Also known as the GDR Design Hostel, Ostel aims to
transport guests back to the days of the German Democratic Republic
(GDR) – the name for East Germany under communist dictatorship from
1949 until 1990 (the name Ostel is a play on the German word for east,

Inside, they’ve certainly got the communist bleak thing going on. The door slams behind me and I’m shut in a spartan stairwell. When I finally locate my room, several dark landings later, I turn on the light to find the only decoration is party leader Erich Honecker staring from the wall, wearing thick-rimmed spectacles and a bemused grin.

The next morning everything is brighter. The reception is open, revealing an airline check-in desk backed by geometric wallpaper and clocks telling the time in the former allied cities of Beijing, Havana and Moscow. The original GDR furniture includes a rotary dial telephone, mahogany brown sofa, hefty transistor radio and a huge chest of a TV.

Outside in the light I can see the drab, socialist block, one of the many low-cost ‘concrete slab buildings’ of the era, has been transformed with green, yellow and orange paint, making it stand out like a citrus flag in the grey neighbourhood.

In Berlin, Ostalgie – nostalgia for the former East Germany – is bigger than ever. Not only can you stay in a “pre-fab(ulous)” GDR hostel (soon to have 500 beds), you can go on a Trabant safari and whizz round the city in one of the much-loved, though famously unreliable, East German cars. Fans of communist kitsch can stop off on the way to browse state-supermarket merchandise in specialist shops.

One such store is Intershop 2000 in Friedrichshain, which used to sell luxury goods to visiting West Germans. Today it’s a jumble of hen-shaped egg cups, memento beer steins and ancient-looking jars of pickled vegetables that apparently starred in nostalgic comedy Goodbye Lenin. It’s not just tourists and collectors who visit, says shopkeeper Doro Westphal, but East Germans who want to remember their past.

“It wasn’t all bad,” she says, of life under the socialist unity party. “Not everyone was corrupt. A lot of people were just working hard and getting on with their lives.”

The DDR Museum (in German it was the Deutsche Demokratische Republik), offers an excellent introduction to everyday life in the GDR. There you can fail to start a Trabi, listen to the classic tunes of the day and watch videos of East Germans cavorting on nudist beaches (seriously).

In a darkened corner, though, the fun trails off. At a desk piled high with surveillance equipment you can sit in the dim glow of a low-wattage lamp and listen in on the private conversations of East German citizens through headphones – like a scene from The Lives Of Others. “The Stasi’s eyes and ears were everywhere,” reads a notice on the wall. “There was nowhere to hide; the society was full of informers.”

Unearthing GDR curiosities across the city, it’s easy to forget, in a whirl of trendy, retro stylings, that there was a very real, sinister side to life in East Germany. The Stasi Museum brings this home. Hidden in Haus 1, in the grim complex of the former Ministry for State Security (nicknamed Stasi) offices, the museum was created after crowds stormed the building in 1989. Archives were opened to the public revealing the names of 6.5 million supposed “enemies of the system”.

It doesn’t feel as though the building’s changed much since 1989 – it’s no all-singing, all-dancing museum, but the exhibits are fascinating enough to stand alone. On the first floor, under the theme ‘Surveillance, Repression, Espionage’, there’s a cattle-prod disguised as an umbrella, a gun hidden in brief-case, and a bugged tree stump. Jars contain yellow material taken from chair seats and preserved so that dogs could trace the scent.

On the second floor are the offices as the secret police had them – various shades of brown, yellow and mustard furniture – and, further up, after rooms of historical documents (the text is German, but a brochure explains each panel in English) is a replica prison cell.

The real thing can be found a tram ride away at the Stasi Prison. Many of the two-hour tours here are led by former inmates. My guide, Wolfgang Arndt had spent two years in prison thanks to his wife informing the Stasi about
his plans to flee the GDR. Two weeks of this was spent alone in a padded cell so dark he couldn’t see his own hand. He had to see a psychologist for eight years after the experience and, though he says he’s fine now, the sound of the bolt cracking shut still makes him shiver.

When I ask him the obvious question – why he’s chosen to work here – Arndt’s answer is simple: “For me, it’s therapy. For others, it’s so they never forget.”

Back at Ostel the period decor takes on a different hue. Despite the austerity of my little room, I’m suddenly glad I’m not staying in the more luxurious Stasi Suite.