Behind the former European Iron Curtain, then and now


John Peel

Current Columnist


Behind the former European Iron Curtain, then and now

DRESDEN, Germany – At some point well west of Weimar, we crossed the border into East Germany.

Yes, I know, there’s no actual border anymore. There’s no no-man’s land where an overzealous guard might be waiting to shoot you down and collect his bonus. Not even a stern-looking soldier checking passports.

The border exists only on ancient maps. And it’s also burned into the brains of us Cold War kids, and anyone who lived through that 40-plus-year stretch where capitalism fought communism for superiority in Europe.

This is my second trip to “East” Germany. The first time I walked in. This time four of us are cruising around Central Europe in an RV, just like Germans, Swiss and French do in the summer and fall in Southwest Colorado and Southeast Utah. You must have seen them, those silly tourists who slow down for no reason and wear strange, often too tight, clothing.

But please allow me to travel back to 1983. That’s when East Germany truly did exist. That part of Germany, the communist/Soviet-controlled part, was known by us mostly for its Stasi (secret police) and really strong-looking women swimmers. Let’s just say, as far as that swimming thing goes, that cyclists and American baseball players were not the only athletes to embrace performance-enhancing drugs.

The East Germans proved that although communism might not actually produce really important goods for its needy populace, it could produce Olympic medals. It could also produce a gigantic 100-foot-high statue of Stalin, but that happened in Prague and is not really part of this story.

In 1983, I boarded a train in Hannover, West Germany, and headed east on a nonstop to Berlin. To West Berlin.

First surprise: People in towns along the way would smile and wave. Didn’t they know we were evil enemy capitalists? I’d never considered that a repressed people in a communist country could be anything but dark and dour. Here, they were being friendly and, most stunning, happy.

I’ll assume that you know a bit about history, and how Germany was divided post-World War II by the Western powers and the Soviets. And how Berlin was divided by a wall in 1961. When I arrived it was possible to take a day trip into East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie, a controlled crossing at an opening in the wall. It was a bit unnerving making the crossing, but I was young and didn’t know the consequences. (Kids, take note: Go for it now. Take your chances before you understand responsibility and realize you shouldn’t. Oh, and don’t trust anyone older than 30.) As required, I exchanged 25 perfectly good West Germany marks for 25 nearly worthless East German marks, then I was behind the Iron Curtain.

By subway, I went to the main plaza, Alexanderplatz, where I ate a tasteless hot dog and drank a fizzless root beer.

Then I got brave and took a short train ride that put me outside the area in which visitors from the West were supposed to stay. Hey, there were no visible borders.

I hiked along a road in an industrial area, past an intersection where a policeman directed traffic. I nearly kept up with the Trabants puttering along. Just the name of the Karl Marx Factory intrigued me, so I halted and took my 35 mm Nikon from my sky-blue camera case. I snapped a picture or two.

It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes later, I noticed a policeman behind me. He wasn’t overtaking me. Was I being tailed? I crossed a street, passed a phone booth and snuck a glance back. He had ducked into the booth and was feverishly dialing. Of course, I instantly had pictures of being brought into a barren cell and dragged to an interrogation room. They’d question me, torture me, and worst, probably rip my film out and expose it.

Sad to say, nothing that exciting happened. I kept walking as confidently as I could, breezed through Checkpoint Charlie an hour later and resumed my Western-style life.

Six years later, the Berlin Wall came down. Within a few weeks or months most Soviet satellite countries broke away from their oppressors. East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia. It all happened at a dizzying speed. We’d won the Cold War.

I’d grown up thinking this day might never come. Freedom flashed into central and eastern Europe in a single, powerful lightning bolt.

So now, 29 years after my first visit, it tickles me to walk around “East” Germany – Weimar, Dresden – without fear of being followed. Possibly a pickpocket might tail me, but not an agent of the secret police.

Not everyone in “East” Germany is treating us nicely this time. But the woman who helped us find the right bus was a gem. Not that long ago, we would have been strangers, kept apart by a border of differing ideology.

In school, commie and capitalist kids were taught of their differences. Turns out we have way more in common than we were led to believe.

Behind the former European Iron Curtain, then and now

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