What was it like as a West German to visit the GDR?

Bureaucratic and patronising, but also fascinating.After all, I was able to visit them, which was almost impossible.

This was how it came about: My parents and I visited my father’s birthplace in the Magdeburg Börde in 1986, just before the then unforeseeable fall of the Berlin Wall.I was a teenager at the time. Visitor visas for individual trips were generally only allowed for good family reasons; our occasion was a funeral.

The Journey

The journey from Cologne to Helmstedt/Marienborn, one of the few border crossings for road traffic, took just under four hours.

The subsequent passport, customs and personal checks, search of the car (“Gofferraum uffmachn!”), the forced exchange, telephone calls of the responsible border guards with God knows whom, superiors, Stasi-Fritzen, the local People’s Police Department in the Wanzleben district, then took a good two and a half hours, including the usual jammed, state-level intimidation rituals.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons — no own picture)

At some point, this important nonsense was finally over, and we drove a little less than half an hour further to our destination: it was barely 30 km behind the border.


On the one hand, the “other side” felt distinctly German, on the other hand it seemed to me to be a different world — an alternateuniverse.

For the section of motorway between Helmstedt/Marienborn and Drewitz/Dreilinden, which dates back to the 1930s, was in good condition and clearly signposted as a transit route to West Berlin financed by West German taxpayers’ money; however, the junctions prohibited for transit traffic still had the home-grown, untimely cobblestones of their time of origin; it got old and with curve radii that no longer met any safety standard.

Similar to West Germany, there was Wilhelminian architecture everywhere.It was less good in shot, but it was just a certain architectural style omnipresent, which I find typical for Germany. The extent of the damage to the building, which was patched up with post-war buildings, was similar to the West, although there were more prefabricated buildings. The aesthetic handwriting of three overlapping epochs — the Founding Period, the Weimar Era and typical Fifties architecture — sat beyond this Germany from north to south, with its daylight-free wilderness. illuminated, creepy border fortifications in a slightly more shabby form.

But there were also fascinating strangers.In the middle of the city centre of Magdeburg stood a really Russian-looking block of flats in the style of socialist classicism. It is still there today, renovated, repainted and under monument protection:

The next material impression was that there seemed to be everything essential and that basically everything worked.

I have come around a lot in the world, and this too seemed to me very German.The shortage economy was primarily characterized by lack of colour, because there were hardly any building and renore materials, so that it looked as if the home had not been painted for decades (not incorrectly). Added to this was a characteristic smell of coal heating, standard cleaning agents and burnt two-stroke engine mixture, which I already knew from Berlin at the time.

At the same time, everything seemed a little empty.The then collectivized fields of the Börde were huge and reminded me of the Midwest of the USA. Villages were really village; a bit like in rural France — without the supermarkets and VW branches that made West German villages look like suburbs. The signs off the highway were sparse, road maps were significantly scarcely available and if so, then extremely low-information; Nightly lighting was dim and advertising virtually absent, which highlighted the surprisingly rare political SED slogans and occasional flagging.

For me, however, the GDR was clearly felt culturally as part of the same country, albeit under different omens, which did not seem obvious to me.At the same time, some things were foreign. As a teenager, France, Belgium and the Netherlands were much more familiar and homely, where lifestyle and everyday culture were not much different from West Germany.


My relatives — mostly my father’s cousins, often around several corners — entertained us shamefully well and cordially.One did not seem to save on alcohol; of which there was always a abundance. And i noticed certain things in human behavior.

The vast majority spoke bluntly about the political situation as soon as we sat in a safe, homely environment.But: such conversations quickly and nonchalantly fell silent in the presence of certain persons.

The political surveillance — for me can only be experienced indirectly by the everyday descriptions of my relatives, because there was surprisingly little (visible) police presence for a dictatorial state — and the somewhat more noticeable lack of economy, both of which were not visible. In my opinion, the subject of discussion in the familiar circle resulted in a greater individual willingness to show solidarity among the people.The extent of trust in friendships takes on a very different significance under such conditions for understandable reasons.

So one found a personal warmth, which I noticed years later only in Latin America – in both cases coupled with a diffuse feeling that i cannot trust public life (for good reason) quite over the way.When I saw the onslaught on the Hohenschönhaus Stasi Central Archive on television almost three and a half years later, I had to think involuntarily about my encounters in what is now Saxony-Anhalt.

Similarly, the lack of availability of anything that went beyond basics quickly pushed to material limits, which had a clearly perceptible effect on the practical helpfulness of people among themselves.And on a well-run informal barter economy: patch haircut against roof. Repair spark plugs against faucet. A network of mutual confidentiality and obligations came together to some solidarity against the regime with its aisles (with the exception of its line-loyal profiteers, whom I also met).

My relatives were able to travel to the Soviet Union several times, including the holidays to the Black Sea, and had been to other surrounding states — SSR, Hungary, Bulgaria.I learned some Russian at glasnost time — at a West German high school!— and was able to try out simple conversations with my relatives.

Travel per se therefore seemed to be possible to a certain extent within the Comecon; I had imagined her life more claustrophobic.But they also wanted to know what it was like in Paris. I must confess that I was warmtomy when I heard East German clays, Polish, Czech and Hungarian at the Trocadéro, Piccadilly Circus or the Acropolis in the 1990s. A few years later, as a young man, I was in Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, Singapore and Jerusalem and always had to think about this experience.

The farewell from the relatives was awkward, because one could not possibly show one’s recognizable with a counter-invitation.We only made up for this after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and we noted with regret that there were countless divorces, etc. had come.

It took less than half an hour to get to the border.We had barely been in the GDR for four days — for my mother and I was supposed to stay the only time. West Germany seemed incredibly crowded. There was so much stuffeverywhere !

In retrospect, this was one of my most remarkable journeys — of many.My parents had made many trips with me within Europe; Later I continued this overseas. I have lived in western Canada since the beginning of the 21st century, within sight of the Rocky Mountains. A certain mobility had been a thing for the time of my life; through this trip to a country that is almost locked up as a very young person, I have truly appreciated the value of freedom of movement.

Stuff that you tell your grandchildren at some point.I don’t want to miss the experience!

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