The ferocious political power of nostalgia


The ferocious political power of nostalgia

Like anger, nostalgia has many related terms. It is associated with memory but also yearning, homesickness, reminiscence, longing and regret, writes ANNELIESE BURGESS


IN Nostalgia: A History of a Dangerous Emotion, Agnes Arnold-Forster blends neuroscience and psychology with the history of medicine and emotions to explore the evolution of nostalgia from its first identification in Switzerland in the 17th century (when it was held to be an illness that could kill you) to the present day (when it is co-opted by advertising agencies and politicians alike to sell us goods and policies).

Nostalgia was one of the most studied medical conditions of the 19th century, believed to cause “palpitations and unexplained ruptures in the skin”, depression and disturbed sleep. It was first diagnosed among Swiss mercenaries and referred to as “a kind of pathological patriotic love, an intense and dangerous homesickness”.

Since sufferers were assumed to be missing the pure mountain air, one doctor suggested putting them in tall towers to recuperate. It was not until the early 20th century that homesickness and nostalgia in the current sense began to be seen as distinct.

An inexact emotion

Like anger, nostalgia has many related terms. It is associated with memory but also yearning, homesickness, reminiscence, longing and regret. While most English speakers will have an intuitive sense of nostalgia, that sense might not be shared by people encountering the term in other languages and from different cultures.

Nostalgia also has some cognate words in other dialects. Sehnsucht is a German noun, roughly translated as longing, desire, yearning or craving. It’s a feeling about life's imperfect and unfinished elements, paired with a yearning for an ideal alternative — a kind of strange backward utopianism.

CS Lewis called it an “old ache", or the desire for “our own far-off country".

Portuguese saudade is similar. It is an emotional state of melancholic longing for some much-loved thing or person. It is felt especially acutely when the object of desire is either unreal or does not reciprocate the intense feelings.

The Welsh word hiraeth means a deep longing for something, especially one’s home or homeland, specifically in Wales or Welsh culture.

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The documentary filmmaker Ken Burns once described nostalgia as the “strategic oversimplification of the past”, in that we pick our memories to slot into the narrative of our lives. Nostalgia is memory with the filter of time. Like a selfie with soft lighting — the imperfections smoothed out, leaving only the warm and wistful layer of happy memories. Psychologically, nostalgia is a yearning for an idealised past, a state of contentment, with negative emotions filtered out. In psychoanalysis, this is referred to as “screen memory".

Arnold-Forster refers to nostalgia as an emotional state — we yearn for moments in time that we invest with meaning. Some periods of history, whether personally or collectively experienced, are made to carry more significance than others.

East European nostalgia

A fascinating part of the book delves into the nostalgia for the communist era in Eastern Europe. Survey data indicates that the further its citizens got from 1989, the more nostalgic they became for the economic stability and equality of the communist past.

In 2018, a poll showed that 66% of Russians regretted the fall of the Soviet Union. Today, 66% of Romanians also claim they would vote for their former communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, who was ousted during the 1989 revolution, and 81% of Serbians believe they lived best under their dictator, Tito.

In 2020, the number of Russians who claimed the Soviet era was “the greatest time" in the country’s history had risen to 75%. According to Kristen Ghodsee, a historian of post-communist Eastern Europe, this nostalgia is a product of the dramatic changes to daily life experienced by people living in the former USSR. While they might not want to revive 20th-century totalitarianism, there is a desire for a collectively imagined, more egalitarian past.

Ghodsee argues that nostalgia for communism is a “common language" used by ordinary people to express disappointment with the shortcomings of parliamentary democracy and neoliberal capitalism. But Arnold-Forster says nostalgia for communism and socialism was not just about money and political systems, but about food, culture and aesthetics.

A state of yearning

One example is Poland, where the older generation is loyal to vintage products like Ludwik dishwashing and laundry soap, Inka coffee substitute and SDM butter.

In 2005, grocery stores reintroduced processed meats with tastes loyal to  1970s recipes, mainly at the request of women in their 50s. These products, distributed by the supermarket chain Stół Polski, sold incredibly well under the label “wędliny jak za Gierka", or “sausages like they were under Gierek". The slogan refers to Edward Gierek, the Polish Communist Party’s first secretary in the 1970s. Natalia Lewicka, Stół Polski’s marketing and advertising specialist, said the company aimed to “recapture that bygone flavour, one resembling the ones made in the ‘better days' that are so close to the hearts of our parents".

In an article headlined “Art of Nostalgia", the Polish art critic Katarzyna Pabijanek explains that collecting toys, knick-knacks, art, film, food and music from the time of communism “does not simply indulge in melancholia for an idealised communist or welfare state of the past". Instead, “it heightens the awareness that something is missing from the present".


The dissident writer Christa Wolf described this strange feeling in her autobiographical account of life in the German Democratic Republic. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, she had become “spiritually homeless", an exile from a country that no longer existed.

In German culture, ostalgie is a kind of nostalgia for aspects of life in communist East Germany. The portmanteau of the German words ost (east) and nostalgie (nostalgia) was coined by the stand-up comic Uwe Steimle in 1992, and it takes many forms. Brands of East German food have been resurrected, old state television programmes are available on VHS and DVD, and the once widespread Wartburg and Trabant cars have started to reappear.

A particularly visible example of ostalgie was the effort to save the “Eastern traffic lights man" (Ost-Ampelmännchen), an illuminated image of a man wearing a hat in pedestrian-crossing lights (inspired by a summer photo of the leader of the GDR, Erich Honecker, in a straw hat).

Here, nostalgia, as the author puts it, reminds people that they often had interesting lives before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and that they don’t want to be “reduced to a bleak caricature” of dour oppression and so “rendered entirely meaningless”.

Politics of nostalgia

Nostalgia has assumed a ferocious political power. It is what drives Trump’s Make America Great Again. It is what drove Brexit. It is behind the rising tide of right-wing sentiment in Europe. And here in South Africa, it is, to a certain extent, what drives Jacob Zuma’s MK Party — the nostalgia for, and parable of, Zulu greatness and exceptionalism. 

Nostalgia is marketing dynamite. It promises to take you back to a time when things were better. 

Arnold-Forster references the writer Grafton Tanner, who says nostalgia is the defining emotion of our age. In the first few decades of the 21st century, political leaders worldwide have repeatedly promised a return to yesteryear. Nostalgia’s power, according to Tanner, lies in its defence against an embodiment of our unstable time. With little faith in a present of economic anxiety and a future of climate collapse, many have turned to nostalgia for solace. At the same time, powerful elites exploit it for their own, sometimes nefarious, gains.

In 2018, a study by the left-leaning think tank Demos found that Britain, France and Germany were all “gripped by a kind of malaise, a sense that something is fundamentally rotten at the heart of their societies". The study’s authors argued that nostalgic narratives had recently become a key component of contemporary politics.

Nostalgics were also more likely to be unemployed and to identify as working class. The report concluded that these demographic dynamics suggest that nostalgia is triggered in response to “increased anxiety and fear fuelled by processes of rapid personal, economic or societal change". In other words, the report concluded with familiar findings. Nostalgics tended to be older, anti-immigration, and were more likely to want to leave the EU, vote for right-wing political parties and identify as working class.

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