The Near Distance -- "Cultural Otherness" in the Two Germanies

Reflections from a West Berlin Perspective

Susanne Klengel
Berlin, March 1993
Translated by Chris Egger

Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 we have been living in a turmoil of events--or so it seems compared with the self-contented, saturated decade of the 80s as it was generally experienced in West Germany. At times these events occurred in such quick succession that, neither in the West nor in the East, was it possible to follow the developments mentally. Mostly for this reason it is difficult at this time to reach conclusions about the latest historical developments and the present situation which are not heavily influenced by a reflection of daily occurrences. The strongest, persistent cause for irritation that occurred after the disintegration of this separating border was certainly the realization of a basic "otherness". And w ith it a renewed polarization between "citizens from the West" and "citizens from the East". The vision of national unity (both political and cultural) that has been kept up for decades, at times pathetically, at times in a mere political-rhetorical fashion, has been replaced after 1989 with a new awareness. This new awareness that was felt to be something painful by most people resulted from the fact that the two German states had developed very differently after WWII.

In retrospect it is almost surprising that politicians as well as broad sections of the public had been taken so unawares by the differences in the way people think, act and express themselves in East and West Germany. Because of the German-German border over the years a peculiar cultural difference could develop between two places in immediate proximity. But in the West this fact was not really noticed in political and ideologic discourses. The new polarization between East and West can therefore in part be traced back to a sudden, mutual disillusionment about the other group. All the differences, this "otherness" was felt to be a burden and only rarely has it been seen as a chance for the West, too, to rethink it's own cultural borders.

These days everybody is talking about the complex structure of this "otherness" and it is therefore susceptible to platitudes of all sorts. In the following [text] I would like to clarify this otherness in a few points without referring specifically to any daily occurrences. In doing this it is not enough to merely list, explain, and categorize the relevant pieces of circumstantial evidence end thereby prove the "otherness" of the other group. At least as important is the aspect of self reflection of the "speaker" which in my case is done from a West Berlin perspective. The latest developments in anthropology (a discipline that is highly self reflective) show that, especially when dealing with themes of cultural otherness, this kind of self reflection must be taken into consideration. One of our concerns must always be the critical evaluation of our own point of view, our relation to the other and the type as well as the patterns of our discourse about the other. 1 How much this evaluation of one's own point of view has been neglected especially in West Germany is sometimes discernible in articles that deal with the new German German relationship:

There is a general lack of perception {in the West, Susanne Klengel}, everywhere it is business as usual. And this can not be obscured by the fact that much is being said and written about the East. So far the East has not found access into the West's daily life and thinking. 2

In the years after 1989 this inadequate perception of the other, that "wall in the head" soon became a topic in political discussions and it is being lamented to this day. It would be inaccurate, though, to see this act of drawing a mental border as an expression of mere stubbornness because it is also a protection against the sudden loss of orientation a nd the turmoil of events. In the following observations by Angelo Bolaffi (a philosopher from Rome who chose to live in West Berlin in the 70s and 80s) the scope of this loss of orientation and insecurity in the face of the disappearance of the Berlin Wall is expressed drastically: "In the beginning I perceived only very un-clearly what was happening inside me. Disbelief, a feeling of emptiness and a fear of expanses. A downright case of agoraphobia." Up until then the German German border had in various ways managed to secure identities in this case that of an Italian left wing intellectual:

The sudden lack of a wall shocked me: even though I was in places where I had spent important (if not exactly easy) years of my life I noticed that I had totally lost my orientation. I had literally gotten lost in that space that had opened up before me. The fall of the Wall had produced a completely unexpected perspective. --3--

In a Kantian turn Bolaffi finally copes with his deep insecurity and he comes to see this new and surprising perspective as a chance to break out of a mental condition in which the wall had defined a paradoxical level of expectations even for left-wing intellectuals. Out of his individual experience Bolaffi extends to all people concerned a missionary gesture that has the character of an appeal for a re-orientation and, on a mental level, an emancipation. However, what is necessary for a mental re-orientation is a knowledge of and a certain sensibility for this Otherness which is still perceived as something irritating. Especially since in the new inner-German East-West relationship the West's discourse is clearly seen as dominating or even colonizing. Bolaffi envisions a mental emancipation of each individual through the realization that one's [mental] horizon was formerly very limited and through a concurrent "reclaiming of one's freedom to judge". But this vision is confronted by the difficult legacy of a cultural/mental inequity between a seemingly stable West and an insecure East. For this reason the question we need to ask ourselves today is how we can deal with the problems caused by the sudden realization of this otherness. In the following [text] I would like to broach this question and to open a historical dimension of this otherness experience in the contacts between East and West Germany that goes back to the decade before the opening of the Wall. This might help to counteract the atmosphere of self-affirmation in the West to some degree.

In the decades before the opening of the Berlin Wall very stereotypical pictures of the other Germany emerged on both sides. Let me point out only that - with the exception of constructed ideological phantoms - there were the [following two stereotypes]: on the one hand we have the legend of the dreariness and dreadfulness of the GDR which people opposed with their private and at times touching search for a small piece of (often material) happiness in the grayness of everyday life. On the other hand there is the myth of the glittering and colorful West that invaded GDR homes every night via TV. This is a topic I do not need to elaborate on here. Stereotypes of this kind have continued to exist to this day in one form or another.

But even so there were (in the words of Lutz Niethammer, a historian from Nordrheinwestfalen) attempts "to gain a real access into the secrets of GDR culture", long before the Turn. These attempts were made out of an interest that was not politically, economically or ideologically motivated and went beyond the stereotypical conceptions.--4--Usually these attempts were based on some kind of "field work" and were coupled with a curiosity about GDR culture which, very often, caused mutual astonishment. For many of these West Germans a [short] ride into the GDR seemed more exciting than a trip to Brazil or Japan and the reason for this was a peculiar kind of fascination with this other Germany that was so close yet at the same time so distant and that elicited an ambivalent kind of exoticism based on this tension between familiarity and unfamiliarity. Crossing the border from one half of Berlin into the other half resembled a passage into a different world where not only the appearance of the storefronts, the packaging of goods or advertisement slogans attracted one's attention but where even everyday language, with its unusual vocabulary, seemed to be a little different.

Before the Turn the historians of the oral history project by Lutz Niethammer did a study of "the life and social structure of the Ruhr area", intending to do a comparable study in the GDR.--5-- And they, too, admit a [kind of] curiosity and nervousness caused solely by the different nature of this close distance:

On this trip Dodo was particularly excited because of her (at 37 still undiminished) desire for the new, for people and for the adventure of an ethnology of the inland behind the Wall. --6-

This phenomenon (the West's fascination with this close distance) can be explained a little more precisely with the help of a specific aesthetic experience that a few people had during their contact with the GDR, especially in West Berlin in the 80s. Hints of the existence of such an aesthetic appeared in lively reports of travels and excursions to East Berlin and the GDR, in collections of memorabilia from the VEB (Volkseigene Betriebe = state-owned factories) that seemed to have been put together according to strange criteria or in the conscious usage of East German colloquialisms. It was not the exclusive goal of this peculiar phenomenological approach to the immediate vicinity (and the aesthetic that resulted from it) to transport curios from the "state-owned" everyday life back to the West and to collect them, although this aspect was [certainly] not unimportant. Most of all it was a conscious play with semantic layers that could be won from the world of GDR "objects". Elsewhere I have tried to determine the mechanisms of this aesthetic experience with help from Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp" (1964) and also considering post-modernist theories of aesthetic and anthropology.--7--

At this point it seems important to me to point out once more the deconstructionist process that is characteristic for this aesthetic. Starting points were forms of representation from the GDR's everyday life with their strange effect, semantic irritations that were hard to disentangle for people from the West: the system of cultural symbols, the signifier and the signified, functioned in totally different ways and the reason for this was (of course) the different political system. In order to understand this strangely close other the Western mind, when looking at the world of GDR objects and everyday life, was always searching for characteristics that would make the official face of the socialist system apparent in the way things were arranged, in the state's advertisement strategies, in the style of things and even in people's language or mentality. The condensation of the socialist utopia in its catchy slogans and in the official political-cultural representations had, through its coherence, purism and logic a certain characteristic which, according to Susan Sontag, the most convincing forms of camp have, too: it was unintentionally naive or at least it appeared that way. Pedagogic and sometimes a bit awkward advertising slogans like "well packaged is half-sold", cigars of a brand called "speechless" or the neon sign "Plastics and elastomers from Schkopau"**1** (unforgettable for every transit traveler between Germany and East Berlin) were meant completely serious.

The GDR collections were created by plucking certain objects from the coherent appearance of the GDR system and transferring them into one's own, Western world: from kitchen utensils and paper products to plastic products, toys and souvenirs. The VEB objects that had been removed from their original context were then, in their Western surroundings, recombined to a new ensemble which, in its components, still reflected the GDR in a fragmented and distorted manner. In the other Germany the East-phenomenologists of the 80s saw many of the things and words in quotation marks so to speak. The object s were a kind of ironic decoration and elements of a game that was understood and shared by a small circle of initiated people. These East-phenomenologists could be considered a strange species of peeping Toms and "listening Toms" that were constantly on the prowl for new things, words and stories from the real, existing socialism. The idea to actively arrange the social reality down to its details according to a [master] plan and with an educational purpose shimmered through again and again in the GDR aesthetic of everyday life. And this aesthetic was a cultural field that, in the face of Western analysis, proved to be amazingly coherent. By means of deconstruction an epistemological balancing act became possible: apart from the political, economic and scientific analysis' this way of looking (that only appeared to be phenomenological) was constantly searching for inscriptions that made the totalitarian idea of this socialist society apparent in all its words, its behavior and its everyday objects and that thereby demasked it.

This does not mean, however, that as a result a stereotypical judgement was reached about the society or the culture shaped by this idea. The deconstruction of the official meaning did not lead to any precisely formulated critique of the official representation but rather to a subtle sema ntic subversion that playfully fathomed and thwarted the different levels of meaning. There was always the attempt to read the GDR as a cultural entity as precisely as possible "against the grain". Just how much a finely nuanced knowledge of everyday reality in the GDR had been a prerequisite for the application of such deconstructionist strategies becomes apparent only today. So in retrospect this deconstructionist approach proves to be a bridge to a more precise perception of the after-effects and inscriptions which the other political/cultural system, after its disappearance, left behind in the way people in the former East Germany think and act as well as in their mentality. With this background many aspects of the behavior and the structure of argumentation of ex-GDR citizens which, with its different logic had irritated all those in the West who had up until then lived with their backs to the other Germany, did not seem all that strange any more.

But, as I noted initially, in describing this aesthetic experience we must also reflect on the point of view of the speaker as one more essential aspect. It is only in this manner that this aesthetic experience can simultaneously become an experience of cultural otherness. It is certainly no coincidence that in the attempt to describe GDR everyday culture concepts from anthropology and ethnology come to mind time and again -- two disciplines where especially in the 70-ies and 80-ies a critical self-evaluation led to a new definition of their basis for scientific argumentation. Questions like "Who has the authority to speak for a group's identity or authenticity?" and "What are the essential elements and boundaries of a culture?"--8-- show us that well-known pairs of concepts like "near and distant", "one's own and the other/alien", "wild and civilized" or "center and periphery" need to be negotiated in a field of ever more intrinsically interwoven relations. The GDR experiences could not be reduced to simply being part of the "other". They always were and still are also part of the "own": out of this ambivalence of apparent familiarity and unfamiliarity grew a relationship of tensions that exists to this day. The traditional divisions of the ethnologic field into "distant" and "close"--9-- had to become shaky especially [during this evaluation of] the "ethnology of the inland behind the Wall".

Because the processes of modernization were not simultaneous in the two countries the GDR reality, almost like in a puzzle picture, kept making aspects of the "own" visible, mostly in the form of memories of a not-so-distant past:

At first one feels reminded of the 50-ies (or even earlier years) but the two do not coincide with one another -- this activates a process of reception that keeps oscillating back and forth. The consequence is a kind of floating between an object and its inner image, between East and West. --10--

This seemingly nostalgic tracking down of traces of the past or one's childhood in the old-fashioned-looking reality of the GDR is not so much a sign of sentimentality (every-day life in the GDR was much too dull) but rather an essential part of this otherness experience. Fascination and a simultaneous unease were the extremes of this shimmering and comp lex relation that expressed itself most clearly in the encounter with the other German language. The oral history researcher Lutz Niethammer aptly called this ambiguity and the subversive potential that was used in GDR every-day language a "labyrinth of semantics":

The encoding of all communication with multiple meanings was, as a rule, not easy to decipher and required a heightened attention in order to perceive not just one layer. It had its roots in the fact that structures of the authorities were ever present but were not or could not always be enforced. And it was exactly in these gaps that people relieved themselves through their sense of humor; a usage of language that plays with the borderline of truth and taboo and that hones its skills in this game.--11--

In the aforementioned aesthetic and anthropologic approach to GDR culture these types of communication formed one of the most astonishing fields of experience: similar to the way Niethammer described it there was always a renewed sense of wonder about the strangeness of expressions, about subversive shifts in meaning with various allusions, about ambiguities and strategies of de-clarification. But right here an essential and discomforting difference can be noticed between those who speak (in East or West): through that Western, seemingly phenomenologic approach the cultural ensemble of the GDR people's democracy was deconstructed in its propagated totality, the official representations were, in a respectless/playful manner, dissolved into ambiguities and through this the state's claim on all truth and meaning was deliberately questioned. Bu t on the other side [of the Wall] strategies were developed to hold one's ground as an individual in the face of a given truth, which is to say the state power, through the use of ambiguities, deception and other means of lingual subversion.

For this reason there was in this an existential honesty and necessarily a truth that, by definition, can not play a part in the described deconstructionist processes [of the West]. But exactly as a consequence of this one became even more fully aware of the cultural differences within one's own language. In the discussion of the German-German otherness-problem we need to evaluate especially this difference which requires a high degree of reflection about the form of our discourse as well as our own point of view. Today there is a wide-spread believe that we can uncover an ultimate "truth" in respect to those decades when the socialist state had claimed all truth for itself: only a tissue of lies, so goes the argument, could have fallen apart like that. It is a tragedy that, in proceeding this way, there is a renewed division in which the past is either denied or pitilessly revised: it is either suppressed or it is searched for a "pure" truth (as becomes evident in the way the Stasi **2** files are being handled). And again this binary constellation makes it possible for the former West to distance itself since it has seemingly nothing to do with these problems and therefore believes all it is required to do is help [the former East Germans in coming to terms with their past].

In my opinion all of these questions are important if one wants to go beyond a chronology of historic events and relations when discussing the cultural forms of representation of the former GDR. In the meantime ethnology has been joined by archaeology: only broadly based "archaeological" studies will lead to a thorough understanding of the processes of hybridization that occurred when these two different German cultures met. It is therefore important to secure the traces, which that other culture has inscribed in everybody's memory.

After the exorcism on the range of products from VEB production (in the years after 1989), when kitchen utensils, light bulbs, clothes and other everyday objects were sold in flea markets in large quantities and dirt-cheap one must now start an archaeology of everyday life in the GDR in private collections, company archives (which are becoming more and more sparse) or even in museums.--12-- On the other hand there is the East German politician Wolfgang Thierse who, after the Turn, coined the appeal that the citizens of the former GDR should start "telling each other their stories". This is one of the key phrases for the understanding of a past everyday world which so noticeably and perceptibly reaches into the present of the unified Germany.--13--

Only today can we fully appreciate the value of all those undertakings that (before and after the Turn) tried to document the spheres of living and everyday culture from a point of view not motivated by political or ideologic interests exclusively. At this point I would like to mention two examples out of many. The first one is a work called "Das Berliner Mietshaus"[=The Apartment Building in Berlin], created by the author Irina Liebmann in 1982, which documents the history of a house in East Berlin through the stories of its tenants. The second one is a project by the Deutsche Film AG (DEFA) [=German Film Inc.], a long-term study of the "Kinder von Golzow" [=The Children from Golzow], whose lives in the GDR have been documented with the camera since 1961.--14--

Irina Liebmann's book used to be an insider tip among connoisseurs whereas the DEFA project was taken notice of even in the West early on. In retrospect the problems of historical objectivity and truth are not nearly as interesting (because they can not be solved) as the statements about people's life-stories and about everyday life. The problem of otherness that developed over the course of several decades is very complex and complicated and I could only superficially touch on some of the developments in the 80-ies here. But we should view the problems of present-day multi-culturalism in Germany under that same light - since the problem of cultural otherness is not restricted to the differences between East and West Germany... At this point I would simply like to express my hope that the existing mental and cultural borders will grow more flexible and that out of curiosity people will cross this border again and again.


1. These questions have influenced international debates (in both culture and literary theory) of post colonialism especially in the 80s. Compare e.g. James Clifford / George Marcus: "Writing Culture". Berkeley; University of California Press 1986. Gayatry Spivak: "In Other Worlds. Essays in Cultural Politics". New York, Methuen 1987.

2. Frauke Maria Eidam and Hartwick Oswald: "Der Westen denkt den Osten nicht wirklich mit. Vier Thesen zur Entwicklung neuer Ideen, Gewerkschafts und Gesellschaftsmodelle". In: Frankfurter Rundschau, January 21, 1993.

3. Angelo Bolaffi: "Mein Deutschland. Erfahrungen eines Italieners" in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Jan. 18, 1993.

4. Lutz Niethammer/Alexander von Plato/Dorothee Wierling: "Die volkseigene Erfahrung. Eine Archaeologie des Lebens in der Industrieprovinz der DDR". Berlin: Rowohlt 1991, p. 71.

5. Lutz Niethammer/ Alexander von Plato (Publ.): "Lebensgeschichte und Sozialstruktur im Ruhrgebiet 1930-1960". 3 volumes. New edition, Bonn/Berlin: Dietz-Verlag 1989.

6. Lutz Niethammer...: Die volkseigene Erfahrung. p. 33

7. Compare Susanne Klengel" "Marche'aux puces, Camp, VEB. Anmerkungen zur Aesthetischen Erfahrung der Postmoderne" in: Hilmar Frank (publisher): "Montage als Kunstprinzip". Berlin: Akademie der Kuenste zu Berlin 1991, p.125-131.

8. James Clifford: "The Predicament of Culture. Twentieth Century Ethnography, Literature and Art". Cambridge,Harvard University Press 1988, p.8.

9. Compare Ge'rard Lenclud: "Le grand partage ou la tentation ethnologique" in: Ge'rard Althabe/Daniel Fabre/Ge'rard Lenclud (publishers): Vers une ethnologie du pre'sent. Paris: Editions de la Maison de sciences de l'homme 1992, p. 9-37, esp. p.26 and following.

10. Ulrich Giersch: "Die Ostung. Orientierungshilfe im transnationalen Raum" in: Tumult. Schriften zur Verkehrswissenschaft, no.17, 1992, p.22

11. Lutz Niethammer...: "Die Volkseigene Erfahrung"...p.43

12. Compare e.g. the exhibition "Spurensicherung - 40 Jahre Werbung in der DDR", Frankfurter Werbemuseum, Nov. and Dec. 1990. And "Schmerz lass nach - Drogerie-Werbung der DDR", Dresden, Deutsches Hygiene-Museum 1992.

13. It would be quite discomforting, though, if - and I should make a point of mentioning this here - a renewed polarization were created by this. For example through a nostalgic and at the same time exclusive recollection of an own, vague "identity" that would oppose a " colonization by the West".

14. Irina Liebmann: "Berliner Mietshaus. Begegnungen und Gespraeche". Halle-Leipzig: Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 1982. So far there are ten documentaries about the "Children from Golzow" by the director Winfried Junge.

Notes by the translator

**1** The words "Plaste" and "Elaste" used in the German original are GDR colloquialisms.
**2** Stasi is a GDR colloquialism for "Staatssicherheitsdienst" = State Security Service.