Impressions of East Germany

An assortment of remarks about the country, as we saw it during spotting trips.

The country

One thing I especially remember is the interior styling of hotels, restaurants and houses. The styling of the furniture was two decades older compared to the west, and they had a particular taste for furniture made from particle board with veneer covering (that smelled awful too). Together with the wallpaper it made for a very cheesy interior. The above described furniture and interior decorating can still be found in East Germany. In 1994 we stayed at a big 3 star hotel in the city of Templin. From the outside it looked like a modern hotel. But once we checked in in or rooms, we were thrown back to the good old socialist time, with that crappy furniture and 1970's wall-paper. Great!

A very characteristic thing was the smell of burning brown coal (a mildly sweet smell). Nearly all heating systems and electricity plants burned this stuff. The surface mining of brown coal left incredible gaping holes in the landscape. The huge machinery used for this was very cool though. Whenever I smell that sweet smell these days (from a fire place for example) I'm back in East Germany.

Noteworthy was how dull the whole country looked in 1990. Nearly everything had the some grey-brown color: houses, buildings, roads. It gave me the impression of a completely camouflaged country! Even city centers looked extremely boring to someone used to commercials signs on every shop. Often it was difficult to locate the shopping center in a city. But this changed very rapidly from 1990 on.

Talking about shopping, the products were also a little different than what we were used too. Some goods were incredibly cheap (a pack of cookies for 10 pfennig, about 5 dollar cents), others had quite different quality standards (I remember bottles of milk with fat floating on the top, not being homogenized) or simply fake (especially 'cola' brands, brrr!). Some products did not exist in the GDR. During a visit to an airbase, an East German pointed out the graffiti on the walls surrounding the airfield. "That didn't exist before the wall came down" he said. "The people probably didn't dare to" replied one spotter. "No" said the East German, "we didn't have spray cans".

We also saw some bad examples of 'socialist planning'. The city of Schwedt was an example. This appears to have started as a nice small city. But then a huge oil refinery was built, and next a very large number of appartment buildings to house all the workers. I guess the area ratio of the original city and the new residential areas was something like 1 to 5, and to make things worse, there were no shops, bars or restaurants in the new quarters. What a place to live!

Roads and traffic

The roads were really something special. Many roads were constructed from cobblestones, which made for quite uncomfortable driving. Some roads were so bad that it was simply unbearable to drive faster than 40 km/h. The vibrations were so bad that (even with a brand new western car) you were afraid that something would fail on the car. I know of one occasion where a carburetor vibrated off the engine! Apparently the East Germans also didn't like these cobble stone roads. On more than one occasion we were driving slowly on such a road, only to be overtaken by a Trabant on the right side, driving trough a field! The depreciation of Trabants could also have something to do with it ..

On the other hand, there were also many good quality roads suitable for quick traveling. Traffic volume was usually low. And there was no police to be seen ..

A Mondeo taking off from the famous dent between Finow and Templin airbases. A speed of about 120 km/h was needed for this jump. Photo by Berry Vissers.

A special thing about many villages was that the main road had all kinds of diversions built in. You were sort of shown around the village. Not used to this, we drove straight on, following to what was the main road in our eyes, and often got lost, missing the signs. Noteworthy too was the lack of pavement on many streets in residential areas. After a good day of rain, this made an incredible mess.

The highways were not of a high quality. They were constructed from concrete slabs, with very noticable steps between them. This resulted in a rough ride, which became very annoying after a while. The left lane was usually a little better (probably because of the trucks using the right lane), and most cars used this lane. Most small viaduct built in the highways resulted in a deep depression, and traffic usually had to be slowed down to 50 km/h to pass them safely. A guard rail in the middle was usually absent too.

Downright dangerous were some exits on the highways. Usually there were no exit lanes, and the exits simply were roads at an angle to the highway. In many cases they were made from cobblestone; in the rain a great recipe for skidding. In some cases, the exit road was at a 90 degree angle to the highway, so you had to slow down to 20-30 km/h. This had to be done in the right lane, lacking an exit lane. Not very comfortable.. It must be said that we drove at West German highway speeds at these East German highways and main roads, so we added something to the problem. Some of these old-fashioned highway exits can still be found today. For example, the highway from Berlin to Stettin still has a few.

And then the cars. Of course the Trabant cars were everywhere. I found the sound of that 3 cilinder 2 stroke engine hilarious. The smoke they emitted could give you quite a head-ache after a whole day on the road. Ladas and Wartburgs, the cars of party people we were told, were rather scarce. The typical van was the IFA (???). Their styling made them look like they were from a 1950's comic book. But car dealers popped up everywhere in East Germany, and after two years the Trabant was becoming a rare sight.

The distribution of car fuel was not very efficiently organised in 1990. A reasonably large city such as Brandenburg had only one gas station. But this changed rapidly, with gas stations popping up everywhere. By far the most interesting ones are those built on the 'flight lines' at the ends of 'highway strips'. These emergency runways were found everywhere in East Germany.

Driving around airfields sometimes required some serious off-road driving with barely suitable cars. Although this looks serious, the Vectra is not stuck in the mud. The driver was wise enough to stop there. Before backing up, they put as much grass and sticks under the wheels as possible. The spinning wheels (the driver was cool) almost set them on fire. Photo by Theo van den Boomen, 26 February 1991.

Camp sites and hotels

During our 'low budget tours' we usually stayed at camp sites. One thing lacking sorrily were showers. I can't remember one site that had them. We were sometimes told we could take a dip in a small pool or lake, but the water color didn't promise to do much good. Since we really wanted to shower, we tried some hotels, but they neither had rooms with more than a sink. Next we tried a youth hotel, with the same results (incredible!), until the desk staff remembered they had built new cabins with a shower. Hurray!

The toilets and washing facilities at the camp sites were often extremely dirty. A friend described it once as 'if I would slip and fall, I would never get clean again'. The toilets were usually not connected to a sewer system, but you were sitting on top of a cesspit. Chloric acid was sprayed once a day. Have a nice meal!

Suspicious things

The DDR had been the country famous for the Stasi (Staatssicherheitsdienst, state security service), some terrorist support and training, and of many party people gloryfying the great socialist dream. Furthermore, the DDR had been one of the most significant adversaries of NATO, and this had fed us in a sort of 'we are in enemy country' feeling. We therefore were one the lookout for signs of these parts of East Germany history! We found enough 'suspicious things' for our liking. Sinister looking buildings 'that must have Stasi headquarters', dykes behind which we expected 'secret' things, high-quality roads leading from a former rocket base, watch towers along the highways, deserted military barracks, it was all there.

During our first trip, we had to find a camp site in absolute darkness. It was in the middle of nowhere, a strange place to put a camp site. In the morning we discovered that this was a very suspicious place, with lots of buildings that were quite unusual for a campsite. We decided on the spot that this must have been a training site for Lybian terrorists.

Another occasion that made of us think 'hmmmm...' was when we took a highway exit for a hotel. The exit apparently only led to the hotel, according to the signs. We followed a high quality asphalt road for some three kilometers, and noticed that no other roads were connected to it (strange!). We ended in in a former military camp, complete with watch towers, garages for trucks, a rifle range. The former officer quarters (an appartment building) had been turned into a hotel. Not unexpectedly, it was rather quiet in this hotel, although the quality wasn't bad at all. Another suspicious site!

Also suspicious were the few luxury things we found. Already mentioned were the 'luxury' cars (Lada and Wartburg), but any luxury restaurant or hotels must have been 'part people exclusive' places, we concluded.

It's difficult to explain, but this stuff added a lot of 'flavor' to our trips there.

Transformation of the country

The above description applies largely to the country shortly after the opening of the border. Things changed very quickly afterwards. For example, within a year some three quarters of the Trabants had been replaced by western cars, commercials signs and advertising showed up everywhere, and a massive updating of the highways was started. But this job is so huge that it will take many more years to erase all the differences with West Germany.

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