past that must be undertaken to help the protagonist's ailing mother recover. In the end, the mother dies like the GDR before her, but with all her relatives assembled at the burial; the moral according to this reading becomes the need to accept change and understand and respect each other for German unity to occur.
In comparison, television appears to have headed back towards the Orient. The focus on this medium in the fifth chapter enables Cooke, in a nod to Paul Betts, to approach consumer culture as a key space for identity construction and the results of commercializing the East German past and experience (pp.146-147). Compared with authors and filmmakers, television producers have been relatively slow to respond to the need for more differentiated representations of the GDR. In terms of watching television, however, Cooke finds evidence that suggests considering East Germans as the avant-garde, albeit from a postmodern perspective. From his view, East Germans seemed quicker to make the switch to satellite television in the early 1990s. He refers to studies showing that East Germans watch more television and have made a faster shift to more light-hearted forms of entertainment in their program selection than West Germans over the same period. In terms of content, German television production continued to focus more on the problems of East Germany well into the late 1990s in comparison with less problem-oriented coverage of West Germany. By 2001, television producers were beginning to shift to more everyday, non-problem based stories about the East. The success of Good Bye, Lenin! convinced major German networks including ZDF, MDR, SAT 1 and RTL to begin producing Ostalgie shows. Moreover, Ostalgie shows were able to achieve large viewing audiences. The ZDF's Ostalgie Show, for example, attracted 4.78 million viewers, 21.8 percent of the whole viewing public, with 34 percent of East German viewers tuning in (p. 141).
Although the television producers insisted on educational aims, their shows remained products intended to attract and entertain. Drawing on Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer's notion of the "culture industry," Cooke, however, sees an interesting twist in television's commodification of the nostalgia for the GDR. Instead of seeing it as a barrier to German integration, as some critics have asserted it functions, television producers viewed Ostalgie as a way to achieve unity (p.145). The problem with these television projects, according to Cooke, is the medium's implication of a unified community of consumers and the assumption of the Federal Republic as the norm. Borrowing from John Fiske and John Hartley's concept of television's "claw back" function, Cooke argues that German television represents East Germany as a peripheral consumer culture. In attempting to make this other Germany understandable and normal for its audience, German television producers have more often than not sensationalized and re-exoticized the GDR, re-inscribing the GDR as a commercialized form of the Orient from which East Germans have been liberated and undermining those attempts to present the GDR and its experience on its own terms (pp. 157-158).
One problem with the study of television as well of film is reception and gauging the impact of shows and their representations of the GDR on viewers with selective viewing habits. How television continues to respond as German demographics change is an open question to follow, more specifically, as generations of Germans begin to grow up with more distance from the East German past. However, the ways in which Germans use the internet more closely approaches a grass roots study of the reception and use of GDR representations. Internet use is also a key example in one of the most significant and recent trends in communications: the user becomes a producer of cultural texts as well as consumer. In this case according to Cooke, East Germans tended to lag behind the curve in comparison with West Germans, but they are more than catching up. Between 2000 and 2004 the numbers of East Germans who use the internet and the number of hours of their usage increased at higher rates than those for West Germans (p. 177). Primarily using two studies conducted in March 2002 and February 2004 for 100 and 200 sites respectively, with follow up individual interviews, Cooke surveys West and East German internet usage for the type of activity involving the GDR against markers of gender, age, education and work. Drawing in debates over the direction of the internet either toward a virtual community or a dystopia, Cooke also aims to approach a measure of the state of German unification.
In the case of the GDR on the internet, Cooke generated over 37,600 hits in his first Google search and 77,400 in his second search. His interpretation of these findings suggests that the internet tends to provide access and networking for marginalized voices in Germany. Among those voices dealing with the GDR, Cooke shows a worldwide landscape populated by both West and East Germans of all ages. There are role playing gamers, the virtual Ministry for State Security and those dedicating themselves to policing, "flaming" and shaming the remnants of the secret police and as they see it, protecting democracy and freedom in the Federal Republic and electronic world from U.S. imperialism and Big Brother. Yet they make up small portions of the virtual GDR. Cooke finds that widespread resentment toward the process of reunification persists, particularly among East Germans. A small group of Germans is dedicated to providing some form of corrective, either reasserting the dictatorial reality of the GDR as an Unrechtsstaat or intending to provide a more differentiated image of the GDR from the totalitarian stereotype. However, the majority of sites Cooke surveyed involve more positive aspects of the GDR. Cooke notes that this trend may support the fear that East Germans are rejecting the new Federal Republic, but over half of these sites are intended for less self-reflective hobbyists and collectors and Cooke finds little evidence of any real attempt to undermine German unification (p. 189). Apparently in reaction to television representations of the GDR, some sites even attempt to counter the re-exoticization of the GDR material culture. Finally, at many of the sites in which Germans present their autobiographies, Cooke finds that the GDR is more often less about defiance or expressing the feeling of colonization and more and more part of a hybrid identity involving the co-existence of western material culture and the GDR past (p. 201). The GDR is becoming one among many points of reference for Germans. Cooke therefore concludes that the majority of Germans accept the basic structure of the unified state. In light of this mood, the hybrid activity across the medial spectrum suggests the development of a healthy democracy in the Federal Republic.
One problem with Cooke's approach is the problem of coverage and depth. Space is needed to explore some problems that he raises more fully. Other sites are worthy of examination, such as popular music or museums including the brand new GDR museum on Unter den Linden. Oral history interviews with East Germans confirm the perception of colonial takeover, but put it in other terms: the privatization and loss of industry, the high rates of unemployment unknown in the GDR, health reform, the value of the social community they feel is threatened and the fact that this generation is looking elsewhere for jobs in the larger cities of Germany, Austria and Scandinavia. However, this information also reinforces the usefulness of looking at terms as discursive space and using such lenses to find German voices and cultural production in relationship to unification. Through those lenses Cooke identifies important strands of the larger discussions about Germany and its future since reunification laid to rest the old German question. Evidence here suggests optimism. Germans have worked very hard to make unification succeed at all levels and they have wrestled with the GDR's past and its experience rather thoroughly compared with other nations. Perhaps they are ahead of the curve in facing their own history, wrestling with the problems of integration and moving on. In the case of right-wing extremism, it is interesting to note that former GDR dissidents are again very actively involved in raising the question of neo-Nazism in the new East German states of the Federal Republic and jarring East German anti-fascist assumptions about their past. However, the idea of East Germany as the avant-garde is at best a highly ambiguous one. It is a space for East and West German critique of the contemporary world and the changes taking place, and it also may signify the establishment of the Federal Republic on the foundation of its Basic Law. Some evidence still suggests that East Germans face lower wages and fewer jobs for employment in the new Federal Republic. What will happen with the narrative of Germany's history and the meaning of the East remains open. As generations shift and the memory of the GDR becomes less personal or social and more cultural for Germans, perhaps the usefulness of colonial and post-colonial lenses will have run its course, but Cooke's approach helps illuminate that landscape, its voices, cultures and uses. Among former Soviet satellites, German unification and representations of East Germany are unique, but Cooke offers an approach that may help see how eastern Europeans are representing their history in relationship to Russia, the United States, European unification and globalization, and how they are using those representations for a whole range of cultural phenomena.
. Brian Vick, ConfRPT: "Germany and Its Colonial Pasts," H-German, September 27, 2006.
. Robbie Aitken, "Review of Jared Poley, Decolonization in Germany: Weimar Narratives of Colonial Loss and Foreign Occupation," H-German, H-Net Reviews, September 2006.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Russell Spinney. Review of Cooke, Paul, Representing East Germany since Unification: From Colonization to Nostalgia.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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