Where the Cold War thawed

Re­minders of a trou­bled past in the Ger­man state of Thuringia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - JOHN BORTH­WICK

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

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