The nostalgia for socialism in the age of consumerism

The socialist traffic symbol Ampelmann, seen here in Berlin, constitutes an international brand empire. In the age of mass consumerism, what’s behind a nostalgia for socialist symbols and the sugarcoating of socialist regimes? (Shutterstock)

The nostalgia for socialism in the age of consumerism

Many of us — including those who have never lived through it — experience nostalgia about socialism. It’s why we buy Che Guevara T-shirts when we vacation in Cuba or Chairman Mao mugs if we visit China.

Socialism in our collective memory is not just a failed political and economic ideology. It’s also sold to us as a powerful romantic fantasy — a haven of creative ingenuity or a never-ending party, a neighbourhood idyll or a place where love for nature and regional traditions thrive.

Sociologists call these romantic idealizations about the past “popular memories,” stories that we like to consume through the aforementioned T-shirts and mugs, but also cookbooks, souvenirs, television programming, movies, vacations and other means of mass consumption.

Socialist memories for sale

This nostalgia for socialism is a multi-billion dollar business today. One of the world’s largest national markets for socialist nostalgia can be found in the country where I was born and raised: Germany.

Almost 30 years after the Berlin Wall came down, the popularity of ostalgie — a nostalgic yearning for life in the German Democratic Republic, also known as East Germany — is unbroken.

The socialist traffic symbol Ampelmann constitutes an international brand empire. Socialist products such as Spreewald gherkins are bestsellers in Germany. And for many East Germans, staying in a GDR-themed hotel means taking an active stand against what they perceive as a West German obsession with status consumption, hyper-individualism and competition.

The Ostel Hostel Berlin invites guests to ‘imagine that it is the year 1978 and the Berlin Wall still exists’ and features drab East German decor of the 1970s and ‘80s. Creative Commons

German politicians, historians and journalists, however, have long condemned this nostalgia for socialism. Ostalgie, after all, is just a way to trivialize, if not entirely suppress, socialism’s crimes against humanity. Instead of celebrating GDR socialism, citizens should approach GDR culture as what it “really was,” and how it has been portrayed in most German school books since reunification: A system of oppression.

Consumers of history

My colleagues Katja Brunk, Benjamin Hartmann and I recently conducted a multi-year research study of the German ostalgie market, assessing nostalgic socialism. Our study identifies major problems with ostalgie.

Both the proponents of nostalgic socialism and their critics incentivize German historians, movie producers, brand managers, entrepreneurs and celebrities to create and circulate consumable versions of the socialist past. They cater to passionate collectors of socialism memorabilia, members of brand communities, binge-watchers of YouTube history documentaries — in short, emotional consumers of history.

Consider the German media landscape around socialism.

There have been romantic coming-of-age movies like Sonnenallee and Good Bye, Lenin!. There’s the massively popular GDR Show and, for fans of bittersweet love stories, there is the award-winning The Weissensee Saga.

Movies like Good Bye, Lenin! have helped perpetuate nostalgic socialism in Germany.

For every socialism-inspired critique of Germany that has emerged since reunification, marketers have also created a nostalgic fantasy that captures its emotional essence but ignores its political significance.

These powerful narratives influence how all Germans regard the country’s past. German high-school students who are interested in forming a view on socialism can draw on two main marketplace resources: On the one hand, the market’s nostalgic socialism renders the GDR as a naïve fantasy world where young people wouldn’t let totalitarianism stand in the way of having a good time. On the other hand, school books render the GDR as an unrechtsstaat (“a lawless state”) that spied on its citizens and imprisoned its critics.

A critical perspective

What’s more, neither the nostalgic socialists nor their critics inspire what history normally should: A critical perspective, not just on the past, but on the present too. If socialism only exists as a marketplace mythology, how can it serve as an alternative lens through which to understand present conditions?

While East and West Germans may be reunited today, Germany suffers from many problems, including the rise of economic inequality, the refugee crisis and rampant populism.

Ideas and concepts rooted in socialist theory — such as solidarity, egalitarianism and social ownership — could play important roles in solving these and other problems. But both the nostalgic socialists and their critics cast such debates as regressive and unhelpful. This is a serious problem.

Contemporary capitalist societies like Germany rely on nostalgic socialism both as its context and its target. At best, this tendency reduces socialism to a Disney-fied consumption experience. At worst, it perpetuates entrenched social biases and inequalities.

The real value of a socialist past is that it can open up new ways for interrogating our capitalist present — and the forces we allow to shape both how we remember the past and how we forget.