Today, partially goaded by a blitz of recent postering, I headed to Berlin’s brand-new DDR Museum, located in a truly odd underground bunker beneath the Radisson SAS Hotel on Karl-Liebknecht Str., with a branch of the Spree River separating it from the Berliner Dom. It’s a brand-new, wired kind of bunker, though, with a flat-screen displaying the museum’s logo to catch the eye of anyone who might be walking alongside the Spree in the rain these days. (A noodle restaurant a little further along had tables set for about 150 people and was completely empty).
It’s an odd place. To call the lighting “muted” would be an understatement. It’s not quite gloomy, but it sort of forces the eyes towards the exhibits, not all of which are on eye-level. Some of its displays aren’t very intuitive, either: I walked in and saw a very good model of the Berlin Wall, with all of its between-the-wall barriers and security devices, and wanted to know more. It wasn’t until I’d spent some time in the museum that I noted that these bars fixed onto the wall with captions on them were actually handles for various drawers and cabinets which contained exhibits, so I had to head back and check the one by the Wall model. It’s a good way to conserve space, but it can also block aisles and cause congestion.
But what’s even odder is that it doesn’t really seem to take a stand on the DDR — which I admire. (For you Americans, DDR stands for Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the name given to the East German nation. The museum has it as GDR, German Democratic Republic, in the captions, but I’ve always preferred the German abbreviation). It may be a bit naive to assert, as they do, that “the DDR never knew misery and poverty,” since that sure wasn’t the case if you lived outside a handful of cities which were kept (relatively) well-provisioned by the central government, but they give equal treatment to the upside and the downside. There’s a Stasi secret-police listening-post in an obscure corner as well as an exquisitely fitted-out model apartment, its TV showing a nice sample-reel of DDR TV shows, and all of its cabinets and drawers filled with artifacts and consumer goods. One wall of the kitchen has some great old DDR cartoons dealing with women’s place in the daily life of the country, and the bookshop has a DDR cookbook for the very brave. There’s also a couple of exhibits about resistance to the regime, from the rather apolitical punks to the “environmental” magazine (really part of a nationwide movement centered in Leipzig) that was secretly printed in the basement of the Zionist movement’s office. The sports section has a drawer which opens to show one box of anabolic steroids, the killer drug which the nation’s sports officials used to try to bring their athletes to Olympic glory, but backfired into cancers and weird gender-altering problems.
One particularly educational exhibit is a Trabant automobile, which you can wedge yourself into if you’re so inclined, with an unsentimental account of the problems of ownership (mechanics were apt to ask, if you brought yours in, whether you’d brought the parts; they were apparently very difficult to obtain). There’s also an unusually large part of the museum given over to the FKK (nude beach) movement. Was the DDR really so big on nudism?
All in all, it’s an odd thing to see this impeccably preserved collection of artifacts so lovingly assembled, and then to step outside, gaze slightly to your left, and see the skeleton of the soon-to-vanish Palast der Republik, the DDR’s main administrative building, in its last throes of demolition. And to walk back home, musing on the things you didn’t see: the DDR and foreigners, the DDR and minority groups (including Jews), the DDR army… In some ways it’s a counterweight to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. In others, it’s yet another odd statement of the Burden of History.