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Friday, March 11, 2011

A Few Memories Of Germany During The Cold War - By Yours Truly

In 1985/86 I spent the year in Germany attending the University in Goettingen, traveling and suffering and recovering from periodic bouts of culture shock. At the time, Germany was split in two, a lingering result of WWII when the victorious allies divided up the country into zones. The British, French and American zones became West Germany - Bundesrepublik Deutschland (BRD), and the Russian zone became the now defunct East Germany or Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR).

Goettingen was in West Germany, but was fairly close to the border with the East. We took a trip out there once to have a look, but there really wasn't much to see, except for a gnarly looking fence that stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions. I can't remember exactly whether there was a no-mans land at the place where we went, but I do remember the watch towers. The towers were positioned so that the guards could keep an eye on their beloved fence and shoot anybody who got the bright idea of trying to escape. In the places with a no-mans land, the fence was actually two fences about 50 feet apart, with very well kept gravel surface. I am not sure how they did the upkeep because it was actually a mine field, so raking the surface would only result in a bigger mess of unsightly blood, guts, bits of flesh and bone. (Note to self - google "How to keep your mine field nice and tidy"). Anyway, I remember that fence made me mad.

Of course the inhabitants of the DDR were told the fence was to keep the capitalist swine from sullying their little socialist utopia, and 3 or 4 people probably believed them. I don't know how the rest felt about it, because even if you did manage to weasel a visit to the east, you weren't allowed to go anywhere, and none of the DDR'ler would talk to you for fear of repercussions from the authorities.

One way to see a bit of the DDR back then, was to visit Berlin, which was right smack in the middle of East Germany. Berlin was also sliced in two, and that is where the infamous wall was built (die Mauer). The side facing West Berlin was covered with graffiti, the side facing the east was pristine, dungeon gray. Not because of stiff penalties for graffitiing up the wall, but because you would be dead by the time you got close enough with your little spray can. They took that wall pretty seriously.

So anyway, one day some friends and I set off to Berlin by car. The socialist philosophy is to make everything as annoying as humanly possible, and towards this purpose, they built special contraptions to assist them. One such device was in place at the East German check points on the Autobahn. As each car pulled up closer to the little booths containing real, live communists, you were required to collect all the passports from the passengers of your car and place them on a conveyor belt which stretched maybe 10 car lengths and disappeared into the little booth at the end of your line. The belt was housed in clear plastic so you could watch your passport on its journey. This was not a pleasant thing to do because your passport was the only thing that kept you from a lifetime of being protected from capitalist swine. Oink.

Then you got to sit there for an hour or two - while they did some research on you, or started a file on you or did who knows what with your poor little helpless passport. You weren't allowed to get out of the car, and finally when you pulled up to the window, they opened each passport and checked each face in the car and matched it to a passport. While this was going on, I guy with a 6 foot long dentist's mirror inspected the underside of your car. Then you had to exchange money, I seem to remember it was about 8 DM - about $4.00 per person per day - even if you were going to West Berlin. Once that was done, we drove off with strict instructions not to leave the Autobahn or we would be arrested. You could stop at an Autobahnraststätte, but that was it. (Autobahnraststätte - rest stops along the freeway.)

So,  we decided to stop about mid-way for something to eat (We had to do something to unload the funny money we were given for our Marks). We sat down in the little restaurant and were handed menus, and were given the usual amount of time to study them. Then, the waitress returned to take our order, and each time somebody asked for whatever they had picked out, the waitress responded that they were out of that. We went through the entire menu and they were out of that too, so we asked, "well what do you have?" and learned thusly that they had some sort of Gulash, so we all ate that. We didn't even think of complaining or questioning - it was pretty clear comments and inquiries were frowned upon.

Then we piled into the car and high-tailed it to West Berlin because the DDR was flat out depressing - like, a real downer, man. The speed limit was ridiculously low, something like 85 Kilometers/Hour which wasn't really an issue for the DDR'ler and their paper-maché contraptions called Trabant or Trabbi - they most likely couldn't even go that fast. But to a car full of bummed out students from the West, it was really hard to not floor it and get the heck out of Dodge.

OK, Enough for now. Nite Nite.

RH

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