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Grenzlandmuseum Göhr

Saturday, 22 March 2014

This morning, I have an appointment with Herr Ritzmann from the Grenzlandmuseum in the village of Göhr, and two of my new Workaway friends decide to tag along. Although the museum doesn’t open its doors until the tourist season begins on the first of May, Herr Ritzmann is willing to show visitors around by appointment.

Dietrich-Wilhelm Ritzmann was a youngster when the partition that became known as the Iron Curtain was built. He remembers watching the labour force at work, only a few kilometres from his home near Schnega in the district of Lüchow-Dannenberg. He was fascinated by it all and, at the age of thirteen, began to take pictures of the border with his first camera – now also part of the exhibition. His collection of photographs exceeds five hundred and represents a personal documentation of historic value.

Of course Ritzmann was at the local border crossing in Bergen (about halfway between Göhr and Salzwedel) on the day the border was opened in 1989. He describes how a long line of Trabis crossed into the Federal Republic of Germany; how residents of the West had set up tables and stalls to welcome their new neighbours with drinks, fruit and cake; how people embraced and shed tears of joy … ‘It was an exciting time’, he states with a look laden with memories.

After Germany’s reunification, Dietrich-Wilhelm Ritzmann travelled along the former border with a GDR army truck and collected memorabilia for his little museum, anything that was moveable: parts of the metal-mesh fence, complete with wires and alarm lights, border posts and warning signs, radio communication units of Russian provenance, border guard uniforms for all seasons, documents, maps, a large flag nobody wanted anymore, various mines (complete and in splinters), buoys from the Baltic, and even an army truck and a patrol car.  The complete office of an NVA-Officer, including its red telephone, is a highlight. Ritzmann encourages our friend to dress up in an original officer’s uniform and try out the desk. Erich Honecker – head of state and butt of jokes (see previous blog post) – smiles cautiously from his picture frame.

Original Office of the NVA (Nationale Volks Armee)

An Original Office of the NVA (‘Nationale Volks Armee’)

Trying out a 'Trabi' of the Border Guards

Trying out a ‘Trabi’ of the Border Patrol

GDR border guards helped Ritzmann to stow his treasures. ‘Take whatever you like – take it all!’ they said. He is still friends with a number of them, and a press picture shows him raising a glass with the former enemy at the 20-year-anniversary of the day the border collapsed.

Border Guard on Duty

Border Guard on Duty

Details of Border Fortifications

Details of the Border Fortifications

Of course Dietrich-Wilhelm Ritzmann also knows the story of the wily mayor of Harpe and shows me the ‘Vodka Bend’ on a map. (Please see blog post ‘Cycling in the Borderlands’ for this intriguing tale.) 

The Vodka Bend, curving around the Village of Harpe

The ‘Vodka Bend’, curving around the Village of Harpe

A less amusing note is struck by articles reporting the number of casualties along the border, and the often gruesome deaths of men willing to risk their life to escape the socialist paradise. (You can read more about this in my blog post ‘Iron Curtain’s Silver Lining’). Lacerated by the shrapnel blasted by spring guns along the fence, they were sometimes left to die by the border guards who arrived at the scene without delay. Those who wandered into the mine fields also died alone, just like the wild boars, the stags and red deer that had the misfortune to get caught there. Only hares and foxes fit through the small holes cut at intervals into the mesh of the fence. These openings were reinforced with a collar of sheet metal and bolted tight from the outside. Hidden by the undergrowth on the western side, no one even knew they existed, except those small animals that were thus able to cross the border without setting off the alarm and losing their lives in the process.

Opening for Small Game

An opening for small game …

The Boar at the Back fell Victim to the Spring Guns

… but the boar at the back has fallen victim to the spring guns.

Nevertheless, people kept trying their luck, and a few were successful. Three workers at a factory in the vicinity of the fence observed the border guards over time, became familiar with their routines and hatched a plan. Before six o’clock one morning they escaped, in a bulldozer that took the shrapnel in their stead as it tore a hole in the fence and ripped concrete posts from the ground. The men got away unharmed.

Border guards were also (one might assume, especially) susceptible to escape attempts, and therefore they were always deployed in groups. They knew that their comrades had orders to shoot them, should they make a dash for it. In any case, those scouts that were sent to explore the land beyond the border, smuggled out through secret, hidden, tiny gates, were drawn solely from the politically rock-solid elite. They were kitted out with smart uniforms and the best equippment, and they always wore ties on their missions that involved a lot of crawling through bushes. Clearly meant to impress the decadent capitalists with their accoutrements, they were strictly forbidden to speak to the enemy. No greeting, no nod and certainly no smile … Ritzmann remembers meeting such eerily silent figures on his early rambles.

Border Scouts, in Summer and Winter Uniform

Elite Border Scouts, in Summer and Winter Uniform

'Our border is always reliably protected!'

‘Our border is always reliably protected!’

'Please do not touch the mines!'

‘Please do not touch the mines!’

Ritzmann explains the Alarm System

Ritzmann explains the Alarm System

It is a dark chapter in the history of man’s violence towards his fellow man, and added to the state-sanctioned cruelty is the hypocrisy with which it was justified: The armed fence was there to ‘protect’ the citizens of the GDR from the fascists beyond, the great enemy that was always trying to get in and corrupt the socialist paradise of happy workers and farmers. (Isn’t it strange then that all the guns and mines were on the inside?) Of course, a heavy amount of hysterical propaganda was necessary to shout this threat into existence in the minds of the populace. But this kind of brainwash, beginning in early childhood, was undermined by the media of the West. Westfernsehen and Westradio were of course strictly taboo, yet their allure was strong. In the end, they helped to reveal the government’s propaganda as the pack of lies it was. And when the farmers and workers saw, and compared to their own, the style of life, the means of production and the advance of technology in the West, they began to realize that they had been cheated. ‘It was then I knew that a big crash was about to happen …’ a farmer said after his formal visit to the other side of the fence.

Those living within a certain distance of the border in the West were allowed to apply for permission to visit family in the East several times a year. But they had to pay an admission fee, as well as exchange a set amount of their money at a rate of 1:1 per day of their stay. Of course there was nothing to spend that money on, so it was an expensive outing and not overly popular.

A large sign next to the road to Salzwedel marks the place of the former border line. A watery ditch running along the woods may or may not have been part of the former fortifications. Everything has been removed: The metal-mesh fencing (its raw material supplied by Krupp-Essen and the finished product by Sweden – thank heavens for neutral nations; they must have made a fortune from that order!), the barbed and the trip wires, the concrete paving, the mines … nothing remains but a bitter memory and a green belt of healthy, because undisturbed, nature.

After my visit at the museum, I wander into the woodland of firs and follow tracks that criss and cross between the trunks of tall conifers. The ground is mossy, strewn with small fir cones … and it is quiet, so very quiet. Despite its grim history, this land is beautiful and of Zen-like tranquillity. I like everything about it: the softly rolling landscape, the expanse of sweet-smelling woodland and the charming architectural style of its settlements. And since I am not looking for employment, the absence of industrial development seems a blessing. Could a way be found to generate job opportunities here without turning the Wendland into an ugly park of industrial estates? I hope it with all my heart.

'Erich's Revenge' - 'With Original Contents'

‘Erich’s Revenge’ – ‘With Original Contents’

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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.’

IMG_0377

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