I interviewed one resident of former East Germany. She is a 41-year-old single parent and filmmaker who primarily makes history documentaries. She was born in Rostock but has lived in Leipzig for the past ten years. She works from home. She also plays music and enjoys athletics, especially weightlifting and jiu-jitsu. She visits parks with her young daughter often and likes that their neighborhood is full of graffiti. She goes to museums and art galleries about three times a year. She reads about history for fun in addition to work and enjoys going down rabbit holes.
I interviewed an American who had visited many parts of Germany as a tourist, including Rostock and its neighboring villages. She is a 58-year-old Mexican American who is an artist and homemaker. Her children are grown, but she takes care of her grandchildren. She was born in Texas but now lives in Montana. She works from home and is active in her community. She regularly visits museums, art galleries, historical sites, history websites, and art websites. In addition, she enjoys photography as a hobby.
The German woman was eager to talk about her observations and memories regarding public art in the former GDR and the cultural values embedded in it. First, she wanted clarification as to whether I was asking about art only during the GDR times or art still in the former GDR region now. She also asked if the public art in the former GDR region today was limited to objects produced in that time. Then she showed me a trophy she had recently won for a jiu-jitsu competition in Chemnitz, formerly Karl-Marx-Stadt. The award was called the Karl Marx Cup, and its shape is based on the giant Karl Marx portrait head monument in Chemnitz. It lights up and flashes, leading to some “Communist Party” jokes.
Although the American woman had not been to Germany in 15 years, she remembered it fondly and spoke of everything she saw there excitedly, as though she had seen it last year. She shared photos from her time there before and after the interview. Some of them were excellent and touched on the themes I had in mind when I pitched the project. For example, she took a photo of a graffiti wall with a guard tower behind it in a village on the Baltic Coast near Rostock. When she first saw the towers, she commented how much Germans seemed to love hunting. She recalls her local hosts looking uncomfortable and explaining that soldiers used the structures to shoot people who swam too far from the shore. She also recalled seeing a beautiful building and remarked that it was such a shame that it was vacant. Her hosts explained that it was the party’s headquarters in their city, and their tone suggested it was unused on purpose.
Both interview subjects noted the nudity in public art in the former GDR. Nudity was normalized in the GDR, with its Freikorperkultur. I was so used to seeing nudity in public art that I thought nothing of it. However, the American woman reported finding it shocking. The German woman remarked that it was a distinctly East German attribute of the region’s public art. She also noted the muscular bodies and heteronormativity in public art and their connotations to productivity.
The American woman had many pictures of sculptures she loved to share, including the Marriage Carousel, the Durer rabbit sculpture, and the Reichstag made from marzipan. All of those are in West Germany. I realized that even seasoned American travelers who have visited Germany several times could not tell the difference between former East and West Germany. It was always visually and culturally apparent to me. I will have to show and explain this so they can know it when they see it.
When I pitched my digital public history project about public art in former East Germany, my focus was on preservation and the exchange of knowledge and images. The idea to focus on East German public art was inspired by the eight years I spent living in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. I have found that most Americans know absolutely nothing about M-V or the rest of the former GDR. Recently, I found Maisie Hitchcock’s blog, GDR Design. She is British and did not always know much about the artists or buildings she photographed. However, I found her efforts commendable and her knowledge gaps relatable. For example, when I lived in Rostock, I passed by the Sunflower Tower in Lichtenhagen almost daily and had no idea of the building’s historical significance.
After conducting my interviews, I am expanding my focus to include public art made after the fall of the wall. As the German woman demonstrated with her Karl Marx Cup, the legacy of the GDR and its public art is still visibly present. In addition, I also have to remain committed to a nuanced portrayal of East German history and visual culture. Former East Germans are tired of sensational or dramatized versions of its history and daily life. They also want a more complex portrayal of life in the GDR than “everything was terrible!” As an insider-outsider, I owe them that.