Word of the Week: Ostalgie

The year 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall – a monumental day in German history. But despite Germany’s reunification, some Germans still exhibit Ostalgie – a deep yearning for the East German way of life.

The word Ostalgie is a hybrid of the words Ost (“east”) and Nostalgie (“nostalgia”). Thus, the word literally means nostalgia for the east. Germans who grew up in the socialist system of the east sometimes feel nostalgic for certain aspects that disappeared after reunification, ranging from staple food items no longer on store shelves to the workplace under a socialist government.

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Germans exhibiting Ostalgie often retain images of their East German childhood about which they have fond memories. Popular items that may instigate feelings of Ostalgie include Spreewaldgurken (gherkins from the Spree forest), Rot-Weiss toothpaste, chicken-shaped plastic egg cups, the Sandmännchen (“sand man”) television show, Trabant cars and traffic lights depicting the famous East German Ampelmännchen.

While some Germans feel Ostalgie in relation to East German products, others sometimes miss the sense of community they felt when the borders were closed. They occasionally also complain about poverty in the west, claiming that while they lacked freedom to travel beyond the GDR, everyone had a job.

The things that trigger Ostalgie, however can vary. Likewise, the feelings of Ostalgie can range from missing the products associated with someone’s childhood to a deep yearning for the socialist system of government. Feelings of Ostalgie, however, are sometimes criticized for downplaying or even glorifying the negative aspects of the East German socialist government, which can easily become overshadowed with the positive memories from ones past.

Over the years, the word has even been used more broadly to describe the nostalgia for life under the socialist system felt by anyone from the communist countries of Eastern Europe (such as the Soviet Union and Poland). But most commonly, the word describes the longing felt by East Germans that miss certain aspects of their lives behind the wall.

In Berlin, the Ampelmann store chain has profited from the feelings of Ostalgie, selling products that contain the famous image of the Ampelmann. But throughout Germany, you might be able to find remnants or reminders of East Germany. To you, they might mean very little. But to former East German residents, they might trigger feelings of Ostalgie.

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

11 items that will give you a taste of Ostalgie

“Ostalgie” is a special kind of nostalgia. In the US, some people collect old soda and gas station signs or old cars. All over the world there are also people who collect old relics from the former East Germany. Trabis, GDR signs, East German food, TV shows – all are examples of Ostalgie.

1. Trabant

The “Trabi” may not be the fastest car, or the prettiest car, or even a good car for that matter, but for anyone who has a touch of “Ostalgie,” it is the perfect cure. People in East German would literally register their children at birth for Trabants, in the hopes that by the time he or she turned 18, a car would be available. Trabi enthusiasts can still be found all around the world. In the US, there is an annual Trabi Parade in DC to mark the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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2. Rotkäppchen

Rotkäppchen is one of the few East German brands that survived reunification, and is still widely enjoyed in both the East and West.

3. DEFA

The film company DEFA produced a huge chunk of East German television programming. Its fairy tale series was particularly beloved by children. Most of the full length films are still available on YouTube.

4. Berlin Wall pieces

While not strictly a piece of “Ostalgie” the Berlin Wall is nevertheless one of the most symbolic parts of East Germany. Today, pieces of the Berlin wall are attached to key chains, magnets, or used as paper weights. For some, the wall is still a symbol of forty years under a surveillance state. Others, though, see it as a symbol of hard-fought freedom.

5. Pittiplatsch and Friends

Pittiplatsch the kobold and his companions were a staple in East German children’s television. Pittiplatsch dolls are still around to buy, and the older episodes are available online.

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6. Spee washing detergent