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Stories from a former country

A striking series of photographs from the GDR captures
a world that began to fade 20 years ago – a

A car park full of identical Trabants; a bride and groom in a room decorated with exotic western logos; coal miners looking like grimy Greek gods - these are just some of the black-and-white stories from the "Ostzeit" exhibition at Berlin's Haus der Kulturen der Welt. The exhibition, which showcases work by photographers from the Ostkreuz agency, established by some of the former East Germany's more prominent photojournalists and fashion photographers shortly after reunification, is subtitled Geschichten aus einem Vergangenen Land - "stories from a former country".

In Berlin, the past really is a foreign country. The land of these stories started fading away almost 20 years ago, when the Wall opened up. Institutions were swiftly dissolved, state industries sold off, Stasi files opened, "Trabis" replaced. It took longer to erase some of the more concrete realities - the last remnants of the Palast der Republik, East Germany's parliament building, were hauled off by demolition contractors only a few months ago - but there are now so few remnants of the Wall, still the city's most noto­rious landmark, that there are moves to give it some kind of international heritage status.

As the anniversary of the fall of the Wall approaches, little remains recognisable of the land that it once helped to keep in sullen stasis. The only thing comparable to the endless queue outside a Delikat-Laden (speciality food shop) on Karl-Liebknecht-Straße, captured by Harald Hauswald in 1983, is the endless line of tourists waiting to snap the view from the Norman Foster-designed Reichstag cupola that today sits playfully atop reunified Germany's parliament building. On the other hand, a substantial portion of Berliners still live in the 1970s prefabricated "P2" housing blocks whose living areas with expansive serving hatches (designed so as not to separate women from the rest of the family, and to encourage men to help out in the kitchen) are compared in a series by Sibylle Bergemann - documents of creativity with limited resources, but also of the tyranny of space.

Tyranny of one kind or another remains a subject of constant reflection in Berlin. Over the past decade it has been as if the unifying city, unable to move into the future without re-examining the past, has gone memorial-mad. The centrepiece is the memorial to Jewish Holocaust victims - the Denkmal für die Ermordeten Juden Europas ("Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe"), a field of concrete slabs designed by Peter Eisenman that occupies a whole block just south of the Brandenburg Gate. As with other such projects in Berlin, its eventual opening in 2005 had been preceded by years of public bickering and debate - so much so, that many considered the debate
itself to be the true memorial.

Representatives of other groups persecuted by the Nazis - gypsies, the mentally disabled, homosexuals, prisoners of war, political prisoners, forced labourers and black people - all protested the inadequacy of a memorial for Jewish victims only. In May last year, a memorial to gay victims of the Holocaust went up on the edge of the Tiergarten, just over the road from the Jewish memorial. Designed by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, it is a lone stone block that looks as if it has been detached from the Denkmal opposite. Through a small window, visitors can view a film of two men kissing. Following protests from lesbian groups, this is now to be alternated every two years with a film of two women. In another corner of the park, a vacant site near the Reichstag stands ready for a Dani Karavan-designed memorial to Roma and Sinti victims of the Holocaust. Down the road, a documentation centre at the site known as the Topography of Terror - once home to the Gestapo and SS headquarters - is finally going up after yet another debate that has dragged on for years.

Now that every category of Holocaust victim has its own memorial, everyone else wants one, too. A plaque on the Reichstag thanking Hungary for opening the Austrian border to GDR citizens in 1989 has now, after agitation from Poland, been joined by a plaque thanking Solidarity for its part in ending the cold war. This is attached to a piece of the shipyard wall from Gdansk, though many tourists seem to believe they are looking at a remnant of the Berlin Wall (and nearby there are, indeed, crosses commemorating those killed in trying to cross the Wall).

Over on Leipziger Straße, outside what is now the federal finance ministry, is a huge documentary photo set into the pavement to memorialise the workers' uprising of 17 June 1953. Other memorials are variously under discussion for people who died during the expulsion of Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia after the Second World War, and for people who were persecuted for deserting the German army as well as those who died while serving in the Bundeswehr. A street in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin has recently been renamed Rudi-Dutschke-Straße in honour of Germany's most famous student revolutionary (the street is home to the headquarters of the rightist media baron Axel Springer, agitation in whose newspapers was widely blamed for the attempted assassination of Dutschke in 1968); conversely, there have been calls from conservatives for a memorial to victims of the 1970s terrorist Red Army Faction. With the revelation in May this year that the West Berlin cop who shot Benno Ohnesorg in 1967 during a demonstration against the Shah of Iran - the event that radicalised the student movement in Germany - was actually a Stasi agent, it is clear that the debate over that portion of history is also still far from over.

The latest memorial controversy concerns a monument to German unity intended for a site near the former Palast der Republik. The government promised €15m and an open competition was announced - but out of 400 designs submitted, not one has been deemed suitable. Now, as debate rages between greens and conservatives, Ossis and Wessis, there is to be a second, invitation-only competition. Berlin, it seems, is just not ready for a monument to unity. In fact, despite all the projects designed to bind it back together - such as the commercial cluster around Potsdamer Platz and the new central station - Berlin is still a divided city. East and west vote differently, have different historical memories and different present concerns. A recent referendum on the future of Tempelhof Airport - an edifice important to many west Berliners for its role in the 1948 airlift -foundered on low voter turnout because no one on the other side of town gave a damn about the place.

It is a reminder that east Berlin is not the only foreign country of the recent past. Apart from "Ostzeit", there are a number of art exhibitions pegged to the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall: "Free Within Limits: Fashion, Photography, Underground in the GDR 1979-89", involving some of the Ostkreuz photographers, is at the Kunstgewerbemuseum until 13 September; there are more photographs in "Art and Revolt '89" at the Akademie der Künste until 11 October; and "Berlin 89/09: Art Between Traces of the Past and Utopian Futures", featuring artists including Wolfgang Tillmans, Tacita Dean and Frank Thiel, opens in the Berlinische Galerie on 18 September. The Haus der Kulturen der Welt (built in the 1950s with Marshall Plan money) and all of these other institutions, except the Aka­demie der Künste, are in the former West Berlin, yet none of these shows pays much attention to the demise of that unique enclave, even though its atmosphere and political specificity have disappeared as surely as those of the East.

Many east Berliners continue to indulge a nostalgia for communist times gone by. A recent poll showed 57 per cent of east Germans defending the memory of the GDR (49 per cent reckoned the old East Germany had "more good sides than bad sides"; 8 per cent flatly opposed any criticism of the GDR whatsoever). Nobody has bothered to ask west Berliners what they think about the past. Watching everything move east into the smartened-up new city centre, while their side of town becomes ever tattier and less fashionable, the west Berliners - who were never part of West Germany - have become the forgotten term in Berlin's perennially vexed urban equation. Maybe the Ostzeit - "east time" - is right now, rather than way back when.

Dave Rimmer is a music journalist and author. He is currently writing a book about Berlin during the 1970s

“Ostzeit: Stories from a Vanished Country" is at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, until 13 September. More details:

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?