Last Sunday (9th November) Berliners celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. A momentous occasion movingly marked by temporarily dividing the city again with a 9-mile “Lichtgrenze” made up of illuminated white balloons along the old division, which were then let off into the misty night sky at the same time the first people crossed the border all those years ago. Though the few remaining stretches of the Wall in Berlin are only there for the sake of history and tourism, not all aspects of GDR-life have been so thoroughly dismantled. From politics to bathing habits, what has survived these past 25 years?
1. Die Linke
The first minister president for Germany’s far left Die Linke party – the post re-unification successor of the SED, East Germany’s ruling party – is about to be elected in the former East German state of Thuringia. It’s a strongly contested result, not least by Chancellor Merkel and President Guack, who join many people in feeling uncomfortable at having a party so strongly associated with the East German regime in a position of such power.
On a more light-hearted note, the GDR’s brand of sparkling wine is now hugely popular throughout Germany – it’s certainly what we buy whenever we get together with friends to celebrate.
3. Das Sandmännchen
Both East and West Germany had their own versions of this children’s bedtime TV show, but when the West German version stopped being made in 1991, archived episodes of the East German version were played throughout Germany and still are today.
4. FKK (Freikörperkultur “Free Body Culture” – otherwise known as nude bathing)
Swimming in the lakes surrounding Berlin is a wonderful thing. And what you’ll find, wherever you go, is a significant proportion of young and old people swimming and sun bathing completely in the buff. The same is true at the Baltic seaside resorts. Nude bathing wherever you like – a strong tradition in GDR (though not unheard of in West Germany too) – is still very much in vogue.
5. The Turn Right Sign
Ever been driving in Germany and wondered what that little green arrow next to the traffic lights indicates? It’s a traffic symbol adopted from East Germany post-reunification which means that you can turn right at a red traffic light, if the road is free.
Any day of the week in Berlin you’ll see streams of the old East German cars painted in vivid colours coughing and spluttering their way through the city. They mostly contain tourists on a “Trabi-Safari” but not all of them are for tourists – you do still see a few in their original beige being driven for more than just reasons of being pseudo-cool.
7. Vita Cola
Most Spätis (shops open late at night) still sell this oddly lemony East German take on Coca Cola. It’s probably deemed much cooler to bring this to a party than the original American coke.
8. ‘Fit’ washing up liquid
And, if you really want to, you can wash up your Vita Cola glass with East German washing up liquid when you’re done – still very much available on the shelves of all good stores.
9. Spreewaldhof Gurken
No potato salad would be complete without a few sliced gherkins thrown in. This particular brand of pickled cucumbers is popular throughout Germany. Spreewaldhof definitely dominates the pickles shelf in our local supermarket!
10. Universal childcare
Enough frivolity: I’ll end on another political note. The provision of childcare throughout Germany has become more like the East German model of providing every child with a place for free. Today, costs vary between different states, but still every child has a legal right to a childcare place from the age of three.
As expats, we know that habits of thought and taste survive international moves, great distances and new political climates. In the case of the GDR’s legacy – some are charming, some are harmless, some catch on with everyone else and help them out, some serve to make us politically uneasy. But all show that traditions and, in some cases, political attitudes do not always come down with walls.