"Goodbye, Lenin?" - Social change as wound in post-socialist Eastern Germany

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

33 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Synopsis of Goodbye, Lenin

3. Theoretical Background: Lay Trauma versus Cultural Trauma Theories
3.1 Cathy Caruth’s Traumatic Awakenings
3.2 Jeffrey Alexander’s Speech Act Theory
3.3 Piotr Sztomka’s Trauma of Social Change

4. Personal Trauma and Cultural Trauma in Goodbye, Lenin
4.1 The Mother’s Trauma
4.2 Alexander’s Trauma
4.3 Ariane’s Trauma
4.4 The Viewer’s Trauma

5. Cultural Trauma - Now and Then

6. Conclusion



“If we observe heated debates and public disputes in the media, at public

meetings, or in political bodies; if values and judgments are strongly contested; if certain themes become obsessive for artistic expression through the movies, theatre, literature, and poetry; if social movements mobilize for the expression of cultural discontents, then we are certainly witnessing unhealed and potentially evolving trauma.” Piotr Stzompka, The Trauma of Social Change

1. Introduction

One event that turned “ostalgia” - the term given to the nostalgia felt for East Germany - into an unstoppable popular movement in the spring of 2003 was the overwhelming success of Wolfgang Becker's film, Goodbye, Lenin, a tragicomic satire set during the time of German reunification. More than thirteen years after the fall of the wall and the collapse of socialism in the Eastern Bloc, Goodbye, Lenin quickly became the biggest success in German cinema and gained worldwide recognition. Without glorifying the past, the movie brings the viewer back to an already faded image of life in the days of the “German Democratic Republic” - a life that disappeared almost overnight following the reunification.

The success of Goodbye, Lenin and the ongoing popular movement raises questions not only of why so many East Germans, after thirteen years of living in a market society, now feel the need to rediscover their socialist past and relive the change of 1989, but also why so many desire to regain something they feel was lost - their collective identity. Although it is part of a new marketing structure that profits enormously from the East German past, Goodbye, Lenin and ensuing television shows such as “Die DDR Show” clearly mark a late recognition of East German life and culture. Easterners felt their world change at a speed experienced by no other ex-socialist society.1 By the end of their “revolution,” they were overwhelmed by the plethora of western laws, institutions, consumer products, and popular culture icons2, and their identity had become torn between the capitalist West and the socialist East. Becker's film portrays the East's total dissolution into the West and the resulting fractured identity of East Germans and poses the question: Do the so-called “peaceful revolution” and the major social changes that followed need to be re-evaluated as ultimately traumatizing events? This essay will investigate this issue by applying three partly overlapping and partly contradictory trauma theories by Jeffrey Alexander3, Piotr Sztompka4 and Cathy Caruth5 to Becker's film and examining whether the film successfully recollects German identity. If so, does the movie, according to Judith Herman's definition of trauma resolution6, simultaneously help to resolve a specific East German cultural trauma that has been in a state of latency for more than thirteen years?

2. Synopsis of Goodbye, Lenin

By representing the events of 1989, Becker creates a narration with which all Germans can identify. Looking back to the summer of 1989, he tells the story of Christiane Kerner7, who, after losing her husband, completely devotes her life to teaching in the socialist state. Yet, after witnessing her son taking part in a violent protest against the socialist system, she suffers a heart attack and falls into a coma. She wakes up only eight months later, having missed the many fundamental changes that took place within Eastern Berlin over these months. In an attempt to protect his mother from further shock, Alexander8 reconstructs the past and deludes her into believing that her former socialist world still exists. As the movie proceeds, his efforts to keep his constructed reality alive grow increasingly complicated - from remodeling the family’s apartment, re-labeling groceries, convincing family members, neighbors and friends to play along in his charade, bribing school children to sing East German songs, to producing his own television newscasts. Yet, during the showing of the final newscast, it becomes clear that the mother in fact knows that the newscast is her son’s invention. Though the movie concludes with the mother’s death, it still ends on a positive note, because the mother dies grateful that her son would go to such lengths to protect her.

3. Theoretical Background: Lay Trauma versus Cultural Trauma Theories

The exploration of trauma has become an interdisciplinary task. Today we find a wide variety of theories on the subject of trauma, or “wound,” which can be understood as an injury not upon the body but upon the psyche.9 Some trauma theories based on Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis strive to discover the irrational and the immediately inaccessible effects of injury upon the human mind, while others emphasize people’s agency in dealing with traumatic situations in rational and even progressive manners.

In addition to these psychoanalytic and “enlightenment”10 approaches, there are a wide variety of sociological, historical, psychological, literary and cultural study approaches available to further our understanding of trauma. Yet, as cultural trauma theorizers prove, trauma does not only occur out of situations of extreme anxiety and is not limited to individuals. It can also occur in times of great excitement, in the heat of historical moments, and affect entire cultures - as in the fall of the iron curtain in 1989. Here, trauma may present itself as a far more subtle phenomenon, related to questions of identity formation in society rather than personal injury.

In her psychoanalytic study analysis of traumatic awakenings11, Cathy Caruth describes trauma as the response to an unexpected or overwhelming violent event or a number of events that are not fully grasped as they occur.12 As she states, it is the abruptness of the event that prevents the mind from fully taking hold of it. Cultural trauma theorist, Piotr Sztompka, also addresses abruptness in his theory of social change. He points out that if every change produced trauma, then all societies would be permanently and irreparably traumatized. So, there must be recognizable symptoms, for example the speed of a social change, which distinguishes undisruptive change from traumatic change. While cultural trauma can affect different people to a different extent, it has to be made visible in order for it to be realized.13 In his Speech Act Theory, Jeffrey Alexander takes this idea one step further and claims that cultural trauma can only come into existence through acts of mediation and representation.14

Because it is impossible to distinguish mediation from imagination, traumas may result at any time - immediately after a traumatic event happens, before the event even occurs, or many years after the event happens. Combining these three theories proves particularly effective for studying whether or whether not the movie Goodbye, Lenin confronts us with - or may even trigger - cultural trauma.

3.1 Cathy Caruth’s Traumatic Awakenings

One possible way to explain Goodbye, Lenin’s worldwide success, the emergence of an “ostalgia” movement far across German borders, and increased public discussions about German identity, is to take a look at psychoanalytic trauma theories. The movie, recent debates about German identity and the obsession with cultural items and symbols may represent what Cathy Caruth calls belated unconscious repetitions of the traumatic events. For Caruth, these occurrences are belated signs of an “unwitting reenactment of an event that one [or an entire culture] cannot simply leave behind.”15 The event cannot be left behind because the “breach in the mind’s experience” was experienced“ too soon and too unexpectedly…to be fully known and is therefore not available to consciousness.”16 Following a period of latency, the event is experienced irrationally - here in the form of an ongoing “ostalgia” and the search for a new collective identity. Buried in the unconscious, the traumatic event is compulsively repeated until the trauma is resolved. Caruth explains this phenomenon further in Unclaimed Experience: “Traumatic experience, beyond the psychological dimension of suffering it involves, suggests a certain paradox: that the most direct seeing of a violent event may occur as an absolute inability to know it; that immediacy, paradoxically, may take the form of belatedness.”17 Although the “peaceful revolution” of 1989 was the exact opposite of a violent event, the social and cultural changes that followed may indeed be interpreted as violent.

In the case of post-socialist cultural trauma, the repetitions of the traumatic event through media and discussion could represent people’s unconscious desire to live through the change again and again by, for example, repeatedly watching Goodbye, Lenin, buying nostalgic cultural items or watching television shows like the “DDR Show.” The memory of the traumatic event, explains Caruth, is repeatedly recalled on sight:

The repetitions of the traumatic event - which remain unavailable to consciousness but intrude repeatedly on sight- thus suggest a larger relation to the event that extends beyond what can simply be seen or what can be known, and is inextricably tied up with the belatedness and incomprehensibility that remain at the heart of this repetitive seeing.18 Because the movie portrays parts of the actual traumatic event, it may become a trigger for realizing cultural trauma and a symbol of the wound itself. This wound is opened every time the movie is re-watched, particularly during a number of traumatic scenes. One can claim that the movie is structured around three such climactic scenes - the violent street protest, the mother witnessing a helicopter with a Lenin statue flying by, and Alexander’s final self-made television newscast about the fall of the Berlin wall. Yet, every scene has a different traumatic effect on each of the characters, which lends itself to looking at each character’s trauma individually.

3.2 Jeffrey Alexander’s Speech Act Theory

According to Jeffrey Alexander, “cultural trauma occurs when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways.”19 In contrast to a common understanding of trauma, as shown for example in lay trauma theories, which claim that people will be traumatized as a result of an event which sharply undermines their need for security, love, and connection, Alexander claims that trauma is not, in fact, a natural result of certain traumatic events. Instead, cultural trauma is constructed by society; it is a socially mediated phenomenon.20 In order for cultural trauma to come into existence, individuals or carrier groups who have identified the source of their crushed sense of well-being and are able to translate their condition to the rest of society are needed. In other words, cultural trauma always needs to be mediated in order to become a recognizable occurrence. Two possible forms of mediation are literature and film -Becker’s film, Goodbye, Lenin, serves this purpose.


1 The word communism is a utopian term, often mistakenly used to describe socialist societies of the Soviet Union or Eastern Germany. Since communism is by its definition historically unachievable, it is incorrect to use it as an exchangeable term for socialism. I will therefore use the term socialism instead of communism in the essay.

2 Stefan Theil, Red Again, The New Republic, October 13&20, 16-20 (2003).

3 Jeffrey C Alexander, et al. Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

4 Piotr Sztompka, Cultural Trauma: The Other Face of Social Change, European Journal of Social Theory 3 (4): 449-466 (2000).

5 Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience. (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.)

6 Judith Herman, MD. Trauma and Recovery. (New York: Basic Books, 1992.)

7 Katrin Sass is a well known East German actress.

8 Interestingly, the role of the East German Alexander Kerner, is played by the West German actor Daniel Bruehl.

9 Caruth, 3.

10 One example of an “enlightenment” trauma theory is Arthur Neal’s book National Trauma and Collective Memory. (Armonk, New York and London: M.E. Sharpe, 1998.)

11 Caruth, 91, Traumatic Awakenings is the title of the fifth chapter in Unclaimed Experience.

12 Caruth, 91.

13 Sztompka in Alexander, 165.

14 Alexander, 8.

15 Caruth, 2.

16 Caruth, 4.

17 Caruth, 92.

18 Caruth, 92.

19 Alexander, 1.

20 Alexander, 8.

Excerpt out of 33 pages


"Goodbye, Lenin?" - Social change as wound in post-socialist Eastern Germany
Brown University  (Department of American Civilization)
Trauma and Shame of the Unspeakable
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Die Arbeit wurde von der Professorin zur Veröffentlichung vorgeschlagen.
Goodbye, Lenin, Social, Eastern, Germany, Trauma, Shame, Unspeakable, cultural, Wolfgang Becker, social change, Ostdeutschland
Quote paper
Bert Bobock (Author), 2005, "Goodbye, Lenin?" - Social change as wound in post-socialist Eastern Germany, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/93230


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