Walking the Echoes: Adventures in Former East Germany

What was Life Like Behind the Wall?

I started learning German at school in the days before the internet, when the Berlin wall was still standing. The textbooks included quite a bit of information about life in West Germany, but the East barely got a mention. What went on in this strange land behind the Wall? What was life like? I was determined to find out one day.

Before I got a chance to visit East Germany, the country disappeared. In 1988, Germany’s division seemed permanent. In 1989, East Germany was plunged into crisis and people flocked to the west in droves. In 1990, Germany was reunified.

I have visited the former West Germany several times over the years, but it took until 2006 for me to make my first trip to the former East, when I visited Berlin for the first time. I had two small kids in tow at the time, so it was tricky doing everything I wanted. So this year I returned with a friend.

The Pope’s Revenge

We started off having a nose around Alexanderplatz, one of the main hubs of the former East Berlin. The buildings surrounding it have been refurbished since reunification and mainly house chain stores and restaurants. However, a couple of charming DDR-era landmarks remain, my favourite being the World Time Clock. This consists of a revolving drum atop a pillar, showing the timezones around the world, with various cities named on it — many in fellow Socialist nations.

Nearby is the Neptunbrunnen, a fountain supposedly representing friendship between nations. Sadly it’s looking a bit neglected these days.

The Berlin TV Tower is here too – it’s well worth worth a visit, especially the revolving restaurant that offers fantastic views of the city. Apparently the food is much improved since Socialist times. The tower is decidedly space age, with all the working bits tucked away in a big metallic ball near the top. The officially atheist state was a bit embarrassed by the way sunlight reflects off the ball, though – in certain conditions, the sun casts a gleaming cross onto it, nicknamed the “Pope’s Revenge”.

We headed out into the suburbs after this, in search of some authentic German cuisine, and had some currywurst. It’s a typical Berlin dish, sausages in a spicy tomato sauce with curry powder sprinkled on the top. You can get it pretty much everywhere.

A Private Retreat from the Communal World

After that, we visited the DDR Museum. This was established in 2006 to preserve something of the cultural heritage of a vanished nation. A Trabant — a car made of Duroplast, a plastic resin containing waste from the textile industry — takes pride of place here. It’s kitted out as a simulator, so you can actually take a drive in it.

This sets the scene for the rest of the museum – it’s very hands-on, no glass display cases here. Most objects are housed in drawers and cupboards that look like the giant blocks of concrete flats you find throughout East Germany. These once comprised 42 per cent of the nation’s housing stock. The design was so standardised that furniture was made to standard dimensions to fit inside. A couple of rooms from a typical flat are recreated. The living room is bright and garish and full of knick-knacks.

This was typical – the gloom of the urban landscape and the identikit buildings encouraged people to make their own homes as cheerful and individual as possible. It was a private retreat from the communal world. Well, it was private if you managed to avoid your home being bugged by the Stasi, East Germany’s notorious secret police. A sign near the entrance to the replica flat advises you that your conversations can be overheard by others elsewhere in the museum – yes, you’re being snooped on.

The museum is full of books, records, magazines, posters, vehicles, ornaments, diaries, menus and a whole heap of other everyday objects and products that make you really feel immersed in the culture. In an effort to keep people happy and prevent them protesting too much, the government heavily subsidised life’s essentials. Rent was very low and food was so cheap it was practically free, if a little stodgy and not particularly plentiful at times. You were also more or less guaranteed a job, so most people in the country were quite well off.

Admittedly there wasn’t much to spend your money on, though. Consumer goods were in fairly short supply, unless you could lay your hands on some hard currency and buy Western products. There were plenty of attempts at copying the alluring fruits of capitalism, though – the highest praise you could lavish on something was declaring it to be “just like a Western product!”

There was a section on holidays and travel – you were limited to other Socialist countries, but the “brotherhood of socialist nations” didn’t really exist. East Germans were rather disliked by citizens of other Socialist nations, and they resented being told about their “eternal bond of friendship” with the Soviet Union. The government portrayed them as liberators, but they were widely resented as an occupying power. Compulsory Russian at school was also deeply unpopular.

The museum doesn’t dwell too much on politics, but there’s no escaping the fact that life in East Germany was deeply political. Education contained a strong ideological element, aiming to bring up “good socialist citizens”. If you weren’t involved in the Young Pioneers or the Free German Youth, it could be tricky getting a good university place.

Although East Germany was nominally a democracy, elections were far from free. You had to approve or reject a pre-determined list of candidates. Rejecting it involved using a booth where you had to cross out all the names on your ballot paper – and in doing so you’d immediately show up on the Stasi’s radar. You’d run the risk of losing your job or worse for doing this, so very few people were brave enough to do it.

Later in the evening we took a walk around Potsdamer Platz, an area previously blighted by the Wall but now home to a gleaming selection of new high-rise buildings. It’s incredible that this area was previously a derelict wasteland. A line of bricks in the road shows you where the wall used to be. Not much is left – most of it has been bagged up and sold to tourists – but there is an officially-preserved section with a great visitor centre. It has an elevated platform where you can see both sides of the wall and the ‘death strip’ in the middle.

‘A Sad and Sobering Experience’

Our main destination on day two was the Stasi Museum in a suburb of the city. The museum is located in an original Stasi building that housed the offices of Erich Mielke, the founder of the organisation. It was stormed by protesters in the final days of the DDR, but they showed admirable restraint and didn’t do much lasting damage.

The museum contains a lot of exhibits about not only the Stasi, but also the SED, the party that ruled throughout the DDR era. The Stasi was born out of the SED’s dogged determination to cling to power, and was described as the “sword and shield” of the party. The exhibits showed how the Stasi grew to be the biggest and most powerful secret police force in the world with far greater penetration into society than even the KGB managed.

There was a display of the gadgets and techniques used to spy on the population, a huge array of DDR propaganda posters, and also lots of displays about people who protested against the regime. These were quite moving – many paid with their lives, and the bravery they displayed was incredible. On a whim, Stasi officers could wreck your life – they had God-like power over the poor sods who got on the wrong side of them. Protesting in an environment like that was a big deal.

Mielke’s offices are preserved much as they were left, and are as drab and dull as I suspect he was. It’s hard to imagine such a banal and anonymous-looking place being used to plan such grim activities.

The museum was a sad and sobering experience. Many extremely unjust and cruel things were done, and people have a right to be angry about them. Still, that’s why it’s important that they are remembered, and it’s an important part of the country’s history. It’s possible that “Ostalgie” has become the dominant narrative, and it’s vital that this much darker side isn’t forgotten.

Our next stop was the colossal Soviet war memorial in Treptow Park. It’s devoted to the memory of the millions of Soviet war dead. It was constructed in the fifties, and consists of a series of statues along the sides with various quotes from Stalin inscribed on them – in Russian along one side and in German along the other. They’ve survived the purge of Stalin’s influences seen elsewhere.

Here Be (Capitalist) Monsters

Early on the third day we headed west to the Harz mountains, an impressive range situated very close to the old Inner German Border. We travelled by train, armed with a communist-era book to guide our travels – Eisenbahn-Atlas DDR, published in 1987. It gives comprehensive information about the old East German rail network, with ominous grey blank areas on the maps in West Berlin and the Federal Republic. Here be (capitalist) monsters.

Travelling through rural eastern Germany was interesting – there’s lots of reminders of the past to be seen. Every now and then, a huge derelict factory of some kind would appear, and the concrete tower blocks were ubiquitous, even in small country towns. We travelled to Wernigerode, terminus of the Harz Narrow Gauge Railways. This 140km network of metre-gauge lines used to be part of the East German rail system, but is now run by an independent company. Much of its fleet dates from East German times, and the bulk of trains are hauled by powerful steam locomotives built in the fifties. The East German railway company simply never had the resources to replace them, so they’ve remained in service. Now, of course, they’re a major tourist attraction, particularly as there is a spectacular branch line to the top of the Brocken, the highest mountain in the area.

First trip was from Wernigerode to the junction station at Drei Annen Hohne, where we changed for the train up the Brocken. From 1961 to 1990, it was not possible for civilians to travel to the summit, as it was in the fortified border area with West Germany, and only military and Stasi personnel were allowed to travel beyond Schierke up to the summit.

We were lucky enough to get clear weather – the summit spends at least 200 days per year shrouded in mist. There’s a distinctive radio tower used by the Stasi to snoop on West German radio traffic, and an adjacent building is now the Brockenhaus, a museum about the history of the mountain and its wildlife. The station building has a shop selling railway-related souvenirs. In the past there were border guards and Soviet soldiers garrisoned here.

Wenigerode is a great example of a small German town and is full of traditional buildings, including an impressive castle. On the following day, travelling on a bit more of the Harz network, we discovered Quedlinburg, another charming town with a large square surrounded by beautiful timbered buildings.

The next stop on our tour was Dresden, a city largely destroyed in some of the most controversial air raids of the war. It took many years to restore the city, and it has been done in a rather mixed way. Much of the city centre contains modern tower blocks and isn’t particularly wonderful, but other cultural icons have been sensitively restored from literally nothing.

The stunning Frauenkirche is a fantastic example. Restoration took so long that it was only completed in 2005, and seeing the huge and superbly detailed interior, you’d never guess that only two exterior walls remained after the bombing. Every last surviving fragment and piece of rubble was carefully stored and used in the restoration. It clearly wasn’t regarded as a priority during atheist Socialist times, but I’d argue it was worth the wait.

We checked out the Transport Museum as well, which contains a great range of cars made in East German times. Interestingly enough, many of them are luxury and performance models, light years away from the utilitarian and under-equipped Trabant that is so well-known.

Just before we left Dresden, a little event made my day. We were sat in a compartment waiting for the train to leave, when a police officer slid open the door and asked to see my passport. Perfect! Not quite the team of six (with dogs) that patrolled the trains in Cold War days, but it did the job for me. I’m easily pleased.