Debut novelist David Young’s first Oberleutnant Karin Muller novel, Stasi Child is out now for Kindle, and here as part of his blog tour, David talks to LifeOfCri.me about a few of those things particularly loved by the East Germans.
East Germany – or more properly, the German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik in German) – is now a lost world, and many would say that’s for the best, trapped as its citizens were behind the fortified Berlin Wall and the inner German border.
But twenty-five years after the two Germanies reunited (the anniversary was earlier this month), there are still some things from the communist state that its former inhabitants hanker after. It’s spawned a form of nostalgia with its own name – Ostalgie. In my novel Stasi Child there are plenty of references to products and brands which were peculiarly East German. Some were so popular they still survive today.
My detective, Oberleutnant Karin Müller, and her deputy, Unterleutnant Werner Tilsner, drive around in an unmarked police Wartburg. But the most iconic East German car was the much-maligned Trabant. The Trabi can still occasionally be seen on the streets in eastern Germany today, even though it was made out of a strange product called Duroplast – a mixture of recycled cotton and resin. It had a horribly inefficient two-stroke engine, a top speed of 62 mph, and emitted between five to nine times the pollution levels of even an average 2007-vintage western European car. Nevertheless, they were much sought after, with citizens often on a years-long waiting list, so lucky owners maintained them meticulously. Wartburgs – a step up from the Trabi – were made of steel, and were even exported to the UK. Müller and Tilsner in Stasi Child would probably have driven a Wartburg 353 – nicknamed ‘Farty Hans’ because, like the Trabant, it was a two-stroke with copious exhaust emissions.
In the original draft of Stasi Child, I had Müller eating a Ketwurst – a ketchup wurst (the German name for sausage) bought from an outdoor stand. The Ketwurst was an East German ‘invention’ – developed by the fantastically-titled State Gastronomic Research Centre – to rival the American hot dog. Then I discovered it didn’t come into being until 1977 or ’78, while the novel is set in 74/75. So instead she wards off her hunger with a quarter Broiler. The broiler was simply grilled or fried chicken and an East German fast food staple.
Other famous East German food products include the ones listed by my teenage characters in the second, parallel narrative of Stasi Child. For example, Nudossi (sometimes nicknamed Ost-Nutella) – a hazelnut and chocolate spread which actually has a higher proportion of hazelnuts than its western equivalent and is still produced today (it’s delicious!). Another is Spreewald pickles – pickled gherkins in glass jars produced in a wooded area 100 kms south-east of Berlin, which famously feature in the film Good Bye Lenin! Then there was the GDR’s answer to Coca Cola: Vita Cola, advertised as a ‘carbonated soft drink with fruit and herb flavoring’ and like its more famous western cousin, produced according to a ‘secret recipe’.
There are still restaurants in the eastern part of Germany where you can sample traditional East German dishes. One of them – the restaurant attached to the DDR-museum in Mitte – serves the favourite dish of Müller’s husband, Gottfried, Gebackene Apfelringe (baked apple rings). This features in a particularly harrowing scene in the novel.
Drinking alcohol was almost a national pastime in East Germany. The GDR’s official youth movement, the FDJ, even had a song about drinking beer. In the mid 1970s – when Stasi Child is set – an East German medical specialist estimated that 5% of adults in the GDR were alcoholics: four times as many as in West Germany. In my opening scene, Müller and Tilsner wake (in Tilsner’s marital bed!) with hangovers after downing too much Blue Strangler the night before. Blue Strangler in the early days of the GDR referred to 40% proof crystal vodka, and got its nickname from the blue label of the bottles (a later version actually branded as Blue Strangler was actually a grain schnapps of lower alcohol content). Although former East German detectives I spoke to insisted there was no drinking on duty or during a case, alcohol was part of daily life. East German women’s magazines even advised a special diet for those wanting to lose weight: the wurst and vodka diet!
Interestingly, when the 1989 protests which led to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and East Germany began, alcohol consumption slumped to historic lows within a matter of weeks.
Stasi Child by David Young is out now in ebook. The Paperback will follow in February 2016.