Notes on...

Notes on… Eastern Germany

The country behind the wall

26 April 2014

9:00 AM

26 April 2014

9:00 AM

Ever since the Berlin Wall came down, I’ve been pottering around eastern Germany, where my father’s family came from, and fled from at the end of the second world war. I thought my interest would fade as my father’s fatherland was absorbed by the Bundesrepublik — but for me, this strange hinterland grows more intriguing with each passing year. Take the historic heartland of Hitler’s Reich, subject it to 45 years of communism and then 25 years of capitalism. What do you end up with? A mad mishmash of past and present, the last century laid bare. Naturally, the former GDR isn’t uniformly pretty (indeed, large swaths of it are spectacularly ugly) but for anyone interested in history, it’s a fascinating place.

Most foreign visitors head for Berlin, and many venture no further. They don’t know what they’re missing. Of course Berlin is a must-see, but like a lot of capitals it’s estranged from the country that surrounds it. While Berlin becomes more international, the surrounding state of Brandenburg remains stubbornly provincial. A local train from the city centre transports you deep into silent countryside, last remnant of the Prussian empire, wiped off the map in 1945. Down long avenues of linden trees are the redundant mansions where its Junker barons used to live. Some are now smart hotels, some are hollow ruins.

Saxony is the success story of eastern Germany. Historically, it was always wealthy. Only communism made it poor. Dresden’s baroque Altstadt hogs most of the tourist traffic. Much of it is actually an artful reconstruction (the RAF left few buildings standing) but no one seems to care. The truth of its past is too painful. Fantasy is always easier, especially here. The house where my father was born is on the green edge of Dresden, near the military airfield. The first time I went there, 20 years ago, the family who live there now were worried I’d come to reclaim it. When I told them I hadn’t, we became friends. When I returned ten years later the children of this family had prospered, but their parents seemed diminished. For the young, reunification was a new beginning. If you were middle-aged, it was the end.

Even within successful Saxony, there are losers as well as winners. Leipzig is booming, but Chemnitz feels like a ghost town. Renamed Karl-Marx-Stadt by the communists, an enormous bust of Marx still stands in the main square, a ‘present’ from the USSR. ‘All power to the five-year plan!’ reads a faded sign on an old wall. The man who showed me round told me he wrote Chemnitz instead of Karl-Marx-Stadt on all his letters throughout the Soviet occupation, even though this futile act of defiance would identify him as a dissident. Out of such little insurrections, revolutions begin.

My father’s family came from Mecklenburg, on the Baltic coast of eastern Germany. The sandy shoreline is beautiful, though it’s normally too cold to swim. The huge white house where my grandfather grew up is still there, a short walk from the beach. Since 1945 it’s been a school. A modest museum in the stables celebrates the workers’ paradise that replaced my grandfather’s Junker dynasty. Sheepishly, the curator told me this display needed updating. I told her not to change a thing.

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  • cedric wymeswold

    Former East Germany is both fascinating and spookily empty. Some years back I was marooned on a station platform in Halberstadt, a town I had been told had nothing to redeem it. As I could see a few old towers on the distant horizon and had three hours before my next train I jumped in a taxi which whisked me through the usual Soviet Era housing estates and then through a mediaeval gatehouse into the most wonderful cathedral close. Halberstadt as it turned out had a gothic cathedral and a romanesque abbey at either end of a giant square lined with eighteenth century mansions and in the old town below there were streets of half timbered houses being the quarter that escaped wartime bombs. But the most amazing thing of all was that there was not a soul to be found in the place. In the end the only other tourists I came across turned out to be a retired headmaster and his wife from Leeds. Between us we could have hoisted the Union Jack and claimed this wonderful place for the Crown.

  • kingkevin3

    It’s a strange old place alright. When I was there from 1998 to 2000, the communist past was all to present. This brought pluses and minuses. The people were certainly more friendly than in the west where I later moved to. I do remember everyone at work being mightily aggrieved when man utd defeated Bayern in the european cup final though. Which just goes to show that although germany has strong divisions both north and south and west and east, the language is a very strong binding force.