Last week I took Mrs. Cat and our eight-year-old son Maus to the Spreewald, a lush waterland south-east of Berlin. We fancied a quiet day paddling through the web of meandering canals, picnicking in a lush meadow, listening to the calls of songbirds. Thursday seemed an ideal day for our outing, it being both brilliantly warm and a holiday. Little did we know that – in this part of Germany at least -- it was Männertag.
‘Men’s Day’ is the old East German interpretation of Father’s Day when every adult male in the land – irregardless of whether or not he is a father -- gets drunk. Last Thursday all of them seemed to have travelled to the Spreewald to crowd into shallow Kahn punts, overwhelm the local restaurants and proudly toast their beer bellies to the early summer sunshine. It was so noisy that, even in the depths of the forest, we couldn’t escape the raucous shouts and pounding music.
Aboard the canal boats bobbed tipsy groups of friends and intoxicated work colleagues. Sozzled members of various local Verein clubs -- drunk Bridge players, comatose archers, marinated marathon joggers, even jolly waxed moustache-growers (see below) – bantered across the canals. To the especial delight of all the other revellers there were also boatloads of waterlogged brass bands.
Surprisingly – to me at least – was the realisation that Männertag is almost unknown in western parts of Germany. In Munich, Hamburg and Cologne, Father’s Day is recognised with Hallmark cards and – if you’re lucky – breakfast in bed. Alcohol plays only a minor role. Bachelors don’t get a look in. But in the all-inclusive embrace of the old DDR, Christi Himmelfahrt -- Ascension Day -- is the day to celebrate the male.
As we paddled through the maelstrom, and I was asked again and again what on earth I was doing spending the day with my wife and child, I wondered what other events and customs endure from the communist years. (And I’m not talking about dubious Ostalgie, which began with the resurrection of brands of East German foodstuffs, or gaseous old Trabants and flashing new Ampelmann, the little traffic light man beloved by Berliners.)
The old Tag der Republik, held on October 7th, may be gone, as is ‘Liberation Day’, which marked the Red Army’s victory in May 9th 1945. But what of the old East German sense of community? Many claim that it endures in bonds of family which are stronger than those in old West Germany. And whither free healthcare, workplace nurseries, even politically-motivated art?
To start to answer my question I took in the fascinating Über Leben exhibition. Over the next four months 280 photographs by Thomas Hoepker and Daniel Biskup are on display at Berlin’s Deutsches Historsches Museum. Hoepker – who hails from Munich – lived in East Berlin in the 1970s, reporting for Stern on life in the ‘other’ half of Germany. His remarkable images of coal deliverymen, empty shop windows and ubiquitous tower blocks recall a nation at once foreign and familiar. Daniel Biskup’s work concentrates on the radical transformations of East Germany, the Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia after 1989. His images bear witness to life and survival of the people after the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe.
So where for you, dear reader, does the old dream of ‘real existing socialism’ endure – apart from along the intoxicating canals of the Spreewald on Männertag?
Donnerstag, 9. Juni 2011
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