With my current fiction serial set in East Germany after WW2, I thought I would re-post this old travel article from 2013.
It may be of interest, though quite a few of you have seen it before.
A long read, at 3,500 words.
Before I went to East Germany in 1979, I didn’t know much about the place, other than the propaganda that we saw over here. I wasn’t even aware that holidays there were possible, until I saw an advertisement in The Morning Star newspaper, for a company that specialised in holidays to places behind the Iron Curtain, as well as countries like Vietnam and Cambodia, that had so recently been ravaged by war. The East German trip seemed to offer fantastic value. There were direct flights to and from Dresden, the services of a guide throughout, and coach travel to numerous destinations in that country. All meals were included, and the ten-day holiday took in such desirable sights as Leipzig, Meissen, and Berlin. (East, of course) The total cost for this, was an unbelievable £110 per person, cheap even all that time ago.
By this time, it was usual for my wife and I to take two holidays a year. We were both working, and keen to see as much of the world as we could afford. Because of the North European destination, we decided it was best to book for the summer time, and still amazed that this holiday actually existed at that price, we took our chances, and booked. It was not my usual practice in those days, to fully research a holiday before departure. There was no Internet then, and guide books were notoriously out of date. Besides, holidays to East Germany, with its reputation of repression, doom and gloom, and the infamous wall, were hardly common, so travel guides were non-existent. As an arch Lefty, it seemed to me to be somewhere that I should travel to, to see another side of the argument. So, I decided to trust to luck, and politics, and off we went.
The flight was not full, and we scanned the rows, trying to decide if any of our fellow passengers were to be in our tour group. It seemed unlikely, as most were travelling solo, save one large family group from Northern England, talking loudly near the front of the aircraft. Arriving in Dresden, I was all eyes. After all, this city had been the subject of the famous ‘fire storm’ bombing by the RAF and USAAF, in February 1945, and I had not expected to see much still standing. We were met by our guide, an elderly lady, a grandmother in fact, and a lady of great dignity, warmth, and friendliness. She spoke excellent English, though I later learned that she had never left Germany, and had even been resident in Dresden as a teenager, during the terrible bombing raids. Making our way to the coach, we noticed that the talkative Northern family were in our group, together with a few couples, and most of the single passengers who had been on the aircraft. It was a small group, only fourteen, including us. We were introduced to our driver, who would stay with us for the entire trip, and we left the airport, heading for our hotel in the city centre.
By this time, we had already travelled to the Soviet Union, so were used to seeing Communist iconography, inspiring statues, and lots of colourful banners. The route from the airport to Dresden centre did not have that much to offer, seemingly consisting of many rows of shoddy looking medium-rise apartment blocks, set in large estates. These were modern-looking, so we assumed that most had been built during the 1960’s. Traffic was reasonably light, and we got our first sight of the ubiquitous Trabant car, a vehicle that would have caused laughter in the UK, but in this country, was an expensive object of desire. On arrival in the city, we were pleasantly surprised to find a modern central area, not unlike an English New Town. Our hotel, near the bank of the River Elbe, was a comfortably appointed and newly-designed building, which exceeded our expectations. The following day, we had a brief tour of the town, before going out to visit the Zwinger, a rococo palace, housed within the old city’s defensive walls. Despite being destroyed by bombing, it had been fully restored to its pre-war state, and made for a pleasant excursion.
Some of our group had American accents, and we discovered that one couple were Canadians, who had travelled to the UK specifically to take this trip. They had relatives near Dresden, who they had never seen. Part of the family had emigrated to Canada before the war, and had managed to keep in touch on and off, ever since. The couple’s family made the long trip to Dresden to meet them, bringing many gifts, even though they were desperately poor agricultural workers. The Canadians met them in the reception area, and it was a very emotional scene. The Germans had to stay in a different hotel, as our hotel was reserved for foreigners. They were able to meet up for a couple of days, and the two members of our group stayed with them, not bothering to go on any trips. It certainly brought home the fact that the East Germans were not allowed to travel to the West, even though the Canadians would have willingly financed their journey. Despite feeling positive towards the Communist regime there, I was not so naive as to be unaware of some of the shortcomings.
The next day, we departed for Liepzig by coach, with a stop on the way to see the lovely town of Meissen, home of the famous porcelain. This is an attractive town, with an imposing cathedral, and impressive castle. The red-tiled roofs of the old centre give the place a fairytale feel, something repeated many times throughout our stay in that country. We also stopped briefly at Colditz Castle, famous as a prisoner of war camp in WW2. We could not go inside, as it was then in use as a psychiatric hospital. Leipzig was a delightful city, at least in the centre. Our hotel was a marvellous old building, that had survived the war. Built sometime around the late 1800’s, it was a masterpiece of faded glory. The high ceilings, huge windows, and ancient telephones, all made me imagine the grandeur that once was, and the dignified guests who had stayed there in the past. The centre of Leipzig still had cobbled streets, as well as pavement cafes, and a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere. Young people were everywhere, as this was the home of a popular university too. Wandering around, it was hard to believe that we were in a country so vilified for repression and severity. It certainly did not seem like it, that evening.
I was keen to see the battlefield of the famous battle of Leipzig in 1813, which was a defeat for Napoleon, and the beginning of the end for his conquests in Europe. Despite what was said in the UK, we were completely free to come and go as we pleased. Our guide suggested that we get a tram to the site, which was on the outskirts, and directed us to the large tram terminus near the hotel. My wife spoke some German, and I was picking it up quickly, due in part to the similarity of many words. We asked an old lady for directions, and she took us to the correct stop, then waited until the right tram came, before ushering us onto it, and waving goodbye. Other passengers explained how to buy tickets, and punch them ourselves. When we reached the stop, the driver directed us to the short walk to the battlefield. There was a museum, a large model diorama, and lots of historical information, all in German, of course. After a good visit, we retraced the journey to the hotel, and remarked how friendly everyone had been.
The next destination for us, was the capital city, Berlin. Any signs for Berlin were always accompanied by the words ‘Haupstadt der DDR’. It was as if you might forget that Berlin was the capital, or maybe they were just very proud of the fact. Another thing I had soon realised, was that Berlin was actually deep inside East Germany. Despite having a Western Sector, this city was a hundred miles from West Germany, leaving the western side with a small corridor through which to enter the city. Having seen and read everything I could about the Second World War, Berlin had been on my ‘must see’ list for many years. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Eastern Sector retained most of the ‘good stuff’, from a tourism, and historical point of view. The ruined Reichstag could be seen, (actually in the West, but visibly close to the border wall) The Brandenburg Gate, the Unter den Linden, the famous thoroughfare, The National Opera, and much more. There was also the huge Soviet war cemetery, the size of a large village, and the chance to perhaps see the famous wall. Our hotel was a five star affair; the modern Hotel Palast, designed like a stepped pyramid, all bronzed glass, and ideally located, close to most things we could want to walk to. As usual on this trip, it was a ‘foreigners only’ hotel, not accessible to East Germans.
So, we ‘did’ Berlin, and really enjoyed it. Those buildings destroyed during the war had been rebuilt, (except The Reichstag) and there were modern areas too. Alexanderplatz, with the tall TV tower nearby, was the natural centre, buzzing with all sorts of people during the day, and we took the opportunity to go inside one of the highest buildings in Europe, and take in the view. We toured the city, sometimes by coach, or on the underground, and saw all the sights during a relatively short stay. One morning, we were offered an outing, at no extra cost, to see the former Concentration Camp of Sachsenhausen, near Orianenburg. This had been in use from 1936, until the end of the war, and had been used to house political prisoners at first, and later, prisoners of war. This was the centre of the notorious money forging plan, where the Germans employed expert prisoners to forge banknotes in the currency of their enemies. The inmates would be forced to work in the nearby Heinkel factory, as well as making bricks, and undertaking other labouring jobs. Many companies still well-known today made use of this forced labour, notably AEG, and Siemens. Large numbers of the prisoners were executed here also, and it remained functional until 1945.
It is hardly a pleasurable experience to visit a Concentration Camp, but we felt compelled to go, to see for ourselves the extent of Nazi atrocities during the war. Like most other camps, the gates are emblazoned with the legend ‘ Arbeit Macht Frei’, the cynical notion that hard work would win freedom. Much of the camp had been razed to the ground, though some huts, including the medical experiment block, remained as small museums. A large memorial obelisk dominated the site, and there were outlines to show how many huts had existed when the camp was open. During this sombre visit, we began to take some photos. One of our group, a single man with an American accent, asked if we felt it was appropriate to do this. During a short discussion with him, the first time he had addressed us during the trip, we discovered that he had actually been a prisoner there as a young man, later moving to the USA, as he had managed to cross Germany after liberation. He also told us that one of the other single men, again with a US accent, had lost some of his family in the camp. Both men had travelled from America, for the sole purpose of this visit. We agreed that photography was probably in bad taste, though I did buy a tiny commemorative badge, from the small souvenir shop. One of the things we saw in the camp remains fresh in my mind. There was a large cinder running track, circling the centre. We were told that prisoners had to run around this, wearing new boots, often in the wrong size, to break them in to be worn by army recruits. They also tested different styles of footwear on this track, crippling prisoners in the process. On the way back to Berlin, we decided that we were glad to have seen it, but it did make you feel very uneasy about the association of tourism with so much depravity.
The next planned excursion, was an overnight stay on the Baltic Coast, in the seaside district of Rostock, called Warnemunde. This was an interesting diversion. In reasonable weather, we saw family groups of East Germans enjoying themselves by the seaside, eating ice cream, or sausage and sauerkraut in rolls, and behaving as we might, at any resort town in England. It was short and sweet though, and a little pointless, other than for the East Germans to show supposedly sympathetic Westerners that such places existed in the DDR. It is true that some of the group were sympathetic to the politics of East Germany. I certainly was, and the noisy family from Northern England turned out to be from The British Communist Party. However, most were nothing of the sort, including my wife, and at least five North Americans, with diverse reasons to be there, as well as some others from England, who had German relatives, and wanted to see it for themselves.
Back in Berlin, we were due to leave the next day, to return for one more day in Dresden, before flying home. We had not had the chance to visit the West of the city, so we approached our guide, to ask if that might be possible, expecting this to be politely declined. Once more, we got a pleasant surprise. Not only could it be done, she would arrange for us to stay an extra night in our Berlin hotel, with no charge. It would mean us taking a train after that, at our expense, and making sure we arrived back in Dresden in good time to catch up with the group, to fly home to England. She explained the best way for us to get over to the West sector, and sorted out train times for the trip the following day. It was even arranged to take the bulk of our baggage on the coach, to save us lugging it around. We were very happy, and it showed once again, that we were more or less free to come and go as we pleased. It also gave us the reasonably exciting prospect of being on our own, in the sinister capital of the DDR! As it turned out, no Stasi agents, or secret police appeared, to throw us into cells for interrogation, from where we would never be heard of again. It was all very normal.
The next morning, we waved goodbye to our group after breakfast, and headed off by underground train to Friedrichstrasse Station. I had hoped to cross through Checkpoint Charlie, like the spies in the films, but the guide had suggested this alternative as being quicker and easier. The situation at the station was one of the strangest I had ever found myself in. Arriving on one side, we were in East Germany, but the opposite platform was in West Germany, and we had to go through border control and customs, to enter it. The East German guards gave our papers a cursory examination, and waved us through. It was the West Germans who were perplexed. They couldn’t understand how we were coming through from the East, as they were so unfamiliar with tourists entering from this direction. They even asked us if we knew that we had come from the East, then grew suspicious and sullen when we laughed, and said ‘of course’. Leaving the station exit, we were back in the ‘Free World’, at least that part of it that was West Berlin.
The differences were instantly apparent, and not necessarily in a good way. For the first time since arriving in Dresden, we saw vagrants, drunks, shifty-looking characters hanging around, and young women who were obviously prostitutes. And it wasn’t even 11am! All the trappings of Western living were there, clustered around the station. Gaudy advertising, traffic jams, fast-food outlets, people of all races, and lots of military, many openly drinking outside bars, in uniform. As well as German Police and troops, there were American soldiers and British soldiers, some wearing kilts. Despite the reputation of the DDR as being police-controlled, and militaristic, we had not seen a fraction of the uniformed men there, that we saw in minutes, after crossing to the West. Once we had stopped for a coffee, we were at a loss what to actually see, now that we were there. There was the famous Zoo of course, but we could go to zoos in England. Outside the centre, there were apparently some nice parks, with ornamental lakes, but they would be the same anywhere. We settled for a trip to the Tiergarten, the large area of parkland, containing the famous Victory Column, and supposedly a pleasant area to stroll. We found the column, and went inside, up to one of the stages, that give panoramic views around. Otherwise, it was just like a large park in any city, so we set off for a look at The Wall. On this Western side, there were actually places erected not far from the Wall, where you could walk up and get a look at it. But it was just a wall after all, and other than its historical interest, hardly worth the effort.
After a late lunch, we reversed the process at Friedrichstrasse station, once more cautioned by West German guards that we were entering the East, until they discovered that we had DDR visas, and again eyed us with great suspicion. Back in Alexanderplatz, we actually felt relieved to be out of the West Sector, and strange as it may seem, felt almost at home back in the ‘Haupstadt’. For me, the most enjoyable part of the excursion, had been the process of entering and leaving, feeling like defectors, or undesirables, fleeing behind the ‘Iron Curtain’. So, despite being fairly bored during our time in the West, we were happy to have had the opportunity to see it. Back at the Palast Hotel, we went out for dinner, and then packed our few things, ready for the train trip to Dresden the next morning.
In the 1930’s, it used to be said of the Nazis, that they at least made the trains run on time. Nothing had changed in that respect, so we were sure to be at the main station in good time to get tickets, and not to miss our train. At the ticket window, I got a real shock; we were asked if we wanted first or second class tickets! I was staggered. There we were, supposedly in a ‘Socialist Republic’, and they had first class on the trains. Yes, you’re right, we went first class! It was still very cheap, and I really wanted to try it, as I could never afford it back home. It was nothing grand though, a somewhat old-fashioned compartment train, and we had the seats to ourselves. There was a buffet car, and very clean toilets at each end of the carriage. The ticket inspector arrived soon after we departed (on time, to the second) and he was grandly uniformed, as well as impeccably polite. The journey to Dresden was reasonably fast, and uneventful, and we got to the hotel a few hours before the evening departure to the airport. We did some last minute shopping, buying lots of chocolate, and other sweets, to give to our guide, for her grandchildren. She had been so lovely, and we knew that it was hard for her to buy goods from the foreign currency shops. We gave her the sweets at the airport, as well as some ladies’ tights, that were supposedly hard to find there. We also gave her £20 as a tip, that she could use to purchase luxuries. That was about a month’s salary for her then, and she burst into tears.
Flying back to England, we reflected on what a surprising trip it had been. The people had been friendly, and we had been free to come and go with no restrictions. The sights had been interesting, and the experience of our trip to the West had shown us that maybe things were not as bad in the East as we had presumed. However, we were not blind to the poor living conditions we witnessed in the large estates, or the poor quality of construction, the occasional power cuts, and shortages of many things we would have considered essentials. Mostly, I was sorry that the citizens were not allowed to travel outside of the Soviet Bloc, and that there was no fraternisation in the tourist-only hotels. I felt sure then, and still do, that many of them would have soon realised that those much-desired streets were not as golden as they had imagined.