Where the Cold War thawed
Reminders of a troubled past in the German state of Thuringia
Oh, what a feeling — it’s a Trabi. A Trabant, the Beetle of the East, socialism’s true folks wagon. I watch one of these surviving Noddy cars whine around a German carpark like an enraged sewing machine as it unsuccessfully attempts to “throw doughnuts”. Instead of clouds of burnout rubber, alarming eructations burst from the little communist battler’s 600cc donk and popgun exhaust pipe. In the old East Germany, circa 1980, you could order a shiny new Trabi for 5000 marks. You’d pay upfront, then wait 12 years for delivery. With the fall of the Wall in December 1989, Trabi owners ditched their Marxist Mercs like so many clapped-out billycarts as they fled West, burning with VW lust and BMW fever.
Engineer Volkmar Helbing scooped up abandoned Trabant junkers and set about having fun. The curious Trabi Paradise museum in Weberstedt, Thuringia, now houses his collection of 20 mutant Trabis, including a fire engine, Texas Sheriff patrol car, ambulance and a ridiculously stretched “Trabi with swimming pool”. His piece de resistance is the Popemobile Trabi, sporting a rearmounted glass booth that somehow looks more like Adolf Eichmann’s courtroom box than a pontiff’s perch.
Thuringia is modern Germany’s third smallest state. Previously part of the German Democratic Republic, aka East Germany, it wears lightly the weight of its considerable history. As a frontline state in the Cold War’s 45-year stare-down between NATO and Soviet bloc forces, Thuringia was where the outbreak of World War III was most expected.
Point Alpha, NATO’s easternmost observation post, still bristles with watchtowers and a US Army base. Decommissioned now, they stand as poignant remnants of the 1400km-long, 5km-wide border zone that stretched across Germany, separating the two states and built by the East to keep its own citizens in. Between 1949 and 1989 this deadly no man’s land demanded an everexpanding apparatus of trip-wire guns, dogs, minefields, tanks, 900 watchtowers and surveillance personnel to function until, like a strangler fig, it sapped the life out of its host, the East German state. The strip of Iron Curtain is now a green curtain. Known in Germany as the Green Belt, the 7000ha swath of wilderness remains home to squirrels, lynx and European wildcats, the only sorts of creatures permitted during its “off-limits” decades.
We drive through Thuringia’s rich, rolling palette of wheatfields and pastures. Traditional villages and small towns sit tucked within, like islands. Farther on, beech forests — the largest in Europe — stretch for kilometres. There are no messy, endless ribbon developments or eyespiking billboards, but on the horizon giant wind turbines languidly rotate their three-pointed blades like subliminal Mercedes-Benz logos.
“Bigger. Better. Luther” shouts a banner in Eisenach heralding the reopening this month of the historic Luther House museum. It’s part of the build-up to the 500th anniversary of the kick-off of the Reformation. In 1517 Martin Luther shirt-fronted the Catholic Church, demanding the abolition of, among other things, religious indulgences — where “pay now, no need to pray later” was the deal. Eisenach is a handsome town of churches and half-timbered gingerbread houses. Having posted his 95 revolutionary theses, Luther escaped to nearby Wartburg Castle where its prince, the elector of Saxony, shielded him from the wrath of the pope and the Holy Roman emperor.
You can visit the austere cell in the 11th-century castle where Luther translated the New Testament from scholarly Greek to a German dialect easily understood by his lay contemporaries. Peer into his den, with its desk, Bible and wood stove — although none is actually from Luther’s time — and you sense how the cogs of history began turning here, inching away from the church as the absolute arbiter of thought and authority. There’s more to World Heritage-listed Wartburg Castle than one celebrity monk’s cell. Its treasury of paintings (including the works of Lucas Cranach, both the elder and younger) and a truly spectacular mosaic chamber dedicated to a former resident, St Elizabeth, are astonishing.
Some future spin merchant looking for a tourism tag could spruik this region as LutherLand or BachPark (even GoetheWorld), for Eisenach is also where seven generations of the famous Bach clan achieved musical glory from 1580 until 1800. The most famous, Johann Sebastian, was born here in 1685. In St George’s Church it’s almost a case of shivers down my backbone (although not quite shakes in my knee bone) imagining him and the generations of Bachs who played the church organ for 132 years.
Thuringia’s compact capital, Erfurt, has one of the best-preserved medieval city centres in Germany and its 500-year-old, 120m-long Kramerbrucke, or Merchants Bridge, lined with 32 houses and shops, is the longest inhabited bridge in Europe. Centuries ago, its merchants grew prosperous dealing in indigo, a semi-precious dye that generated a noxious stench during production. Such was the wealth of the Kramerbrucke traders and the pong of their product that they were accorded a new sobriquet: “stinking rich”.
Germany will celebrate 25 years of national reunification in October. Erfurt is the only place where I see a positive acknowledgment of the former Soviet era: a simple street sign, Juri-Gagarin-Ring, honouring the first man in space, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
“The Stasi even ordered us to sleep in a ‘correct’ position; they’d check the cells every 20 minutes,” Harald Ipolt, a former prisoner, tells me. In 1987, at 18, he was arrested by the Stasi, East Germany’s far-from-secret police, for displaying a political slogan of the teen “up yours” variety, for which he spent six months in Erfurt’s remand centre. Known today as the Andreasstrasse Memorial and Study Centre, the slammer’s dreary cells and shabby interrogation rooms, open to the public, are a reminder again not of the spectacle but the banality of evil, and not only in the Stasiland of yore.
“Do mention the war” might be the word in Thuringia. While the Cold War blocs went eyeball to eyeball over crises we can now barely recall, the unreported sideshows were as bizarre as something from Joseph Heller’s World War II novel, Catch-22.
The tiny village of Moedlareuth, population 50, had the historic misfortune to be half in Bavaria, West Germany, and half in Thuringia, East Germany. The metrewide Tannbach brook running through it became an international border. In true Heller-esque style, over the years the East’s frontier demarcations facing the trickle grew from a puny “Halt — Verboten” sign to a wooden fence, then a higher wooden fence, to metal ones — ever higher and topped with barbed wire — and in 1966 to a kilometres-long, 5m-high concrete barricade running through the middle of the village. Aptly, the American GIs stationed on the NATO side dubbed the place “Little Berlin”.
A Moedlareuth villager in the West German half who wished to visit family on the other side of the ditch (I leap the mighty Tannbach in a single bound, literally) had to travel a 50km loop, passing through a distant, military checkpoint and Kafka-style bureaucratic torments to end up mere metres from where they had begun. And then do it all in reverse. As though gun towers and T-34 tanks weren’t enough, one tragicomic Stasi edict even outlawed smiling or waving at villagers “on the other side”. Interestingly, the same controls, straight out of the Joe Stalin paranoia playbook, can be seen in force today on both sides of the North Korea-South Korea border.
John Borthwick was a guest of the German National Tourist Board.
Erfurt’s medieval centre, above; Trabi Paradise museum in Weberstedt; a border watchtower at Moedlareuth, below