The Solo Traveller's View


David Garrett’s Beauty

An attempted Analysis of a Musical Phenomenon – Part 15

Early on in your life you recognized beauty in all its forms as an expression of the divine, like truth and goodness. You admired beauty in the natural world, where it is easily found. You searched for beauty in man-made artefacts and the many guises of culture. But what touched you most of all was human beauty in appearance and character; and you became aware that, in people, true beauty is a rare and precious thing.

Though you have long searched for human beauty and encountered it before, even in the faces of men, not one ever showed such a high degree of perfection. This, a quiet voice sings in the depths of your mind – this is the face you have been waiting to see, without knowing. Now it has appeared within the radius of your awareness, its existence cannot be ignored. Like a temple that housed the ancient gods of Greece it must be built upon the pleasing proportions of the golden ratio, where every point, line and plane adds to the harmonious beauty of the whole and there is no angle that lessens its appeal.


“Este hombre es una de las cosas más hermosas que he visto.” – “The most beautiful and talented man in the universe. ” – “You are the most beautiful thing in the world when you are playing.” – “Tant de beauté … simplement extatique!” – “What beauty – without words.” – “Esse homem ilumina minha vida!” – “Quelle merveille de la nature, ce garçon!” – “In my eyes he’s perfection!”  – “Aquí está el hombre más hermoso del mundo!” – “He is absolutely beautiful.”

Helen of Sparta (and later of Troy) must have had such an effect on men as the most beautiful woman of her time. Is it any wonder that similar archetypal beauty in a man should put females of all nations and ages into a spin? Well, at least they will not be starting a ten-year war on the pretext of his abduction …

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Although David Garrett comes in the guise of a very contemporary, very likeable boyish man, you sometimes perceive in him a quality reminiscent of the heroes of history and legend. Yes, thankfully he is a musician and not a warrior – but, seeing him, you understand what moved Homer to sing in praise of Achilles. And is there not a touch of that same strong, personal appeal that must have compelled homesick and footsore soldiers to follow the great Alexander beyond the boundaries of the known world? Is it not what J. R. R. Tolkien describes so exquisitely when he tells us of Aragorn’s death: an impression that we are seeing something that goes a long way beyond the ordinary? And Tolkien tells us this in a sequence of words as beautiful as a perfect piece of music:

Then a great beauty was revealed in him, so that all who after came there looked on him with wonder; for they saw the grace of his youth, and the valour of his manhood, and the wisdom and majesty of his age were all blended together. And long there he lay, an image of the splendour of the Kings of Men, in glory undimmed before the breaking of the world.”

A great longing for noble beauty in men (removed from mere sexual allure) runs like a golden thread through Tolkien’s writing. He may have been driven to invent the striking beauty of his heroes because he could not find it in real life. And because the longing for such beauty is echoed in all human souls, his work had such tremendous impact and still means so much to so many.

So does David Garrett, it seems. Yet his beauty is not invented. He lives his life encased in an appearance that, we may assume, can be both helpful and a hindrance at times. Helpful, because such beauty opens doors and hearts and makes him a welcome guest, friend, lover and companion. A hindrance, because it may get in the way of what lies beneath, of what he wants to express, maybe even of being taken seriously at times. And of course it gives rise to jealousy and hate as well as admiration and love.

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Few faces are as well documented as David Garrett’s, and with good reason. Do you know which German personage has been most often portrayed in history? No, it is not the evil leader. It is Martin Luther, who, although not beautiful, was a great inspiration to his times and to those that followed. Yet in this age of photography and film it seems likely that David will soon take over Luther’s leading position – if he has not already done so. But who is counting?

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Whatever situation David finds himself in, his beauty is there with him like a presence in itself. It sets him apart. And though he might like to disregard it and just be, be like other people, few will be able to pretend that he is. Because, whichever way you look at David, ordinary just isn’t part of his makeup.

It must be quite a task to come to terms with such an extraordinary condition; not unlike the very rich, who cannot know whether they are liked for their own sake or for their wealth. Experiencing himself from the inside only, David Garrett will probably never fully understand how his appearance affects the viewer, will never quite realize the devastation he may be causing unwittingly. Because to others, being a witness of such beauty can at times be painful. Why this pain, you ask yourself. Where does it stem from? Here’s a question not easily answered, yet Homer’s famous statement in the Iliad, “Beauty! Terrible Beauty! A deathless goddess – so she strikes our eyes …” proves that, however rare, it is not an unprecedented experience.

David Garrett’s face has been captured in many different looks as it matures through the years, and its changeable quality shows a surprising variety of aspects. After that first impact which took your breath away has faded, you notice with relief that one can, in time, grow more accustomed to his looks. Yet unexpectedly there will come a moment, an angle, a turn of his head, a portrayed smile that will stop you cold – and once again you will be catching your breath, wide-eyed and wondering. And no, this isn’t a matter of choice. Because it hurts. As that terrible goddess strikes your eyes, you find your awareness pierced with pain. But it is the pain that digs the well which joy fills, as a Middle Eastern saying tells us.

“Then a woman said, ‘Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.’ 
And he answered: Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow, that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’ But I say unto you, they are inseparable. Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed. Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy. Only when you are empty are you at a standstill and balanced. When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.” – Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

This beautiful paragraph may yet be the best answer to the question why the beauty that delights us also causes pain and sorrow. But David will not be aware of it, and it is surely best this way. Such an awareness would be too uncomfortable a burden to bear, and we want him to remain lighthearted and untroubled, doing what he does best: his MUSIC. Because, first and foremost, he is a source of shared delight; the joy that fills the well of those very souls touched by and aching with his beauty.


David Garrett has been gifted with an unusual degree of personal appeal, with a happy disposition and prodigious talent. But to turn that natural disposition into a good person, and to develop this talent to skill of the highest level – that is his own achievement. And, by way of fair exchange, the gift he returns to the world is his music: beauty for beauty.


We, looking on in admiration, feel gratitude for the fact that we may witness this beauty, feel this sorrow and this joy, and be moved by this music; for it reminds us of the grace of being alive, and of having good things to live for.


Moving on to other projects, I decided not to keep this domain going; and so it is goodbye, dear readers – this blog and all its content will soon disappear.



David Garrett’s Film

An attempted Analysis of a Musical Phenomenon – Part 13

Having begun to explore the topic of David Garrett as a musician (via YouTube only) and having heard him speak about The Devil’s Violinist in interviews and onstage, it became of course important to take a look at this film, even though it is long past newsworthy and everybody has had their say about it. The reviews I scanned beforehand were scathing, but I kept an open mind and formed my own opinion.

Jumping right in, it seems to me that this film struggles with a fundamental problem: namely with the fact that the moment David Garrett appears on screen – and he is never absent for very long – he is much more fascinating than Paganini. My interest in the actor blots out my interest in the character he portrays, and unfortunately the story never comes to Paganini’s rescue. Garrett vs. Paganini is the title of the CD that goes with The Devil’s Violinist, and Garrett versus Paganini could well be the programmatic title of what goes on in this film.


It seems that many critics have put the blame for the fact that it cannot be regarded as a successful movie squarely on David Garrett’s lack of acting skills. My impression is that another director could and would have made more of his potential. Given the fact that he is not an actor, why does he get so little help from the staging and the camera? Why is it that in more than one scene he has to act in a gruesome emotional vacuum, surrounded by extras that might as well be statues? Where he has to provide all the life, the action, the emotion – and all by himself?

I am thinking of that ghastly scene where he – no, Paganini – gambles his violin away. Or the soirée at his own casino in Paris, a setting that has all the lively ambiance of a morgue; reminiscent of badly-staged school plays, but entirely without their charm. Surely even professional actors might struggle in such unhelpful surroundings? But despite it all, the reason why large numbers of people love this film and have watched it repeatedly and with pleasure must be the fact that David Garrett is involved, whatever the views of his acting.

YouTube fan comments: “The Devil’s Violinist is a great movie. Must see.” – “Magnifica pelicula, me enamore.” – ” It’s really an amazing movie, though truly sad! ” – “David Garrett is a very talented violinist but an actor he is not. Although I liked this movie.” – “It’s not that bad, actually, and David plays all the pieces. He is quite amazing.” – “If you like classical music, play an instrument and like to see hot guys, this is the movie for you!” – “As a fan of violin music I enjoyed it.” – “Paganini saying that everything he is and feels and wants to be he puts into the music … well, that sounds like David Garrett!” – “The story was garbage, the only scenes that were captivating were when he actually played.” – “Simplesmente divino, simplesmente David Garrett!” – “The movie really gets to your emotions!” – “Totally love this, watching with a big smile plastered on my face. How can you not fall in love with this German human … my oh my!” – “Love it, gave the movie 5 stars. David is awesome.” – “La escena que me hizo llorar ¡Felicidades! excelente película.” – “Such a masterful violinist and so inspiring to watch and listen to.” – “I love this movie!” – “I just discovered David from watching The Devil’s Violinist. Wow. Great movie, and even greater performances by David Garrett.” 

Take him away, and the film crumbles to insignificance. Yet David’s involvement does cause a problem, simply through the personality clash of Paganini and Garrett. Despite all the things they have in common, David gets in the way of his character big time and through no fault of his own, for the Devilish Violinist was by all accounts a sombre, torn and driven individual of questionable morals and seriously bad health. David Garrett, however, appears to be none of these things. He radiates soundness of character and wholesome healthiness even on his – no, Paganini’s – supposed deathbed, and I strongly suspect that Niccolò did not possess the light of kindness that is so particular to David’s eyes. Garrett is too nice a person to portray a demonic Paganini credibly, and of course we would not have it any other way. He cannot but give the impression that Paganini was a decent, kindly man who wanted to do the right thing and cared deeply about those he loved (the mother of his child, then his son, and later Charlotte) but was beset by misfortune and bedevilled by the unfortunate company he kept.

Could this problem have been foreseen? Certainly, though likely not by David. If only someone had talked him out of playing the lead part himself! Have him write the film music by all means, let him play it of course, double the performance scenes and have close-ups of his fingers whizzing along the strings. But let the face and figure of Paganini be that of an unknown actor with suitably haggard mien and dark looks, of scraggy build and “with the movements of a monkey” … Only then might Paganini have stood a chance.

David stated in interviews that he thought it a problem if the actor who played a musician was not a proficient musician himself. Yet there is evidence to the contrary. It worked very well for Ladies in Lavender, where Joshua Bell provided his musical skill while Daniel Brühl, who had never touched a violin before, portrayed a violinist very credibly. It worked for Amadeus and Tom Hulce who, although no pianist, looked so believable at the instrument. It was a masterstroke of inspired casting. Hulce was unknown to us, so we easily accepted that he could be Mozart, and the marvellous medium of make-believe did the rest. Both script and production of Amadeus never allowed for one moment of doubt, even where we knew the story to depart from the actual facts of Mozart’s life. The Devil’s Violinist could have done for Paganini what Amadeus did for Mozart, but sadly it falls a long way short of that achievement.

Why did Seven Years in Tibet work so well, even though the casting of Brad Pitt as Heinrich Harrer presented much the same problem that Garrett and Paganini face? Pitt is so much more real and appealing to us than Harrer. We never quite manage to see the one as the other and may come away with the impression that it was indeed Brad Pitt who taught the Dalai Lama the ways of the Western World. But the story is told in such a captivating way, it never makes us question its veracity for a moment.

Not so The Devil’s Violinist. That script suffers from a whole palette of ills. An underlying hurriedness does not allow Paganini’s story to develop visually. The narrative relies too often on snatches of conversation that seem contrived. Many scenes are shorthand for some important part of Paganini’s life, but we hardly ever get to see what we are told. On top of that, pretty much every scene is showing us an uncomfortable or unhappy situation. There is no balance, no pause of an enjoyable nature, and so the viewer is soon enveloped in a shroud of dejection as a sinking feeling of dread invades him like that dense London smog.

Excepting those far-too-few moments when David Garrett plays the violin and the scene suddenly comes alive. What Garrett can do with the tune of God save the King has to be heard to be believed. To me, it is easily the highlight of the film. Here, a true musician speaks music, straight from the heart and with heartrending skill. This tune we know so well – one might say too well – is taken apart and, simultaneously, put together new in those chords, while our ear is bound expectantly to each moment as we anticipate each successive bar’s new revelation with delight.


It is spectacular, dazzling, sensational – and it almost makes me forget to wonder if a theatre full of British subjects would really have remained silent in the presence of their King. Wouldn’t they all have been singing the anthem? Wasn’t it mandatory at the time, a matter of etiquette? … If a story is well told, such questions do not arise in the viewer’s mind, but in the course of this film they pop up with disturbing regularity.

David Garrett: “You can’t make everybody happy. Here’s the thing: So far, I haven’t read anything negative about the music, and for me that was the real reason why I did this project. And if nobody’s attacking the music, I’m totally fine … (impish grin) … I never said I’m Al Pacino. But, you know … if people enjoy the music, then I did a good job.”

We surely do enjoy it. How could we not? But there is not nearly enough of Garrett’s playing. That supposedly central topic of the film, the musical dimension of Paganini’s genius, is hardly explored at all. We learn more about Paganini’s innovations to the playing of the violin from David Garrett’s interviews than from this film, and so The Devil’s Violinist remains a study of Garrett as Paganini, not of Paganini as a musician. It gives the impression that Paganini managed to have just one successful concert in London, was jailed afterwards for failing to seduce a minor, was miserable and unsuccessful in Paris, and then retired to Italy a broken man, to write down his music with rapidly failing health and strength. Wikipedia, amongst other sources, tells a different and more plausible story.

A pervading lack of plausibility blights the script of The Devil’s Violinist. Take an early scene, for example, where Paganini is seen asleep in a hotel room he has not yet paid for, with a woman next to him. The hotel manager bursts in rudely and makes trouble, followed by the mysterious Urbani who will, a few moments later, be asking Paganini to sign away his soul for international success.

But instead of being captivated by the unfolding story, my mind gets sidetracked by questions. Would an experienced hotel manager really walk in on a sleeping guest and expect to be paid on the spot? It hardly seems likely. And: David Garrett in bed – and not alone? … Even though I am trying hard to pretend that it is indeed Paganini I’m seeing here, this pretence dissolves under the pleading look on his face as he urges his lady not to leave. Whatever I expect of Paganini, it is not such tender commitment to his lover. And in this match of Garrett vs. Paganini, it is Garrett who wins the first round hands down.

Urbani then makes a credible push to lay before us the difficulties of Paganini’s position as an indigent musician whom nobody appreciates and who cannot do without managerial assistance. At this point, the story could really begin to roll. I am ready to suspend my disbelief once more and to get involved in Paganini’s life – were it not for the fact that the camera is now showing us the inviting expanse of David’s bare back. For an instant this is of course delightful, but the next moment I ask myself why this particular angle was chosen. Because it doesn’t help David, and it certainly doesn’t help Paganini, who has just lost the second round to Garrett … Regarding the quality of a movie, it is never a good sign should the viewer begin to think about camera angles.

Later, when Paganini embraces his little son, we see what David Garrett might be like, one day, as a father, and our hearts melt collectively. Who still thinks of Paganini at this point? And so it goes, scene after scene – game, set and match to Garrett. Poor Paganini never stands a chance.

And there is always some detail that raises questions and prevents me from becoming fully immersed in the story. Example? Though I am just about willing, for the story’s sake, to accept that Watson’s graceful and pretty young daughter must double as a servant – though it goes without saying that no husband’s wife would ever have hired her – it troubles me to see all these men standing by and looking idly on as she heaves supposedly heavy luggage up the stairs by herself. Yes, it was an age of exploitation, but also one of chivalry … And while these doubts assail my mind, I cannot help but notice that a trunk of this size must necessarily be empty if such a slight girl is to carry it at all.

Or this: Urbani is trying to persuade, nay bribe the girl with the offer of a necklace so hideous it would not tempt a shortsighted magpie. Why he whispers “perfection” when she dumps it into the pasta remains a mystery. And no one seems to care that Garrett’s – no, Paganini’s – dinner is getting cold.

Oh, this Urbani! He is strikingly played by Jared Harris and appears to be a resourceful man. But this wily Mephisto to Paganini’s Faust soon reveals two fundamental flaws. Firstly, though his entrance is designed to make us believe that he has a connection with the supernatural – “It must be said three times!” – this is strangely also the last time any occult powers are alluded to. Secondly, although he has pledged to support Paganini’s career to the end (for the price of an immortal soul, no less) and has himself insisted on a written contract to this purpose, he is then seen to sabotage that career at almost every turn. Consequently, his actions not only obstruct Paganini’s success, but also my acceptance of the basic assumption this story builds upon.

Can there be any logic in taking Paganini away from his home in Vienna to develop his career abroad, only to turn the strident ladies of the Moral Strength League against him? What can possibly be the point of Urbani’s mission to make his protégé a raging success in London if he then sets off the Langham torpedo? Surely this constitutes a major breach of contract on his part? What is going on here? – Certainly nothing that sheds any light on the historical Paganini.


Then there is the puzzling matter of Charlotte’s and Garrett’s – no, Paganini’s – involvement. At first, Urbani attempts (in Charlotte’s own, disgusted words) to make her Paganini’s whore. But when she is at last ready to fall into his arms and his bed, Urbani intervenes with his habitual inconsistency and actually saves her from social ruin, disgrace and syphilis. Why, why, why? Does this make any sense at all?

While I am pondering this question, Paganini flees the country. His seemingly brief success is never resumed, at least not in this film, and neither is my interest in the story.

If a film does not work, it is the director who must accept responsibility. And this film does not work, no matter how much I would like it to. Now, Bernard Rose is a director who does not believe in rehearsals. He tells us so in the DVD’s bonus features interview, where he opines that it is practically always the first take that is the best. Though this may be a valid concept for film-making in theory, it does nothing for The Devil’s Violinist. Maybe it could work if the script were excellent, but who wrote the script? Ah, Bernard Rose. And who was responsible for the unhelpful camera work? The very same.

How David Garrett came to terms with an approach that is so opposed to his own working style (preparation, practice, and yet more practice) is anyone’s guess. He took care of the music and the instruments with careful attention to historic detail, therefore that side of it all is convincing. The film music is moving, his incredibly virtuosic playing truly astounding – but what good does all the attention to violins with gut strings and without tuners do if one of the characters then refers to the music industry? Would that term really have been used in the days of Charles Dickens, with the Industrial Revolution only just gathering steam? – With a mind full of doubt and dismay I find myself jolted off the story’s track once again.


And it is not the last time something or someone makes me think, hang on, could it really have happened in this way, at that time? Would a young girl of the age really have sat down unchaperoned with a stranger – and on his bed? … Goodness gracious! It was not to be thought of! Being alone with any man who was not a close relation meant social ruin and was certainly not allowed by parents hoping to see their daughter respectably married one day. Nor would any decent girl, such as this Charlotte, have considered it.

Regrettably, David mispronounces Charlotte’s name repeatedly. It is a peculiarity of the English language that even native speakers need to be taught the correct pronunciation of certain words and names, for English spelling so likes to leave the narrow path of logic for a frolic in the undergrowth of the fanciful. A real challenge to us foreigners! Who knew how to pronounce Sean before Connery, or Hermione before Harry Potter? So, in case you are wondering: the Ch in Charlotte is not that of Charles, charm and chocolate. It sounds like sharp or shallow. This is a minor issue of course, and surely the director could have eliminated it with ease – though it may have required a second take.

Then there is the character of Ethel Langham, a woman who struts onto the scene as if she had just stepped out of a time machine with a Black Belt in Feminism. Unfortunately for her, the style of this pre-Victorian age, following on from Jane Austen’s novels, has been adapted for television and film so often and with such a high degree of attention to historic accuracy that we now sense when something isn’t true to the manners and morals of the time. Something in this case being a brash, modern woman in a top hat, supposedly employed by that bastion of traditionalism, The Times. – Oh, really? I don’t believe it for a moment.

A bit of quick research later reveals that The first female full-time employed journalist in Fleet Street was Eliza Lynn Linton, who was employed by The Morning Chronicle from 1848.” To wit, nearly twenty years later. She would certainly not have been influential in any meaningful sense of the word. Also: “Top hats were never intended to be worn by women.” Would such a male-dominated society have allowed it outside the cabaret? Extremely doubtful!

It seems that Bernard Rose is trying to rewrite history and present us with a version of Dickensian England that suits his taste better, but this hidden agenda interferes with the main concern of the film. Another example: Lord Burghersh, patron of the opera, is shown at his club and at the concert in the company of a young, pretty man who is clearly not his son. The impression conveyed is certainly not that homosexuality was regarded as a sin and a crime at the time, was illegal and punishable by death, and was therefore kept hidden in all circles of society. Quote: “80 men were hung for this offence in Great Britain between 1800 and 1834, when this punishment was replaced with life imprisonment.”

Then there are the largely deserted, squeaky-clean city streets which (although Watson mimes stepping into something unpleasant) never manage to convince that we are getting a glimpse of a real, living environment, despite the sad and lonely prostitute positioned specifically to tell us about the seedier side of London. Twice, in case we missed the point the first time.

And so on … The Devil’s Violinist, a film that should be all about music and the story of a great musician, is sabotaged by too many deficits apparent in the telling of it. Its characters, even the lovely John Watson and his daughter, are made into clichéd caricatures of themselves. Those sex scenes seem trite and superfluous. The CGI sunset over the docks makes one scan the scene for the easel of Mr William Turner, who must surely be about to sketch The Fighting Temeraire at that very moment … Oh, it is all so distracting, so aimless – and sadly also pointless.

The only visually redeeming feature of this film is that we get to watch David Garrett for two entire hours and see him perform some incredible violin pieces in costume. But don’t we feel sorry for him throughout? He is suffering so much – from ill health, from illicit love, from abandonment, heartbreak and general misfortune – and he never gets a chance to be the driving force I expected Paganini to be in this tale of his life.


So, all in all, my impression is this: Viewed from a perspective of passionate DG-fandom, the film probably can’t fail to delight. But when considered in the light of the laws of storytelling and movie-making, it fails to convince.

And yet I am certain that an angle could be found to make the elements of Paganini, his music, the violin and Garrett a successful combination, though I suspect it would take a more unconventional approach than a historically questionable costume drama to achieve it. Since it is so interesting to hear David Garrett talk about the history of violin playing, about music in general and Paganini in particular – why not have him tell the story of the devilish violinist to the camera, adding some of the better myths for good measure, between giving commented demonstrations of Paganini’s ground-breaking inventions on the instrument?

David is a natural entertainer and therefore an inspirational teacher. No acting required. No love story either. Who would not want to watch as he explains and demonstrates each Caprice and Concerto in turn? In this way, our interest in Garrett would serve Paganini well, and the focus would be on his MUSIC. It would no longer be a matter of Garrett versus Paganini, but of Garrett for Paganini … and I imagine it would be a triumph for them both.


Moving on to other projects, I decided not to keep this domain going; and so it is goodbye, dear readers – this blog and all its content will soon disappear.


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