“Martin Luther’s 500th Anniversary” refers, of course, to the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517. This date and this act are usually seen as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
This 500th anniversary of Martin Luther brings to mind an earlier 500th anniversary of Martin Luther, the 500th anniversary of his birth, which was celebrated in 1983 (he was born on November 10, 1483). The 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth was celebrated under somewhat different circumstances than the current celebration, however, because Wittenberg, as well as most of the other Luther sites, were in East Germany at the time.
When the Germany Democratic Republic was founded in 1949, Martin Luther was persona non grata for the East German communists. Even in 1979, when we first visited East Germany, the Luther sites were open, but they weren’t promoted. By 1983, however, things had changed. The East German leadership was now seeing Martin Luther as the “initiator of a grand revolutionary movement,” in the words of Erich Honecker, the head of the East German Communist Party, and was promoting his legacy, at least as they interpreted it.1 Whether this was to attract hard currency from Western tourists or gain support from Lutherans in East Germany, I don’t know. Probably, both.
This reminded me of an article I wrote about our travels to East Germany in 1979 and 1982. When I wrote the article in the summer of 1983, it was a sort of travelogue. It is still a travelogue, but now it’s a travelogue to a country that no longer exists – for good reason.
1 “A Useful Hero,” Time (European edition), October 17, 1983, p. 52.
2 I originally posted it about ten years.
3 Some of it is out of date, but overall, I think it presents an interesting commentary on life was like, and could be like in the future, if one lived "on the other side of a wall."
To the Other Side of the Wall: Visits to the German Democratic Republic
The first difficulty in taking a vacation in the German Democratic Republic (or GDR) is trying to arrange it. Traveling to East Germany is definitely not a spur of the moment thing. Hotel reservations can only be made through a limited number of authorized travel agencies, and they must be made weeks in advance. Even then, the reservations process is virtually a lottery. You apply for the city and hotel where you would like to stay, you fill out a visa application, and you make a deposit. Then, four or five weeks later, the news comes back from East Germany as to where you have been placed, which may or may not be the same as what you asked for.
In our two trips to East Germany, we have applied for hotel reservations in four different cities. Only once did we get both the city and hotel we asked for. Once we got the city we wanted but not the hotel, and twice we did not even get the city we had requested.
One's first thought, after getting placed in a city 50 or 60 kilometers from the city one requested, is to try again, but of course this is not possible. In fact, the best way to approach a trip to the GDR is to not plan your trip until after you find out where you will be staying. Once you find out where you have hotel reservations, you can then plan what you will see. Basically, if you want to go to East Germany, you go where you are sent -- a not inappropriate way to start a trip to the GDR.
* * *
If you are driving, one of the first things that you will become aware of in the GDR is that the authorities take their speed limits very seriously. This requires quite an adjustment if one is coming from West Germany, where there are no speed limits on the Autobahns. While the main concern in West Germany is to not be caught in the passing lane in front of a speeding Mercedes, in East Germany, the main thing to watch for is sudden decreases in the speed limit.
In the GDR it is not at all uncommon to have the speed limit suddenly drop from 100 kilometers per hour to 80 or even 60 kilometers per hour for no apparent reason; and, if this occurs, you can be fairly certain that the East German police are somewhere nearby.
While driving on the East German motorways, you will often see signs that have been turned around so that the back of the sign is facing the flow of traffic. If you look at these signs as you pass them, you will often find that these are speed limit signs. Apparently, these signs are always in place and are turned around whenever the police want to set up a speed trap at that location.
However, the most interesting thing about the East German speed traps is not that they exist but the effort to which the East German police go to catch you exceeding the speed limit. After all, if the East German police wanted to stop somebody and charge them with speeding, I doubt that most people would argue, at least for very long.
However, it seems to be very important to them that you actually break the speed limit before they stop you. The fact that you are virtually trapped into exceeding the speed limit is irrelevant. The key is that you have broken the rule and therefore can be made to pay the fine.
* * *
Shopping in the GDR is as at least as interesting as visiting historical sites. My wife Susan and I spent one Saturday afternoon looking in store windows on Prager Strasse in Dresden. Susan noted very fine clothes in some small shop windows. However, she also noticed none of these windows had any prices listed. In a nearby department store, however, other, less-well-made clothes had prices shown. Apparently, the good clothes in the first windows were not for sale but were merely for display.
With respect to appliances and other goods, several stores had products and prices in their windows. However, not only were prices very high compared to West German prices, but there was also a little sign in the corner of many of the windows indicating that the goods in the window were only there for purposes of display. Items could be purchased only by putting your name on a list and waiting your turn.
More interesting than the local stores, though, were the Intershops, which sell western goods for "hard" currency. The prices in the Intershops were not out of line with prices for the same goods in West Germany. In fact, based on the official exchange rates, at least some of the prices were lower than the prices for East German goods. However, the difference is that the goods in the Intershops can only be purchased with western currency. Therefore, even though the list prices were relatively low, the dearness of western currency meant that, in reality, the prices were very high.
The contents of the Intershops were also fascinating. They included things such as hard liquor, cigarettes, and even laundry detergent. It was somewhat surprising to see things like Winston cigarettes and Johnny Walker scotch for sale in East Germany. Not surprisingly, there were Japanese tape players and radios. And, in one small Intershop that we stopped at, a major portion of the store was filled with Black & Decker power tools – apparently for the East German do-it-yourselfer.
* * *
When crossing the border to either enter or leave the GDR, you must be prepared for the process to take much more time than seems necessary. This is not to say that the East German border guards are unfriendly or discourteous; they are not. In fact, most of the guards we have encountered were quite friendly, especially when they discovered we were Americans. The problem was not a lack of courtesy or friendliness. It was just that they were very thorough, especially when it came to looking through our suitcases.
However, we did not get the impression that the guards were enthusiastically searching through our personal belongings. Instead, it seemed that they were being thorough because they knew it is their job to do so and because they did not want to get in trouble by doing anything other than a very exhaustive search.
In fact, we have had some particularly interesting times at East German border crossing checkpoints. The first time that we crossed into East Germany, we did not think to dispose of certain magazines and newspapers that we had purchased in the West. Obviously, these were confiscated. However, the guards also took a German-language Star Trek comic book that I had purchased in West Berlin. Even though I protested, they were adamant that this was not the type of literature that could be allowed into the GDR.
The second time that we went to East Germany, we thought we were smarter, and we threw away all of our magazines and newspapers before we got to the border crossing point. However, we did have several Rosenthal china brochures. The border guard told us that, since we had been to the GDR before, we should have known that such items could not be taken into East Germany. We were allowed to keep them only when we promised that they were for friends in the United States and that we would not give them to anybody in the GDR.
Not everything was grim, though. One guard in particular got quite a chuckle over the collection of cardboard beer coasters that I had been collecting on our trip.
Finally, as you approach a border crossing station, you see a large number of buildings and a confusing maze-like grid of roadways and barricades. There is no need to worry if you are unsure which way to go. The border guards are always there to point the correct way. In fact, the surest way to do nothing wrong, is just to wait until you are told where to go next.
* * *
As with most countries, probably the most interesting part of a visit to the GDR is the people one meets.
The first East German family that we met was that of the daughter of our church custodian. Brigette lives with her husband and 12 year old son, Johannes, in a small East German town close to the West German border. They owned their own house, with 6 rooms, including a living room, dining room, kitchen and three bedrooms upstairs. Also, they had a courtyard area in the back where they were able to grow a small garden including some strawberries, and they had a Trabant, a small East German automobile.
Inside the house was filled with consumer goods, including what appeared to be a top-of-the-line East German color television set and other such items. Johannes had over 200 matchbox model toys, many of them apparently sent to him by his grandfather. In fact, when we met them, Johannes was wearing Nike jogging shoes, obviously another present from a doting grandpa in America.
Even though they spoke no English, we had a nice lunch and a long conversation with Brigette and Johannes. It was easy to tell that they, and especially Brigette, were unhappy. Brigette complained about the difficulty of getting good food, saying that it was either a matter of waiting in very long lines or having a friend who could put some on the side for you.
She also mentioned that while they were able to watch West German television programs, Johannes had to be careful at school to avoid talking about the programs since it was not good to admit to watching such shows.
Brigette said that six years ago she had been able to visit her father in America and had acquired a taste for hamburgers and pizza. Of course, she made the trip by herself since, as she mentioned, she would never be allowed to go to the West on a trip with her whole family.
To some extent, it seemed as if Brigette's contacts with the West, such as her visit to America, the presents from her father, and the West German television, made her life especially unhappy. It was almost as if she might have been happier not knowing what she was missing.
* * *
As I mentioned earlier, East Germany is, or at least deserves to be, notorious for its speed traps. However, to merely call them speed traps does not really do justice to the work and organization that is involved in them. For example, the speed trap in which I was caught, which involved cutting the speed limit from 80 to 40 kilometers per hour on a downgrade, included not only at least four policemen standing on the side of the road pulling cars over but also a trailer set up along the side of the road to process the speeders.
When the East German policeman first started talking to me, I tried to tell him that I had not realized that I was going too fast. Unfortunately, my German is not very good, so he thought I was trying to deny that I was speeding. Eventually, he wrote the one English word that he knew on a piece of paper and showed it to me: RADAR.
While we were sitting in the car waiting for our papers to be processed, my wife noticed that the only cars that were being stopped were those with West European license plates. I do not know if this was because the East Germans were smart enough to avoid the speed trap or because Westerners were being deliberately singled out, but the East German policeman was more than happy to take our West German currency to pay the 50 Mark fine.
* * *
The second family that we met was a young couple who were each about 30 years old. Albert was a teacher in theology at an East German university, and Helga was a librarian with a job in a publishing company. They had two small children, a 1-year old and a 2-year old. They lived in an apartment with just 3 rooms, a kitchen, a living room and a bedroom. They did not have their own bathroom, but had to use a common bathroom down the hall from their apartment, a particularly difficult thing with two small children.
In spite of their housing arrangements, Albert and Helga seemed happy. While Helga and Albert both admitted that things were not as good as they should be, they said the government was trying hard to make things better. They said that there was still a lot to be done because of the destruction from the war and that it would take a long time to get everything accomplished. The important thing, though, was that the government was trying and that they had hope that things would be getting better for them.
According to Helga, it was this hope that made their lives better than those of many in the West. Helga mentioned that she had been able to travel with a group to London for a book convention. While there, she had taken a tour of the London slums. She remarked about how much better off she was than the poor people in London. While she and her husband knew that things would get better for them, the poor people in London had no hope at all.
However, appropos of Brigette's comment that the best way to get food was to know somebody, Helga said that if Albert got tenure at the university, the university would then be able to help them get a better apartment.
One complaint that Helga did have was with the restrictions on travel. She noted that she and Albert could only travel together to other East Bloc countries and that on those rare occasions when one of them could travel to the West, the other would have to stay behind. She said that this was one thing that particularly upset the young people in East Germany.
At another point in our conversation, we told Helga and Albert that in the United States, it was common for people to be able to decide whether they wanted to buy health insurance for themselves. Helga noted that in East Germany one did not have such decisions to make. She said that the government made these decisions for people so there was no need to worry about making mistakes.
Finally, I commented to Albert on the incongruity of his being a theology teacher at a state university in a communist country. While it was perhaps too delicate of a subject to raise with somebody we had just met, his response was interesting; he said that it was "a compromise."
* * *
Two things are particularly noticeable as you look around the GDR. Perhaps the first thing you will notice, especially away from East Berlin, is how very drab everything seems to be. As a friend of mine described it, the difference between West Germany and East Germany is the difference between color TV and black and white. This is not to say, however, that East Germans are living in poverty; they are not. It is just that homes and businesses are not maintained with the same spirit and enthusiasm that is evident in West Germany.
Second, in lieu of the ubiquitous billboards and other commercial advertising one sees in the West, East Germany has slogans and banners proclaiming the strength of socialism and how socialism will insure peace for all. In fact, such propaganda even extends to highway direction signs. When driving on one of the Transit Routes to Berlin, one is presented with two choices: "Berlin, Capital City of the GDR" or "Westberlin."
* * *
When we were visiting with Albert and Helga, we decided that it would be nice to walk someplace and then sit down to talk. We walked about a block from the hotel and found several benches around a tree near a tall apartment building. We rearranged the benches and sat down. After a few minutes, a man came from the apartment building and told us that these benches belonged to the people in the apartment building, that they maintained this little park, and that we could sit there only as long as nobody in the apartment building wanted to use the benches. He also told us very sternly that we should put the benches back into place when we left.
We noticed this attitude in several other places in East Germany also. It was almost as if since people were powerless with respect to many parts of their lives, in those areas where they did have some control or some power, they themselves became petty tyrants. Somebody else with power might tell them what to do with most of their life, but where they were in control, they would run things as they wanted to.
* * *
One way of comparing things in the GDR is food. At most of the hotels we stayed at, the food was good, especially at the top-grade Erfurter Hof in Erfurt. However, only guests could eat at the hotels. East Germans, unless they were staying at the hotel, could not eat there.
Because of this, we were unable to eat with Brigette and Johannes in our hotel restaurant. Instead, they took us to what they said was the best restaurant in the area. And I think they were right since while we were there three wedding parties came in to celebrate at this place.
Unfortunately, the food was very poor. My wife's lamb was really mutton and the rest of the food was quite poor. The only good thing was the price -- 20 Marks (about $9.00) for lunch for the four of us.
However, not all of the food is bad. While the East German ice cream was very grainy and thin and the local cola drink was quite bad, they have a carbonated grapefruit drink that is inexpensive and quite good. It was comparable in taste to Canfield's 50-50.
Perhaps the best comment about the food in the GDR, though, was the look on Johannes' face when we gave him six cans of RC Cola from West Germany.
* * *
An American traveling in the GDR is quite unusual. For example, in Dresden, we stayed in a middle range hotel, and we were, I think, one of a few Westerners staying there. After checking in, we went down to the main dining room to have supper. While we were there, the hotel manager came straight to us and said that we had a telephone call. Even though there were probably 200-300 guests in the hotel at the time, and we had checked in with very little ceremony, the hotel manager was able to locate us quite quickly to tell us that we had a telephone call.
In Erfurt, we stayed at the five-star Erfurter Hof. When we went to eat, we were seated, in typical fashion on either side of the German border, at a table with two other people. We quickly discovered that they were West Germans in the GDR on business. They were quite surprised that anybody would come to East Germany on a vacation. We wound up having a very interesting conversation with them, in large part because we were both sort of strangers in a foreign land.
* * *
A vacation in East Germany is not for everyone. It is really not a restful or happy place, at least for American tourists. It is, however, very interesting and very educational. While travel to any foreign country is enlightening, a trip behind the Iron Curtain, and especially to the only country actually divided by that curtain, is particularly so.