What is Ostalgie? Ostalgie or Ostalgia, words that combines the German words for East and Nostalgia, describe a feeling of longing or desire for bits and pieces of the now wiped-away DDR (GDR). Now, while very few people can look you square in the face and say how wonderful the East German government was, or how fantastic it felt to be constantly worried about Stasi… we have to remember, the people of East Germany were Germans too. Some were family caught behind an arbitrary line drawn by war, and they made the best of things. And some of those almost forgotten East German Products, are still available today. This kind of Ostalgie isn’t about the Wall or government. It’s remembering those products that were in the pantry.
As exciting and liberating as it was when the Wall finally came down, sadly, many East German products were considered inferior to the products manufactured in the West. East German companies folded when people insisted on buying the “better stuff” from the FDR (Federal Republic of Germany), which ended up doubling down on economic problems. Remember that famous Spreewald Gurken scene in Goodbye Lenin… when Alex can’t find his mother’s beloved pickles? Suddenly, they weren’t good enough. Today some of the old companies are slowly re-emerging and remaking themselves. And people are buying! Zeha Shoes went from being the cheap East German Adidas alternative to suddenly selling stylish sneakers to hip Berliners for over 220 Euro a pair. And some everyday things are available again, coffee, soda, baking mix. Best of all, some wonderful things never really went away! I’m looking at you Sandmännchen and Ampelmann. And as nutty as it seems, the Trabant has achieved icon status.
Quick note- Some fantastic products produced in the Eastern part of Germany predate East Germany as a country. Meissen Porcelain, Wooden Toys and Christmas Decorations from the Erzgebirge, Blaudruck (Blue-Indigo dyeing) and Kunstblume (German silk flowers). I plan to devote another post (or three) to traditional Art and Craft, as well as traditional manufactured products. Watch this space!
I’ve decided to save the politics for another post, because politics and pickles are a horrible mix. (Meanwhile, look at the last few chapters of the book “Berlin:The Story of a City” for an idea of how things went down)
What is Ostalgie or Ostalgia? Missing favorite East German Products
“Mensch, wo lebst du denn? Wir haben jetzt die D-Mark, und da kommst du mit Mocca-Fix und Fillinchen” Goodbye Lenin
Spreewald Gurken – Spreewald Pickles
Those famous Spreewald Gurken that Alex searched everywhere for! The mineral rich wet soil of the Spreewald provides perfect conditions for growing cucumbers, so it’s only natural that the Spreewalders got REALLY good at making pickles. Sweet salty vinegary… perfect. So good, that the EU gave them protection. And in the Spreewald, you will find them EVERYWHERE… there’s even a 260 Km Gurkenradweg (Pickle Bike Trail). Can’t make it to the Spreewald? Luckily they are available for purchase here in the US.
Although it looks a bit like “Knäckebrot” (Crisp bread), Filinchen is lighter, crisper, and more fragile. This special bread was invented by a baker in 1946, when he put the dough in a sort of waffle iron. Pleased with the result, he named the tasty bread after his childhood girlfriend Felicitas. A few years later, the bread went into mass production, but the supply couldn’t keep up with the demand. Priority was given to day care centers, which is why people view it as a “children’s” bread. Because it’s so fragile, the bread is typically spread with soft sweet toppings like jam or honey. Today the company also sells healthy whole grain and high fiber options.
On March 30, 2021, Kathi Baking Mixes celebrated their 70th anniversary! What started as a family company in a garage, grew during the post-war era (with deliveries on a three-wheeled bike by Kathy herself!). The company started out selling jarred liverwurst, but Kathy Thiele worked hard to create basic mixes for cakes and dumpling as well as ready-to-cook soups, using purely natural ingredients, in order to make family feeding easier and to disburden women at home. (Remember, women in East Germany were expected to work, and had less time at home for cooking). The company went international by 1955, survived the re-unification, and is still going strong.
Spee Washmittel (Detergent)
Spee was once known as Ost-Persil for a reason. The Genthin based company got its start in 1921 (which predates the DDR, but bear with me). The Soviets converted the factory to a state owned facility in 1949, and by 1950, they were producing “Ost-Persil”, with the slogan “Persil is still Persil”. Not surprisingly, this got them into copyright issues, so they had to make a few changes. First they adjusted the formula to make the detergent work well with the new synthetic fabrics, then they changed the name to Spee. Overnight it became the best selling detergent in East Germany. And new innovations are still being made! Like Spee Color and Spee Megapearls. In 2009, Spee was moved to Dusseldorf under the Henkel brand (who makes Persil)… bringing the story full circle.
Bautz’ner Senf (Mustard)
As Spreewald is to Pickles, Bautzen is to mustard. In 1953, the Bautz’ner Senf & Feinkost GmbH produced a mittelscharfer Senf that overnight became the most beloved mustard in East Germany. Flavored with horseradish, this mustard has a bite! And ,unlike some products that were tossed aside, people were NOT willing to give up their favorite mustard. Today it even outsells Thomy with 70% of German mustard sales. A true East German success story. Try it on meats and sausages!
In 1956, during the second 5 Year Plan, the government decided it was time for the people to enjoy more non-alcoholic beverages, and tasked the Miltitz company with developing a suitable soda (especially since everyone just across the border was enjoying Coca-Cola). The result, a refreshing lemony Cola, Vita Cola. And just like Coca Cola, the recipe is TOP SECRET! The popularity of the soda meant they needed 200 factories to keep up with the demand. But then, the Wall came crashing down, and everyone wanted Western Soda. By 1994, the newness of the west had faded a bit, and people went looking for their old favorite flavors. Vita Cola made a come-back (naturally, with the original secret formula)! By the year 2000 it led the soda market in Thuringia… and was holding its own across Germany. And it’s just the thing to wash down a sausage with spicy Bautz’ner senf!
Rondo Kaffee and Mocca Fix
I gave up coffee once, and it wasn’t pretty, so I can imagine just how urgently the East German Government worked fix the 1970s Coffee Crisis. East Germany ran on coffee. The average East German family spent twice as much of their budget on coffee as they did on shoes. This was a nation of coffee achievers! And those care packages from family in the West only covered about 20% of the coffee needs. And those West German packages came at a high cost… East Germans were returning the favor by sending real Stollen to the West. (The East never lacked for Butter). But that Stollen was full of Marzipan, Citron and Almonds… also luxury items in the East. The Röstfein company began producing Rondo Kaffee and Mocca Fix, using a new process that roasted high quality coffee beans imported from Vietnam in a shorter time. (Thank goodness, because Ersatz coffee stretched with pea flour that gummed up coffee machines!). The day was saved… and the coffee is STILL being made! After re-unification, sales fell off for a while (the company blamed the packaging). They partnered with a western company to revamp the system, and today they still sell coffee using their technique.
As much as I absolutely adore Nutella, even I admit that Nudossi makes a better product (gosh that was tough to admit). In 1964, when Nutella hit the market in the West, the East knew they’d have to respond. The problem, they couldn’t afford Palm Oil, a wildly expensive import. Instead, the “Vadossi” bakery in Dresden-Plauen, substituted more Hazelnuts. (Nudossi is one of those fun German company names made by combining Nusse (nuts) and Vadossi). Hazelnuts might be expensive in the West, but the East could bring them in from Soviet Georgia. Still, the product wasn’t cheap, costing 3 Marks. (Minimum wage in 1970 was 400 DDR Marks a month). After re-unification, production stopped, and Vadossi went into liquidation. Fortunately an investor stepped in, bought the recipe, and now Nudossi is being produced in the East and West with the same high quality. Their selling point? Nudossi is made with 36% Hazelnuts (their competition only uses 13%). Try some on your Filinchen or Toast.
What is Ostalgie? Part of it is a memory of flavors. It’s remembering those pickles, and how good that cup of coffee tasted at the start of the day. Luckily we can revisit the best of those memories.