The Solo Traveller's View


GDR: a Legacy of Acrid Jokes

The brigadier of an agricultural commune, the Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsgenossenschaft (LPG) in Heilenroda knows that his sows produce on average six piglets. ‘Well,’ he muses, ‘that doesn’t sound like much. The SED county leadership won’t be impressed.’ Therefore he writes in his report, ‘The healthy sow in Heilenroda usually produces seven piglets.’
The county leader peruses this report attentively, thinking, ‘Seven piglets! That’s good, but it may not be quite enough to reach our production target. It’s probably better if we put eight.’
The district leader ponders. ‘Eight piglets? Is that a lot? No idea – but let’s make it nine, just to be on the safe side.’
Reading this, his superior at the National Planning Committee thinks to himself, ‘Nine piglets? Not bad! However, we still have a little gap in our Schweinefleischbilanzkennzahl.
The leader of the Central Committee for Agricultural Production reads of ten piglets in the latest report. ‘Not quite enough to impress the Politbüro, I think. Let’s make that eleven.’
The final report is impressive and satisfies the highest authorities. ‘Comrade Honecker,’ they announce proudly, ‘the healthy sow in Heilenroda produces on average twelve piglets.’
‘Marvellous,’ the head of state replies. ‘In that case, we can export half of them!’

What would happen if the Sahara were to turn socialist, with a state-directed economy? – Initially, nothing at all; but after about ten years the sand would get scarce.

A citizen of the GDR intends to buy a pair of shoes, but inadvertently enters a butcher’s shop. ‘Have you no shoes?’ he asks. The butcher replies, ‘You can get no shoes next door. Here we have no meat.’

At the hardware store: ‘Do you have nails?’ – ‘No.’ – ‘Do you have screws?’ – ‘No. But we’re open twenty-four hours.’ – ‘Why?’ – ‘The lock is broken.’

The GDR astronaut Siegmund Jähn was recommended for the job of director at the largest department store in East Berlin. Why? Because he had experience with vast, empty spaces.

Under socialism, everyone can choose his job, whether he wants to or not.

A primary teacher in East Germany explains to the little ones that every profession of their parents can be found in a symbol on the nation’s coins. ‘Tell me what your father does.’ – ‘My father is a builder.’ – ‘Look, here’s the hammer.’ – ‘My father works at the LPG.’ – See here, the garland of corn.’ – ‘My father is an engineer.’ – ‘And here we have a compass.’
A little boy begins to cry. ‘What’s the matter? What is your father’s job?’ – The boy wails, ‘He is Secretary-General of the Party!’ – ‘Hush now, don’t be upset. Look here, right at the centre: this is the nut that holds everything together …’

A delegation of French journalists returns from a visit to the German Democratic Republic. The correspondent of the communist newspaper L’ Humanité reports, ‘Particularly impressive are the citizens of the GDR in their honesty, their intelligence and their love for the state.’
The reporter of the conservative newspaper Le Figaro confirms this. ‘Indeed. But let me add that I have not met anyone who united those three virtues. Those who are honest and love the GDR are not intelligent; those who are intelligent and love the GDR are not honest; and those who are honest and intelligent don’t love the GDR.’

The head of state is visiting a primary school. With a smile he asks Fritzchen, ‘Tell me, my boy, who is your father?’
‘That would be Ulbricht, Comrade Honecker.’
‘And who is your mother?’
‘The GDR, Comrade Honecker.’
‘And what would you like to be when you grow up?’
‘An orphan, Comrade Honecker.’

Why were there hardly any bank robberies in the GDR? – One had to wait fifteen years for a getaway car.

Two Trabis crashed, resulting in thirteen casualties: Both drivers, plus eleven citizens amongst the crowds who fought over the spare parts.

The difference between socialism and orgasm? – Socialism makes you moan longer.

The difference between democracy and social democracy? – About the same as between a chair and an electric chair.

The difference between terrorists and the GDR leadership? – Terrorists have fans and followers.

The difference between capitalism and socialism? – Capitalism is the exploitation of man by his fellow man; under socialism, it’s the other way round.

Which systems are incompatible? – The socialist system and the nerve system.

What are the geographic particularities of the GDR? – It’s a flat land with tight spots.

What are the four main difficulties in socialism? – Spring, summer, autumn and winter.

What is a quartet? – An East German symphonic orchestra after a tour in the West.

What would have happened if Ulbricht had been shot instead of Kennedy? – Hard to say, but one thing is certain: Onassis would not have married the widow.

After an official meeting, the German heads of state Willy Brandt (West) and Walter Ulbricht (East) find time for an informal chat.
‘Do you have a hobby?’ asks Ulbricht. – ‘I like to collect the jokes my people circulate about me,’ Brandt tells him. ‘And what is your hobby?’ – ‘Almost the same as yours,’ Ulbricht confides, ‘but I prefer to collect the people who circulate jokes about me.’

A faithful member of the SED returns from a business trip to the West. His superior is curious: ‘So, comrade, you have witnessed the putrid decay and the mortal agony of capitalism?’
‘I have.’
‘And what is your impression?’
‘It’s a beautiful way to go …’

Fritzchen returns from school: ‘Papi, our essays on the great achievements of the GDR were handed out today. Mine was the best: I got a D!’
Dad is cross. ‘Really, a D! How can that be the best? What did the others get?’ – ‘I don’t know. They are still being questioned.’

A teacher in the German Democratic Republic asks his class, ‘Who wrote The Communist Manifesto?’
Silence. He decides to ask one of the boys directly.
Fritzchen, can you tell me who wrote The Communist Manifesto?’
It wasn’t me, honestly!’ is the anxious reply.
The teacher, appalled, tells his wife about the incident. She tries to calm him by saying, ‘You should give him the benefit of the doubt, dear. Maybe it really wasn’t him.’
The teacher withdraws to a dark corner of his favourite bar to drown his dismay, and ends up telling the whole sad story to a stranger.
Now look here, don’t you worry. I’m from State Security. We shall find out who did it.’
A couple of weeks later, the two men meet once more in the same bar.
Comrade! You’ll be pleased to know that it really wasn’t Fritzchen. However, his father confessed.’

Erich Honecker is due to receive the Nobel Prize. Why? – He turned the ‘Heart of Europe’ into the arse of the world.

What is Honecker’s favourite sport? Bobsledding, of course: speedily downhill, with a wall on either side.

Honecker inspects the port of Rostock, where three cargo ships are berthed. At the first one he asks a sailor, ‘Well, comrade, what will your journey accomplish?’
‘We are taking fertilizer to Mozambique and shall return with a load of bananas.’
‘Splendid, comrade – carry on!’
At the second ship, Honecker repeats his question and is told, ‘We are shipping bicycles to Comrade Fidel in Cuba and shall come back with a cargo of sugar.’
At the third ship, Honecker enquires, ‘Tell me, comrade, where will your journey take you?’
‘We are delivering bananas and sugar to Leningrad.’
‘And what shall you be taking back?’
‘The train, as usual …’

Honecker watches the sunrise from his balcony. ‘Good morning, dear sun!’ he says.
‘Good morning, dear Comrade Secretary-General and Chairman of the Socialist Unity Party of the German Democratic Republic,’ the sun replies.
Honecker’s day is spent in Berlin, working with the Central Committee. At lunchtime, he takes a break and opens the window wide: ‘Good day, dear sun!’
‘Good day, dear Comrade Secretary-General and Chairman of the Socialist Unity Party of the German Democratic Republic,’ answers the sun.
As the sun is about to set, Honecker waves, ‘Good evening, dear sun!’
‘Kiss my ass – I’m in the West now!’

Honecker wishes to investigate his popularity. At random, he visits a tower block and rings a doorbell. A little girl opens.
‘Who are you, comrade?
she asks.
‘I am the man who ensures you have a good life. Thanks to me you have food and a home …’
‘Mum, come quickly,’ the little girl shouts. ‘It’s Uncle Peter from Munich!’

Ingrid writes to her uncle in the West. ‘Dear Uncle, thank you kindly for your parcel. I buried the pistol and the ammunition in the garden for now. Your presents are always received with great joy.’
A couple of weeks later, uncle receives another letter from his niece in the GDR. ‘My dear Uncle, our garden has been thoroughly dug over and is now ready for the vegetable seeds you promised to send …’

‘Who invented socialism? A politician or a scientist?’ – ‘A politician, of course.’ – ‘I thought as much! A scientist would have tested it on rats first.’

The Seven Miracles of Socialism:
1) There was no unemployment in the GDR.
2) Even though there was no unemployment, only half the population had work.
3) Even though only half the population worked, production targets were always reached.
4) Even though production targets were always reached, there was almost nothing to buy.
5) Even though there was almost nothing to buy, everyone was happy and content.
6) Even though everyone was happy and content, there were frequent protest marches.
7) Even though there were frequent protest marches, the government was always re-elected with a majority of 99.9%

There has been a break-in at the Ministry. Honecker phones his chief of police: ‘Have important documents been stolen?’
‘Nothing to worry about – only the election results of the next thirty years.’

The US, the Soviet Union and the GDR are planning to lift the Titanic. The Americans are interested in the safe and its contents of gold and diamonds, the Russians are interested in the engineering, and the GDR is interested in the band that played such cheerful tunes right until the end.

Even the GDR had a Festival of Political Jokes. First prize: ten years’ worth of winter holidays in Siberia.

A citizen of the GDR wanders through the streets of East Berlin at night and roars, ‘Crap state! Crap government!’
He is arrested immediately by an officer of the secret police. The man wants to know the reason for his arrest and is reminded of his words.
‘I did not say which crap state and which crap government I meant!’ he argues. The Stasi officer cannot deny this and releases the man. After a couple of minutes, however, the officer catches up with him and arrests him anew.
‘Upon reflection,’ he says, ‘there is only one crap state and one crap government. You’ll have to come with me.’

A GDR border guard asks his comrade, ‘What is your true opinion of our great socialist state?’ – ‘Much the same as yours, I should think,’ is the reply. – ‘In that case, I’m afraid I shall have to arrest you!’

A teacher, explaining the meaning of bereavement, asks her pupils for examples.
‘My granddad broke his leg.’
‘That is a case of harm, but not a bereavement.’
‘My mother lost her wallet.’
‘That is a loss, but not a bereavement.’
‘When Comrade Honecker dies, is that a bereavement?’
‘Well done! It is a bereavement – but no harm, and certainly no loss.’

After his demise, Honecker knocks on the gate of heaven. St Peter opens, measures him with a cold glance and says, ‘I believe you have lost your way, Erich. Off to hell with you!’
Half a year later, two little devils knock on heaven’s door. St Peter can’t believe his eyes. ‘What are you doing here? Surely you know this is no place for you.’
But the devils plead with him: ‘For pity’s sake, St Peter – we are political refugees!’

Honecker’s guardian angel requests a holiday, pleading stress and exhaustion. St Peter enquires, ‘And why should this be necessary? Like all the other guardian angels, you have only one single person to protect.’
‘Certainly,’ whimpers the angel, ‘but I have to protect him from seventeen million people!’

Three prisoners are sitting together in Bautzen, infamous prison of the GDR. One of them says, ‘I was always five minutes early, so they arrested me for a spy.’
‘I was always five minutes late, so they arrested me for sabotage.’
‘And I was always exactly on time, so they arrested me for possessing a watch from the West.’

A US banker has been invited by the finance minister of the GDR. In the yard of the ministry, he sees stacks of bullion lying about. Amazed, he tells his host, ‘In my homeland, gold is considered a very precious commodity. It is stored in Fort Knox, surrounded and secured by concrete walls, barbed wire and mines, and guarded by watchtowers and soldiers with dogs.’
‘There you have it!’ replies the GDR minister. ‘That is the difference between our systems! Here, we regard the people as the most precious commodity.’



If you have a favourite joke about the GDR, please share it in the comment section below. 



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Cycling in the Borderlands

Thursday, 20 March 2014

My Workaway hosts have planned a bicycle tour in the afternoon, to show me the former inner-German border nearby. The weather forecast was right: it is a gloriously sunny day, fitting for the vernal equinox. This morning, my Workaway volunteer task is to take the wheelbarrow around the grounds and cart away the thick layer of straw from the base of each rose, placed there in autumn for protection from frost. Since there are a lot of roses, this job keeps me busy well beyond lunchtime.

I spend my tea break on the jetty of Heike’s swimming pond, watching scores of toads as they move ponderously among the stalks of water plants in their search for the right partner. They seem to be quite as choosy as a certain person I know! Once in a while, a frog skims with confident legwork across the surface, newts wriggle up to snatch a gulp of air before diving back down into the murky depths, water beetles skate ecstatically in the brilliant sunshine reflected by their liquid world … I love to observe life in a pond and could do so for hours, but now it is time to return to straw, wheelbarrow and roses until my hosts call me to get ready for our outing.

I am invited to choose a traditional bicycle from their well-stocked stables. Heike and Sally adjust the tyre pressure of their sleek recumbent bikes and at half past three we set out, passing through tiny hamlets sprinkled along deserted, smoothly tarmaced lanes between rows of trees that seem to line every country road in these parts.

A typical, tree-lined Country Road

A typical, tree-lined German Country Road

I have not used a bicycle for, oh – it must be about thirty years now! But it is indeed true that one does not forget how to ride a bike, and I notice with satisfaction that the gear-changing mechanism has come a long way since those far-off days. The land is flat, thank God, and there is no traffic to speak of. We can ride three abreast, and for a while take up the whole breadth of the quiet country road that stretches straight ahead between rows of birches. Riding along with the wind in my hair, the sun on my face and not a care in the world, I am truly happy.

Bicycle Tour in the Borderlands

Bicycle Tour in the Borderlands

Our first goal is that strip of local woodland where a fiercely guarded border once separated Germany, West, from Germany, East. (See also previous blog post.) There, we leave our bikes to wander among the trees for a few hundred yards, on a narrow path overgrown with soft grass.

The former Border Path

The former Border Path

Heike describes how this was once a much wider track on which tanks and other border guard vehicles moved along the fence. This track used to be paved with concrete slabs, and the strip of land alongside was cleared and ploughed for maximum visibility and the easy tracking of footprints … Those light woods now crowding the path have only sprung up in the twenty-odd years since Germany’s reunification.

Nature has reclaimed the Death Strip

Nature reclaims Death Strip

When the border was opened, residents of the eastern side removed the concrete slabs to use as paving in their villages. They also took away segments of the metal-mesh fence and put them around their gardens. (This I find surprising and not at all easy to comprehend.) One local man had spent decades observing, travelling along and photographing the border from the western side. He now drove around and collected all he could for his museum, the Grenzmuseum in Göhr, which I shall visit on Saturday. It doesn’t open until the tourist season begins in May, but Heike has arranged a viewing for me. (Blog post of this visit to follow.) Terrible though the border was for the divided nation, nature flourished in this strip of land forbidden to humans. Rare plants and animals thrived in the death zone. Fortunately this was recognized, and after reunification Das Grüne Band became a trail of nature parks and wildlife sanctuaries. I had learnt about this at the museum in Lenzen, and today I am thrilled to be walking a few paces along the Green Belt myself. (Read more about the Green Belt in my previous blog post.)

Then we ride on, crossing over into what had been the borderland of the German Democratic Republic, the GDR. No citizen had been allowed to approach the border from that side. Villages too close to the fence were razed and their inhabitants forced to relocate. Those wanting to visit relatives in ‘The Zone’ had to apply for special permits, as did farmers who lived within a certain radius, just so they could approach the guarded strip and work in their fields alongside. Today, these hamlets seem peaceful and a little backward, for they have retained a certain old-worldly purity due to their long separation from hectic modern times.

A Village near the former Border

A Village near the former Border

It seems to me like a trip into times past, and I like the look of these half-timbered houses. Many have been beautifully restored, but others – no less appealing – have lapsed into decay. This may well be a property-developer’s dreamland …

So beautiful - could it be saved?

So beautiful – but can it be saved?

Our next stop is at a Grenzwachturm, a watch tower of the former border guards. This ruin of chipped concrete, fascinating in its hideousness, has been stripped of its doors, its window panes and all its former accessories, such as alarm systems, spotlights and wireless equipment. An empty shell, it stands divested of its former deadly power, reduced to a punctuation mark in history’s narrative.

A former GDR Watch Tower

A former GDR Watch Tower …

... or what's left of it!

… or what’s left of it!

The metal stairs too had been removed to make the guard rooms inaccessible, but local people soon put in roughly nailed ladders of wooden planks. To climb them requires a certain amount of faith in their handiwork. From the third floor we have a good view across the land – as indeed the guards once did.

A Climb with some Risks

A Climb with some Risks

Chipped Concrete and Stripped Windows remain

Only chipped Concrete and stripped Windows remain

Overlooking the Borderlands

Overlooking the Borderlands

Heike traces the line of the former border for me and has an intriguing story to tell about the village of Harpe, visible just beyond the trees: The otherwise straight border showed an odd bump at this point, abandoning its obvious course to curve around the tiny settlement and leaving it unexpectedly on the western side of the fence. People in these parts refer to it as ‘the Vodka Bend’. They are alluding to the astuteness of Harpe’s mayor, who, upon realizing what was about to happen, invited the officers of the Russian Border Commission to an evening of free drinks and merriment. Once the vodka had done its work, he found it possible to have the line of the border repositioned according to the wishes of the community, and Harpe remained firmly outside the zone of Soviet occupation. (Were queries ever raised by higher authorities regarding this suspicious bump in the line? We have no way of knowing, but may assume that the officers of the border commission in question will have invented a good reason, rather than admit to fraternizing with the enemy.)

Small, but to be reckoned with!

Harpe: tiny, but to be reckoned with!

On the road towards this wily village, we halt once more to mount a wooden and slightly rotting viewing platform. People from the West would come here to look across to East Germany, for they were allowed to approach the border at will. No one on this side of the fence was in the least concerned that they might escape to the socialist paradise beyond, though visitors were warned that there was a risk of being shot at occasionally by drunken or bored Russian soldiers on guard duty.

A View of the Other Side

For a Peek at the Other Side …

The sun is setting and the air cooling quickly as we return to the mill around half past six o’clock. After such a long ride, the first steps feel slightly strange. I anticipate that I may not be able to move my legs tomorrow, but Heike hands out ferrum phosphoricum and magnesium tablets from Dr Schüssler’s biochemic cell salts range. She has found that, taken at intervals after physical exertion, they prevent sore muscles effectively. I am willing to give them a try. Sally mentions that riding a bike has been found beneficial not only for general muscle tone, but also for the hemispheres of the brain, as this activity stimulates and enhances their coordinated action. That sounds good too.

Supper is most welcome now! … Later, and much against my habits, I ask a member of the kitchen team if there is perhaps a piece of their daily (and always unbelievably wonderful) cake left over. I am shown to the shelf in the cooling chamber where a few remaining slices of exquisitely delicious-looking Sahnetorte await their fate – and promptly succeed in tipping the platter, spilling cream cake all over the floor. So much for coordinated action of the brain! Bang goes that theory … I am appalled at my clumsiness and the creamy mess now covering milk churns and tiles. Claudia and Heidi from the kitchen team shake their heads sorrowfully – the lovely cake! – but are very nice about the disaster and hand me all that is necessary to clear up and clean away. First, I scoop up those bits that may still be eaten by someone not concerned with food aesthetics (probably me), then wipe and scrub until every trace of the mishap is erased. That done, I retreat to my room with a last, sincere apology and a bowl heaped with the spongy, delicious, unfortunate mess, to ponder – and write about – another eventful day in my new life as a happy Workaway volunteer.


Iron Curtain’s Silver Lining

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Today, my new Workaway hosts have planned an outing to show me the area, and so we pile into a van and set out to Schnackenburg. It is the second-smallest town in Germany, numbering less than four hundred inhabitants, and located in Lüchow-Dannenberg by the Elbe River. More of those charming half-timbered houses line yet more cobbled streets, but there is no shop, no pharmacy, bank, post office or grocery store. And apart from us, there is not a soul to be seen. I am unused to such deserted settlements and wonder if it is the season, the day of the week or some unknown custom that keeps the German population from enlivening their streets. One thing is certain: It cannot be the weather, for today the sun is shining with all the force of an early spring.

Schnackenburg's Main Street

Schnackenburg’s Main Street

Once mysteriously called Snaakenborg, ‘City of Snakes’ in the Lower Saxon idiom, Schnackenburg found itself fenced in on three sides when Germany was divided by the Allied Powers. It was cornered by the Iron Curtain, so to speak, but its little harbour acquired a new importance as the last inland port of the West, with its customs facilities right on the border.



Incidentally, it seems that along this stretch of the river the exact location of the border between West and East Germany was disputed: the Federal Republic of Germany (West) saw it as running along the opposite riverbank, while the German Democratic Republic (East) placed it firmly at the centre of the waterway and secured the territory with twenty-four patrol boats.

GDR Border Patrol Boat

GDR Border Patrol Boat

Schnackenburg's now empty Harbour

Schnackenburg’s now empty Harbour

Previously, there were sometimes as many as twenty vessels berthed here, and people came from far and wide to gaze through binoculars at the communist border and its watchtowers. In those days, the commercial infrastructure of Schnackenburg was still intact, but since the reunification of Germany economic decline has sapped its life blood. Now that it is no longer a place for transferring cargo from one country to another, its little port is only used occasionally by sporty pleasure boats.

Grenzlandmuseum Schnackenburg

Grenzlandmuseum Schnackenburg

Schnackenburg’s Museum of the Border is still closed because it is not the tourist season yet. But outside its locked doors we can study panels that show its location on a map that traces the former border, as well as a long list naming those who died in their attempt to cross the fiercely guarded line. This border, to quote Wikipedia’s concise description, was “a physical manifestation of Winston Churchill’s metaphorical Iron Curtain that separated the Soviet and Western blocs during the Cold War. It marked the boundary between two ideological systems – democracy and single-party communism. Built by East Germany in phases from 1952 to the late 1980s, the fortifications were constructed to stop the large-scale emigration of East German citizens to the West, about 1,000 of whom are said to have died trying to cross it during its 45-year existence.”

"Our Remembrance includes all those who died or were injured as victims of the Inner German Border and the Berlin Wall."

“Our Remembrance includes all those who died or were injured as victims of the Inner-German Border and the Berlin Wall.”

In April 1956, lance-corporal Harry Moll of the billeted People’s Police dies of exhaustion after successfully swimming across the Elbe. – In August 1962, 15-year-old Gerd Knönenkamp is shot in his attempt to escape. – October 1963, in trying to cross the border, Bernhard Simon steps on a mine. His left leg is torn off and he dies while his brother drags him to western territory. – In June 1967, teacher Bärbel Elli Richter and her husband cross the Elbe with diving equipment, but she gets tangled in a fisher’s net near Schnackenburg and drowns. – In September of the same year, the townsfolk of Schnackenburg hear cries for help in the night. Four days later, the body of Manfred Hube is found, drowned. – A month later, Karl-Heinz Bösel drowns opposite Schnackenburg during his escape attempt. – In January 1969, Bernhard Wolfgang Zill crosses the Elbe successfully. He reaches the western riverbank but dies of hypothermia on his way to Schnackenburg. – A year later, in December, two schoolboys risk their lives in an escape attempt across the river: Rainer Bahlhorn (15) drowns in the icy water, while his friend Reinhard Bergunde (14) makes it to the other side and drags himself to the road, where he is saved … The list goes on.

It is still not certain how many victims the Iron Curtain claimed in Germany alone, for such incidents were kept secret by the GDR. (It was certainly not good for the image that one’s citizens would rather risk a grim death than go on living in the glorious Republic of Workers and Farmers.) The number of known cases in Germany increased from 197 in 1989 – the year the border was opened – to 916 by 1997, but more recent estimates put the real figure closer to 1,100 deaths.

By the River Elbe

By the River Elbe

The wide, peaceful flood plain with its glittering river gives no indication of the cruelty and the terror it was once part of. In this ideal habitat for water fowl, chattering congregations of ducks, wild geese and common cranes are celebrating the arrival of spring and preparing for another season of procreation. Their excited sounds accompany our walk, and we see them grazing in the meadows or circling in the sun-filled air. Trails of webbed footprints create delicate patterns on the river’s sandy banks. Rarer birds like sea-eagles and black storks are also drawn to the wetlands around Schnackenburg, now that they are nature reserves and wildlife sanctuaries.

Below the town, a little motor-powered ferry takes cars, cyclists and pedestrians across the river and connects the end of the road in Schnackenburg with a similar road on the other side.

The Ferry

The Ferry

Our crossing takes only a few minutes. The long spell of dry weather has reduced the water to an unusually low level, but dykes indicate the height to which the floodwaters of this great river will rise at times. I try to detect the direction of the Elbe’s flow, but in this wide plain it moves in a manner too sluggish to be perceptible. Heike points west-northwest. “It flows towards Hamburg, over there.”

Low Water Level

Low Water Level

Arrived on the other side, we enjoy a snack in the sunshine, sitting on the terrace of a little café that looks like – and probably is – a family enterprise run from the home. Cyclists interrupt their celebratory spring outings and arrive in twos and threes, hungry for generous helpings of delicious German cake. Now we wander along the crest of a dyke and enjoy the glorious day, the bare, watery landscape secretly preparing to cloak itself in green leaves, and the liveliness of the birds.

I had already noticed that, in the eastern part of Germany, the Elbe seems to be everywhere. I had crossed it on my way into Wittenberg, walked along its dykes in Woerlitz, and then traversed it in Dessau and again near Magdeburg on the road to my new destination in the Wendland, where it is once again a determining feature.

Museum Burg Lenzen

Hotel and Museum in the Fortress of Lenzen

We drive onwards into ‘the East’ and stop at the old fortress of Lenzen. A museum dealing with local history is now housed inside the magnificent old tower, and a large section of its exhibition concerns, unsurprisingly, the Elbe: that long, important waterway connecting the mountains of the Czech Republic with the German lowlands, with the major ports of Hamburg and Cuxhaven, and ultimately with the North Sea.

It is here that I learn about das Grüne Band – the Green Belt: It is the new name given to that particular strip of land which, as the former heavily-guarded border of the Eastern bloc, was out of bounds to everyone for forty years. Everyone, that is, except the border guards and their dogs. This barrier ran as a death strip of roughly 12,500 kilometres from the White Sea on the northern-most rim of the continent to the Black Sea in its south-east. Nevertheless, this terrible fence, watched over by guard towers and rigged with wires that would trigger instant blasts of expanding bullets, proved a blessing in its horrific disguise to the biosphere that thrived in the absence of human interference. It is true that large animals such as stags, red deer and wild boar occasionally triggered the automatic shooting system and bled to death in the glaring spotlight of the border guards that were summoned instantly by the alarm system – but plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and small mammals thrived during those decades in an eerily protected zone.


The Iron Curtain becomes the Green Belt

Now a society called BUND – Friends of the Earth Germany has taken on the task of protecting this unexpected silver lining of the Iron Curtain. As the metal fence and all its attendant paraphernalia were removed, a green belt varying between 50 and 200 metres in width remained. Linking nearly all the diverse natural habitats of the European Continent in a long, unbroken chain, it is home to many rare plants and animals. One can hike along trails or follow the Four Countries Bicycle Path to experience “the beauty of this landscape, as well as relicts of the grim history of this borderland”. – What an unexpected discovery: The former death strip has become a line of life!


A Stork’s Nest in Lenzen

Our way back to ‘the West’ takes us onwards to Dömitz and the only bridge across the river for many miles. But before crossing over, we walk around the old fortifications, built in the sixteenth century, and look down into the waterless moat where reeds are poking through the black sludge. The large redbrick buildings of the bastion are cracked and sagging.

In the little town, the local building style of timber frame and brickwork, tastefully decorated with carved lintels and doors, makes for a charming atmosphere in the small settlement, enhanced by a sense of being lost to the world. Dömitz, located on the east side of the river, is struggling to find its place in the open market economy. They have the bridge, and a fortress in need of large cash injections, but little else it seems. Yet entrepreneurial spirit is quietly budding in the spring sunshine. By the side of the parking lot two children, boy and girl, are playing unsupervised, just as we once did. They have been busy rummaging through a pile of building rubble and have extracted cheap-looking, thin glass tiles from the socialist era. These little rectangles of glass, cleaned and polished, are now set out in a neat row on the ground to capture the fancy of passers-by. With eager voices and trusting faces the children approach us, showing us samples of their merchandise in outstretched hands while outlining their business plan. Heike enters into negotiations and buys five of these historic souvenirs for 50 cents. The children are very pleased and return to their enterprise with renewed vigour, while we cross the bridge back into ‘the West’, each wrapped up in our own thoughts.


Sauntering through Salzwedel

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

What will I discover on my day trip to Salzwedel? It is not a place I have ever heard of, this small town at the north-western edge of Sachsen-Anhalt. Yet, like so many other little and little-known places in this region, it turns out to be full of interesting links to history.

Its name already tells a story. Since antiquity, valuable wares were transported over long distances at great cost and high risk to the merchants, for numerous tolls had to be paid and bands of brigands to be fought off. And so it was that only the most precious goods made such an enterprise worthwhile: silk and spices, for example, amber, silver and salt … In any Northern German place name, the ending ‘-wedel’ is synonymous with ‘ford’ (as in Dartford, Castleford, Stratford and Oxford) and points to locations where a river was fordable. In this case, it is the Jeetze River that was traversed by one of the old salters’ roads, along which the precious commodity of salt  Salz  travelled. It is the place where salt crossed the river: Salzwedel.

Here, a fortress watched over this trade route which extended from the salt mines in Halle to the great cities of the North-West, and undoubtedly levied a toll for the protection it offered. Albrecht the Bear of the House of Askania made this fortress, Burg Salzwedel, his temporary home in the twelfth century. He is regarded as the founder of the town, though an earlier settlement in this location is known to date back to the year 800. The fortress of ‘Soltwidele’ is mentioned in surviving documents as early as 1112, and Salzwedel as a town for the first time in 1233. Thirty years later, it is already a member of the Hanse, that powerful union of German tradesmen. (The Hanseatic League was an early insurance scheme founded to protect the guild by spreading the risks of trade while sharing the profits. It also represented and defended the members’ interests abroad and soon became not only a commercial, but also a political influence of the first order, as well as an important cultural factor.)

New Town, founded 1247

Houses of the ‘New Town’ that was founded in 1247

Medieval Alleys

Medieval alleys, beautifully restored …

Gone are the horse-drawn carriages

… but where are the ox-carts and horse-drawn carriages?

But not all was well, as is usually the case when many souls are living together: Salzwedel’s protective ring wall enclosed a divided town. Old Town and New Town (‘new’ meaning it was founded as late as 1247) indulged in a love-hate relationship at close quarters for nearly five hundred years, their rivalry making two town halls and two mayors necessary, as well as separate churches, schools and town gates. A part of the ring wall and two of the old gates remain, but the division was overcome.

Old Town Gate

Steintor, Old Town Gate

However, it was not until 1713 that these segregated communities became one; not by choice, but by royal decree. Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia ordered – which means forced – the two halves to unite to what became known as Hansestadt Salzwedel.

Half-timbered Houses

Half-timbered Houses

This interesting fact is not apparent to the visitor. Instead, one notices the rows of beautifully restored half-timbered houses, with their delicate colours and variations in the pattern of beams, brickwork and doorways.

Redbrick Patterns

Redbrick Patterns

Timber Frame Patterns

Timber-Frame Patterns

Almost life-sized figures, headed by the date 1600, are carved with artistic energy into the woodwork, while carefully lettered verses run along the main beams of house fronts and remind readers of the temporary nature of life, or beseech the Lord for protection from fire.

Carved Beams

Carved Beams

Some buildings even go back to the 1500s. One is in effect walking through medieval alleys here, but without the filth and stench. All is clean and neat and attractive, and strangely bare of people on this Wednesday afternoon. The population of Salzwedel is clearly not in the habit of strolling or loitering.

'Anno Domini 1566 An Kroger'

‘Anno Domini 1566 An Kroger’

An immaculate stretch of new cobblestones is laid out in a quiet lane, still without the filling. The chunky, square pieces of granite fan out in delicate curves with organic regularity, like a pattern found in nature.

German Roadworks

Traditional Cobblestone Roadworks

In a peaceful square of the former Old Town, partly lined by ancient lime trees, the Marienkirche points its spire at the sky. Its slightly crooked tower is the emblem of Salzwedel. Local legend tells of Jan Kahl, a giant, who lived beyond the forest and was angered when the tower was completed (about 1496) and reached beyond eighty metres in height. He was used to being the tallest landmark around and meant to teach those tiny, impertinent humans a lesson by hurling an erratic boulder. It missed the tower, but the turbulence of air and the tremor of earth as it crashed to the ground caused the spire to quake and lose its former perfect uprightness … Unsurprisingly, though, experts remain convinced that the tower’s crookedness stems from deficient trusses.

Seen from this angle, the spire leans towards the viewer

Seen from this angle, the spire bends slightly towards the viewer

Today, the Marienkirche is a historic monument, a national treasure and a fine example of the Redbrick Gothic style that dominates the North-German Plain, since there has always been a dearth of natural building stones in this area.



From around 1200 it was constantly altered and rebuilt for three centuries, finally emerging in 1550 as the gothic basilica with five naves we see today, and remaining essentially unaltered in its architectural substance. A wonderful tripartite altarpiece by an unknown master was put up in 1510. It is the largest in the Altmark and shows scenes from the life and death of Christ in thirty-one panels, intricately carved from wood.

Scenes from the Life of Christ, His Death and Resurrection

The Altarpiece

A Renaissance baptismal font in bronze by Hans von Köln was added in 1522. It was designed so that the water could be heated to a pleasant degree, and infants would not shrink back and cry at the very moment of being received into the holy faith.

Baptismal Font

Baptismal Font

1541 is presumed to be the year the congregation adopted the new Lutheran evangelical faith. Before the Reformation did away with such fripperies, the church had accommodated twenty-eight side altars and services often went on simultaneously in different parts of the huge interior. Large numbers of priests were employed to hold masses in rotation, masses donated by individuals, by families or fraternities; and sometimes processions took place while the townsfolk met and worshipped. This lively usage of a great church I should have liked to witness, as a glimpse of the life of past times … The building, though magnificent, seems incomplete without attenders.

In the mid-seventeen hundreds, the prolific and highly-regarded organ builder Joachim Wagner installed a baroque organ. It was to be his last  he died before it was finished. One of his pupils completed the instrument, but it did not survive into our times. Only the original, baroque organ prospect remains and now fronts a more contemporary instrument.

The Organ

Joachim Wagner’s Organ Prospect

The Marienkirche survived both World Wars without damage, but had to sacrifice its bells to the armaments industry. Never before had I realized that bullets or cannons were sometimes cast from church bells, in a perverse reversal of swords being converted to ploughshares … I also learn that in the Second World War, the melting down of the nation’s church bells slyly served the purpose of silencing the powerful voice of Christian religion with its inopportune commandment ‘thou shalt not kill’ – under the pretext of urgently needed metal reserves. But the speed with which those bells were later replaced shows how important their ringing remained to the people. Here, too, the full set of six bells has long since been restored. More food for thought can be found in the fact that the youngest of these bells is named Shalom – the Hebrew word for peace.

Near the church, I find the house where the noble family von Westphalen welcomed the birth of daughter Jenny in 1814. Her father was the well-connected district administrator of Salzwedel, but she became more widely known as the wife of Karl Marx. At the age of seventeen, Jenny declined a suitable offer of marriage and later became secretly engaged to Marx, who, four years her junior and the son of a provincial lawyer, was not a good match for a baron’s daughter. Their engagement, reluctantly accepted by her family, was to last for seven years (while Marx matured in pursuing his studies abroad) and they were finally married in June 1843, after a decent period of mourning her father’s death. In Jenny, Karl Marx had found a supportive partner in his struggle for a new world order. Despite her pampered childhood and privileged upbringing, she followed him into penury and a restless and self-sacrificing life, faithful to the end.

Jenny Marx's House

Jenny Marx’s Birthplace

To his grief, she predeceased him: “The letters of condolence I have received (…) are all animated with a spirit of truthfulness and profound feeling in honour of Möhmchen, as is seldom the case in such conventional statements. I explain this with the fact that everything about her was natural and truthful, unselfconscious, never artificial; therefore also her impression on others lively, full of light. Even Frau Hess writes: ‘In her, Nature has destroyed her own masterpiece, for in my whole life I have never met with such a brilliant and loving woman.’”

Their youngest daughter, Eleanor Marx, observed, “It is no exaggeration to say that, without Jenny von Westphalen, Karl Marx could never have been what he was. They were perfectly matched and completed each other (…) And I believe that a tie as strong as their commitment to the cause of the working class bound them – their inexhaustible, indestructible humour.”

Friedrich Engels, long-term friend and comrade, also mourned her loss: “What such a woman, with a keen, critical mind, with such political tact, with such energy and passion of character, with such commitment to her comrades, has accomplished in our movement over almost forty years – that has not penetrated into the public awareness; it is not written in the annals of the contemporary press. It had to be witnessed personally. (…) We shall often enough have reason to miss her bold and clever advice – bold without boastfulness, clever without ever being dishonourable.”

Jenny Marx remains, of all the sons and daughters of Salzwedel, undoubtedly the most impressive  yet I had never even heard of her! But there is still more to learn, this time about a local delicacy:

Salzwedel produces a kind of cake that resembles a slice of tree trunk when cut and is therefore called Baumkuchen, ‘tree cake’. Salzwedeler Baumkuchen has been served at banquets of the European nobility for about a hundred and fifty years to date. It is sold in bakeries specializing in its manufacture, for it requires a large spit-like revolving cylinder on which the batter is brushed and baked in those thin, even layers that give the effect of year rings when cut.

Baumkuchen Bakery

Baumkuchen Bakery

Usually, this ‘trunk’ is made up of fifteen to twenty layers of batter and can be three to four feet in length. It tastes blandly sweet, with a hint of vanilla, and is also sold in various cut shapes, glazed with fondant, covered in white or dark chocolate, or as an uncut trunk, sprinkled with decorative sugar flowers for special events.

Imbued with new impressions and the sweet flavour of bakery products, I leave Salzwedel behind. The road towards Bergen soon passes a large sign commemorating its intersection with the line along which Germany, and Europe, had been divided by the Iron Curtain until November 10, 1989, at midnight.

The former Border

The former Border

Salzwedel, in close proximity to this heavily guarded border, served as base for the helicopter squadron of the GDR’s border control force. Yet its location also exposed it to radio waves and TV news from the West, and it easily received those rays of information that poked holes in the dense veil of a dictatorial government’s … ahem … miscommunication.

What an interesting day this has been!

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Holidays in Bergwitz

Tucked away in a quiet corner of the German federal state of Sachsen-Anhalt, the little village of Bergwitz pursues, in contemplative fashion, its daily business. Traditional, cobbled streets are lined by rows of large trees and low houses, a typical brickwork church raises its square spire, and a smattering of shops tentatively explores individual entrepreneurship. Annexed to the Eastern Bloc, this part of the country lived the socialist dream behind the Iron Curtain for forty years, and therefore these rural areas remain still largely free from the blight of commercialism; though much catching up has been done in all urban centres since Germany’s reunification. It is an unusual place to choose for a holiday, and certainly one even your most widely-travelled friends will not be familiar with. Yet there is much to recommend a visit:

The nearest town, a short drive of fifteen minutes away, is Lutherstadt Wittenberg, famous for being the cradle of the Reformation. (See my related blog post ‘Wittenberg’ for a brief summary of this dramatic twist in history.) The first-rate museum in the former Augustinian Monastery where Martin Luther worked with friends and lived with his family is definitely worth a visit. The Castle Church with Luther’s tomb, the Town Church and other buildings are at present being spruced up for the approaching 500-year anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.

Wittenberg's Flower Festival in May

Wittenberg’s Flower Festival in May

Horse Carriage Tours in Wittenberg

Horse Carriage Tours in Wittenberg

Along the old high street of Wittenberg, strung out between the two churches and Luther’s house, there are restaurants and shops, as well as all kinds of Luther merchandise. Haus der Geschichte is a museum dedicated to daily life in the German Democratic Republic and the lifestyle of the mid-twentieth century in general – a treasure trove for sociologists. Melanchthon House tells the story of Luther’s friend and main supporter, the Antiquariat will delight lovers of old books, and the Cranach House has a historic Druckerstube (print shop) in its beautifully restored yard. The craftsman who set up his workshop here has gorgeous prints and cards for sale, traditional tools and typefaces on display, and interesting tales to tell of the painters Lucas Cranach and son and their commercial enterprises in print-making.

Traditional Print Workshop

Traditional Print Workshop

The bustling city of Leipzig is about an hour distant and of world-class distinction. Its cultural, historical and commercial palette is thrilling to explore (see also my blog post ‘Leipzig’). For those keen to venture further afield, Dresden and Berlin are also within easy reach, as well as the Dutch baroque castle of Oranienbaum and the World Heritage Site Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm (see my blog posts describing the last two).

Wood-Carving Artists

Wood-Carving Artists

A pleasing mix of the delights of both culture (as mentioned above) and nature (as described below) is available to those who spend their holidays in Bergwitz:

In this floodplain of the River Elbe, open-pit mining for brown coal marred the landscape during the first half of the twentieth century, pockmarking its flat surface with deep craters and heaps of slag that were dug up and moved on conveyor belts to form low hills. But in the end, irrepressible Mother Nature won game, set and match by drowning the pits in quickly rising groundwater. Abandoned, their ugly craters transformed themselves into lovely lakes, their shining surfaces mirroring the changing light and fringes of reeds growing around their rim. The little lake of Bergwitz is one of them, and its clear water is of excellent quality for swimming. Light woodlands of acorn, birch and fir spread over the hillocks of heaped-up earth, and this appealing habitat attracts much wildlife.

Regatta, Lake Bergwitz

Regatta, Lake Bergwitz

These days, it also attracts people who seek rest and recreation in a simple, down-to-earth style, away from noisy nightlife and drunken crowds. The flat land is criss-crossed by a net of traffic-free cycling paths (easy on the legs and ideal for children) that skirt these lakes and lead through those light woodlands.

Bicycle Path from Woerlitz to Dessau

Bicycle Path from Woerlitz to Dessau

Swimming, paddling, rowing, sailing, hiking and bird-watching are other typical pursuits for those in search of peaceful summer holidays. A secluded campsite on the shores of Bergwitz Lake is popular and comes alive in the summer months.

More comfortable than camping is, of course, a holiday flat. Zechenhaus on the shore of Bergwitz Lake offers accommodation to families in a private setting. Its idyllic location and amiable hosts make it an excellent choice for visitors who are looking for a fully equipped home base from which to explore the area. Click to see pictures of two self-contained flats, the garden area and details of accommodation, rates and booking information. Looking ahead to the year 2017, when Wittenberg will be overrun with visitors for the anniversary of the Reformation, it may be worthwhile to consider a stay in the peaceful countryside nearby, and to dip into events in town from a distance.

Zechenhaus in February

Zechenhaus in February

Garden Area of Holiday Flat

Garden Area of Holiday Flat

I have been staying as a Workaway volunteer with Michael and Annette at their home in the Zechenhaus and can recommend this location and its friendly hosts. As members of the free evangelical Jesusgemeinde Wittenberg, they are active Christians and would be especially happy to welcome like-minded visitors. Annette is always keen to improve her already fluent English and will be pleased to chat with you. She will also advise you on anything you may need help with in a foreign country, such as public transport for example. Michael has compiled an interesting folder of aerial photographs of the region and can help with directions to places worth visiting.

Annette and Michael, your friendly hosts

Annette and Michael, your friendly hosts

My stay in the winter season did not allow me to make the most of the lake, but long walks along the shore path were refreshing even in February. The sky was overcast and the water shimmered in bands of grey, some light, some dark. Bare trees wove a filigree of dark branches over the water’s surface; a flock of sparrows pecked at seed pods and fluttered in a twittering cloud. The sun pushed through the haze and cast a sheen over the mirroring lake, caught in the reeds along the edge … For those who like to sketch or paint landscapes, this wonderful little lake certainly makes a captivating subject.

Lake Bergwitz in February

Lake Bergwitz in February

Sunrise on the Lake

Sunrise on the Lake

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Saturday, 22 February 2014

Today’s excursion to Leipzig begins with a walk through silent pine woods to the tiny local train station, where a ticket vending machine snatches my twenty-euro bill with unexpected vigour, as if to prevent me from changing my mind. The slogan “GEGEN NAZIS!!!” (against Nazis) catches my eye. The large letters of this forceful statement have been drawn carefully with a broad brush and lime green paint, underscoring the station’s name panels. It is just before nine o’clock, and a peaceful Saturday morning until a scruffy youngster comes along with a device in the pocket of his trousers that are hanging at half-mast, emitting blaring sounds that can be called music only in the loosest sense of the word: they resemble a cacophony of hammers striking metal planks and give the impression that a clanking factory accompanies his strides. All eyes on the platform follow as he huddles in the shelter opposite the tracks.

The train is scheduled for 08.54. Cold wind and the youth’s intrusive machinery-noises make the wait unpleasant, but it is of short duration. At 08.53 precisely, the train from Wittenberg glides into the station. Five people board, and exactly on time we depart, heading for Leipzig, leaving the youngster and his sound factory behind. I study the German passengers – their faces, their dress, their gestures – and my impression is that, unless they speak, they are pretty much indistinguishable from the population of Britain. Each type, every temperament and expression could be matched with an exact counterpart somewhere in the soggy kingdom, I’m sure.

Outside the windows the wide plain flies past, punctuated by marshes, copses of birch and fir woods, fields and raised deer-watching hutches, and also by artificial lakes that filled up the open pits of former brown-coal mines. Glades of wind turbines and acres of solar panels can be seen at times. Run-down and bricked-up station buildings, redundant in this age of ticket machines, are covered in colourful sprayers’ tags. Long, bleached grass grows over abandoned tracks; brick walls crumble. A bleak look of neglect hangs about these small, rural settlements and makes our arrival at the terminus, nearly an hour later, all the more stunning. For Leipzig’s main station is one of the largest in Europe; a magnificent stone edifice dating from the turn of the last century, its interior elegantly modernized. Below the tracks, shopping arcades are lined with international brand names. Spotless public toilets, supervised by a friendly cleaner on duty, stand to attention for one euro.

It is not immediately apparent which exit will take me towards the old town, so I approach a young couple to make enquiries. They interrupt their private conversation willingly and point me in the right direction. It strikes me anew that whenever I have dealings with members of the German public, be they shop assistants, museum staff or strangers in the street, their manner is always a touch more genuinely pleasant than is commonly expected and strictly necessary. Their educated friendliness, their heartfelt desire to be helpful surprises and moves me every time. This is totally unlike the German image as it is commonly portrayed in the Anglophone world.

Now I walk along wide, cobbled city streets into the peaceful pedestrian zone, taking care not to collide with the cyclists that sometimes zoom noiselessly around corners. Leipzig is indeed a grand old town, its inner circle stuffed to the brim with things of historic interest. My first goal is the Nikolaikirche, a Protestant church with several claims to fame: Luther, Bach, the ‘Monday Demonstrations’ …

Church of St Nicholas

I take advantage of the guided tour that is about to begin. A fair-sized group of visitors has come together to learn about this church, and we are fortunate in our guide who has a witty and well-informed mind. From him we learn that Leipzig began around the year 900 as a Slavic settlement on a slight elevation in the difficult and unattractive swampland of three rivers, but owed its quick rise to importance to the fact that two Roman main roads, the Via Regia and the Via Imperii, crossed here and linked the four directions of the compass to a centre of brisk trade. In 1165 Libzi, ‘Place of the Linden Trees’, was granted the state of a free market town, and at the same time the city fathers dedicated their new parish church to St Nicholas, patron saint of traders. This church of the citizenry soon acquired a rival in the Church of St Thomas, built as part of the local Augustinian Monastery, and their uneasy relationship became tenser still during the time of the Reformation, when the Church of St Nicholas welcomed Luther’s ideas and embraced the new Evangelical faith in 1539. The pulpit Luther preached from is preserved and can be seen in a side chapel.

The Church of St Nicholas underwent the same sequence of transformations that characterizes so many important edifices of the times: It grew from Romanesque beginnings and eventually was extended as a Gothic hall church. For the time span of a generation, the citizens of Leipzig only knew their church as a building site, and they worshipped inside a tent-like structure while the church walls around them were removed and remodelled. Almost three thousand people are said to have attended the first mass once renovation was complete. (Our guide points out that Sunday Service in those days lasted from half-past seven to eleven o’clock in the morning.)

Then the 18th century came along, eager to leave its baroque mark. The prosperous and independent-minded citizens of Leipzig wished to demonstrate their high cultural standard and invited their master town architect Dauthe to remodel the entire interior of their church to prove it. From 1784 to 1797 St Nikolai was once again a building site, until the nave emerged as one of the most original creations of German classicism; light and fresh as a piece of exquisite confectionery, richly ornamented with floral motives and decorated in icing sugar colours: white, signifying innocence; pink for the apple blossom; and light green – symbolic of the Garden of Eden. Its double row of pillars was designed to resemble palm trees, with fronds and fruit growing freely from their tops. Nothing Gothic remained.

Church of St Nicholas

Interior of St Nicholas Church

Among churches, St Nikolai is unusual in other ways too, as our guide now explains: The building sits level with the ground, inviting anyone who passes in the street to step inside without making him climb to a symbolically higher level via the habitual series of steps. Inside, one meets the opposite of the hushed atmosphere in catholic churches, dimly illuminated by colourful stained-glass images; for these tall windows let in the clear, rational light of day unaltered, as befits the Age of Enlightenment. No statues of saints, no worship of the Madonna either – only a beautifully crafted candle stand of wrought iron in the central aisle, bearing forty lights. According to our guide, in a biblical context the number forty always points to the difficulties of achieving communication with God: Forty days in the desert, or even forty years … In harmony with Luther’s impulse, it is a building dedicated to the conscious responsibility for one’s faith, to the word of the scripture and to music that elevates the soul, and it had the outrageously good fortune to be the place where several of Bach’s great works were performed for the very first time.

Unusual, however, doesn’t end there: A cycle of thirty large paintings by Adam Friedrich Oeser (town architect Dauthe’s teacher) depicts scenes from the New Testament, showing Christ as teacher of mankind and miracle-working Son of God. Images of this kind are certainly not part of other Evangelical churches. Unusual is also the fact that the altar space is not out of bounds to the public. One may wander freely in this hallowed area, otherwise strictly reserved for the clergy, and view the fine artworks displayed there.

Altar of St Nicholas Church

A roughly fashioned, large wooden cross stands to one side of the altar. Although it is built according to the original Roman pattern for such instruments of torture and looks ancient, we learn that it was commissioned only at the beginning of the 1980s by the pastor and used in his regular meetings with young people. This cross was laid on the floor of the altar space, and everyone sat around it in gatherings that grew steadily over time. Here, the young citizens of the German Democratic Republic – deprived, restricted, patronized and spied on by their one-party state – could for once freely express their thoughts and feelings and not be met with a brusque “Halt’s Maul!” – Shut up! Those same two words were uttered habitually by nearly all their concerned, frightened or subdued parents and teachers, for in the ‘Socialist Paradise of Workers and Farmers’, speaking one’s mind was dangerous and not encouraged. But in the unusual sanctuary of this church (barely tolerated by the state), they could speak out after having placed a lit tea light on the beams of the cross, and here their voices were heard. Darkness fell outside as the evening wore on, but inside the light grew on the beams of the cross in their middle.

All during this decade, the peace prayers in the Nikolaikirche increased in momentum. The congregation was swelled by many who would never normally have attended a service. Yet in the troubled last days of the GDR, this church became the centre of their peaceful protests. Despite blocked access streets, random arrests and vicious brutality by the state police, the Monday Demonstrations continued and grew in size. On October 7, 1989, the GDR celebrated its forty-year anniversary with great pomp. While the ruling party admired a parade of their proud class of workers, TV channels of the West showed crowds of GDR citizens chanting, “Wir wollen raus!” – We want to leave! The Russian president Michail Gorbatchov, attending the celebrations, made it clear that the Red Army would not get involved. The Hungarians had already cut a hole into the Iron Curtain along their border with Austria, and now Germans from the East used it to escape. Hundreds of others were holed up in embassies, demanding the freedom to travel across the barbed-wire border. The eyes of the world were focused on Erich Honecker’s dictatorial regime, and all waited with bated breath for the bloody massacre that was to come. Only five months earlier, the Chinese government had crushed an uprising of its young people on Tiananmen Square, and the images were still in everyone’s mind. But then something unexpected happened. What could have led to a civil war became Die Wende, the turning-point.

A former member of the Central Committee admitted before his death: “We had planned everything. We were prepared for everything. But not for candles and prayers.” – Although articles in the press had threatened the ruthless use of armed forces to put out this ‘counter-revolution’, more people than ever assembled in the Nikolaikirche on that Monday evening, October 9, 1989. Among them were a thousand party members and state security forces with orders to fill up the church and crowd out the congregation. Thus they too heard the words of the gospel, the message of peace, the Sermon on the Mount … The bishop ended with his blessing and the urgent call for non-violence; written messages of solidarity from the director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra and others were read out. There was an atmosphere of intense calm and focus. In the words of Pastor Christian Führer: “And as we, more than two thousand people, were leaving our church – I shall never forget the sight – there were ten thousands waiting outside in the square. They had candles in their hands. And to carry a candle one needs both hands. One has to shield the light, protect it from extinguishing. One cannot carry a stone or a club at the same time. And the miracle happened. The Spirit of Jesus, of non-violence, took hold of the masses and became a peaceful force. Members of the army, the combat groups and the police became involved, engaged in conversation and withdrew. (…) Not a single shop window was smashed. An incredible experience of the power of non-violence.”

Nobody could have foreseen the speed with which the Socialist One-Party State crumbled, turned to dust and blew away on the winds of history. The most fiercely guarded border in the world was dismantled in record time and Germany became one nation once more. – An exact replica of one of the church’s pillars now stands outside in the square, its startling appearance a fitting reminder of these events.

Memorial Pillar

A short walk takes me to the Church of St Thomas. What does it have to offer, in terms of historical events, to equal its great rival? Quite a bit, it seems: The famed University of Leipzig, second-oldest of German universities after Heidelberg, was founded in 1409 in the Monastery of St Thomas. From 1723 to his death in 1750, Johann Sebastian Bach was Cantor in Leipzig, and though the city fathers employed him chiefly for their Church of St Nicholas, he lived and worked at St Thomas and led the boy’s choir. In 1789, Mozart passed through Leipzig and played the organ in this church; oh, to have been a fly on the wall then!

Church of St Thomas

In the following Napoleonic Wars, St Thomas was used first as an ammunitions store and then as a military hospital. In the meantime, Bach’s music had sunk into oblivion and he was remembered mostly as a great player and teacher of music. But in 1829, the young Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy initiated a revival of Bach’s reputation with a performance of the Passion of St Matthew in Berlin. A performance of the same work was heard in this church in 1841, and the inauguration of a Bach Memorial followed two years later. His coffin had lain in an unmarked grave of the Old St John’s Cemetery for nearly a hundred and fifty years, but was found in 1894 and transferred to a vault inside St John’s. When that church was destroyed in the Second World War, Bach’s remains were moved for a second time.

Bach's Epitaph

They lie under a bronze epitaph in the sanctuary, his name now firmly wedded to the church of St Thomas, while a simple bust of the great composer is all that marks his link to the Church of St Nicholas. In 2008, Mendelssohn’s memorial was restored, the original having been destroyed by the Nazis. (They had also done away with the exceedingly large and prosperous Jewish community of Leipzig, historically connected with the city’s fur trade of international renown and a close rival to that other centre of the fur trade, London.)

I emerge into daylight, holding my quota of research fulfilled. There is still so much to see and study, but one would need more than a brief day-visit to do it all justice. At every crossing, sign posts offer new attractive suggestions, but now I just amble along in the splendid sunshine and view the buildings.

Market Square

City Skyscraper

Bold, modern architecture intermingles with impressive historical styles. On the one hand, there is the opulent Ratshaus, the city hall, a Renaissance castle looking like something out of fairy-tale or legend. On the other, there is a mountain of glass facets, a crystal-like edifice that is in fact the venerable University of Leipzig in its newest incarnation.

Ratshaus, the City Hall

University of Leipzig

Another eye-catching piece of modern architecture, rising phoenix-like from a former bomb site, is the Gewandhaus, home to the orchestra of international renown.


In the square a great teacher, cast in bronze, raises his hand in a lecturing pose, and in it some spirited student (I assume) has placed a drinks can which fits perfectly between his fingers and connects him effortlessly to the present day.

Past and Present

This irreverent spirit seems to thrive amongst the august historical monuments of Leipzig. I detect no sign of stuffiness, of careful clinging to the weight of a great past. A double-edged advertising slogan illustrates this: “Für jeden Arsch ‘ne Hose,” it shouts gleefully and concisely – for every bum the right pants!

With tired feet and limbs nipped by the cold wind I make my way to Auerbachs Keller. The subterranean vault is decorated with fresco scenes from Goethe’s ‘Faust’, and in the foyer its story is told across several illustrated pin boards. A hot drink and a piece of ‘Mephisto Torte’ are most welcome at this point.

Auerbachs Keller

I ponder that as tourists we are happy enough with an approximation in the experience of historical events, locations and remains; that names, and the mental image of events linked with them, are usually sufficient to conjure up a feeling of having stepped into a magic circle of the past. It is certainly the case here, in this restaurant that – although it still bears the same name – is not the actual site of the drinking hole the young Goethe frequented as a student and commemorated in his epic play. Nor is it entirely certain that the mortal remains buried in St Thomas’s Church are actually those of Bach himself: the experts are only ‘highly’ certain. But does it matter? It seems to me that these memorial places serve as springboards to their significance, as points of connection charged with an energized interest that remains unmatched by Wikipedia.

Goethe as a Student in Leipzig

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Thursday, 20 February 2014

Today I visit Wittenberg for some sightseeing. Unfortunately, the Castle Church is currently encased in scaffolding and closed to the public because it is getting a thorough makeover for the approaching 500-year anniversary of the Reformation.

Castle Church, in renovation

Still visible behind the fence surrounding the building site is the famous church door on which Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses. These days, we see a bronze door that dates from 1858 and commemorates the original, devoured by fire in the Seven Years’ War.

The commemorative Theses Door

At the moment, Luther’s tomb inside the church is only accessible via a guided tour while the builders take a break. I choose to visit his house instead, situated at the other end of the street that runs the length of the old town.

Wittenberg's Town Square with Statues of Luther & Melanchthon

Former Augustine Monastery, Luther's Home

This former Augustine monastery where he once lived has been turned into an attractive museum, and soon I am reading my way into Luther’s life, his beliefs, his work and the history of the Reformation. It is a gripping story full of dramatic twists, and if it had been told as such at school I would probably have retained a clearer memory of the facts as they are presented here:

Wittenberg, the town most intimately connected with Luther’s life and work, rises to importance in the late fifteenth century with the building of a new, improved wooden bridge across the River Elbe. It facilitates the trade between east and west, and the Elector Friedrich III of Saxony, known as ‘The Wise’, chooses to extend his residence in the town. He has the gloomy old castle converted to a splendid palace in the new Renaissance style, and since his silver mines in the Erzgebirge yield abundant riches, the best artists from all over Germany are hired to decorate it. Attached to the castle is the new Schlosskirche, the Castle Church, consecrated in 1499, just before the turn of the century. Here, the pious elector displays his collection of roughly five thousand holy relics. (Footnote: Electors were the ruling four princes and three archbishops of the various German realms that made up the Holy Roman Empire. Together, they elected an emperor to be crowned by the pope. There was no such thing as a German nation yet.)

Wittenberg's Old Town

Three years later, Wittenberg’s importance increases further with the founding of a university. One of its professors will be the eminent humanist Philipp Schwarzerdt, also known as Melanchthon. He shall become a close friend of Luther’s, as well as one of his main supporters. Wittenberg is now a town on the upswing; new houses are built and further floors added to the old ones to accommodate the influx of students, and the Castle Church is at the heart of the all-important religious life of the times.

Town Hall with Luther Memorial

The scene is set: Enter Martin Luther. He becomes first a student and then a doctor of theology in Wittenberg. Living the life of an Augustine monk, he is intimately familiar with Catholicism and its rules, and his experience of monastic life has already raised certain doubts in his keen mind. But it is the widespread use of ‘indulgences’ that makes him spiritually uncomfortable: Why should the congregation be ordered to buy forgiveness for their sins from the Holy Roman Church, he asks himself, when Jesus Christ already purchased that forgiveness with his blood on the cross? This money-spinning operation, transparently masked with threats of eternal hellfire, raises a question that begs discussion.

He is thirty-one years of age in 1514, the year he receives the mandate to hold sermons regularly at the Castle Church. In 1517, Luther begins to preach against indulgence payments publicly, voicing his doubts from the pulpits of both Castle and Town Church. But this is not far-reaching enough, and so he takes action: On the 31st October 1517, the banging of Luther’s hammer becomes the starting gun to a process that will soon be known as the Reformation, when he nails his ninety-five theses to the great wooden door of the Castle Church in the manner used for all public announcements. Lacking a facebook wall and a blog, he resorts to this coarse yet effective method of publicizing his thoughts – in Latin of course – so that his learned colleagues and students may appreciate his reasoning.

“He who takes to heart the words ‘Anyone who believes in me …’ has no reason to fear the Last Judgement.” This quote, in essence, is the reason why Luther is convinced that Rome is wrong to deal in indulgences. “The gospel is so clear that it does not need much interpretation, but wants to be carefully looked at and deeply taken to heart.”

His words fall on fruitful ground. The ninety-five theses cause a tremendous stir, a sensation. Luther reported later that “the theses circulated in no more than a fortnight through the whole of Germany.”  This in an age that is wholly without telecommunications, where messages travel no quicker than the fastest available horse can run. Martin Luther is so convinced that the Vatican must and will mend its ways, he even sends a copy of his theses to the archbishop. And Archbishop Albrecht loses no time in conveying them by mule across the Alps to Rome, for there is a strong scent of heresy clinging to these papers. Pope Leo X in his turn immediately orders a trial of the pesky preacher. (One can imagine his sentiments when he sees the lucrative stream of income from the widely used indulgences under threat.)

In the meantime, Luther makes no secret of the fact that he can no longer believe in the infallibility of the pope. His Holiness is severely displeased, threatens Luther with excommunication and issues a ‘papal bull’ (an edict, not an animal) which announces: “We earnestly ask that Martinus himself and his supporters, adherents and accomplices desist completely within sixty days from the aforesaid errors, and burn or have burnt all books and writings which contain these errors.”

Luther, as the saying goes, is skating on very thin ice. (Only a hundred years earlier, in 1415, Jan Hus had been burnt at the stake, together with his writings, for criticizing the greedy ways of the clergy.) But he charges ahead regardless, and instead of burning his publications as instructed, he sets fire to the papal bull. Things come to a head. In Wittenberg, Luther’s close friend, the artist, printmaker, entrepreneur and apothecary Lucas Cranach (the Elder) illustrates the Life of Christ with thirteen pairs of pictures that demonstrate the unchristian behaviour of the pope. This kind of early cartoon allows an illiterate majority of the population to grasp the explosive nature of the dispute, for Luther now equates the pope with the Antichrist, of whom Psalm 21:10 declares, “He strives to burn all those who are against him”.

It is due to patient and diplomatic negotiations by the wise Elector of Saxony that Martin Luther gets a hearing before the young Emperor Karl V – certainly not the usual practice. And so, in 1521, Luther travels to Worms, where the German imperial estates meet in a kind of high court, presided over by the emperor as supreme judge. It is confidently expected by all that this lowly, loud-mouthed preacher will recognize the honour granted him by being received in this august circle, and that he will speedily recant under the pressure of expectation, the possibility of excommunication and the likelihood of execution.

Martin Luther

Martinus, as the pope calls him, is indeed under no illusion concerning the crucial importance of this trial. His faith, his reputation and his life are at stake; and so it is quite understandable that he asks for a day’s grace to consider his answer. This is granted, and when everyone has reconvened the next day, Luther declares – according to witnesses in a quiet, thoughtful voice – that he is unable to change his mind; for he feels himself bound by the words of the holy scripture he has cited and holds his conscience to be a captive of the Word of God; therefore he can and will not recant, because it is dangerous and impossible to go against one’s conscience. “May God help me. Amen,” he ends.

Once again his words cause a tremendous stir throughout the German realms. Luther’s courageous stance is reported far and wide in hastily printed flyers. That an individual dares to offer resistance to the supreme authority of emperor and church by calling on the authority of his own conscience – this is indeed a new step in the development of mankind. And this new step is in step with the times: In view of the great public sympathy for Luther’s cause, the diet refrains from condemning him outright. Nevertheless, Emperor Karl V issues the following edict to all his subjects: “We strictly order that you shall refuse to give Martin Luther hospitality, lodging, food or drink; neither shall anyone, by word or deed, secretly or openly succour or assist him by counsel and help. But wherever you may meet him, to take him prisoner and deliver him to us. Furthermore we command that none of you dare to buy, sell, read, keep, copy, print or cause copies or prints of any writings by Martin Luther.”

A tiny nod of clemency can be read into the fact that he only signs this missive after Luther and his protector have already left. Nevertheless, the emperor’s edict is law and Luther now an outcast, but the Elector of Saxony is fond of his troublesome professor of theology and does not wish to lose him. So – what to do with this thorn in the side of the Holy Roman Catholic Church? The elector hatches a plan. He arranges to have Luther kidnapped on his way back from Worms and has him taken to the Wartburg castle, where he can be kept safe, in secret.

Rumours spread that Luther may no longer be alive. Only a few close friends, such as Melanchthon and Cranach, know of his whereabouts. In his enforced seclusion, Luther develops a passion for writing. He sets down his opinion on monastic vows and the Latin mass (unfavourable in both cases) and writes a helpful and instructive collection of sermons for pastors. In record time he also translates the New Testament from the original Greek into German, and because existing words and phrases do not always suit the purpose, he creates new ones that are still in use today (just as a certain William Shakespeare will do a few decades later). The manuscript of this, Luther’s most successful and influential book, is completed in only eleven weeks, to be published in Wittenberg in September 1522 in an edition of over three thousand copies. No more than three months later a second – and already revised – edition, illustrated by his friend Cranach, is released to meet the great demand for a good bible in the common tongue. (There had been other attempts at translation before and bibles in the German language were available, but they were unsatisfactory and clumsy in their wording.)

On his return to Wittenberg later that year, a German liturgy is introduced to replace the Latin text of the mass, and Luther writes hymns for the congregation, also in their native tongue. These are received with enthusiasm and increase the speed with which the Reformation now spreads through German lands. Other aspects of the reform also take hold: Monks and nuns leave their monasteries and convents in droves to settle and get married. The priests follow suit, heeding Luther’s message that God intended men and women to live together, and that children are a divine gift. Owing to his own experience of monastic life, he cannot uphold sexual abstinence as holier than marriage and declares this ancient Christian tradition a profound error. The Catholic Church likes his views less and less. His critics gleefully pounce on the fact that Luther himself marries one of the nuns who left her convent, and they try to put an unsavoury spin on his intentions.

The nun in question, Katharina von Bora, is the daughter of a nobleman. She has been put into a convent when still a child, and now she escapes under the influence of Luther’s teachings with a small group of fellow-nuns.

Katharina von Bora, Luther's Wife

He makes it his mission to find them all good husbands, but she wants to marry Luther, not the man he has intended for her. Their marriage in June 1525 is publicized in true damage-limiting PR-style, and the couple shows itself frequently in public, strolling through the streets of the town to underline the respectability of their union. Their home in the emptied former Augustine monastery becomes a meeting place of friends both local and foreign, and anyone prosecuted for his faith can find refuge there. Discussions at the dinner table are lively, and at times Mrs Luther caters for up to forty people. After the meal, a select circle continues these talks in Luther’s study, his wife the only woman present. Martin and Katharina are a well-matched pair and very happy together. Six children are born to them, three sons and three daughters. A touching letter by Luther tells a friend of the grief he felt upon the death of one of his little girls.

Generally, the education of children is important to him and he seeks to introduce schooling for all children, though this will not come about until after his death. Luther considers it particularly important that girls should receive an education too – which is just as revolutionary as his other ideas. “Because a town needs educated citizens, one should not wait until they come about by themselves. We must contribute to their education …,” he writes. The pope might be satisfied with illiterate flocks who, for good or ill, depend on the learning of their shepherds. But the new Christians Luther hopes to see will take responsibility for their faith and have enough learning to read the words of the gospel for themselves, taking them deeply to heart. For he envisions a renewal of the whole Church of Christ in this new age, purged of its obvious errors. It was never Luther’s intention to cause a rift in a religion so dear to his heart, and such a burning beacon to his mind. He sees the devil at work in the raging disputes over the gospel, and the controversies now breaking out between the newly forming protestant churches depress him and cast a shadow over his final years.

Martin Luther’s life comes to an end in Eisleben, the same town that saw his birth in 1483. It seems pure coincidence that he is called there to be the mediator in a dispute between a pair of quarrelsome brothers he is acquainted with, the Counts of Mansfeld. His experience of life and his knowledge of people prevail and he is able to negotiate a contract, but the strain of the journey, the cold winter weather and the effort of peace-making exhaust him terminally. He dies there, in his sixty-fourth year, as one of the outstanding figures that shaped much more than the history of their homeland. On the instructions of the new Elector of Saxony, Luther’s body is transferred to Wittenberg, to be laid to rest in the Castle Church. Bells toll throughout the land as the cart bearing his coffin makes its journey, accompanied by a great procession of grieving crowds.

Today, Martin Luther is the most frequently portrayed personage in all the history of Germany. Over two thousand of his sermons and a large number of his talks at the dinner table are preserved in writing. The Luther Bible is his greatest legacy, making a great faith newly accessible to millions and developing the German language as no other book has done. As one of his friends said: “And though he is dead – he lives!”

I emerge into the street several hours later, head and heart humming with his story. The late afternoon sun casts its dramatic light over the buildings, the cobblestones and the River Elbe.

Wittenberg's Town Church