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Traveling through the German Democratic Republic

Updated on February 16, 2019
gmarquardt profile image

gmarquardt has an M.A. in history and German from SWTSU and has over 25 years teaching experience at public high schools.

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.

Kids stopping cars near the border
Kids stopping cars near the border

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!

Gardelegen Street Scene, June 1990
Gardelegen Street Scene, June 1990
Store Front, G.D.R. 1990
Store Front, G.D.R. 1990
Runied Dwelling, G.D.R. 1990
Runied Dwelling, G.D.R. 1990
Side Street, G.D.R. 1990
Side Street, G.D.R. 1990

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.

Stendal, Germany, Near the Marktplatz
Stendal, Germany, Near the Marktplatz
Roland near the Rathaus, Stendal, Germany
Roland near the Rathaus, Stendal, Germany

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.

Tangermünde, das Rathaus
Tangermünde, das Rathaus

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.

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    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 

      7 years ago from Germany and Philippines

      Very interesting hub. I could feel the tension on your travel to the east of Germany. I have seen a lot of films about east Germany before the reunification where strict controls at the check points were made. Thanks for sharing and for your follow.

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 

      7 years ago from North Carolina

      No doubt the border guards superiors eyes lit up with dollar signs when he heard "Americans" lol. Once a worse for the wear looking Danish lady asked if I was German, "no ma'am." "English?" "No ma'am." "American?" "Uh-huh, yes." "Do you have any money for me?" Gave her maybe ten dollars worth of kroner and brother was she ever thankful. Enjoyed the trip to the former GDR, travel is fatal to prejudice and the intuition was right!

    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 

      7 years ago from Hawaii

      This is a fantastic read. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

      I was living in Ireland when the Berlin Wall came down and I vaguely remember hearing about it on the radio. I also remember listening to the Beatle's Back in the USSR when I was a kid and one day my dad told me it no longer existed. Anybody even a couple years younger than me probably has no recollection of any of the events because they'd have been too young to remember when they happened.

      Thanks again for sharing. Voting interesting and awesome!

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 

      7 years ago from California

      New Years day 2008, I stood reading the names on the WWII memorial in Kandern Germany. I was awestruck Though I have WWII pictures my dad took of Germany during the war I am with you, it didn't strike me until that day many of the Germans were just like me. My name both maiden and married is German. My grandfather was German. I agree with Mark Twain about prejudice. In my travels I always find a mothers heart is the same be she German, African or beyond.

    • TwoCentsWorth profile image

      Penny 

      8 years ago from East Texas

      I really enjoyed your article. It must feel awesome to know that prior to your visit, only two others had seen what you saw. Hopefully, they have found some life and joy since then.

      Your description of East Germany is much how I felt when we crossed into Czechoslovakia. We stayed only a short time, but noticed immediately a distinct difference in spirit, in prosperity, possibly. I don't know exactly how to explain. Our stay was only in small cities and German countryside. Nearly every part of the country I saw was magnificent. I say, nearly, because I wasn't particularly crazy about Frankfort, but then that is big city. Big cities seem similar wherever they are.

      I like the quote by Mark Twain you offered. I absolutely believe that visiting another country is the best thing for an American to do. We complain far too much about far too much and forget how truly blessed we are. My husband and I envied the simple lifestyle of the people we got to know. I'd go again, at least to that area, in a heart beat.

    • gmarquardt profile imageAUTHOR

      gmarquardt 

      8 years ago from Hill Country, Texas

      Thanks! You hit the nail right on the head, we learn more about ourselves!!!

    • rjbatty profile image

      rjbatty 

      8 years ago from Irvine

      Nicely written piece. I can identify to a certain extent. About ten years ago I flew to Moscow (direct from LAX via Aeroflot airlines) to meet a prospective spouse with whom I had been having long (and expensive) telephone calls. Happily, unlike the GDR, Moscow was in very good shape when I visited -- an odd mixture of Stalin constructions. Khrushchev constructions, ancient churches and modern innovations. Gypsy children swarming me on the street and almost straw, statuesque beggars in the underground shopping area. There were guards wearing old Soviet uniforms guarding the Kremlin and "knock-out" devochkas walking the streets in mini-skirts and high-heels. All of it was enthralling, but I agree with you in the final analysis -- that you find out more about yourself than you do the locals by making these visits. The visits serve as an immediate form of contrast and comparison. I was fortunate to form an attachment with the woman I agreed to meet in Moscow, and after all the customs (BS) managed to bring her to the US about nine months later -- at which time we wed and have remained so for eleven years now. It has been very interesting to learn how much propaganda the West built up about the Soviet block ... so much of it was untrue and exaggerated. My wife led a happy childhood and seems more self-adjusted than my US upbringing. These one on one encounters and personal visitations do a lot to expose the poison that has (and continues to) invade our differing political agendas. Anyway, I enjoyed your piece quite a bit and found much that seemed "close to home."

    • gmarquardt profile imageAUTHOR

      gmarquardt 

      8 years ago from Hill Country, Texas

      Thanks for the comments. Unfortunately, the trip ended too fast as well!

    • mio cid profile image

      mio cid 

      8 years ago from Uruguay

      great hub, read it like a good book not wanting it to end so fast.

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