Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Way Things Were

When historians want to discuss the issue of what it is possible to learn about the past through research, they will often use Leopold von Ranke's (1795-1886) (in)famous phrase "wie es eigentlich gewesen"--the way things really were. I say the phrase is "infamous" because it is actually grammatically incorrect; it should read "wie es eigentlich gewesen ist." Nobody is sure why it was published like that. Anyway, I thought of it while composing this entry on "the way things were" in East Germany during the Deutsche Demokratische Republic (DDR). I do not directly study this period in Germany history, but I try to learn a little bit here and there: 1) so I know how events in the period I research ended up playing out, and 2) so I can teach it. I've kept my eyes open, and here are two of reminders of the "old" Germany I've come across.

Last week I visited a small photography exhibit by Helmut Schulze to promote a new edition of his book with Gregor Kunz, Bilder von Dresden (Pictures of Dresden). Most of the photos are from the 5 years right after die Wende (the "turn"--ie. the 1989 revolution), and they show mixtures of the old and the new, decay and revitalization. You can see an example of this at the link above, which shows a line of old cars and an old yellow street car--and on the poles on the sidewalk are  posters for a political party that was illegal during the DDR.

Schulze's photographs captured a world that largely no longer exists, with a few exceptions. One of  those is a quirky feature of old-Eastern German streets, the  Ampelmenschen ("traffic light men") with their little hats. There was a public outcry when public officials planned to remove the little figures after 1989, so they've stayed, and you can still whether you are in old-East or -West Berlin by the lights at the crosswalks, and of course they're all over here in Saxony. There's one in the foreground in the photo on the left. I was surprised, however, to discover that at my local tram stop, Bahnhof-Mitte, there are Ampelmädchen ("traffic light girls") with two braided pigtails! They are the idea of Petra Bossinger, who lives outside Cologne. Unsurprisingly, the Ampelmenschen have been commercialized: you can buy their likenesses on postcards, t-shirts, magnets (I have two), tote bags, etc. It's only a matter of time before the Ämpelmädchen become commodified kitsch as well.

Speaking of the ultimate stereotypical East-German material culture meets stereotyped West-German consumer culture, around the block from me you can rent a refurbished Trabant ("Trabi") to take a tour of the city in. Never mind that East Germans used  to wait years for one of these "cardboard boxes on wheels," you now have the opportunity to take a Trabi-Safari! (The pink one is advertising the Kirchentag (Church Day), an "Evangelical" (read: Protestant) faith conference that will be taking place here in June. I hear 100,000 
people from around the world are expected!)

p.s.--I thought I might add a short cultural note. Perhaps you are aware of Germans' stereotypical preference for order? This extends to traffic-pedestrian interactions--namely, that everyone should obey all the traffic laws all the time. Americans are exhorted not to jaywalk: "think of the children!" (who would otherwise learn dangerous habits). For instance, my roommate's father, down from Berlin for his granddaughter's sixth birthday party back in early December, reproached us for crossing the street from the tram stop to the sidewalk despite the red Ampelmensch--even though it was only one lane and there were no on-coming cars. "Do Dresdners always cross against the light?" he asked, "Or only on weekends?" More recently, I overheard a young boy of maybe 5 explaining the crosswalk rules to his father: "You must not go on red, but on green you must go, you must!" he exclaimed. So very "German." That's the way things were--and sometimes still are.


  1. Perhaps teaching children not to be (blindly)obedient is the best way to think of them?

  2. I would agree, Clay, but many Germans still believe in rules for rules' sake, at all ages. ;-)


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