Mar 2024

Selling Ostalgie

Der Zimmerspringbrunnen as a Tragicomic Salesman’s Tale of German Unification

by Jill Twark

The novel Der Zimmerspringbrunnen (1995) by Jens Sparschuh belongs to a large group of humorous and satirical texts, films, songs, cabaret performances, and cartoons created as reactions to the unification of East and West Germany.[1] The best-selling novel Helden wie wir (1995; Heroes like us, 1997) by Thomas Brussig, the popular film Sonnenallee (1999) directed by Leander Haußmann, and the graphic novel Kinderland (2014) by Mawil represent the wide spectrum of these comical responses to the Wende.[2] For a good laugh, one can also listen to the wacky pop eulogy “Erfurt & Gera” by Nina Hagen, from her 1991 album Street, in which the singer mocks the way East Germans threw themselves into West German consumerism after the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989.[3] Along with the more abundant, “serious” autobiographies, novels, and historiography that record life in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and after unification,[4] humorous artworks testify not only to the hardships people faced in the East and in unified Germany, but also to the pleasure derived in hindsight from recognizing the many ironies of life under socialism and after its failure as an immense political experiment in Eastern Europe.[5]

When two distinct cultures, such as those of East and West Germany, come into contact with each other, their differences produce incongruities that can sometimes seem funny. After the fall of the Wall, East and West Germans traveled freely across the former border, and even though they had shared a common history until 1945 and spoke the same language, they discovered a lot of sometimes unexpected differences. One tangible contrast was in the clothing they wore. In the East, clothing production could not keep up with the demand for fashionable designs, and synthetic fibers like polyester and the GDR version of nylon, called Dederon—combining the acronym for “Deutsche Demokratische Republik” (“DDR”) and “nylon”—predominated.[6] Fashion trends in the East thus lagged behind the West, from the Western point of view, so Westerners often smiled—or cringed—when they saw how Easterners dressed.[7] After unification, differences in clothing fashion persisted for several years, as many eastern Germans with low post-Wall incomes[8] purchased the outdated sales apparel flooding the eastern German market from the West in the 1990s. The unemployed eastern German protagonist in Der Zimmerspringbrunnen describes the heaps of ridiculously ugly clothing he purchased compulsively, on sale, following unification: “seit der Wende hatten sich pinkfarbene Blousons, giftgrüne Jogginghosen und andere Sonderangebote bedrohlich und von selbst in den Fächern meines Kleiderschranks vermehrt.”[9] Cultural contrasts like this, in clothing fashion, workplace environments, and attitudes toward East and West Germany, are often treated with humor in Der Zimmerspringbrunnen.

By provoking laughter at such differences, Sparschuh helps us understand how and why eastern Germans have clung to their disappearing culture, in the 1990s and the decades that followed, for consumer products play a strong role in constructing our collective identities. Such products “communicate messages that contribute significantly to the creation and articulation of social identity patterns,” and “by no means reflect purely economic matters.” [10] Thus, Sparschuh’s novel helps us understand why eastern Germans developed Ostalgie—a feeling of nostalgia for East Germany and its shared consumer culture and identity. When they came in contact with a western German culture and mentality, as Sparschuh’s protagonist does when working for a western German company in the early 1990s, many eastern Germans reflected on their biographies and began to appreciate aspects of the past that they had earlier taken for granted. This nostalgia fuels the comical plot of the novel, as the protagonist exploits the eastern Germans’ “homesickness” for their past lives by selling them an otherwise useless, gimmicky consumer product that reminds them of the GDR.

Der Zimmerspringbrunnen is not only comical, however, as it also conveys the traumatic psychological effects of life in East(ern) Germany before and after German unification. Written by eastern German author Jens Sparschuh (who was born in East Berlin in 1955) and published in 1995, several years after the initial excitement of unification had worn off and the difficult reality of adjusting to the new circumstances had set in, the novel provokes both laughter and compassion toward the protagonist and his efforts to cope. Sparschuh prompts us to ask fundamental questions of this maladjusted protagonist as he describes his difficulties in finding employment after unification and loses the ability to interact with other people, including with his own wife. With irritation, the reader may wish to shout at the main character: “Why won’t you talk to your wife? How can you neglect your dog?” The bigger questions this book encourages us to ask, however, revolve around common East German and post-unification experiences such as these: What was it like to work for the socialist GDR government? How might unemployment affect citizens from a socialist society where employment was considered a civil right, and unemployment did not officially exist? What coping strategies were adopted by eastern Germans to maintain their mental health for an extended time in unemployment after unification? What perceptions and stereotypes of East(ern) and West(ern) Germans were propagated following unification and why? How does Sparschuh’s novel feed into these stereotypes, and how does it challenge them?

Giving his forty-something protagonist a voice as the first-person narrator of Der Zimmerspringbrunnen, Sparschuh shows how East Germans could be traumatized by their workplace conditions in the GDR, as well as by unemployment and the need to adopt new careers after unification. The reader must look beyond this narrator as an individual to understand what his biography means in the wider context of the post-unification period of German history. Sparschuh packs tightly—and also unpacks—the experience of living in the GDR and in eastern Germany after unification from the perspective of the middle generation of East German citizens who were born into and grew up in the GDR’s socialist regime. The author’s satire assists in interpreting the distinctly Eastern European sociopolitical transformation since the fall of the Iron Curtain. This transition is still taking place to this day, although other Eastern European countries did not enjoy the economic and political benefits of having a Western counterpart. Over 400 million people from the former Soviet Bloc experienced the transition from a repressive socialist society to an imperfect free-market situation—around 16 million of them from the GDR. In revisiting Sparschuh’s novel three decades after its publication, I first present the historical context in which Der Zimmerspringbrunnen was written, which includes a discussion of how the author deals with the important subjects of unemployment and differences in East(ern) and West(ern) German workplaces and attitudes toward work. Next, the strategies of humor employed to entertain and educate readers are explained, along with the author’s approach to Ostalgie (nostalgia for the east) and use of intertextual references, so that readers understand how the novel’s main messages are conveyed. The final section provides some compelling reasons for the novel to be read today as a means of passing on the cultural-historical memory of the GDR and the post-Wende period.


Hinrich Lobek as fictional case study of the unemployed East(ern) German

Understanding Der Zimmerspringbrunnen requires some background information on the history of East Germany, unification, and what happened when West Germany absorbed its eastern neighbor.[11] In the early 1990s, many easterners, including the protagonist in Sparschuh’s novel, were thrust into unemployment, which grew from less than 1 percent in the GDR to 10.2 percent in 1991, to 19.2 percent by the year 1998, in the eastern region of unified Germany.[12] Eastern Germans were forced to reorient themselves or to stagnate. This shift in employment status had a demoralizing psychological effect on many by lowering their social status and marginalizing them socially,[13] as well as driving them to live in greater poverty than in the western part of Germany, as extensive sociological research has shown.[14] Mentality differences between eastern and western Germans, deriving from their divergent educational backgrounds[15] and professional experiences, exacerbated the difficulties these two distinct cultural groups encountered as their societies were merged. Having his eastern German protagonist, Hinrich Lobek,[16] describe his respective professions in the GDR and in unified Germany, as well as three years of unemployment, Sparschuh helps us understand some fundamental differences between life under socialism and in a free-market economy. Under socialism, for example, the state ensured that all people of working age had steady employment, and combined with nationwide government housing-construction initiatives, eliminated homelessness. In capitalist countries, by contrast, unemployment levels fluctuate with the strength or weakness of the global and local economy, and workplaces in both the public and private sector can be quite competitive for applicants and jobholders. Thus, workers have to display greater initiative in seeking and maintaining jobs. Homelessness is also widespread in capitalist nations for various reasons, including unemployment, a lack of affordable housing, or mental illness. In the year 2022, for example, 262,200 people were living in Germany without a steady residence, either in temporary private housing, in homeless shelters, or on the street.[17] Sparschuh bookends Der Zimmerspringbrunnen with these two socioeconomic ills by opening it with his protagonist living in long-term unemployment and ending it with him living for several weeks among the homeless people at the Bahnhof Zoo, a western Berlin train station that symbolized for decades the social problems found in free-market economies like the Federal Republic of Germany.[18]

Being unemployed is difficult for most people, but in the aftermath of the fall of the Iron Curtain, it came as quite a shock to Eastern Europeans from socialist countries where the “right to work” was written into the Constitution as a civil right.[19] Because of this constitutional guarantee, unemployment remained insignificant in the GDR and did not officially exist, although underemployment was also not recognized by the government as a problem.[20] When easterners began losing their jobs by the hundreds of thousands in the early 1990s, reaching a peak of 1.3 million by 2003,[21] they thus suffered a kind of “culture shock” along with becoming unemployed. Another major reason why unemployment burdened eastern Germans so heavily was because easterners developed closer relationships with their coworkers than westerners, and thus losing these relationships meant more to them as it marginalized them socially as well as economically.[22] This social marginalization deriving from unemployment is a crucial topic in Der Zimmerspringbrunnen, because it affects the male protagonist in ways that his wife does not experience, for she is able to stay employed in the early 1990s.

In reading and discussing Der Zimmerspringbrunnen, it is important to understand the origins of this unemployment wave that struck eastern Germany throughout the 1990s and continues to this day to be higher in the east.[23] Its devastating effects stem from the speed with which West Germany took over the political and economic institutions in the east, along with macroeconomic investment mistakes western politicians made in dealing with this huge financial burden.[24] By the time East and West Germany were unified officially on October 3, 1990, GDR society had already begun to evolve from its original format as a socialist state, protected under the economic and political umbrella of the Soviet Union since the end of World War II, to a free-market economy. The first major economic change took place in July 1990, when the currency of West Germany, the Deutsche Mark, became the official currency in East Germany. At this time, many East Germans lost some of their savings, as not all their money was replaced one-to-one with the much stronger Deutsche Mark currency, and many East German industries began to orient themselves toward the West. Because most East German production methods, machines, and products were not up to western standards of quality, style, and environmental safety, and eastern Germans tended to prefer western products over eastern ones, many factories were soon shut down and/or sold at very low prices—sometimes for just one symbolic Deutschmark—to western German and foreign investors. Many such sales were arranged, in hindsight, too quickly by the Treuhandanstalt, an agency created in 1990 to facilitate the economic transition in the East.[25] After they were sold, most factories were shuttered, and this rapid closure led to mass unemployment. During the process of unifying the two separate nations in fall 1990, the GDR government was also dissolved, and its territory reconfigured as six new Bundesländer—Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia, Brandenburg, and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern—along with Berlin, which became its own Bundesland when East and West Germany merged.

These and other economic and political shifts meant that eastern German citizens had to adapt to a completely new life situation: western laws and government agencies; restructured educational institutions; and, at first, a further decaying infrastructure before massive waves of new construction and renovation, permanently changed their urban environments. The protagonist in Der Zimmerspringbrunnen reflects on these changes:

Ohne auch nur den Fuß vor die Tür zu setzen, hatte ich mein altes Heimatland verlassen (bzw.—es mich). Eines Tages stand, wie von einem Flugzeug abgeworfen, der Container einer neuen Versicherung auf der grauen Wiese vor unserem verwitterten Neubaublock (das “Basislager”, wie ich es in meinem Protokollbuch nannte). Von dort aus schwärmten die Missionare in die umliegende Gegend aus. Auch die Sparkasse war eine andere geworden, sie nannte sich jetzt Bank und schickte mir diskret, nach einem unergründlichen Bankgeheimnis, immer neue Geheimnummern für mein fast leeres Konto zu […]. Sogar die Postanschrift hatte sich von heute auf morgen geändert […] heimlich, über Nacht sozusagen, waren wir aus unserer Straße umgezogen worden. Sie trug jetzt einen anderen Namen.[26]

The biggest shift for Lobek, however, consists in losing his career. In the GDR, he had worked for the government for many years as a case worker in the Communal Housing Administration. This job required him to visit tenants in their pre-WWII or GDR government-built, centrally managed apartments to assess and record housing repair complaints from his assigned district in East Berlin. He describes in the novel’s ninth chapter, “Alle Jahre wieder! Countdown,”[27] how he typed up the complaints in his tiny basement office and reported them based on urgency to the Housing Administration, which then neglected to make the necessary repairs, as the repairmen were not held accountable for doing their jobs.[28] When the GDR ceased to exist, Lobek lost his position, as it was delegated to new government agencies, run by the FRG, and to private landlords who purchased formerly state-owned properties. Most likely because Lobek is middle-aged in an ageist job market[29] and worked for the GDR government, he is not hired anywhere else for several years, despite submitting applications. People who worked for the GDR state in any capacity were considered to have been ideological “conformists” to an unjust, repressive government, whereas many had also received special privileges in what was supposed to be an egalitarian, socialist society. Citizens like Lobek, who had worked for the state, often faced prejudices from both westerners and some easterners after unification, on top of lacking the educational degrees and work skills necessary to acquire and perform successfully in western careers.

The novel Der Zimmerspringbrunnen begins in media res, after Lobek has been unemployed for three years, feeling trapped in his apartment and reflecting on his vastly different past and present circumstances. Being unemployed has taken a toll on his mental health, as he spends “endlose Tage … von morgens bis abends in unserer Neubauwohnung,” becoming “schweigsamer,” because “[e]s gab ja nichts zu erzählen!”[30] Although he does not say much to others throughout the novel, Lobek does get to know several western Germans when he accepts a position working for an indoor fountain company from an unnamed city in the Upper Rhine region of Germany. Having Lobek interact with western Germans allows Sparschuh to document how harsh western judgments and stereotypes of eastern Germans could be in the 1990s. Not only do western Germans call easterners names such as “die beleidigten Zonendödels” (the insulted [eastern] zone idiots)[31]—putting them down for criticizing the difficult unification process and for appearing socially “backward”—but they also believe life in East Germany did not constitute “living” at all. Lobek’s western colleague, Uwe Strüver, sums up these judgments: “Das war ja kein Leben bei euch! Die Zeitungen waren keine Zeitungen. Die Wahlen waren keine Wahlen. Die Straßen keine Straßen. Nicht mal die Autos waren Autos.”[32] This focus on the measurable, material aspects of life in East Germany derives from the fact that the Federal Republic of Germany was wealthier and offered more freedoms than the German Democratic Republic. Citizens in the FRG had a higher standard of living, along with freedoms of speech, press, religion, and travel. GDR newspapers were censored strictly to conform to the socialist ideology and to government propaganda and thus were not considered in the West to be “real” newspapers presenting objective facts. In national and local elections, unlike in West Germany, East German voters were not offered a true choice of parties to vote for, as all political parties and state-supported, political organizations were bundled together into a “block party” coalition called the “Nationale Front.” All voters were pressured to vote for the “Nationale Front,” so that it received an undemocratic 99% or more of the votes in every election. Because the Socialist Unity Party (SED) held the most power in the “Nationale Front,” as well as a majority of seats in parliament, it dominated the GDR government throughout its existence.[33] Along with these authoritarian, “anti-modern” governmental and mass media institutions,[34] the infrastructure of East Germany also lagged behind the West. Many streets and highways had been built before WWII, or later of substandard paving material, and were thus in a state of bad repair, and the East German Trabi and Wartburg cars were vastly inferior to the West German Volkswagens and Mercedes. Differences like these formed the basis for many western prejudices against eastern Germany, and vice versa, which Sparschuh documents in his novel so that his readers see how each side of Germany viewed the other and how insulting such statements like Strüver’s could appear, whether they were objectively true or not.

Instead of using satire in this interaction between Strüver and Lobek, Sparschuh uses realism to document both perspectives and encourage reflection on them. As Lobek agrees with Strüver, he also calls the western perspective into question: “Innerlich mußte ich ihm in allen Punkten recht geben. Aber, was zum Kuckuck war es dann, was wir die ganze Zeit getrieben haben? Wer weiß. Man muß es schon selbst erlebt haben, um es nicht zu verstehen . . ..”[35] Lobek’s admission here that what East Germans experienced is “not understandable,” even to him and his fellow eastern Germans, supplies a thought process that reveals how hurtful western German insensitivity could be. In having Lobek not respond directly to Strüver, but only “[i]nnerlich” to the reader, Sparschuh conveys the feeling of easterners being “silenced” by the West. His speechlessness parallels the inability of many eastern Germans to express the “Angst,” “Ohnmacht,” und “Ausweglosigkeit,” which “bezeichnen Spuren der Erinnerung an die DDR, für die es kaum einen kommunikativen Ausdruck im öffentlichen Gedenken gibt.”[36] These eastern and western reactions to each other’s perspectives, expressed in Der Zimmerspringbrunnen, teach us today how each side experienced the other’s culture and the process of unification. Westerners took it for granted that easterners would welcome their assistance wholeheartedly in transitioning from a socialist dictatorship to a free-market democracy, but easterners experienced this transition as a “colonization” that coerced them into adopting nearly all western institutional, legal, and educational structures and many sociocultural expectations.[37]

Specific differences between eastern and western German occupational expectations and attitudes are displayed in Lobek’s first-person account of re-entering the workforce as a salesman for the western German indoor fountain company. To the naïve eastern German Lobek, who has no experience with working in the West, the expensive training seminars and high-powered sales strategies of the indoor fountain company are, at first, perplexing and embarrassing.[38] His nearly word-for-word notetaking from a training session for “Standardsituationen” turns the role-playing scenarios designed to practice sales pitches with customers into a comedy of errors—a situation “so full of mistakes and problems that it seems funny.”[39] The language westerners use to describe high-pressure sales tactics is furthermore rendered in complex, metaphorical terms, often derived from military campaigns (“Frontberichte”; “Überaschungsangriff”; “Überfallkommando”) or relationship conflicts (“der ‘klassische Dreieckskonflikt’”).[40] From Lobek’s first encounter with “capitalist” business strategies and practices, and as he gradually acclimates to working as a door-to-door salesman, the reader becomes aware of major differences between socialism and capitalism. Under socialism, for example, production quotas were set by the government in Five-Year Plans. Because workers did not receive adequate pecuniary or promotional incentives to exceed these quotas, they either did not or could not increase their salaries or standard of living up to the western standards that they saw while sneaking peeks at western television shows, whose broadcasts reached across the guarded border. In the free-market economy, Lobek struggles miserably at first to sell his required quota of indoor fountains, a decorative and thus “useless” product, and when his ingenuity and increasing product sales lead to great success, he is promoted to regional sales representative for eastern Germany by justifiably, yet cruelly, displacing his mentor. Lobek’s ability to “outwest” his western colleague gives positive agency to an easterner that is both comical and ominous, as Lobek comes to embody the cut-throat characteristics of capitalism and loses the “human” side of his life in East Germany.

As Lobek gradually acquires and eventually excels at western German sales tactics, Sparschuh turns him into an object of mockery—“der neue Mensch”[41] of capitalism instead of socialism—by having him internalize these new sales strategies too deeply. Lobek appears foolish applying high-powered sales tactics to an interaction with his wife, when she criticizes him for failing to take responsibility for their shared household, pet dog, and relationship.[42] Instead of engaging in a spoken dialogue with her as she pelts him verbally with accusations, he remains silent, quoting mechanically from the sales training manual in his mind, as if she were a customer to whom he is trying to sell a product: “‘Unterbrechen Sie Ihren Kunden nicht. Sie könnten sonst wichtige Hinweise verpassen. Haben Sie Geduld!’ riet Punkt 4 an dieser Stelle.”[43] Sparschuh depicts Lobek satirically, in absurd interactions like this, to give him both a comical and a tragic side.[44] He thereby calls attention to the often confusing and humiliating position in which eastern Germans found themselves while reorienting themselves to their new, post-Wall circumstances and internalizing a western professional and social alienation.


Strategies of satire and humor in Der Zimmerspringbrunnen

The satire in Der Zimmerspringbrunnen, as displayed above in Sparschuh’s caricatured portrayal of Lobek’s disjointed conversation with his wife, derives from the incongruity and hyperbole exhibited in four main modes of humor: epic humor, situational irony, slapstick, and verbal humor. The predominant mode in the novel is what literary historian Wolfgang Preisendanz refers to as “epic humor,” which is produced whenever there is a tension between a text’s subject matter and the way this subject matter is narrated.[45] It is “die (scheinbare) Unangemessenheit von Vorgang und Vortrag.”[46] We perceive “epic humor” when we notice that the way an author writes does not correspond to the way a participant might actually experience an event. “Epic humor” appears on two levels in Der Zimmerspringbrunnen. From the perspective of the author, Sparschuh, Lobek’s biography is often presented in an exaggerated, satirical way that is more entertaining to read about than a person would experience it in reality. But Lobek himself is also an “author” who uses writing as a coping strategy to deal with his life in the early 1990s. By recording his thoughts and experiences as if he were documenting Stasi (GDR secret police) observations of himself and the people around him, he appears comically megalomaniacal. Referring to his embedded, autobiographical texts as “Protokolle,” meaning “records,” or “logs,” similar to his case worker reports for the Communal Housing Administration, he gives them a heightened importance that produces epic humor. These “protocols” mimic Stasi reports when Lobek calls his wife, Julia, “Observationsobjekt J.” and proclaims that he is adding his latest document to his stored files: “ab damit zu den Akten!”[47]

In GDR times and to this day, any mention of “Akten” can connote the state security reports derived from spying on East German citizens, which could condemn anyone who spoke or acted out against the government to persecution or imprisonment. Thus, when the “average guy” Lobek refers to his writing as “protokollieren,”[48] it appears hyperbolic. He is portrayed as a caricature of an eastern German with a heightened sense of self-importance and a backward, “surveillance state” approach to life, who “protocols” instead of just “writing” as other diarists and autobiographers generally do. Considering the actual trauma he faced in the GDR and afterward, and the fact that he is writing after the Stasi was dissolved, this writing method appears to be an ironic way to cope with his new life situation. The sad irony of this narrative technique only becomes apparent at the end of the novel, however, when Lobek finally reveals the origin of his urge to write “protocols.” This compulsion derives from his prior experiences with isolation in his basement office while writing pointless housing repair complaints, which fostered in him an inability to speak to other people: “Worte halfen da nicht. Ich wußte auch nichts zu sagen und begann, mich in Schweigen zu hüllen. Ich verschanzte mich immer mehr in meinem Büro, war verzweifelt und nahe daran, mein Leben, zumindest mein Berufsleben, dem Alkohol zu widmen.”[49] Though depicted comically, Lobek’s speechlessness prompts us to seek reasons for it, thus creating a suspense that propels the narrative. Caused by his powerlessness to achieve the fulfillment of his carefully prepared repair requests at work in the GDR, even those marked as urgent with a “Dringlichkeitsvermerk,”[50] and carrying forward after unification, his speechlessness symbolizes an inability to communicate one’s needs, regardless of whether one lives in socialism or in a free-market democracy. As a manifestation of Lobek’s demoralization, this feeling of lacking agency echoed out from the powerlessness of the residents whose housing repair needs were not met in the GDR. This powerlessness is then matched by the irritable reactions of many of the isolated individuals to whom Lobek later attempts to sell indoor fountains after unification, who similarly lack agency, living in isolation and suffering from unemployment and/or alcoholism.[51] Whereas Lobek’s protocol approach to recording his life and speechlessness are often depicted using “epic humor,” the alienation of the socially marginalized in eastern Germany balances out the comedy.

“Situational irony” is another humor mode induced when Lobek interacts with others, including his wife, his western German work colleagues, and even his frisky dog, who plays a significant role as his only consistent companion and as a comical, canine provocateur. Some of these situations result from Lobek’s speechlessness and generally weak interpersonal skills, and others from the aforementioned “culture clash” when he meets western Germans.[52] “Situational irony” is “a literary technique in which an expected outcome does not happen, or its opposite happens instead. Situational irony requires one’s expectations to be thwarted and is also sometimes called an irony of events. The outcome can be tragic or humorous, but it is always unexpected.”[53] The central plot of Der Zimmerspringbrunnen constitutes situational irony, as it traces Lobek’s unexpectedly fast, upward trajectory from being long-term unemployed to suddenly finding success as a door-to-door salesman of a luxury good in a time of financial hardship for many people in eastern Germany. Lobek’s situation can furthermore be seen as ironic because, as his career blossoms, his marriage withers and eventually dies out altogether when his wife leaves him. The situational irony in Der Zimmerspringbrunnen also focuses attention on the cultural conflicts between eastern and western Germans, teaching us about them while making us smile, and deflating the anger and frustration they often produced in real life.

The slapstick scenes in Der Zimmerspringbrunnen complement the situational irony in drawing the reader’s sympathy toward Lobek, highlighting his bad luck, good luck, and fallibility. “Slapstick,” which has a long history in Europe but is best known from film comedies that include it,[54] is a form of physical humor that involves the infliction of pain or violence on protagonists who “get back up again” and carry on as if they had not been injured. Sparschuh describes Lobek’s experiences of physical pain as actual pain and embarrassment in great detail,[55] provoking a visceral reaction in the reader and revealing the protagonist’s vulnerability. Because Lobek is a tragicomic figure who is often not presented sympathetically by the author, however, his suffering comes across as humorous and may even provoke some Schadenfreude toward him as an object to be laughed at.

Slapstick scenes in Der Zimmerspringbrunnen occur when Lobek chokes on a piece of prosciutto (“Schwarzwälder Schinken”) at the buffet when he first meets his new boss, Alois Boldinger, at the orientation convention in Baden-Württemberg; when he gets sprayed in the face by a fountain during a sales training course at the same convention; and when he falls unwittingly into the clutches of a professional sado-masochist who treats him to a good whipping when he attempts to sell her an indoor fountain.[56] Alan Dale discusses slapstick as a universal, existential experience for the victim as well as for spectators like ourselves: “That’s the appeal of the slapstick outlook, even in life—we have to laugh at the loss of our dignity, which is what makes the constant recurrence of such losses bearable.”[57] Der Zimmerspringbrunnen, like much eastern German literature produced since 1989, depicts the humiliation of East Germans in the GDR and, after unification, by western Germans. Coming from a nation with a “failed” ideology, government and economy, with its accompanying lower standard of living, and then facing westerners who constantly pointed this out to them, humiliated eastern Germans. Sparschuh deals with this indignity cleverly by giving Lobek resilience—“the insistent regularity by which characters condemned to fail at the world are able to get back up and move on, using humor as a strategy to overcome hardship.”[58] Such resilience and stoicism enable Lobek to accept western criticism without renouncing his eastern German identity and to seize opportunities when they are offered.

In all three aforementioned cases of physical incapacity, in fact, Lobek not only gets past the humiliation, but he emerges more successful than before. In the first case, his inability to speak while choking allows him to listen to his new boss’s thoughts and plans, which impresses Boldinger, who places him into the sales seminar led by the successful western salesman, Uwe Strüver. Strüver then mentors Lobek, helping him with his career. Despite Strüver’s occasional displays of insensitivity toward eastern Germans, he is generally open-minded and gives Lobek a chance to prove himself in selling indoor fountains. In the second case of slapstick humor, when Lobek gets squirted in the face by the indoor fountain in Strüver’s seminar, this mishap is praised loudly by Boldinger as the perfect sales technique to garner customers’ sympathy and compel them to purchase an indoor fountain.[59] After having been beaten up by the sado-masochist in the third slapstick scenario, Lobek again progresses forward in his career, as his boss, Boldinger, calls the next day to offer Lobek the promotion to eastern regional representative for the indoor fountain company.[60] Lobek’s career then takes a steep, upward trajectory, in contrast to the downward trajectory of his marriage, thereby exhibiting slapstick’s capacity “to give voice to tragedy and comedy at once” and to serve as “starting points for commentaries about the political.”[61] Lobek’s “unstoppable rise” from an unemployed “Jäger in den eigenen vier Wänden,” fascinated by a housefly,[62] to a respected regional representative for indoor fountain sales, can be seen as “political” in showing how much good luck and effort it takes to pick oneself up from a political and economic situation from which one has been structurally excluded.

As slapstick scenes punctuate the flow of the narrative, so does verbal humor, which Sparschuh gives Lobek as a self-defensive weapon; it is a coping mechanism and a means to highlight the absurdities in his life. While unemployed and feeling trapped in his apartment, Lobek cynically renames the birds he watches from the window “Insektenvertilger.”[63] He expresses his dissatisfaction with western German consumer culture by calling the expansive, new clothing section at the department store a “Spiegelkabinett” (a hall of mirrors from an amusement park fun house), and the new, fluffy bread rolls at the bakery “die importierten Luftikusse.”[64] Lobek uses language as a means to protest against these inevitable changes, but also sometimes to his advantage, as when he turns the description of his political views from his GDR resumé into desirable professional experience: “Bin seit meiner Schulzeit überzeugter Vertreter der sozialistischen Ordnung,” is rewritten as the attractive phrase: “Langj­ährige Erfahrungen im Vertreterbereich.”[65] This shift in language use to fulfill western German expectations brings Lobek success immediately, when he is hired as a salesman, though it later leads to the opposite results in arguments with his wife. Overall, Sparschuh’s use of multiple forms of humor to depict Lobek’s monotonous life while unemployed, as well as the stress he faces as a salesman and failing husband, enables us to laugh at Lobek while sympathizing and identifying with him.


Selling Ostalgie

Ostalgie, referring to the nostalgia or longing of eastern Germans for aspects of their past lives in the GDR, became highly politicized in Germany following unification and persists to this day, reflected most visibly in its commercialized form. Like the other stereotypes and insults hurled at each other, with westerners being called “Besserwisser,” “Besserwessis” or “Superwessis”[66] and easterners labeled “Zonendödels” or “Sensibelchen,”[67] the term Ostalgie was initially used as an insult to dismiss categorically any positive feelings eastern Germans had toward their former lives. It indicated a lack of understanding, on the part of those who used it disparagingly, that one’s identity is constructed holistically and not “backward-looking or eternally stuck in the past.”[68] As Rainer Gries writes: “The decision by eastern Germans in favor of the traditional products of their home and the profession of loyalty to these products by their potential consumers can […] by no means be devalued as a nostalgic yearning for a socialist past.”[69] The author Sparschuh confirmed this statement in an interview with me in January 2000, when asked what the word “socialism” meant to him:

Die DDR war für mich eine Gesellschaft, mit der ich nichts anfangen konnte. Ich habe an dem Rand der Gesellschaft meine Existenz gesucht, und das klappte ja. Wenn ich mir jetzt im Nachhinein klarmache, dass Sozialismus für viele Leute etwas mit Sicherheit zu tun hatte, ist das ein positiver Aspekt. Wenn ich mir im Nachhinein klarmache, was mir damals in der ganzen Tragweite nicht klar war, nämlich dass viele Leute eingesperrt waren und auf ganz schreckliche Weise behandelt worden sind, bekommt er [der Sozialismus] einen kriminellen, negativen Aspekt. Und so verändert sich die Semantik eines Wortes, was mir vorher eher gleichgültig war. Es bekommt nach der Wende mehr Power auf beiden Seiten, im Plus- und Minusbereich.[70]

Tied to the—in many ways justly vilified—socialist past in which they lived, the word Ostalgie can nevertheless be seen, in its creation and initial use in the early 1990s, as an attempt to coerce eastern Germans into letting go of their past and thereby to erase this past so that they conform to western concepts of politics, economics and society.

In the years following unification, however, as entrepreneurs came to see the money-making potential of reproducing and marketing consumer products from the East, Ostalgie soon began to assume more positive connotations. These positive connotations derive from the realization by people of all nationalities that viewing tacky, campy and/or retro GDR products when commodified in shops, at the DDR-Museum, or in the Ostel Hotel in Berlin, can be a lot of fun. Living in a post-socialist society lacks the surveillance and fear of persecution formerly prevalent in the Eastern Bloc, while enabling each nation’s socialist-style consumer products to still be enjoyed.

Sparschuh’s Zimmerspringbrunnen helps us understand the complex nature of Ostalgie because it depicts both the serious and the “campy” sides of the eastern German longing for the past. Lobek’s appreciation for the GDR, although his life was difficult there, comes into focus three years after unification, while he attends the indoor fountain company conference in the West:

Mein Gott! Ich stöhnte auf. Ich dachte an Julia, an Zuhause. Und auf einmal, ich wußte nicht, wie, kam es über mich, und ich mußte hier, im Aufenthaltsraum des “Föhrentaler Hofs”, unter dem imitierten Holzbalken der Decke, eingerahmt von Schwarzweißfotografien des Schwarzwalds, vor mir auf dem Tisch einen verjährten Fahrplan, dem längst alle Züge davongefahren waren – musste ich plötzlich, ohne mich dagegen wehren zu können, wie zwanghaft, einen Satz sagen, der mir so bisher noch nie in meinem Leben von den Lippen gekommen war: “Ich liebe meine Heimat, die Deutsche Demokratische Republik.”[71]

The images that Sparschuh includes in this monologue, leading Lobek to the sudden compulsion—“wie zwanghaft”—to admit that he loves his home country after all, constitute an ingenious counterargument to the western prejudice against eastern Germans for being “backward.” The fake wooden ceiling beam, black-and-white photographs of the Black Forest, and out-of-date train schedule point to the “backward,” kitschy appearance of some places in western Germany that parallels the retrograde appearance of much of eastern Germany.

The feeling of Ostalgie later receives a quite different, comical treatment in Der Zimmerspringbrunnen, when it drives Lobek’s success as a salesman. Although trying to sell indoor fountains to unemployed or low-income eastern Germans should be nearly impossible, Lobek’s invention of a new model that feeds into their emotional attachment to their lost nation generates record sales, catapulting his career. The new fountain, which Lobek produces by reconfiguring an existing model, displays a pen in the shape of the Berlin TV tower, rising up from a volcano-shaped centerpiece bearing a copper plate sawed in the shape of the GDR. By selling quickly, this uniquely tacky product demonstrates the power of eastern German nostalgic feelings while mocking their bad taste. Calling the fountain “Atlantis,” Lobek equates the GDR hilariously to a mythical, lost island rising from the sea, and the title of the chapter in which he achieves this success, “Haifischbecken der Gefühle,”[72] emphasizes his shark-like, predatorial capturing of his eastern German customers’ emotions in turning them into profit.


Digging for a deeper meaning behind Sparschuh’s intertextual references

Sparschuh prefaces his book with a quote from the British author Oscar Wilde (1854-1900): “Nur die Oberflächlichen kennen sich gründlich.” In English this quote reads: “Only the shallow know themselves.” Starting Der Zimmerspringbrunnen with this assertion gives the reader a preview of the novel’s protagonist as someone who is not a profound thinker and yet is capable of seeing his own self and situation clearly—as is the case with Hinrich Lobek. This literary quote foreshadows the many other intertextual references embedded in the novel, ranging from literary masterpieces and philosophical treatises to biblical quotes and parables, to commonly used marketing and sales approach methodologies. Including abundant intertextual references in their texts provided a way for GDR authors, dramatists, and other artists to communicate with their readers, viewers, and listeners while circumventing censorship. No longer needing to fear censorship after unification, yet continuing to recognize the power of intertextual references to invoke multiple layers of meaning, Sparschuh inserts them into his novel to connect his protagonist to other literary and historical figures in similar situations, while increasing the comic impact of the epic humor and situational irony.

The predominant, comical intertextual reference in Der Zimmerspringbrunnen equates Lobek’s isolation, in his honeycomb-like, high-rise apartment in East Berlin, to that of Robinson Crusoe on a deserted Caribbean island as depicted in the eponymous eighteenth-century novel by Daniel Defoe. Lobek nicknames his dog “Freitag,” alluding to Crusoe’s native companion, and calls their partnership “unseren hübschen kleinen Robinson-Club.”[73] This incongruous comparison of Lobek—living in a densely populated district of Berlin, the biggest city in Germany—with Crusoe, who lived for 28 years on a deserted island in the Caribbean Sea near the coast of Venezuela, is, on the surface, ironic. The analogy nevertheless helps us understand the emotional isolation Lobek feels in his East German basement office; later while unemployed; and even after finding success as a salesman, because he loses his wife.

The fast trajectory he takes, rising to become the regional sales representative in eastern Germany and thereby displacing his mentor, also begs comparison with the play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941) by the German playwright Bertolt Brecht.[74] Here, the comparison of Lobek with the gangster protagonist Arturo Ui, who represents Adolf Hitler, is, once again, absurdly ironic in its hyperbole. Lobek’s admission, however, that he does not have a bad conscience about displacing his mentor, nor any conscience at all, makes this comparison less outrageous than it may seem at first: “Nein, ich hatte kein schlechtes Gewissen – überhaupt kein Gewissen hatte ich, das war es!”[75] This statement fits the pattern of Lobek’s obsession with succeeding like a good Westerner in his career, as well as the alienation of his wife. It also contradicts his earnest efforts in the GDR to help his fellow citizens get their run-down apartments fixed. The numerous biblical references that Lobek uses to describe his situation furthermore point to his inflated equation of himself with Jesus Christ. “Hört! Ich will mein Brot mit euch teilen,” he proclaims to the homeless people at the Zoo train station at the novel’s end, as if he were Christ performing the miracle of feeding a crowd with five loaves and two fish.[76] This multitude of intertextual references, when placed into the mind and mouth of a comical figure such as Hinrich Lobek, serve to emphasize both the tragedy and comedy of his biography, preventing the reader from getting too emotionally connected to him. Sparschuh uses humor to avoid depicting his narrator as a helpless, plaintive victim and object of pity, thus countering western German stereotypes of eastern Germans as “Sensibelchen.”


Hinrich Lobek as awkwardly comical Zeitzeuge

The tale of Hinrich Lobek, the tragicomic eastern German salesman, is locked in time, like all novels depicting a specific moment in history. Because it focuses on the “Heimat” or “home” that Sparschuh and his character Lobek know best—(East)ern Germany—it bears the subtitle “Ein Heimatroman.” Referring to the novel as a “Heimatroman” can, however, also be seen as ironic, as the book focuses on the process Lobek undergoes in opportunistically pursuing a “western” careerist identity after the Wende. To the novel’s detriment, Sparschuh’s quirky humor and awkward, at times unlikeable, protagonist have prevented some readers from appreciating the author’s original contribution to post-Wall literature, and it received mixed reviews from mass media critics.[77] Critic Andreas Platthaus, for instance, rejects the author’s subtitle altogether: “[a]ls Heimatroman”, den der Untertitel verspricht, ist Sparschuhs Roman heimatlos.”[78] The novel’s literary and documentary quality also suffer from the artificiality of Lobek’s “protocol” method of recording his experiences, the overemphasis on his speechlessness, and the superficial characterization of his wife. Lobek’s replacement of verbal with written communication that takes the form of Stasi-like reports, instruction manuals, and legal briefs can be annoying and at times difficult to read. For these reasons, as well as a general consumer preference for new, trendy artworks, and for films rather than literature, Der Zimmerspringbrunnen risks being forgotten. Even resurrecting its storyline in 2001 as a movie of the same title, directed by Peter Timm—who made the popular Go, Trabi, Go movies in the early 1990s—did not contribute much to the novel’s lasting popularity, as the film did not reach a wide viewership and received middling reviews.[79]

Despite its caveats, however, the novel and film versions of Der Zimmerspringbrunnen remain insightful, painfully funny texts that teach us about life as an eastern German before and after German unification.[80] As the political scientist Richard Rose writes: “The collapse of the Berlin Wall was an event, while transformation and its aftermath is a process of learning.”[81] Moreover, “[t]ransformation is unsettling, because it introduces unpredictability.”[82] The biggest strength of Der Zimmerspringbrunnen lies in how it shows the gradual, unpredictable learning process that easterners (and some westerners) went through in reflecting on life in East Germany and adjusting to the experience of unification. Sparschuh gives Lobek an ironic and cynical view of unification’s effects as a way to critique them and to highlight Lobek’s transitional status. Using humor, while taking a “bottom up” approach to unification history “from the point of view of ordinary people,”[83] Sparschuh shows us what unification, and the culture clashes it brought, could mean for ordinary citizens in forcing them to reorient themselves. Because Lobek’s profession as a door-to-door salesman brings him into contact with diverse eastern German residents, including the unemployed, an alcoholic and a lonely housewife,[84] we receive a panoramic view of reunification’s effects in eastern Germany.

On the one hand, Sparschuh’s humorous depiction of the awkward protagonist Hinrich Lobek creates an emotional distance that turns his successes and failures into an entertaining narrative about the personal experience of socialist inefficiency and the capitalist obsession with productivity and earning money. Lobek’s fictional autobiography mocks the ways some easterners overcompensated for their perceived shortcomings to succeed in the West and to understand how a free-market democracy works. On the other hand, the protagonist’s bumbling adjustment to various situations binds us to him as a victim, as we realize that such failures are human, and thus we sometimes share his pain. The author’s depiction of Lobek and of many people he encounters after unification serves to condemn capitalism as destroying livelihoods, interpersonal connections, and relationships. The complexity of the narrative takes its readers on an emotional and intellectual rollercoaster ride as it interprets the unification process. It will certainly provoke divergent responses as it impresses this historical transition into our cultural memory, making this book fruitful for discussion as a Wenderoman.


[1] Sparschuh, Jens. Der Zimmerspringbrunnen. Ein Heimatroman. Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1995.

[2] Further examples of humorous and satirical texts written since 1990 include Thomas Rosenlöcher’s Die Wiederentdeckung des Gehens beim Wandern. Harzreise (1991), Erich Loest’s Katerfrühstück (1992), Bernd Schirmer’s Schlehweins Giraffe (1992), Matthias Biskupek’s Der Quotensachse (1996), Reinhard Ulbrich’s Spur der Broiler (1998), Ingo Schulze’s Simple Storys: Ein Roman aus der ostdeutschen Provinz (1998), and Kerstin Hensel’s Gipshut (1999). The many film comedies include Go, Trabi, Go I and II (1991 and 1992), Sonnenallee (1999), Helden wie wir (1999), the film version of Der Zimmerspringbrunnen (2001), Good-bye, Lenin! (2003), and NVA (2005).

[3] Mercury Records, 1991.

[4] See, for example, Martin Sabrow, Erinnerungsorte der DDR. Munich: Beck, 2009; Renate Rechtien and Dennis Tate, eds., Twenty Years On: Competing Memories of the GDR in Postunification Culture. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2011; and Karen Leeder, “After-images – afterlives: Remembering the GDR in the Berlin Republic.” Rereading East Germany: The Literature and Film of the GDR, edited by Karen Leeder, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 214-237.

[5] Elemer Hankiss refers to the outward compliance coupled with inner resistance of many Eastern Europeans under socialism as “ironic freedom” in East European Alternatives, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, p. 7. Roland Jahn discusses the strategies eastern Germans adopted to cope with living in a repressive, socialist dictatorship in Wir Angepassten: Überleben in der DDR, München: Piper, 2015.

[6] “Das trug der Osten: Ein Ausflug in die ostdeutsche Modewelt.” In: Norddeutscher Rundfunk 25. September 2022,,sendung1285530.html (cited on 17. Jul. 2023).

[7] “Mode in der DDR: Der Westen war immer Vorbild.” In: 10. Jun. 2011, (cited on 17. Jul. 2023).

[8] Wolfgang Voges and Olaf Jürgens provide statistics on poverty and income differences between eastern and western Germany and conclude that, from 1990-1996, “as regards deprivation, the situation in the former East Germany was worse than that of the former West Germany” (“The dynamics of social exclusion in Germany: solving the east-west dilemma?” In: The Dynamics of Social Exclusion in Europe: Comparing Austria, Germany, Greece, Portugal and the UK. Edited by Eleni Apospori and Jane Millar. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2003, pp. 63-86.

[9] The protagonist’s wardrobe in the early 1990s consists of clothing items worn in the West in the 1980s, as documented by Ann-Kathrin Schöll in “Mode der 80er: Alle Trends und die besten 80er-Looks!” In: gofeminin, 11. Mar. 2019, (cited on 8. Aug. 2023). Author citations of Sparschuh, such as this from p. 23, are taken hereinafter from the 6th edition of Der Zimmerspringbrunnen (1995).

[10] Gries, Rainer. “‘Hurrah, I’m still alive!’: East German Products Demonstrating East German Identities.” Over the Wall/After the Fall: Post-Communist Cultures through an East-West Gaze. Edited by Sibelan Forrester, Magdalena J. Zaborowska, and Elena Gapova. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004, pp. 181-199, 182.

[11] For a more detailed history than can be provided here, see Peter C. Caldwell and Karrin Hanshew. Germany Since 1945: Politics, Culture, and Society by New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018, and Horst Möller. Deutsche Geschichte – die letzten hundert Jahre, München: Piper, 2022.

[12] “Registrierte Arbeitslose und Arbeitslosenquote nach Gebietsstand.” Statistisches Bundesamt, 2023, (cited on 2. Aug. 2023).

[13] Vogel, Bertold. Ohne Arbeit in den Kapitalismus: Der Verlust der Erwerbsarbeit im Umbruch der ostdeutschen Gesellschaft. Hamburg: VSA: Verlag, 1999. See, in particular, Vogel’s final chapter, summarized in his journal article, “Arbeitslosigkeit in Ostdeutschland: Konsequenzen für das Sozialgefüge und für die Wahrnehmung des gesellschaftlichen Wandels.” In: SOFI-Mitteilungen no. 27 (1999), pp. 15-22, (cited on 2. Aug. 2023).

[14] Voges and Jürgens, pp. 63-86.

[15] Lenhardt, Gero, and Manfred Stock. “Bildung der Bürger und Qualifikation der Arbeitskräfte: Schulentwicklung in BRD und DDR in soziologischer Perspektive.” In: Schule und Jugendhilfe: Neuorientierung im deutsch-deutschen Übergang. Edited by Gaby Flösser, Hans-Uwe Otto, and Klaus-Jürgen Tillmann. Reihe Schule und Gesellschaft, vol. 12. Opladen: Leske + Budrich, 1996, pp. 54-62.

[16] Hinrich’s Eastern European-sounding last name, “Lobek,” was likely selected by Sparschuh to identify him as an eastern German. The suffix “-ek” is a common diminutive morpheme in Czech and Polish, used to describe an object as small or “cute.” Because the eastern part of Germany has shared a shifting border with the Slavic states of what are now Poland and the Czech Republic for centuries, and many Germanic and Slavic peoples immigrated back and forth, Slavic names that end in “-ow” or “-ek” are common in eastern Germany. Spelled slightly differently as “Heinrich Lobeck,” this character’s name could also refer to the founder of the Berlinische Lebens-Versicherungs-Gesellschaft, Heinrich Lobeck (1787-1855), who has a street named after him in the western Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg. See “Heinrich Ludwig Lobeck.” Wikipedia, 15. Dez. 2018, (cited on 2. Jan. 2024).

[17] “Erstmals belastbare Zahlen über Wohnungslosigkeit in Deutschland,” In: Bundesministerium für Arbeit und Soziales 8. Dez. 2022, (cited on 2. Aug. 2023).

[18] The Zoo train station is the location of the true story of “Christiane F.,” a teenage drug addict who documented her decline into homelessness and prostitution in Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, written by Kai Hermann and Horst Rieck, published by Stern Magazin in 1978 and made into a film of the same title in 1981. The widespread success of the book and film cemented the Zoo station’s symbolic status as a widely recognized locus of poverty, drug addiction, and social exclusion, as documented in articles such as Stefan Thomas’s “Identität und Exklusion unter Postadoleszenten: ‘Die Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo’,” Psychologie und Gesellschaftskritik 35, no. 2 (2022), pp. 93-112,

[19] “Constitution of the German Democratic Republic (7 October 1949).” United States Department of State. Documents on Germany 1944-1985, Washington: Department of State, Department of State Publication 9446, pp. 278-306, (cited on July 12, 2023). Whereas the GDR constitution guaranteed all citizens the right to work, as a way to achieve economic equality and social justice, many were also forced to work to fulfill the socialist ideal of full employment and to avoid being considered a criminal by engaging in “asozialem Verhalten,” which was against the law in the GDR. This practice led to some underemployment—professions held that were below the employee’s skill set—and to a shirking of duties. Sparschuh’s protagonist describes the government-employed, residential building maintenance crews, for example, as intractable: “Unsere marodierenden Handwerkertrupps zu bekommen, sie überhaupt aufzuspüren, grenzte ans Unmögliche. Ganze Bauwagen, samt ihren Besatzungen, galten tagelang als verschollen. Von wochenlangen undurchsichtigen Skatturnieren war die Rede, auch von mehrtägigen Schwarzarbeitseinsätzen außerhalb der Stadt” (137-38). The term “right to work” in socialist countries should, moreover, be taken literally as “the right to have a paid occupation,” and not in its more limited meaning as legislated in half of the US states as “the right of persons to work” that “shall not be denied or abridged on account of membership or nonmembership in any labor union or labor organization or association.” See, e.g., Steve Doyle, “Bill to cement ‘right-to-work’ status into North Carolina constitution filed by Rep. Jon Hardister.” Fox 8 14 April 2023, (cited on July 20, 2023).

[20] Hildebrandt, Axel. “Politics and Prekariat in Christoph Hein’s Novels Frau Paula Trousseau and Weiskerns Nachlass.” In: Envisioning Social Justice in Contemporary German Culture. Eds. Jill E. Twark and Axel Hildebrandt. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2015, 145-164, pp. 148-49.

[21] André, Tim. “Arbeitslosigkeit in den ostdeutschen Bundesländern. Entwicklung seit der Wiedervereinigung und Stand heute.” In: Zentrum digitale Arbeit, Arbeit und Leben, Sachsen e.V. 11 May 2021,  (cited on 3 Aug. 2023). See also the statistics provided by Statistisches Bundesamt Destatis, which includes the entire city of Berlin and thus higher unemployment numbers.

[22] Vogel, 1999, pp. 114-136.

[23] Statistisches Bundesamt, Destatis, 2023.

[24] See Jörg Bibow’s criticisms of financial policies in the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1990s for macroeconomic reasons for the economic failures of the 1990s in “The Economic Consequences of German Unification: The Impact of Misguided Macroeconomic Policies.” In: The Levy Economics Institute of Bard College Public Policy Brief Series, 67 (2001), pp. 1-36.

[25] For brief history of the Treuhandanstalt, see the MDR report, “Zwischen Euphorie und Goldgräberstimmung” from 15. Jul. 2020, at (cited on 2. Jan. 2024). For a thorough assessment of the Treuhandanstalt’s  activities, see Constantin Goschler and Marcus Böick, “Studie zur Wahrnehmung und Bewertung der Arbeit der Treuhandanstalt im Auftrag des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie,” Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie, 9. Nov. 2017:

[26] Sparschuh, p. 38.

[27] Because the book’s chapters are not numbered, their titles are provided here, italicized as in original.

[28] Sparschuh, pp. 137-8.

[29] Frerich Frerichs and Gerhard Naegele document the prevalence of ageism in Germany in the 1990s in “Discrimination of Older Workers in Germany: Obstacles and Options for the Integration into Employment.” In: Journal of Aging and Social Policy 9, no. 1 (1997), pp. 89-101.

[30] Sparschuh, p. 16.

[31] Ibid. p. 100.

[32] Sparschuh, p. 112.

[33] See, e.g., Sigrid Meuschel. “Überlegungen zu einer Herrschafts- und Gesellschaftsgeschichte der DDR.” In: Geschichte und Gesellschaft, Sozialgeschichte der DDR 19, no. 1 (1993), pp. 5-14.

[34] Rose, Richard. Understanding Post-Communist Transformation: A Bottom-Up Approach. London and New York: Routledge, 2009, pp. 19-26.

[35] Sparschuh, p. 112.

[36] Sabrow, p. 13.

[37] The “colonization” metaphor has been used since the early 1990s to refer to the unification process. See, for example, Wolfgang Dümcke and Fritz Vilmar, eds., Kolonialisierung der DDR. Kritische Analysen und Alternativen des Einigungsprozesses, Münster: agenda Verlag, 1995.

[38] Sparschuh, pp. 40-53.

[39] “Comedy of Errors, The.” Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. Pearson, 2023, (cited on Aug. 3, 2023).

[40] Sparschuh, pp. 56, 79, 79, 57.

[41] Ibid. p. 131.

[42] Ibid. pp. 63-66.

[43] Ibid. p. 64.

[44] See Sparschuh, qtd. in Jill E. Twark, Humor, Satire, and Identity: Eastern German Literature in the 1990s. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2007, p. 371.

[45] Preisendanz, Wolfgang. Humor als dichterische Einbildungskraft. Studien zur Erzählkunst des poetischen Realismus, 2nd. ed. München: Fink, 1976, p. 11.

[46] Ibid., p. 15.

[47] Sparschuh, pp. 10, 11.

[48] Sparschuh, pp. 11, 40.

[49] Sparschuh, p. 138.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid. pp. 73-76, 80-82.

[52] E.g., Sparschuh, pp. 27-37.

[53] Kittelstad, Kat. “Examples of Situational Irony.” YourDictionary, July 19, 2022, (cited on July 20, 2023).

[54] Babiak, Paul Michael. “The Descent of Slapstick.” In Slapstick: An Interdisciplinary Companion. Edited by Ervin Malakaj and Alena E. Lyons. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2021, pp. 15-36.

[55] For example, Sparschuh vividly describes Lobek’s choking repeatedly on a piece of gristle: “Ich schüttelte atemlos den Kopf, wobei sich allerdings mein Schinkenkloß in Erinnerung brachte – er war ein Stück in den Hals hinabgerutscht. Mit einem kurzen, kräftigen Würger, ich musste die Augen fest zusammenpressen, brachte ich ihn wieder, ehe es zu einem Erstickungsanfall kam, in die Ausgangslage . . . Boldinger sah mich forschend an. Ich atmete schwer” (35-36).

[56] Sparschuh, pp. 35-37, 52, 115-19.

[57] Dale, Alan. Comedy is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies. Minneapolis, MN and London, UK: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, p. 11.

[58] Klinkowitz qtd. in Ervin Malakaj and Alena E. Lyons, “Introduction: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Slapstick,” Slapstick: An Interdisciplinary Companion, edited by Ervin Malakaj and Alena E. Lyons, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2021, pp. 1-7, p. 3.

[59] Sparschuh, p. 52.

[60] Sparschuh, p. 120.

[61] Malakaj and Lyons, p. 6.

[62] Sparschuh, pp. 9, 12; italics in original.

[63] Ibid. p. 13.

[64] Ibid. p. 39.

[65] Ibid. pp. 20-21.

[66] Krüger, Sönke. “Wie man überzeugte Wessis zur Weißglut bringt.” In: Welt 20 Jun. 2014, (cited on 20. Jul. 2023).

[67] Seipp, Bettina. “Wie man gebürtige Ostdeutsche zur Weißglut bringt.” In: Welt, 13 Jun. 2014, (cited on 30 Jul. 2023).

[68] Gries p. 195.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Twark, 2007, pp. 381-82.

[71] Sparschuh, p. 55.

[72] Sparschuh, p. 83.

[73] Sparschuh, pp. 20, 146.

[74] Translated by Ralph Mannheim. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2001 (orig. 1941).

[75] Sparschuh, p. 122.

[76] Matthew 14: 17-19; Sparschuh, p. 152.

[77] See, e.g., Andreas Platthaus, “Nun plätschert es wieder. Aufbau Ost: Jens Sparschuh installiert einen Zimmerspringbrunnen,” in: 14. Dez. 1995, (cited on 3. Aug. 2023).

[78] Ibid.

[79] For a positive, scholarly analysis of the film, see Roswitha Skare, “Text und Paratext und deren Remedierung im Film: Jens Sparschuhs Heimatroman Der Zimmerspringbrunnen (1995),” in: A Document Return, edited by Roswitha Skare, Niels Windfeld Lund and Andreas Vårheim, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2007, pp. 135-51.

[80] The pedagogical benefits of the novel are undisputed, as it has been didacticized for schoolchildren and university students by diverse educators and educational institutions. See, e.g., Sparschuh, Jens: Der Zimmerspringbrunnen. Text & Kommentar, kommentiert von Wolfgang Reitzammer, Buchners Schulbibliothek der Moderne, no 27. Bamberg: C. C. Buchners Verlag, 2007. Reitzammer’s book is listed as recommended reading, along with the novel, on the website of the Bundesstiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur, 2024, (cited on 2 Jan. 2024). See also Annette van Rossum, “Didaktisierungen von Der erste Frühling, Wie Licht schmeckt und Der Zimmerspringbrunnen im Rahmen des literaturdidaktischen Projekts ‘Lezen voor de Lijst,’” Bachelor’s Thesis, University of Utrecht, 2012.

[81] Rose, p. 2.

[82] Rose, p. 3.

[83] Rose, p. 2.

[84] Sparschuh, pp. 73, 76; 74-75; 80-82.

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