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Material Fantasies

Material Fantasies: Expectations of the Western Consumer World among the East Germans

Milena Veenis
Copyright Date: 2012
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    Material Fantasies
    Book Description:

    This study of East German fantasies of material abundance across the border, both before and after the fall of communism, shows the close and intricate relation between ideology and fantasy in upholding social life. In 1989, news broadcasts all over the world were dominated for weeks by images of East Germans crossing the Berlin Wall to West Germany. The images, representing the fall of communism and the democratic will of the people, also showed East Germans' excitement at finally being able to enter the western consumer paradise. But what exactly had they expected to find on the other side of the Wall? Why did they shed tears of joy when for the first time in their lives, they stepped inside West German shops? And why were they prepared to pay more than 10 percent of their average monthly wage for a pineapple? "">Download an excerpt. Drawing on fifteen months of research in the fast-changing post-communist East Germany, Veenis unravels the perennial truths about the interrelationships of fantasies of material wealth, personal fulfillment and social cohesion. She argues persuasively that the far-fetched socialist and capitalist promises of consumption as the road to ultimate well-being, the partial realization and partial corruption thereof, the implicit social and psychological interests underlying the politicized promises in both countries form the breeding ground for the development of materialist, cargo-cult-like fantasies, in which material well-being came to be seen as the place of "fulfillment and ultimate arrival". Material Fantasies is published in the Technology and European History series. The series seeks to present scholarship about the role of technology in European history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For more information on the network, the Foundation for the History of Technology and the series, see: ""> This title is available in the OAPEN Library -

    eISBN: 978-90-485-1565-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-8)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 9-10)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 11-30)

    In the late summer and autumn of 1989, television news broadcasts all over the world were dominated for weeks by the same images. They showed large groups of East Germans crossing the Berlin Wall and the border to West Germany. The images have become iconic, representing the fall of communism and the democratic will of the people. As the pictures also showed East Germans’ excitement at finally being able to enter West Germany’s consumer paradise, the events are also carved in people’s collective memory as iconic symbols of the worldwide triumph of capitalism and consumerism. To the dismay of critical...

  4. Chapter 1 Fieldwork
    (pp. 31-46)

    Before presenting my analysis on the role of fantasy in the recent history of East Germany (GDR), I want to explain the relation between this book’s argument and conclusion on the one hand, and the kind of material presented and used in it on the other. The reason to do so is that the book’s main line of argument primarily derives from forms of knowledge that are essentially non-linguistic. Given the central role of fieldwork in anthropology, this is certainly not a revolutionary remark. But exactly because fieldwork, described as “deep hanging out” in order to generate “informed intuition,”¹ occupies...

  5. Chapter 2 Germany 1945: A Country in Ruins
    (pp. 47-62)

    The Second World War ended in the spring of 1945. With larger and larger areas of Germany being occupied by the Allies, the German army surrendered unconditionally at the beginning of May. Initially, Thuringia was occupied by the Americans, but on June 30, 1945, the American occupying powers exchanged it for an area of Berlin which up till then had been under Russian control. From that moment on, Thuringia became part of theSovjetische Besatzungszone[Soviet Occupied Zone, further SBZ], just like Brandenburg, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Officially, these five federal entities only formed a separate state on October 7,...

  6. Chapter 3 The GDR: Future Promises
    (pp. 63-74)

    When the Americans left Thuringia to be replaced by Russian troops in the spring of 1945, most of the region’s residents feared the situation would deteriorate further. As the national socialist regime had always portrayed the Soviet Union as the empire of evil, most East Germans had strong anti-Russian feelings. The population’s general attitude towards the various occupational forces was aptly summed up by a female resident of Berlin, who stated: “When we saw Russians coming, we would run down the basement steps. If we saw Americans, we would run up the steps to meet them.”¹ East Germans’ worst fears...

  7. Chapter 4 Material Realizations
    (pp. 75-106)

    Sometimes posing a question is the same as answering it. At first glance, this certainly applies to the question of how well the East German state succeeded in delivering its materialist promises. We all know what transpired. We have seen the images of grimy streets, long queues in front of shops, and people so happy to finally get their hands on a few oranges. We have heard them grumbling about the country’s material and consumer situation. It was primarily these complaints that drove so many people to the streets in the autumn of 1989. And one year later, these complaints...

  8. Chapter 5 The East German Dictatorship
    (pp. 107-134)

    One of the most interesting themes which emerged from my conversations with people was the way the power of the state featured in their past. On the one hand, people wholeheartedly admitted that the state had exerted a far-reaching influence on their existence. In their stories, the state was generally portrayed as a distant entity, responsible for everything that had gone wrong in the GDR: “Them at the top, they were always thinking up such strange things...” At the same time, the influence of the state was perceived in a highly relative way, with phrases such as: “It wasn’t that...

  9. Chapter 6 Silenced Pasts
    (pp. 135-160)

    The stories East Germans told me about their formerNische-existence were all equally rosy. All the aspects that dominate westerners’ representations of East German life were ostensibly absent. Painful subjects, such as the threat and fear of the Stasi, mutual distrust, and people’s collaboration with the regime, were almost never mentioned. Even when I finally came to understand my informants’ positive representation of their past, I still found it amazing that they appeared to succeed so well in cleansing their stories and recollections of negative experiences. The subject Stasi, for instance, was never mentioned. Except when talking to someone who...

  10. Chapter 7 Western Promise
    (pp. 161-182)

    It appeared from the stories in the previous chapter that East Germans had learned to be selective about which negative aspects of their lives they preferred to keep to themselves. The only thing that was more or less in the open were people’s complaints about the previous material situation. The power of attraction of the western world mainly derived from its material conditions. In East Germans’ eyes, the plentiful West German consumer world was so special that people visited theIntershopdespite the fact that this was precisely the place where they knew they were being closely watched by the...

  11. Chapter 8 Shattered Illusions
    (pp. 183-214)

    In late 1989, the unimaginable happened: GDR residents could freely enter West Germany, and one year later, the two Germanys were united. In that year, the country was in a state of jubilation. The euphoria was immense, especially in the GDR. Yet these joyous feelings quickly disappeared, and five years later they had given way to a general mood of dissatisfaction, disappointment, frustration and despair. Many felt like the man in the street, cheated by the western world. Many missed the GDR, sighing nostalgically: “Then the world was still friendly, warm and convenient.” Interestingly, this mood was apparent in every...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 215-236)

    Initially started as a project on consumption, it is no coincidence that this book came to revolve around the role of fantasy in social life. Given the close relationship between consumption and identity, and corresponding to recent anthropological analyses of ‘identity’ as impossibility, I claim that consumption is one of the ways in which people try to substantiate their identity fantasies.

    My use of the term fantasy is inspired by a number of recent works in which philosophers and social scientists show the beneifits of applying the main tenets of Jacques Lacan’s legacy to social scientific and historical theorizing.¹ The...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 237-264)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 265-276)
  15. Index
    (pp. 277-280)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 281-281)