Coffee with Comrade Honecker

BERLIN, July 4 — Breakfast, lunch and dinner are three of my favorite times of day and, not surprisingly, I believe that eating can be an educational experience. So our meals — from the elegant to the down-to-earth — were a particularly enjoyable part of learning about Poland and Germany during our seminar.

A good example was our lunch stop after the morning session described in the previous blog post. We ate in the cafeteria of a business college, the European School of Management Technology. In a delicious bit of irony, the school, whose benefactors include a long list of American corporations, is located in a building which housed the offices of a variety of Communist bigwigs back in the Cold War era.

The former home of the DDR Staatsratgebaude (East German National Council) is in this formidable-looking building:

This building housed offices of the Communist Party and is now a business school

After a serviceable lunch — with a menu including barbecue ribs, slaw and fries in a nod to the American holiday — we took a tour.

Unfortunately, I’ve lost the name of our tour guide, who is the building administrator. She went above and beyond the call of duty to serve us coffee drinks in a spacious lounge next to the school’s library. The entire area used to be the office of Erich Honecker, who headed the Communist Party in East Germany for nearly two decades — a nice workspace. We sat and drank our capuccinos and lattes and wondered if we could get our schools to spring for one of those coffee machines.

Then we walked through the offices, some of which have been adapted as meeting rooms, classrooms and one big ballroom. The architecture is imposing, with large spaces designed to impress or intimidate. My thought was that it would’ve been a heck of a setting for a Power Point presentation if such had existed back then.

The building is also a showcase for kitschy Socialist Realist art. I had camera issues by this point in the trip, but click here for an example of what this looks like.

One more memorable aspect of our visit here was how the sense of smell can contribute to national memory. Some rooms in the building gave off an interesting odor — not unpleasant, but definitely distinctive. Our guide explained that public buildings in the former East Germany all used the same carpet treatment, which wasn’t easy to remove.

“People who lived here under Communism will come in and walk through the building and say, ‘My school smelled just like this.'”

The role of daily life in national memory was one theme of the afternoon session back at the German Historical Museum.

Dr. Andreas Ludwig talked about his work at the Dokumentationzentrum Alltagskultur DDR in nearby Eisenhuttenstadt. I wish we had been able to visit this place. So much of what we have seen chronicles the unthinkable that this organization’s mission of collecting the objects of everyday life in the former East Germany seemed a little comforting.

“Not many objects get to be cultural objects,” he said of the 160,000 item collection. What are the criteria for inclusion? In answer to this, Ludwig raised a cryptic question: “What would you keep if the U.S. were sold to Mexico?”

And what’s his favorite item in the collection? A bottle of glue, he answered. The smell reminds him of his school days.

We also heard from Helmut Frauendorfer, the director of the Hohenschonhausen Memorial. It’s the former site of the East German Stasi (State Security Police) prison, and it’s noteworthy and somewhat controversial because all the museum guides are former prisoners.

“It’s for the human element,” he says. “Guides are free to tell the story in their own way, but they must put it into historical context.”

This is upsetting to some older Germans, who “tend to want to remember rosy pictures of the past,” he said. So much of the educational element is aimed at visitors under 21, who have never experienced life in a divided Germany. Frauendorfer says guides try to remain upbeat, but do try to draw parallels between the prison and the practices of current repressive regimes around the world.

The difference in attititudes between young and old about the past was the topic of the final presentation, by Dr. Sabine Muller of Berlin’s Humboldt University. Recent years have been fertile in terms of research in historical memory, especially since 2009 was an anniversary of three big events in modern Germany history — the 70th of the start of World War II, the 60th of the founding of post-war East and West Germany, and the 20th of re-unification.

History education in Germany needs to address a lot of contradictions, Muller said. One of these is the phenomenon called “Ostalgia” — “ost” being the German word for “east” — among those old enough to remember life in the former East Germany.

“They think of it as the good old bad old days,” she said. But a hopeful sign is that young Germans at least seem to display some interest in learning complete information about their nation’s recent past.

We finished this longest day of our trip with a quick walk to Neue Wache, literally the “New Guard House.” This former billet for troops guarding the Crown Prince of Prussia has been used as a war memorial since 1931. The emphasis of the memorial has been a little different since the end of World War II, as those memorialized have been victims of the Nazis, and since the fall of East Germany, of Soviet-sponsored tyranny.

And then to the Bebelplatz, site of a 1933 book-burning by the Nazis. There’s an unusual below-ground memorial here, designed by a writer whose works went into the fire in the event orchestrated by propaganda minister Josef Goebbels to eliminate ideas unfriendly to Hitler’s new regime. Looking down through a glass plate, you can see rows of empty bookshelves, a reminder of what can happen when censors get their way.

It was also an evocative reminder of the freedoms being celebrated back home on this Independence Day.

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About theoldperfessor

I'm a college professor, teaching journalism and public relations classes at a small private university, and a freelance writer.
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