Communist chic: Berlin hotel offers the GDR experience
By Jacob Comenetz in Berlin
Published: 21 June 2007
The four clocks behind the reception desk of Berlin's new budget hotel, Ostel, show the hour in Moscow, Berlin, Havana, and Beijing. But here, time appears to have stopped some time before 1989, when communism was still entrenched in all four capitals.
The Ostel offers a renewed whiff of life in the former German Democratic Republic, welcoming travellers with original furnishings and portraits of communist leaders adorning the walls.
For as little as 9 (£6) a night, guests can have an experience right out of the hit film Good Bye Lenin!, in which a young man tries to spare his mother the shock of learning of the fall of the Berlin Wall by supplying her with the sparse comforts of life in the GDR after she awakes from a coma.
Like the film, the Ostel represents a broader phenomenon known as Ostalgie, or fascination with life in the former East Germany. Ostalgie, like "Ostel," is a play on the German word for east, ost, and it ranges from films to a new fascination with the Trabant, the tiny East German car.
In an old communist-era building just steps from the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall, the Ostel takes pains to be as authentic as possible. Furnishings, except for mattresses, bed linens, sink and lavatories, are the real thing, dug up by the founders, Daniel Helbig and Guido Sand, from flea markets, friends, family, and eBay.
Books on East German design, revered today by some for its utilitarian funkiness, lie open on a coffee table, and the authentic muted orange and brown tones of the wallpaper and rugs are strangely soothing.
The rooms each have different themes and prices. There are rooms that replicate bedrooms from typical East German apartments, from 38.
At the other end of the scale, the 9-per-bed Pioneer Camp dorm rooms feature two bunkbeds and spartan living conditions evocative of the summer camps of the Free German Youth, the party youth organisation.
Socialist Unity Party functionaries such as general secretary Erich Honecker and prime minister Horst Sindermann peer down from portraits in most rooms, giving the impression that one is under constant surveillance.
Guests at the Ostel need not fear interrogation at "border control", also known as the check-in, proclaims the website. "We had the idea of preserving a bit of GDR culture ... [but] we are not crying for the East German regime," said Mr Helbig, who grew up in East Berlin and experienced its restrictions on freedom of expression and movement first hand.
Mr Helbig and Mr Sand plan on expanding their East German hotel project with a series of eight East German-style vacation apartments near the Ostel.
Liliana Lehmann, 25, an Ostel employee whose early childhood was spent under communism in East Berlin, said the hotel was a break from the bustle of today's capitalist capital. "We try to create a community feeling," she said. "It's a contrast to today's dog-eat-dog world."
The nostalgia vibe appealed to one traveller from the east German city of Rostock, who wrote in the guest book: "Great place and many memories from back then."
Germany's Communist youth group rises again
02 November 2007
Chancellor Angela Merkel belonged to the organisation, and in its heyday, thousands of its young, blue-shirted members would march across former Communist East Berlin waving red banners and chanting slogans such as: "Learning from the Soviet Union means learning to win!"
East Germany's Communist youth organisation, the Free German Youth (FDJ), was set up in 1948 as the socialist answer to the Nazis' Hitler Youth movement. Membership was virtually compulsory - not belonging meant no higher education - hence Mrs Merkel's involvement.
The FDJ disappeared from Germany's political map after reunification in 1990. Since then, most assumed it had been consigned to one of the nation's many dustbins of history. But it has staged a sudden and wholly unexpected comeback: the 58th anniversary of the founding of East Germany once again brought blue-shirted youths out on to the streets of Berlin. FDJ brochures, insisting organisation was out to "expose capitalism and shake it to the core", were on sale at ¿3 (£2) each.
The man behind the FDJ's rebirth is a 29-year-old East German bricklayer called Ringo Ehlert [..]. "The United States used to be our enemy, but now it is the government of reunited Germany," he insisted in a recent interview.
Mr Ehlert, who was 12 when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, claims the FDJ has hundreds of members in both eastern and western Germany, and that its appeal is growing. The FDJ, Mr Ehlert says, is on the rise thanks to its opposition to war and to Germany's involvement in peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan and the Balkans. [..]
The FDJ's message is already partly mirrored by German public opinion. [..] Opinion polls [..] show that more than 50 per cent of Germans are in favour of a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. A rise in strident left-wing political thinking also accounts for the recent success of Die Linke (The Left), formed when leftist parties from western Germany merged with what was the Communist Party in the east. Die Linke is now Germany's third most powerful political party.
Despite this success, the FDJ's reappearance has surprised Germany's political establishment. Volker Ratzmann, chairman of the Green Party, warned last week that the FDJ was similar to a religious sect and claimed that it posed a real threat to young people. [..]
Germany's intelligence services said last week that the FDJ had no more than 200 members country-wide. But conservative politicians argued that its public demonstrations showed that it was gaining strength.
Even Die Linke wants nothing to do with the new FDJ. Marion Seelig, a spokesman for the party, said: "It is extremely disturbing that young people... listen to the FDJ. Its ideology is completely absurd."