Emptiness and normality in eastern Germany

Published 9 April 2020 / By Friederike Pank

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For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been frequenting the supermarket in my parents’ village in eastern Germany; for errands, but also out of anthropological curiosity. Lingering near the bread shelf, I heard a woman in her forties exclaim: “Empty again?! I just want to buy bread! That’s not too much to ask for!” The shelf was, indeed, empty, save for two packages of soft flatbreads. Two aisles down, a young man said to his girlfriend: “I can’t stand those empty conversations. It’s all about that stupid virus. That’s not normal anymore!” “You have to understand,” she answered. “People’s lives are empty without work and social life; of course, that’s what they talk about.” An old woman picked up her phone saying: “I’m in the shop right now. I’ve never seen it so empty, it’s crazy! How is your day?” I could almost hear her conversation partner say: “Empty …”

These days, research on emptiness seems to conduct itself. The coronavirus condition, which involves unprecedented restrictions on daily life and civil rights, is a fertile ground for the emergence of emptiness in a variety of forms — as material reality, a metaphor, and an existential condition. Many of them are unimaginable under normal circumstances. The material emptiness of supermarket shelves short of bread, pasta, flour, or toilet paper, where an abundance of goods would normally await the customer, is striking. This emptiness, however, is not caused by supply shortages, as the Ministry of Food and Agriculture was quick to reassure, but, as Chancellor Merkel remarked, a consequence of people’s bulk-buying which she condemned as “needless” and “lacking in solidarity”.

The emptiness of the supermarket itself – that is, the lack of people - is a result of new government regulations that suspend freedoms of movement and assembly. Everyone must now take a basket, and guards control the number of customers inside and enforce the required distance of 1.5 meters. In the queue, I overheard a man in his fifties grumbling about how ridiculous it is to make him wait for a basket when all he wants is a newspaper. He even exclaimed that these are measures “like in Soviet times” when shortages and restrictions were commonplace.

The conditions of daily life have certainly changed radically. 470,000 German firms have imposed Kurzarbeit (whereby people receive 60% of their pay for no or reduced hours), and 200,000 people are expected to lose their jobs by the end of April. In our province, leaving the house “without a compelling reason” is prosecuted with a fine of €150,00, and gatherings of more than two are strictly prohibited. As the girl in the supermarket pointed out, such restrictions have emptied people’s lives of work and sociality, and for many, the eradication of daily structures and face-to-face contact generates an “existential condition” of emptiness. It is therefore not surprising that, ever since the virus monopolized the content of media reports and private conversations alike, the absence of other topics also effects a discursive emptiness as experienced by the young man.

The abnormal nature of the corona condition is readily proclaimed, but what about the normality it must logically be seen in contrast with? Life is very different from how it used to be, and it is accurate when some, like the old women, characterize these times as “crazy”. But what it is precisely that constitutes the normality, which is now so strikingly absent, remains vague. Still, it is evident that deprived of our own versions of normality – whether it denotes familiar routines, the ability to buy one’s favourite bread, or the freedom to shop without a basket – we are in upheaval, and this manifests in sensations of emptiness. Interestingly, much of the perceived emptiness can in fact be relativized: only certain shelves are temporarily empty; not all conversations are about the virus; we can build routines around other kinds of work; we can engage in different forms of sociality, and so forth. But this is irrelevant, because in this case, invocations of emptiness do not denote the factual absence of fullness, but the perceived absence of normality.

I don’t know whether it is a coincidence that references to a desired ‘normality’ are usually characteristic of postsocialist places, which my village is an example of. Do the rhetorical flashbacks to socialist times in my local supermarket perhaps make for a reminiscent emptiness, which is distinct from the emptiness experienced by others who don’t have such a past to invoke, younger people like me, or people queuing in front of West German supermarkets?

In conversations with my parents and grandparents about life in the GDR, I often heard the sentence: “We had nothing, but still managed somehow.” Even if we feel that our lives are emptied in various ways right now, they are “lives nevertheless”.[1] They are not what they used to be, but now might be a good time to reflect on the lives we normally aspire to, as we can see normality a bit more clearly in its absences.

Friederike Pank is currently on the MSc in Social Anthropology programme at the University of Oxford. 

This essay is part of a sub-theme on emptiness in the Coronavirus and Mobility forum, including essays by Dace DzenovskaMathilde Morin, and Mayanka Mukherji.


[1] Jansen, Stef. 2015. Yearnings in the Meantime. 'Normal Lives' and the State in a Sarajevo Apartment Complex. Oxford: Berghahn.