Ostalgia and Onward

Lena and I sipped espresso at an outdoor Mexican cafe near her Berlin apartment. She read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, as I leafed through Die Welt (an editorial lambasted Germans for their increasing SUV use and constant flying as the planet heats). I paused, struck by this globalized moment. This was the good side of globalization, a borderless sharing of Italian espresso, Mexican food, and British literature. And yet that same juggernaut was burning enough carbon to melt the final glaciers in Germany’s southern highlands and erase entire islands from the Pacific. I wondered how it was that my German friends and I so easily embrace cappuccinos and chimichangas but not the more challenging aspects of green living.

The menu showed Kahlo’s paintings of former East German leader Erich Honecker; Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera had a fascination with the Communist bloc, particularly East Germany, which, for all its Stasi-inspired fear, did create an egalitarian society in which basic needs were met. As unemployment has risen in Germany (12.7 percent in the east of the country; 7.5 percent in the west), so too has “Ost-algia,” a kind of nostalgia for all things East German. Director Wolfgang Becker’s 2003 film Good Bye Lenin!captured this mood; and throughout Germany, brands from the east carry symbolic weight: a sense of a more stable and secure time.

For me, it goes far deeper than ostalgia. Berlin’s history slams into you at every turn. For several days I biked the city. I passed under the Victory Column statue, completed in 1873, which commemorates Prussian defeats of France and Austria. I cycled along Berlin’s most splendid street, Unter den Linden, past Humbolt University, where Hegel and Einstein taught.

It’s a pleasure to ride in a city that has bicycle lanes everywhere, complete with miniature traffic lights. Amid hundreds of others bikers, I two-wheeled it through large swaths of the city in these safe, convenient lanes. I passed one eye-watering exception where a highway runs through the city, a relic of the urban renewal of the 1960s. But how is it that the “Los Angeles model” of urban renewal affected Berlin, and many other German cities, so minimally?

I put that question to Peter Engelke over dinner one night in Berlin. He’s doing his Georgetown University Ph.D. thesis on German city planning. “It’s partly tied up with the history of the Green Party,” he told me. You might picture Jane Jacobs (the woman who prevented Robert Moses from running a highway through lower Manhattan) times 10,000. “There were Jacobses in every neighborhood of every city,” Engelke told me. “Germany shows that grass-roots politics can change a nation.”

Back at Frida Kahlo’s that Saturday, I noticed Lena staring wistfully at the photograph of Honecker on the wall. “Want to go to East Germany?” she suddenly asked me.

We rounded up her friends Kristen and Paul, squeezed into Lena’s VW Golf, and raced out of Berlin. Through the window, I noticed that the border between city and wild woodlands was sharp; Germany enforces its tough anti-sprawl laws.

An hour later, we arrived at a pristine lake in the former East German state of Brandenburg. Walking on a path along the water, I immediately noticed how different the Ossies were from their slicker Wessie counterparts. Almost two decades after the wall came down, eastern German fashion still looked vaguely Soviet. Many Germans still have what’s here called a “Mauer im Kopf” (literally a “wall in the head,” or a lingering psychological separation of East from West), and in surveys, three-quarters of eastern Germans say they feel like second-class citizens. This partly explains why leftist parties continue to win elections in Germany’s eastern states, and why 70 percent of eastern Germans still believe that Marx’s critique of capitalism is accurate.

As the day passed at a leisurely pace, I understood that ostalgia, the melancholic longing for the simpler days of the GDR, is probably entwined with a larger nostalgia for the Europe of Milan Kundera’s novel Slowness, the Europe before people became consummateconsumers. We climbed toward a hidden castle above the lake. Kirsten and Paul walked ahead of us, hand-in-hand, and Lena joked that “they look like Hänsel and Gretel.” We passed barefoot mushroom hunters. As the sun set, we all did lakeside yoga salutations and drove back to Berlin relaxed to our cores.

On my last night in Germany, I biked down Unter den Linden, weaving through a maze of obese Fernando Botero statues to the Brandenburg Gate. It was the Day of German Unity, and half a million people were there for a festival of rock, reggae, and hip-hop. When I arrived, the German band Silbermond was belting out rock songs. Levi’s and Yankees caps abounded; a couple of skinny kids smoked cigarettes in the shadowy sidelines, pretending to be bored with Silbermond.

I left the concert and hiked up to the enormous Reichstag, Germany’s congress. I could still hear the band below. A fog gathered over Norman Foster’s new glass dome, which opened up the old Reichstag to the sun. And before me, a German flag waved atop a towering flagpole. The flag, on that foggy night, evoked a mix of sentiments. Germany definitely has the makings of a 21st-century empire, but not necessarily an eco-empire.

I gazed down from the Reichstag to the Brandenburg Gate, and I knew the gate was a complicated symbol. Most obviously, it symbolized unified Germany and unified Europe, but—judging from the globalized music festival underneath it—it was also an icon of a unified global culture. It’s that culture, not German culture, that will or will not respond to the ecological crisis.

As I left Berlin at dawn on a train, it occurred to me that what had moved me most on the journey weren’t Germany’s wind turbines, solar panels, Green coalitions, and nuclear phase-outs. These were important—indeed, often remarkable. But it was the slowest, smallest things—a Juist sunrise, puzzling over an Immendorf painting, yoga by a lake with Lena’s friends—that somehow contained the biggest hope.