A German food fight about a divided past

Kerstin Ade stands next to her camper during a semiannual trip for former East Germany residents in Leipzig, Germany. (Kerstin Sopke/AP)
Kerstin Ade stands next to her camper during a semiannual trip for former East Germany residents in Leipzig, Germany. (Kerstin Sopke/AP)

Soup and sausages might not seem like the usual stuff of public controversy. In Germany, however, even such humble household staples can trigger deep-seated national anxieties. In the east of the country, several big supermarket chains have revived food products that hark back to the region’s socialist past during the Cold War. Now, they stand accused of “trivializing the injustice of communist dictatorship”.

The controversial items back on east German shelves include dishes such as solyanka. This thick, meat-based soup has its origins in Russia and Ukraine but became popular across the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. In socialist East Germany, it was a regular item on restaurant menus and in school canteens. Shops sold a canned version. Former chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in the East (formally known as the German Democratic Republic or GDR), has admitted that she too still is “particularly fond of solyanka”.

Most East Germans consider the return of old-fashioned foods to be harmless enough. Yet the return of socialist soups has “stunned” the head of the government-funded Foundation for the Study of the Communist Dictatorship in Eastern Germany. Director Anna Kaminsky describes the revival of East German food products as a “scandal”, and accuses the companies involved of “trivializing the injustice of communist dictatorship”.

More than three decades have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Yet political, social, cultural and economic differences between the former East and West Germany remain: East Germans have more positive feelings toward Russia than their Western compatriots. They tend to become parents at a younger age. They shake hands with people almost twice as often. And they still earn roughly a quarter less for their work in some industries.

Looking to cash in on the nostalgia of 13 million East Germans, a company that produces the old childhood favorite “pasta with tomato and sausage sauce” recently decided to put the GDR’s state emblem — a hammer and a compass surrounded by a ring of rye — on the label. Children smile from the can, wearing the blue neckerchief of the Young Pioneers, the former socialist mass organization for students aged 6-10.

Another company has reintroduced “NVA Soup”, named after the East German military, the National People’s Army. Males were conscripted for at least 18 months of service, and the NVA maintained close contact with workplaces, schools and youth organizations. Their events often featured field kitchens serving a thick stew made with yellow peas, pork belly and sausages. The new version features an image of these field kitchens on the label.

Such reminders of East German socialism go too far for Kaminsky and the state-funded foundation she runs. Writing to Rewe, Germany’s second-largest grocery chain, she accused the company of “shirking its responsibilities” to contribute to the “consensus of memory culture of the united Germany”.

Ironically, this insistence that East Germans should give up their acquired food tastes is coming from a state-funded organization whose explicit purpose is to “guide the process of German unification”. Kaminsky’s foundation, established in 1998 by an act of parliament, is supposed to “anchor the peaceful revolutions of the year 1989” in “the German and European history of democracy”, thus supposedly “overcoming” the “division of Germany and Europe”. The memories of millions of East Germans seem to fall largely in the latter category — something to be “overcome” in the name of German unity.

The sort of “consensus” promoted by Kaminsky seems to allow for only one national memory: West Germany’s. This isn’t the first time that food has reflected these lingering tensions. Focus, one of Germany’s most popular weekly magazines, argued in 2016 that the very existence of former East German products such as the chocolate spread Nudossi could lead to “desires to recreate the political conditions of the GDR era”. Similarly, a GDR-themed ice cream vendor by the Berlin Wall drew the ire of the deputy director of the Stasi memorial in Berlin, who worried that food nostalgia could become a tool in the hands of those who want to glorify past dictatorships.

This approach is neither realistic nor helpful. For better or worse, the East German experience between 1949 and 1990 left a legacy that has survived the disappearance of the state. Reunified Germany will need to come to terms with this history rather than trying to efface it. The government should not be in the business of defining which memories its citizens may maintain and how they choose to do so.

If former East Germans such as Merkel have retained a penchant for solyanka, or remember what it was like to eat pasta as Young Pioneers, this hardly means they will seek to reestablish socialism on German soil. But making an entire region feel as though its experiences and memories are at best worthless, at worst dangerous, is precisely the way to breed contempt and disaffection — the same kind that has led to some of the worrying voting patterns we have seen in East Germany in recent years.

Germany must learn to live with its divided past before it can move on to a more united future.

Katja Hoyer, an Anglo-German historian and journalist, is the author of “Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918”.

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