Why you should care

Because some aspects of life behind the Iron Curtain are just plain funny — at least in retrospect.

Being forced to sit on your potty until all your 2-year-old classmates have finished evacuating their bowels? Having to smuggle Levi’s into a world where only out-of-date fashions made from cheap synthetics are politically correct? Turns out there were plenty of peculiarities to laugh about in the former East Germany. At least according to the founders of the DDR Museum, who think that with the feared Stasi secret police and Berlin Wall long gone, it’s safe to recall the humorous aspects of four decades of repression.

For the admission price of about $8, visitors can get a glimpse at what life was like for those who lived behind the Iron Curtain. For example, you can take a simulated ride through a drab 1960s housing project in a Trabi — the unreliable East German car for which residents waited up to 12 years from order to delivery. In an authentic East Berlin living room, you can watch TV, or you can try on what locals contemptuously called “plastic clothes,” shiny garments in garish prints that were the only “stylish” clothes offered at the time. Another interactive option: a terrifying Stasi interrogation, albeit with the safety net of an exit hatch.

We relied on humor to cope with our lives.

 

“It’s funny peculiar rather than funny ha-ha,” said museum visitor Steen Jensen from Copenhagen, Denmark. Another visitor, Caroline Dixmier of Paris, commented on propaganda films playing around the corner: “It’s good to understand how the regime strove to pull the wool over people’s eyes,” she says.

A visitor looks at a reconstructed prison cell similar to those used by the communist authorities of former East Germany to detain political prisoners at the DDR Museum in Berlin, Germany.

A reconstructed prison cell similar to the ones East German officials used to detain political prisoners.

Source Sean Gallup/Getty

Located across from Berlin’s Museum Island, the DDR, which opened in 2006, is the city’s sixth most-visited museum. Half a million visitors a year come to see its controversial collection of 210,000 strange and authentic everyday objects. “We relied on humor to cope with our lives,” explains Dr. Stefan Wolle, a historian at the museum who has documented the collection. Wolle admits that visitors from the former East Germany are divided: “Some think we paint too rosy a picture of a country where the wrong comment could send you to jail; others feel we are too harsh.”

Not everyone thinks the DDR is so guffaw-worthy or deserves its nomination for European Museum of the Year. “It’s OK for a lighthearted look at the bad old days, but knowing one in 50 East Berliners were recruited to help the Stasi control every aspect of their neighbors’ lives doesn’t give much rise for laughs,” says Mike Stack, a New Zealander who studied political history in Berlin and married into the community. He believes the other city museums dealing with the same period of history offer a better reality check.

Wolle points out that the philosophy of trying to create obedience in the population from toddlerhood onward has had far-reaching implications. “They’re still using a potty bench like the one shown in the museum in some kindergartens today,” he says.

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