The exhibition entitled “So What Was The GDR?” – short for the German Democratic Republic – tries to present both the bitter and the sweet facets of life in the now defunct state.
It mixes depictions of a socialist “dream,” enthusiasm shown by its “Young Pioneer” youth organisation, and efforts to give women equal opportunities, alongside a dark background of travel restrictions and political repression.
The show traces the real-life experiences put down in diaries by children who grew up in the GDR, and is meant to provide answers for “a generation which never had to deal with this issue,” according to organiser Birgit Bruell.
Those visiting the exhibition, held in an East Berlin recreation centre which once served as “a Pioneer Palace” for children run by the communist-sponsored youth organisation, are gently introduced to the subject by Pia Grotsch.
“We’re going to talk about a country that no longer exists. A country that wanted all of its people to be happy – the GDR. Do you know someone from your family who lived there?” she asks a group of visiting Berlin school children.
Several hands go up.
“My mummy grew up there,” says a 10-year-old girl.
“My daddy and granny lived there,” volunteers one of her friends.
Others don’t really know. One young boy thinks his grandfather might have “run away to the West on a motorbike.”
Visitors are then invited to trace the experiences of eight children who grew up in East Germany between 1976 and 1987.
Uwe, aged 13 in 1976, was a committed Young Pioneer. Katrin, aged 12 in 1984, expressed outrage at the fact that a relative had asked to leave the country to settle in the West.
But the exhibition also documents the case of Angela, a 16-year-old “punk” arrested in 1981 and who spent seven weeks in jail for circulating a poem in which she criticized the system, saying work was the only freedom allowed. Visitors can read her Stasi secret police file and see a mock-up of the cell she was held in.
Children can also sit in a small mock plane and select would-be destinations at the touch of a button.
When Budapest or Moscow is selected, the loudspeaker simply says: “Please fasten your seatbelts.” But if a child chooses to go to Dublin or Paris, a voice tells him: “You are not allowed to leave the country.”
Large panels also outline the regime’s negative points. Socialism, one panel underscores, was “a broad promise” and a “dream” aimed at sharing wealth more equally, “but it didn’t work.”
Speaking of democracy, the children are taught that “in the GDR, people did not choose their government and they could not elect another.” The ruling party was also involved in deciding what should be printed in the newspapers and these were not allowed “to talk of problems faced by the country,” the youngsters learned.
After a 90-minute tour culminating in the story of the joyous collapse of the Berlin Wall in a peaceful revolution in 1989, Zacharie, aged nine, decided that the “GDR ended because people didn’t want it to go on.”
“But not everything was bad,” he added.
For Bruell, who grew up in East Germany, it was important to point out the negative aspects of the state so that children “would understand why the country collapsed” and “the meaning of democracy.”
“It is only by comparing things that they can understand how lucky we are today,” she added.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, has on several occasions spoken out on the need to convey a sense of the past to today’s youth.
On a visit this month to the main Stasi prison in Berlin, which has been turned into a museum, she underscored how important it was that “this chapter of the history of the East German dictatorship is not covered up or forgotten.”