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The Guardian (UK)
October 27, 2001
Bad cars, good times
The old East Germany is coming into fashion

John Hooper in Berlin

I was hurrying through the passageway by the S-bahn at Savignyplatz when I spotted them: two board games in colourful presentation boxes. One was called Ferner Osten ("Far East"), another Stalinallee, the original name for the highway that cuts through east Berlin. The first was a rally game, but with a dose of Trivial Pursuit. Players race rickety Trabant cars around the old German Democratic Republic and, when on certain squares, pick up cards with questions such as: "What percentage of GDR households owned a private vehicle in 1989 [the year the Wall came down]?" The answer? 54%.

Stalinallee is Monopoly in reverse, Communist-style, but with lots of role-playing. It is set in the 1950s. The lowering tower blocks that flank the road have just been built and players must steer through a jungle of party officials and black marketeers to secure the last flat.

One card says: "State security has recruited you as an 'unofficial co-worker'. You can inform on the player of your choice and send him or her back 10 squares."

The games are an inventive manifestation of what is known as Ostalgie. It may seem incredible, but many GDR Germans still feel some affection for the state that gave us the Berlin Wall and steroid-powered athletes.

Half the east Berliners who voted in the city elections on Sunday backed the party that grew out of the former Communists. Support for the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) is partly about protesting against sky-high unemployment in the east and the destruction of its economy. But, like Ostalgie, it is also partly about laying claim to an identity.

Most easterners - and, indeed, westerners - would agree that 40 years of Communist rule moulded a different sort of German: less trusting yet more obedient, perhaps, but also less materialistic, less ephemeral and status-conscious than the typical westerner. What many from GDR feel is that, since reunification, that singularity - the good as well as the bad - has been ignored, if not actively despised.

Maybe that is changing. After all, the shop, stuffed with Ostalgic memorabilia, was in a chic part of the west.

For westerners, particularly younger westerners, the GDR is acquiring that same patina of exoticism that nowadays attaches to bell-bottom trousers and skin-tight shirts.

A TV channel here revived an old East German black-and-white crime series recently. The set's walls vibrate visibly when the actors slam doors. Officers of the Volkspolizei in shiny Wartburg cars chase motorbike-riding villains wearing crash helmets the shape of upturned pudding basins. Witnesses warily address the show's glamorous female lead as "Comrade Inspector".

It's the best thing on lacklustre German telly: a precious glimpse into a world as irretrievably lost as that of the Aztecs, but which - it seems barely credible - began to vanish only 12 years ago.

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