The city the west left behind

In once-divided Berlin, Sebastian Harcombe searches for traces of the vanishing socialist past

When the German Democratic Republic was officially dissolved, in October 1990, a piece of my teenage heart went with it. I had long cherished a foolish fantasy of running away to that fabled land of reconstituted concrete and joining the Young Pioneers. When eventually I made it to Berlin a few years later, though my welcome was inauspicious (snogged and robbed by a stranger), my delight at finding the eastern wonderland intact in all but name was undimmed.

With fewer illusions, but no less excitement, I found myself back in Berlin last month queuing to enter a new museum dedicated to recreating everyday life in the former East Germany. A burgeoning cult of nostalgia has grown up around the GDR in recent years, spawning several tourist attractions in Berlin. Some are a degree too Disney for dignity - and, finding myself in the company of an enormous group of American students, all labouring under the delusion that we were standing in line for Adolf Hitler's bunker, I felt apprehensive. Thankfully my anxieties were groundless: the look back into the city's past proved to be a powerful and profoundly touching experience.

Following a series of advertisements in the German media, the collection was gathered from former GDR citizens over a two-year period. It is an array of more than 10,000 artefacts that eloquently conjure ordinary East German existence from cradle to grave: baby blankets; toy soldiers and dolls; satchels stuffed with schoolbooks; coming-of-age cards and presents; national service medals; university textbooks; workmen's overalls and tools; photographs and prize certificates from a factory dinner and dance; a cache of garish nylon party dresses; the diary of an exhausted woman, documenting the minutiae of days spent fruitlessly queuing in shops; an uneaten International Women's Day celebration cake with crumbling fondant icing; some stultifying sex education manuals for newly married couples; a dance mat outlin-ing the steps to the ludicrous Lipsi, the GDR's sexed-down version of rock'n'roll; and an embarrassment of knick-knacks.

The process of harvesting this huge historical horde was sometimes an emotional one, testifying to the genuine need felt by many ex-citizens of East Germany (the prime donors) to recount and process their memories and experiences. Melanie Alperstaedt, one of the organisers of the exhibition, explained: "Some people brought their things directly to the office and shared their personal recollections with us there and then. I remember one lady in particular, who gave us her wedding dress and photos. She was so excited to talk about her marriage, and did it so eagerly, with so much humour and affection, half the office was in tears." Brought up in West Berlin, Alperstaedt recalls her own earliest memories of the GDR - passing through the closed stops on the eastern portion of the city's Metro network, peering out of the window on to the murky, deserted platforms of a shadowy parallel metropolis.

Even now, journeys into Berlin's eastern suburbs can be an evocative experience: the long, silent streets of Lego-like tower blocks that trail off into pitch-black infinity; 1960s mannequins with permanently astonished, painted eyes, shamelessly displaying their musty wares in downbeat department stores; harrowed, haunted, middle-aged men still rushing through underpasses and looking over their shoulder; furious and extravagant graffiti; dimly burning street lamps; faded publicity shots of perfect perms and magnificent mullets in hairdressing salon windows; ghostly, echoing apartments, long since abandoned; groups of disenchanted drunks, casualties of the ideological switch-up, larking about in children's playgrounds; and the consolatory and calming beauty of the recorded female voice announcing the stops to tramloads of tired workers journeying home to the dormitory suburbs at night-time.

Once-divided Berlin continues to suffer from a schizophrenic approach to its socialist legacy. In the city centre, history is increasingly being airbrushed out - something glaringly obvious to visitors leaving the museum. Directly opposite its exit stands the half-demolished wreck of the GDR's most important building: its former parliament, the Palast der Republik. I discussed the irony of the situation with Elena Demke, a young writer who has written extensively about her East German upbringing, and now works as an adviser on the teaching of GDR history in schools. She explains that though undeniably of architectural and historical importance, and despite some inspirational plans to transform it into a 21st-century arts complex, the Palast was, for many people, simply too powerful a symbol of lies and corruption ever to be restyled.

Demke has her own talismanic souvenir of the GDR: a shopping bag of her mother's. "There's a slogan printed on it that translates into English as 'Haven't you forgotten something?' - to encourage people to shop, I think. Not that there was much to shop for then, of course. After the Wall came down I, like many others, had my moments of doubt, and at such times that bag became an inspiration to me - because one look at it made me question my feelings of nostalgia by reminding me of the bad times, throwing that little question right back at me: 'Haven't you forgotten something?'"

As dusk was falling, I paid a fleeting visit to the gigantic monument to the Red Army dead in Treptower Park. Initially, I wondered if it was the premature onset of middle age that made the sight of the teenagers mountain-biking down its vertiginous steps seem utterly unacceptable. But as one of the daredevils botched his showboating, somersaulted his way to the bottom and sobbingly attempted to extricate himself from his mangled pretzel of a BMX, the overwhelmingly satisfying surge of schadenfreude I felt was entirely adolescent.