• Germany's news in English

Exhibition shows everyday life as communism crumbled

Moises Mendoza · 17 May 2011, 13:40

Published: 17 May 2011 13:40 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

It’s been more than 20 years since the Berlin Wall crumbled amid a spate of democratic revolutions across eastern Europe. Yet the very idea of life under communism continues to captivate curious Germans.

For Yara-Colette Lemke, however, the exhibition she’s curating is more than a curiosity. It’s deeply personal. Her mother fled communist East Germany in the 1960s and Lemke grew up in the West. She says Über Leben (a German play on words that could be translated either as “About Life” or “Survival”) helps her make sense of the past.

“Yes it’s true that East Germany was grey, there were long lines and life was difficult,” she said. “Yet somehow there was community. It was the kind of place you could knock on a neighbour’s door at any time and have a coffee.”

The roughly 280 photos from photographers Thomas Hoepker and Daniel Biskup don’t idealize life in the German Democratic Republic or Eastern Europe. They show that there is a strange beauty in the face of hardship.

Somehow, inexplicably, things go on. That’s shown is Hoepker’s photo of an East German soldier and his girlfriend finding a quiet moment to kiss, or the gritty picture of a man with a hard hat headed to work at a communist factory.

Other photos show a starker reality. A man lays sunbathing on the crumbling roof of an apartment building. A family poses for a photo behind fancy food and drink provided by the Stasi, East Germany's feared secret police, for propaganda purposes.

Click here for photo gallery of the exhibition

Though Über Leben spends much of it’s time concentrating on waning days of East Germany, a sizeable portion of the collection concentrates on events occurring in eastern Europe immediately after the fall of communism. The power struggles in Russia and the former Yugoslavia claimed thousands of lives.

Yet there too, resilient people went on with their lives and photographer Daniel Biskup was busy snapping pictures in refugee camps, on street corners and in cemeteries.

Among Lemke’s favourites are the stirring photo of a woman visiting her husband’s grave. Nearby is another photo of a smiling woman holding hands with another soldier.

“Who knows if he survived?” Lemke asked. “Not long before he was just like the other soldier who is now dead.”

Among the exhibition’s most evocative shots show not the horrors of war, but the weird realities and contradictions of living under communism – and the sudden new world for East Germans as they were assimilated into the more prosperous West in the early 1990s.

Story continues below…

One photo shows an East German woman around 1990 or 1991 at a local supermarket stocked with food.

She stares bemusedly at life-sized model of the Milka Cow – that famous purple bovine symbolizing the superiority of western chocolate. In her eyes, Lemke sees confusion, symbolizing a clash of two very different worlds.

“It’s sad in a way,” Lemke said. “Suddenly the world as she knows it is completely different.”

Über Leben runs until October 3 at the German Historical Museum in Berlin. Guided tours are available.

Related links:

Moises Mendoza (moises.mendoza@thelocal.de)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

19:36 May 17, 2011 by finanzdoktor
Come on, be honest, how many of you would really go to a coffee shop that looked like this one?
20:18 May 17, 2011 by derExDeutsche

that's the 'beauty' in the Communist scheme, the competition has been banned. with a little luck you'll get half a filthy cup of Azerbaijan Roast and like it, you selfish ungrateful Git ! Back of the line !
20:26 May 17, 2011 by Jack Kerouac
Thank god communism's hold on Germany is gone. It was terrible.
21:46 May 17, 2011 by wxman
Come on, who wouldn't want a little high efficiency, high mileage classy vehicle like that? You people apparently miss the the value of a Socialist society.
09:44 May 18, 2011 by Joshontour
Hey what's wrong with a little communism? at least we didn't have to worry about bargain shopping; all prices were set from the central bureaucracy. A kg bread cost the same no matter where you went, it made things easier. ;-)
00:39 May 20, 2011 by wenddiver
I think the Trabbi is cute. I wish they were not so hard to get into the US. They have character like a good American Mutt.
Today's headlines
Berlin Holocaust memorial could not be built now: creator
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in Berlin. Photo: DPA.

The architect of the Berlin Holocaust memorial has said that, if he tried to build the monument again today, it would not be possible due to rising xenophobia and anti-Semitism in Germany and the United States.

'Liberal' Germany stopping Europe's 'slide into barbarism'
Ian Kershaw. Photo: DPA

Europe is not slipping into the same dark tunnel of hate and nationalism that it did in the 1930s - mainly thanks to Germany - one of the continent's leading historians has said.

Eurowings strike to hit 40,000 passengers
Travelers impacted by the strike on Thursday wait at Cologne Bonn airport. Photo: DPA.

The day-long strike by a Eurowings cabin crew union is expected to impact some 40,000 passengers on Thursday as hundreds of flights have been cancelled.

Deutsche Bank reports surprise quarter billion profit
Photo: DPA

Troubled German lender Deutsche Bank reported Thursday a surprise €256-million profit in the third quarter, compared with a loss of more than six billion in the same period last year.

US 'warned Merkel' against Chinese takeover of tech firm
Aixtron HQ. Photo: DPA

The German government withdrew its approval for a Chinese firm to purchase Aixtron, which makes semiconductor equipment, after the US secret services raised security concerns, a German media report said Wednesday.

Long-vanished German car brand joins electric race
Photo: DPA

Cars bearing the stamp of once-defunct manufacturer Borgward will once again roll off an assembly line in north Germany from 2018, the firm said Wednesday.

Eurowings cabin crew union to strike all day Thursday
Photo: DPA.

UPDATE: A union representing cabin crews on Lufthansa's budget airline Eurowings has announced that strikes will last all day Thursday as ongoing contract negotiations continue to falter.

Hesse hopes to set example by building Iraqi orphanages
Refugee children in northern Iraq. Photo: DPA

The wealthy central German state of Hesse has set aside €1 million to build a school, family homes and an orphanage in northern Iraq, in an effort to help refugees there.

The Local List
10 German clichés that foreigners get very wrong
David Hasselhoff. Photo: DPA

Whether it be efficiency, humourlessness or a love of a certain Baywatch star, there are many cliches stuck in the heads of foreigners about Germany. But how true are they?

Fake Germanwings victim relative convicted in Cologne
A torn piece of metal at the crash site in 2015. Photo: DPA

A German court on Wednesday gave a woman a year's suspended jail sentence for posing as the cousin of a victim in last year's Germanwings plane crash and obtaining compensation offered by the airline.

10 German clichés that foreigners get very wrong
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
10 ways German completely messes up your English
Germany's 10 most weird and wonderful landmarks
10 things you never knew about socialist East Germany
How Germans fell in love with America's favourite squash
How I ditched London for Berlin and became a published author
12 clever German idioms that'll make you sound like a pro
23 fascinating facts you never knew about Berlin
9 unmissable events to check out in Germany this October
10 things you never knew about German reunification
10 things you're sure to notice after an Oktoberfest visit
Germany's 10 most Instagram-able places
15 pics that prove Germany is absolutely enchanting in autumn
10 German films you have to watch before you die
6 things about Munich that’ll stay with you forever
10 pieces of German slang you'll never learn in class
Ouch! Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
Six reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd