Traveling through the German Democratic Republic
On a warm sunny day in June of 1990, my German girlfriend asked me if I wanted to take a quick tour through a couple of towns in the G.D.R. Although the wall had fallen the previous November the two Germanies were still in existence, so it was going to be difficult as an American to get the required visa to travel throughout communist East Germany. A transit visa through the G.D.R. to Berlin was easy enough to get, but a travel visa was normally a much more difficult task. Nevertheless, I heartily agreed to this rare, once in a life-time opportunity. My girlfriend, her exchange partner Joel and I were all students participating in a student exchange. The three of us packed some water, a few snacks, our cameras, jumped in the car and headed east.
As we drove up to a minor border crossing north of Wolfsburg, we parked near a small white immigration booth where we asked permission to cross into East Germany. A soldier with a rifle came up to our vehicle and asked if we were all Germans. When we responded that there was only one German but two Americans, the East German soldier immediately became rigid and said we could not enter. We explained that we would only be there for the day, and my girlfriend promised to return us to West Germany by sundown. We showed him our passports, and he briskly told us, "I have to talk to my superior." He went inside and about five minutes later reemerged much more relaxed. He greeted us with a large smile and said it was fine to cross today, but only if we would pay a 15 Deutsche Mark fee for a travel visa. We quickly agreed and fumbled for our money. We handed over our passports and money to the guard who went back inside for another five minutes, returning eventually with the required stamps and visas. As he returned our passports to us, he told me that I was only the third American to pass at this checkpoint. He wished us a good trip and we headed directly east and over the border.
As soon as we crossed into the G.D.R. we immediately ran into rough terrain. The roads were not as smooth as in West Germany. We traveled slowly, avoiding the potholes and enjoying the countryside. As we entered a small village, some German children pulled a rope across the road, forcing us to stop. We easily could have sped through, but my girlfriend said that they were only looking for some money or candy from us. They had, she continued to explain, a very difficult life here in the east. We rolled down our windows and they eagerly approached us as we handed them a few marks. They giggled and smiled and waved goodbye as we continued on our way toward our first major town, Gardelegen.
We parked on a side street and started to walk through the town. I noticed right away the lack of inhabitants. The town seemed empty, but the few people we did meet either worked in the few stores that were open or meandered around the town. I, in turn, being quite curious, stared at them and wondered who and what they were. Although the first East Germans I had seen when we crossed the border were children, in the towns there were mostly older people. They generally walked in pairs, and were quite slow, almost methodical in their pace. I personally felt out of place, not just because I was a tourist and a stranger in a foreign country, but because the East German existence seemed to be so bland and joyless. Oddly enough, it seemed as if we had gone back in time, but to what point in time I could not say. But it was more than just going back in time. Life itself was different than any recognizable time period that I had ever studied. There was a dreary atmosphere to the town, a sense of loneliness and abandonment. Perhaps it was my American background that gave me this perception, but even the blandness of the towns and their buildings seemed to match this mood.
All the buildings, including important historical buildings and monuments were run-down and drab. Storefronts were dilapidated and many still showed damage from the war. Some buildings had been rebuilt, some were ignored and remained the way they had been since 1945, and still others were in a half sort of repair. Electrical wires connected with porcelain or ceramic insulators were attached to the walls, but many of the insulators had been there for what looked like years. Piles of dirty coal bunched up near basements in the alleyways. Plaster seemed to be applied haphazardly, and patches of brick or rock often showed through the plaster. Much like the town, the stores themselves were bare, although some did have an occasional Western product. Weeds broke through the cracks in the sidewalks, and sometimes even out of the buildings themselves. Sometimes the only vibrant colors that stood out were traffic signs. A black and blue smoky tinge seemed to be on every building covering everything from the sidewalk up to about four feet. The East German car, the Trabi, had a two-stroke motor that puffed out prodigious amounts of smoke, polluting everything in its path. The sidewalks were not only cracking, greasy and smudged with dirt, but completely uneven, and I had to be careful not to trip. The roads were much like the sidewalks in that regard. Moreover, the roads seemed very old, as if horse buggies drove through them, not cars. They were mostly made of cobblestones, and had a large hump right in the middle of single lane streets. That hump came from a rut on either side of the hump where the weight of the car was distributed on the road. Those roads that were made of asphalt usually had large potholes or patches completely missing from certain sections, with few discernable edges. Our car bumped and jumped over sections of the road as we proceeded to our next destination, and lunch!
We traveled on to Stendal, a beautiful, larger town with an impressive Roland statue near the Rathaus. Many German towns that were members of the Holy Roman Empire have Roland statues, signifying both protections from Moorish invaders as well as civil liberties. We stopped for lunch at a quaint little restaurant, where the wait staff was very friendly but had few customers. The food was rustic, and my girlfriend warned me that perhaps the vegetables could be tainted as East Germans did not have the same hygienic standards as West Germany. Of course, she could have been teasing me for all I know, but I was somewhat anxious and believed her. The atmosphere was bland and the menu offered only meager fare. I ordered a nice East German beer with my meal. Arriving in a dirty glass, I noticed it was not the glass but rather the beer that was dirty. However, another serious look revealed I was wrong, the beer was not dirty at all. In fact, the beer was cloudy because it was unfiltered. I took a drink and it was so very delightful. My meal arrived, looking as bland as the restaurant, but filling the plate. Two plump sausages reached entirely from end to end on my plate, served on a nice, large bed of sauerkraut. A small crisp salad and a side of fried potatoes filled the rest of the plate. It was one of the most simplistic, "boring" meals of my exchange to Germany, yet so delicious and memorable. For some silly reason, I was determined that the food would be tasteless or of poor quality, and I was concerned about becoming ill. We paid our bill and off we went, touring the rest of the town by foot. After an hour or so of wandering around this beautiful town, we headed back to our car to continue our journey.
We then traveled on to our third city, Tangermünde, a gem of a city on the Elbe river surrounded by an almost intact medieval wall with many important and magnificent tower entrances. Generally we continued our walking tour of this town and saw the beautiful view of the Elbe valley below from the higher walls protecting the town from floods. The Rathaus was very impressive, and other tourists from West Germany were already taking photographs. With Romanesque and Gothic features, it looked more like a small church than a town hall. We took a few pictures ourselves of the wall towers, but by now, it was getting late.
As evening approached, we knew it was time to head back. We drove westward, eventually finding a border crossing, where no one was even present to check our identification or even question us. We knew for sure that we were back in West Germany when the road was suddenly smoother. Back on the Autobahn we sped home and I was deep in thought about my experiences that day. I started the day somewhat nervous about the trip. Although I was excited to go somewhere new, I was still somewhat apprehensive. Only last year, communism and the Eastern Bloc existed. The fear of communism and the threat of nuclear annihilation, combined with my own ignorance of the people in East Germany led to plenty of misunderstandings. As a young man, therefore, I did not fully understand that those East German inhabitants were not all monolithic beings who were out to get us! And even though most of the towns and villages we saw were drab and dreary which confirmed much of what I believed about the inherent faults and evils of communism, the trip did break down many beliefs I held about the East Germans themselves. They too, were victims of the war and communism. They too, were human. Mark Twain was correct when he said, "Travel is fatal to prejudice." I learned much about the few towns I visited that late spring day in the German Democratic Republic, but I learned much more about myself.