Cashing in on East German nostalgia

19th November 2007, Comments 0 comments

Although tourists are happy to spend on souvenirs marking a dark period in German history, critics say such business trivializes the past.


A 20-gram piece of the Berlin Wall for 5.40 euros ($7.90) or an East German stamp in your passport for 3 euros -- these are just some of the souvenirs available at the former border crossing of Checkpoint Charlie.

Foreign tourists visiting the German capital are happy to part with their money for East German memorabilia 18 years after the fall of the wall.

"We help them understand a piece of history," said chemistry student Christopher Seifert, who poses three times a week in a Soviet military uniform at Checkpoint Charlie and charges 1.50 euros to be photographed with tourists.

But people who suffered under East Germany's repressive regime are not happy at seeing the former crossing point being turned into what Jens Planer-Friedrich calls a "tasteless fun-fair."

Planer-Friedrich, who represents a victims' organization, said Checkpoint Charlie, where dozens of East Germans risked their lives to escape to the West, is not the place to make money.

A theatrical atmosphere

Today it has taken on a theatrical atmosphere, with stern-faced "border guards" like Seifert closely examining tourists before pressing an exit stamp in their passports.


"They'd be disappointed if I didn't do it," said the student, who attends to about 200 tourists a day this way, most of them Americans. "They want a keepsake of something that no longer exists."

Occasionally Germans from the east who feel insulted by the antics of Seifert and his fellow-actors come up and tell them they should be ashamed of themselves, he says.

"But all I'm doing is making tourists happy," he said. "We are maintaining the memory of the past."

Still, Planer-Friedrich and his fellow victims remember things differently. They are frustrated at what they see as a distorted image that people have of what life was really like in East Germany.

Even if the activities at Checkpoint Charlie are about making money and not East German ideology, Planer-Friedrich still finds they are "worthy of criticism." German history

Elvis, another student who poses with tourists for money, sees nothing wrong in dressing up in Soviet military uniform. "I think it's great that people from different countries come here to Checkpoint Charlie to have their photographs taken with us," he said. 


A few yards away, traders have set up stalls selling Russian fur hats, military medals and blue uniforms worm by the former youth brigade in East Germany.

The are also pieces of the Berlin Wall in all shapes and sizes as well as T-shirts and other apparel with East German symbols.

"That is German history," said Maria Schramm, who owns a souvenir shop overlooking Checkpoint Charlie. Italians and Spaniards are her best customers, she says.

It appears East Germany had to go bankrupt before it could become profitable, says another handler.

East German food brands that disappeared from supermarket shelves after the collapse of communism are now back in shops in the east.

"Many people identify themselves with the products they grew up with," said Ramona Oteiza, a businesswoman who organizes the Ostpro trade fair for former East German goods.

Many say it is natural to want those things back.

19 November 2007

Copyright DPA with Expatica

Subject: Germany, East Germany, nostalia, business, Berlin, history

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