First Trips to East Germany

Lead-up

My first two trips to East Germany, in the summer of 1969 right before I began teaching at Oberlin College and in the summer of 1973, were instrumental in bringing about my conversion in the later 1970s from a scholar specializing in nineteenth-century German literature to a specialist in GDR literature. As I look back over my career as a professor of German, I realize that these two trips to East Germany played a crucial role in my professional development. They helped me acquire some essential background knowledge that would enable me in a relatively short period of time to shift into an entirely new field comfortably. The transformation would require much more than these two learning experiences, of course, and—as luck would have it—additional decisive resources would soon be available to me in Oberlin. Put simply, one thing led to another and all the pieces of my career puzzle gradually fell into place. And, although I had learned nothing about GDR literature while in graduate school, I was very eager to head off in an entirely new direction and embraced the change.

Summer of 1969

After four stressful years of graduate school in Johns Hopkins University’s Ph.D. program in German literature, I needed and deserved a vacation before starting my full-time job at Oberlin College in September, 1969. My then-wife Marjorie and I decided to take a long automobile trip to several countries in Western, Eastern, and Southern Europe. Toward the end of the trip we planned to spend ten days in the GDR. Apart from a few half-day visits to East Berlin during my student days in Freiburg and Mainz, this would be my first experience of East Germany. A glance at my passport from way back then tells me that we were in the GDR from August 7 until August 17, 1969. The residence permit entered in my passport, part of which is handwritten, reveals that we stayed overnight in these East German cities: Weimar, Leipzig, Dresden, Erfurt, Potsdam, Schwerin, Rostock, and Greifswald.

It was not very easy to book a trip like this to a communist country like East Germany, which had sealed its borders and was not at all eager to have lots of visitors from the West. Lodging had to be arranged far in advance through the state-owned and –operated Travel Bureau of the GDR (Reisebüro der DDR), which controlled all hotels located throughout the GDR. The Travel Bureau had several travel-related functions, one of which was arranging travel for foreigners visiting the GDR. Their services included booking hotel rooms and providing confirmation documents used to justify the issuance of a GDR visa upon entering the GDR. I had contacted this agency a few months before our departure for Europe and given them an itinerary. The Travel Bureau selected the hotels for our stay in each city; about half of these were the more desirable Interhotels that had been built in the 1960s to accommodate tourists from Western countries. (Tourists from Eastern European countries were lodged in shabby pre-World War II hotels, which had primitive plumbing and were not clean.) When the hotel arrangements had been finalized, I had to pay for everything in advance, including the GDR Travel Bureau’s fees, using US dollars. The East German travel agency then sent me a packet containing instructions on how to proceed and vouchers for each hotel stay. These I would have to present at the East German border, in order to get a tourist visa. When we arrived at a hotel on the specified date, I handed over the voucher for our stay there. After checking our passports, someone from the hotel would take them to the local police station, so they would know we had arrived. In this manner, the police were able to keep track of our whereabouts as we moved around the country.

My recollection of our activities during the first stay in the GDR is sketchy, not only because more than fifty years have passed since I was there, but also because all the photos I took on this trip were ruined due to a malfunctioning light meter in my camera. However, I do have a few memories that are worth sharing. I remember how excited I was when we arrived at the East German border on August 7, on our way to Weimar where we would spend the first two nights. I had really been looking forward to this final leg of our long journey that took us to more than ten European countries, including several communist ones. I had been looking forward to touring “the other Germany,” but I didn’t know what to expect.

I soon learned that East Germany was very different from West Germany in many ways. The Germans living there under fascism during the Third Reich and then under USSR-imposed communism after World War II, had never lived in a free society. Years of repression by dictatorial regimes had influenced their thinking, their view of the world, and various aspects of their social behavior. In public they were reticent, withdrawn, and well-behaved; for the most part they made a conscious effort not to draw attention to themselves. Everyone tried to blend in, so the dull colors of the clothing they wore—olive drab, beige, smoke gray, field brown—provided the desired camouflage. The East Germans were somewhat provincial, which is understandable given the fact that they lived in a country the size of Tennessee and were only able to travel in groups to some of the other USSR-controlled communist countries. GDR citizens were very eager to travel, especially to Western countries that were off limits, but most had never gotten beyond the borders of the GDR.

The East Germans were wary of strangers and did not want to be seen interacting with persons from the West. Our clothing signaled to everyone that we were from the West, and we were travelling around the country in a West German Ford Taunus. I was eager to make contact with East Germans and had two strategies that enabled me to engage in conversations. The first involved picking up hitchhikers, who were to be found everywhere. We preferred to pick up young couples, who sometimes would do some sightseeing with us or join us for lunch or dinner as our guests, which was a lot of fun. The second strategy involved sitting with East Germans who were having lunch or dinner, which was easy to do in the restaurants that were for the general public—i.e., for persons who did not have hard currency. It was not unusual for two couples who did not know each other to sit together at a table for four. And, as one can imagine, this seating arrangement would quickly engender a conversation that usually began with the question “Where are you from, if I may ask?” when the other couple heard us speaking English. When I revealed that we were from the US, more questions would follow, including this one: “Why are you visiting the GDR?” It seemed that every East German we talked with knew everything about their country, and I learned so much from these informal conversations. As we drove through small towns and villages that had not been bombed during World War II, I frequently had the feeling that we were going back in time and seeing Germany as it was during the 1930s and earlier. In towns where no bombs had fallen, things were very much like they had been decades before, just older and in dire need of renovation. Damage from the war was evident mainly in larger cities like Dresden, Leipzig, Rostock, Halle, Chemnitz, Magdeburg, and of course Berlin. All of eastern Germany’s major population and manufacturing centers had been subjected to strategic aerial bombing attacks by British and American air forces. Although the war had been over for twenty-four years, damage from the war was still to be seen everywhere in the GDR’s largest cities. The physical condition of municipal and apartment buildings, roads, and the infrastructure was poor, since the GDR did not have the funds to repair and rebuild much of what had been destroyed.

During this ten-day tour, we immersed ourselves in East Germany and tried to absorb as much as possible of what that country had to offer. We would leave our hotel right after breakfast and follow the plan we had developed for that day until it was time for dinner. It was an exhausting routine, a very intensive learning experience. As I gained more knowledge about that eastern portion of Germany and its rich culture and history, the GDR became a country I desired to explore in greater depth. This first trip provided a valuable introduction to the GDR and its society; I came away from it with an awareness of what else I needed to see and learn about to really get to know East Germany.

Summer of 1973

An opportunity to take a second, much longer trip to East Germany did not materialize until 1973. In my third year at Oberlin College, I was assigned to serve as director of its German Semester Abroad Program (GSAP) which I had helped design and initiate two years earlier. As GSAP director, I would spend the spring 1973 semester in Germany and Austria with a group of fourteen Oberlin students. Since the expense of my international flight was covered by program funds, I planned to stay in Germany after the semester ended in late May and travel around the GDR. The GSAP was scheduled to spend most of April and May in Vienna, where I was able to book accommodations for my tour of East Germany through the Austrian Tourist Office (Österreichisches Verkehrsbüro AG). Again, I had to pay for everything in advance using hard currency. Since Oberlin College had awarded me an internal $1,000 H. H. Powers Travel Grant for this 30-day study trip through the GDR, most of my GDR-related travel expenses were covered. All communications with the Travel Bureau of the GDR went through the Austrian Tourist Office, which simplified things for me. In order to recreate my itinerary, I again turned to my passport for assistance. The tourist visa, part of which was handwritten onto an official stamp, was valid from June 6 to July 6, 1973. The visa was for travel to and within the following districts of the GDR: Berlin, Cottbus, Dresden, Leipzig, Halle, Rostock, Erfurt, Magdeburg, and Potsdam. I had vouchers for stays in hotels, Interhotels for the most part, located within each of those districts.

Today, as I look back on this trip and consider its importance, I realize that it turned out to be a total immersion in East Germany, the equivalent of a crash course on that country’s culture, history, and society. It was an intense learning experience that was at once exhilarating and exhausting—exhilarating because I was seeing and learning so much that was totally new to me, exhausting because I was on the go all day long, every single day, as I struggled to adhere to the very ambitious schedule I had drawn up that took me into all regions and some remote corners of the GDR. I came away from this trip armed with considerable firsthand knowledge about East Germany, its citizens and their way of life under socialism, in-depth knowledge that could not have been acquired in any other way.

There were many memorable moments during my 30-day tour of the GDR, and fortunately almost all of them were positive in nature. Yet, the moment that stands out most was decidedly negative. It occurred unexpectedly on the first day of the trip while I was having dinner in the restaurant of the historic Interhotel Elephant in Weimar, where I was spending my first two nights in the GDR. In the small restaurant dining room, I had been seated at a table for four persons where two middle-aged women were sitting and about to order dinner. I was delighted to have their company, as I was eager to converse with East Germans and learn from them. They could see from my clothes that I was not from Eastern Europe, and I identified myself as an American right away. After a short while, the older of the two women told us that she was working for the SED Party (the governing Marxist-Leninist party of the GDR) as a political appointee. Her main job as a government official was to supervise and oversee the actions of Weimar’s mayor. The other woman worked with her, as her staff assistant. They said I was the first American they had ever met, something I was told frequently in the isolated GDR. During the course of our conversation, they asked what I was planning to do the next day, what my first activity would be in classical Weimar. I indicated that I was going to visit the Buchenwald concentration camp the next morning.

Buchenwald (literally, beech forest) was one of the first and largest of the Nazi concentration camps situated on German soil. Established in 1937, it stood on wooded Ettersberg hill about 4.5 miles northwest of Weimar. Many actual or suspected communists, as well as antifascist resistance fighters, were among the first internees which explains why the GDR decided to transform the remains of Buchenwald into a memorial and permanent exhibition. However, as time went on prisoners came from all over Europe and the Soviet Union—Jews, Poles and other Slavs, the mentally ill and physically disabled, Roma and Sinti people, and prisoners of war. There were also ordinary criminals and sexual “deviants.” All prisoners worked primarily as forced labor in local armaments factories. Poor living conditions, insufficient food, and deliberate executions led to 56,545 deaths at Buchenwald. The camp was liberated by the US Army in April 1945. [Note: For the information presented above on Buchenwald, I relied on the following online source: “Buchenwald concentration camp” – Wikipedia.]

At the dinner table, the SED Party functionary told me about the infamous “Blood Road” (Blutstrasse), a five-kilometer-long connecting road that runs out of Weimar and leads through the beech forest to the concentration camp. It had been constructed in 1938-1939 by inmates who were exploited as slave labor and cruelly goaded on by the SS (Schutzstaffel, a major paramilitary organization under Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party during the Third Reich). For thousands and thousands of prisoners a trip on this thoroughfare was a one-way route from which there was no return. The staff assistant, who was silent while her boss told me about the blood road, suddenly had something she wanted to interject. She said that there was a wonderful restaurant in a tourist hotel located right on the Blood Road, where she went to dine now and then, especially on weekends so she would have time for a walk when she finished eating. I should be sure, she added emphatically, to time my trip to the death camp so that I would be able to have my midday meal at the Buchenwald restaurant. I was horrified by the staff assistant’s insensitive remarks which under the circumstances struck me as utterly disgusting. That was a memorable moment, to be sure, and it has stayed with me in the foreground of my mind for over half a century.

Follow-up

Sometimes Lady Luck smiles on you, quite unexpectedly, and that is just what happened to me after I returned to Oberlin in the summer of 1973. Early in the fall 1973 semester, I learned at a meeting of the German faculty that the prominent West German author we had invited months earlier to be our writer-in-residence in spring 1974 had declined our invitation. This was a fairly regular occurrence, since we always aimed very high with the initial invitation and then, if necessary, lowered our sights and invited a second- or third-tier writer who would be likely to accept. Mindful that high-profile GDR writer Günter Kunert had just been visiting writer at the University of Texas, and eager for more rewarding East German experiences, I proposed that we invite Christa Wolf, a GDR author who had acquired celebrity status following the publication of her novel The Quest for Christa T. If we got lucky and Christa Wolf did come to Oberlin, it would be a major coup. With some hesitancy, since we realized that this was a long shot, we proceeded to issue the invitation—and to our amazement she accepted! I was delighted at our good fortune, of course, and so were all of my colleagues.

Emboldened by our successful attempt to bring Christa Wolf to Oberlin, members of the German faculty decided without hesitation to invite another famous GDR author to be our visiting writer in spring 1975. Our target this time was Ulrich Plenzdorf, Berlin prose-writer, playwright, film director and scenarist. He had achieved widespread international acclaim for his controversial yet highly regarded short novel and screenplay, Die neuen Leiden des jungen W. (The New Sufferings of Young W. ), which in 1972 propelled him to the top among young writers of the GDR. The German faculty, and I especially, got lucky once again when Plenzdorf accepted our invitation. Plenzdorf’s residency at Oberlin College—like that of Christa Wolf the previous spring—was generally perceived as a prestigious coup. The New Sufferings became a phenomenal success, selling over four million copies in 30 languages.By the mid-1970s, mainly as a result of this work’s extraordinary popularity, Ulrich Plenzdorf had become the most discussed, reviewed, and performed GDR writer since the death of Bertolt Brecht in 1956.

Christa Wolf spent six weeks in Oberlin as German Writer-in-Residence in spring 1974 and helped awaken my interest in GDR literature. Fortunately, she was accompanied by her husband Gerhard, a well-known literary scholar and editor with connections to many contemporary GDR authors and publishers. I spent a lot of time with the Wolfs that spring, and they introduced me to the GDR literary scene through carefully selected readings and instructive conversations that were truly fascinating. When I told the Wolfs that I would be taking a one-year sabbatical leave in 1975-1976, they encouraged me to think about doing a project on GDR writing in the 1970s and promised to assist me. During the course of our discussions, the outline of a possible project gradually emerged. The focus would be on new directions and trends in East German literature during the period of “thaw” that occurred shortly after Erich Honecker became leader of the Socialist Unity Party in 1971. My interactions with the Wolfs were invaluable and enabled me to build and expand on what I had learned during my two trips inside the GDR.

When Ulrich Plenzdorf came to Oberlin as visiting writer in spring of 1975, my informal education in the area of contemporary GDR literature continued. Uli Plenzdorf and I became good friends that semester, and he too helped me shape and finalize plans for my first research leave, a good portion of which I intended to spend in the GDR. I remain ever so grateful for the advice, assistance, and encouragement he gave me in the period leading up to my sabbatical leave. Like Christa and Gerhard Wolf the year before, he helped me develop and shape the project I proposed to undertake involving GDR writing and writers who were active in the 1970s. Moreover, when I was working on the project inside East Germany, he continued to assist me in meaningful ways, as did both of the Wolfs. In retrospect, I realize that I could not have produced an 840-page book like DDR-Literatur im Tauwetter (GDR Literature During the Thaw), nor most of my other major publications on East German literature, without the strong and unwavering support of Plenzdorf and the Wolfs. I am extremely indebted to them—but also to Lady Luck, for she guided them to Oberlin College at the perfect time!

(For more information on Christa Wolf and Ulrich Plenzdorf at Oberlin College, see the snapshots I posted on them in these categories: “GDR Writers in Ohio” and “Favorite GDR Writers.”)