Nederlandse versie

Rather the jungle than the zoo

German Democratic Republic (GDR) | Anno 1985



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I don't understand. The waiter keeps pointing to the centre of the room, but I can't see an empty table there. Nonetheless, we had booked a table for two. Slightly annoyed about so much lack of understanding, the waiter goes ahead showing us the way. An elderly couple, probably in their sixties, is seated at a round table with four chairs. The other two seats are for us.

A bit surprising, yes, but at the same time an opportunity. We have been touring the German Democratic Republic (GDR) for about a week now. They call themselves a socialist workers' and peasants' state, we call it plainly East Germany. We learned through trial and error that everything and anything in this country is subject to all kinds of rules, to the point of absurdity. We still don't understand much about it, a little insight would be welcome. A nice in-depth chat with some East Germans is therefore high on our wish list, but we have not yet made it beyond exchanging a few pleasantries. And now a lengthy conversation simply falls into our lap.

We don't need to say more than the obligatory Wir sind von Belgien [We are from Belgium] to break the ice. Our table companions eagerly engage in the conversation. A fascinating conversation ensues, the meal itself seems to have become an afterthought. Klaus and Irina1) come from Döbeln, it turns out. It is a town in the heart of Sachsen, just northwest of Dresden. They have one daughter, Christine. And now they are on holiday in Erfurt for a few days. Going on holiday abroad is not an option for GDR citizens. For them, the borders of the GDR are hermetically closed.

For GDR citizens, the borders of the GDR are hermetically closed

Klaus was born and raised in Saxony. Irina, on the other hand, comes from Königsberg in the former East Prussia, where Frederick I crowned himself the first king in Prussia in 1701. Symbolically it was an important city, Hitler wanted to keep it at all costs. But Stalin thought otherwise. After three months of grim fighting, the Red Army took the city on April 9, 1945. Königsberg became Kaliningrad and the Germans who had survived the inferno had to leave. So did Irina. Like so many German citizens she set out on foot in 1945 to the ruins that remained of Germany. It must have been hallucinatory, a pure nightmare, to march through badly battered Poland as a vulnerable, hated German.

Talking about that past makes Irina uncomfortable, so we gently switch to the present. We talk about our experiences during the past few days – a mixture of surprising, hilarious, incomprehensible, sometimes even oppressive experiences.

Take for instance the radio in our hotel room. East German radio stations are a boring bunch, everybody knows that. So when we arrived, we immediately tuned in to a West German channel. After all, here in the southwest of the GDR you have lots of choices when it comes to western radio channels. But the next morning, while cleaning, the chambermaids invariably tuned the device to a dull GDR station.

While cleaning the chambermaids invariably tuned the device to a dull GDR station

Or take our arrival in Erfurt yesterday. We didn't have a city map yet. So it took us a while to find the way to Hotel Erfurt and we decided to ask a couple with a child for directions. They were extremely friendly. It immediately became clear that it was actually dead simple. Still, the guy insisted on riding with us and pointing us the right way to the hotel. Wife and child had no objection. You don't find that kind of helpfulness in the west anymore.

And then there was the welcome a few days ago at the Hotel Bellevue in Dresden. I gave the bell boy who escorted us to our room a meagre tip of one Mark – I simply had nothing else within reach. Yet afterwards he treated us as if I were the emperor of China. We even came to call him the Folding Knife, because he kept bowing all the time when we came near him.

The more we tell, the more our table companions giggle. That couple's man wasn't trying to be helpful at all, Klaus chuckles. In a country where you only see Trabants and Wartburgs in the streets, it is a great opportunity to sit in a Japanese car for a while.

And then that radio. Listening to western channels is punishable in the GDR. The government might turn a blind eye to western tourists, but the chambermaids undoubtedly have orders to keep our radio on the right track. And it is indeed very difficult for a foreigner to start a conversation with East Germans. As an East German, it is best to avoid western tourists, because otherwise you can get into a lot of trouble. Unless it happens far from the public eye. Or when fate brings you together at one table, like here, he grins.

As an East German, it is best to avoid western tourists, because otherwise you can get into a lot of trouble

Klaus makes a living in a company that produces bars of soap. After all these years he made it to foreman. Still, he does some extra work every night. In fact, he holds two jobs. You can survive in the GDR with one job, but that's about it. It is not possible to spoil yourself with something nice. You cannot afford the better products from abroad, you have to make do with the junk that is produced in the GDR. Just to name one – the chocolate they sell in the local shops tastes like sand.

With his two jobs, Klaus brings in just enough money to give his family that little bit more. For example, chocolate that does not taste like sand. Or cosmetic products that daughter Christine loves. They can even afford a short stay in this beautiful hotel. After all, Hotel Erfurt belongs to the chain of exclusive Interhotels that accommodate western tourists. Beaming, Irina agrees to his words. We do not comment on that, as we can't really agree with their enthusiasm about the so-called luxurious Hotel Erfurt.

Mind you, Klaus continues, buying products of the Intershops is still too ambitious for him. There you will find authentic western products. Excellent quality, but you have to pay with western currency. That's why that bell boy in Dresden went out of his way for us – West German Marks are invaluable here, even if it's just a one-Mark coin.

Gradually, the guests at almost all tables around us unobtrusively but eagerly have started to prick up their ears, trying to make out what we're talking about. It makes Irina nervous – you never know who is listening. It will be many years before it becomes known in the west that almost one in a hundred GDR citizens is Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter [Unofficial Employee] of the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit [Ministry for State Security]. In other words, informers who report to the ubiquitous Stasi about the doings of their friends, their neighbours, their relatives, even their partner.

Informers report to the ubiquitous Stasi about the doings of their friends, their neigh-bours, their relatives, even their partner

Let's continue the conversation in our room, Klaus conspiratorially suggests in a whisper. No sooner said than done. Klaus and Irina leave the table, ten minutes later we do the same.


* * * * *


I quickly pick up the bottle of white wine we bought last week in Czechoslovakia. A bit risky, because we have no idea what quality is in that bottle. I also grab a European road map. It reaches from Limerick in Ireland to Kiev in Soviet Russia. In practice, you can't do much with a map on that scale – unless you want to explain to someone from Döbeln exactly where little Maaseik in Belgium is located.

The welcome in the room is more than warm. Klaus is very enthusiastic about the bottle of wine. Does he know the wine? Is it a good wine? No, he doesn't know the wine, but if the bottle comes from abroad, it surely must be better than what they have to offer in the GDR.

A dozen pale green peaches are drying on a wooden plank on the heavy cast iron radiator below the window. Another great opportunity, says Klaus. After all, it is not obvious to buy such beautiful peaches in the GDR. It doesn't seem to bother him that the bruised, unripe fruits are full of brown spots.

When I unfold the Europe map to show where we come from, Klaus is perplexed. He has never seen this. He digs up his own road map. Cities and roads are neatly displayed in colours, but once past the border everything suddenly turns white. As if nothing exists outside the GDR.

Once past the border everything suddenly turns white on the map. As if nothing exists outside the GDR

The soap they make at his company isn't the best quality, Klaus admits. It feels a bit gritty – that is what East German soap has in common with East German chocolate. But recently they have succeeded in imitating the beautiful, shiny packaging that is common in the west. A great achievement, isn't it? He proudly shows us a packaged soap and asks our opinion about the wrapper. We are not really impressed. You'll find dozens of such packaging in our shops.

The problem is, however, that it is impossible to seal these smooth wrappers with East German glue. The glue will come off and the wrappers will open. To import West German glue and thus recognize that a western product would be better than its East German counterpart is, of course, unthinkable. So production continues as usual. The wrappers are sealed with East German glue and the soap is packaged ready-to-use in boxes. Then the boxes find their way to a small room, where they are unpacked in the greatest secrecy. Secretly imported West German glue is secretly applied between the East German wrappers with a brush, the boxes are closed again and prepared for shipment. A company can never make a profit in this way, Klaus rightly concludes. But that doesn’t matter, because the state always covers the losses.

What surprises us is the fact that there is no black market for foreign exchange in the GDR. In Prague we could not take fifty steps without being approached by someone to exchange money. Literally nobody approached us in the GDR. If East Germans are so fond of western currencies, why isn't there a black market? There is one, Klaus answers firmly, there really is one. But no one will ever dare to exchange money in public. The chance of being caught is far too great, the Stasi has spies everywhere. Exchanging money should be done discreetly, in a place where no one can catch you. Officially the rate is one Ostmark for one Westmark. But on the black market you have to pay five Ostmark for one Westmark.

Late in the evening we say goodbye. Out of sympathy, we propose to convert twenty West German marks at the official rate – one to one. Klaus doesn't want to hear about that, his pride gets in the way. But Irina is delighted. She doesn't hesitate for a second and manages to convince him to accept the offer. Just imagine what Christine will be able to buy with that money!

One last question intrigues us. What makes this hotel so attractive to an East German? The spacious and clean rooms, is the answer, the quality of the food and above all the friendliness of the staff. Go eat in the cafeteria of the station across the street, Klaus grins. There they will brutally throw the plates on your table. Here it is very different. They are friendly and attentive. When they come to collect the dishes, they even ask Hat's Ihnen geschmeckt? [Did you like it?]

When they come to collect the dishes, they even ask “Hat's Ihnen geschmeckt”?


* * * * *


After breakfast I take the test. I walk down the floor until I find the room where the chambermaids are doing their job. Uninvited, I enter the room and immediately close the door behind me.

Do you want to exchange money?

How much? is all they want to know. They are not even angry or surprised at my brutal demarche.

Ten Mark. Actually, we don't need any Ostmark, but now I can't back down.

Which exchange rate?

One against four. I am mild. We can't do much with that East German money anyway.

Okay. They are delighted with the favourable rate.

The conversation didn't last twenty seconds. Klaus was right. When discretion is guaranteed, anything is possible in the GDR.


* * * * *


Over the next few days we will explore Erfurt and its surroundings – Bach's Eisenach, Goethe and Schiller's Weimar, the Nazis' Buchenwald. Saturday we will then go to East Berlin. We want to visit the Museumsinsel [Museum Island], we want to stroll over Unter den Linden, we want to see the Brandenburger Tor. After that, we will safely retreat to West Berlin by nightfall.

The presence of NSW citizens on the territory of the GDR poses a real threat to the population

At least that's our plan. Gradually, however, it has dawned on us that the reality could be a little more complex. After all, we are NSW Residents, which means we are citizens from the Nichtsozialistisches Wirtschaftsgebiet [Non-Socialist Economy]. These are states that – completely wrongly, of course – ignore important socialist principles such as a centrally planned economy and state ownership of the means of production. The presence of NSW citizens on the territory of the GDR thus poses a real threat to its population. The purity of socialist teachings may well be compromised. The East German government therefore sees it as its duty to protect its population from that scum from the NSW.

We already had the opportunity to become acquainted with some of these regulations. For example, during our drive from Dresden to Erfurt, we were told to use only the official Transitstraßen [Transit Roads], marked as such on our map. After all, we only had a permit to visit the Bezirke [Districts] of Dresden and Erfurt. As these Bezirke are not adjacent we had to drive through Bezirke which we didn't have a permit for. That's allowed, as long as you only use the Transit Roads. Leaving a Transit Road, or stopping underway, is not allowed under any circumstances – even if your car breaks down. Getting off at a service station is completely out of the question.

We are quite willing to follow all possible rules – no matter how absurd. The big question is what those rules are

So there might be unexpected bureaucratic problems when we want to visit East Berlin. We are quite willing to follow all possible rules – no matter how absurd. The big question is what those rules are.

No doubt they know all about that in the hotel. What should we do if we want to spend a day in East Berlin before travelling on to West Berlin, I ask the receptionist. Wow, what a mistake. Any East German will try hard to appear deeply offended if you call his capital East Berlin. At least if you do so in public, where others can listen in. I should have said Berlin – Hauptstad der DDR [Berlin – Capital of the GDR]. A whole mouthful.

An Aufenthaltsberechtigung für Berlin – Hauptstad der DDR [A permission to visit Berlin – Capital of the GDR], that's what we need. This allows us to spend a whole day in the capital. Mind you, staying overnight on site is out of the question, you need another document for that. We will have to leave East Berlin before midnight.

Where can one obtain such Aufenthaltsberechtigung? At the Volkspolizei [People's Police]. But Hotel Erfurt is glad to let me know it considers taking care of the necessary paperwork as part of its standard service. The government will charge us only five Marks per person. West German Mark, that is, because the government also loves western currency. In addition, we are supposed to purchase thirty East German Marks per person. At the official rate of one to one, of course.

Not only are we allowed to drive to East Berlin by car on Saturday, we will even be allowed to get out of the car there. Great, isn't it?

The very next day our travel passes are back in our possession, with the necessary official stamps – Berechtigt zur Weiterreise nach Berlin am 27.07.1985 [Entitled to onward travel to Berlin on July 27, 1985], so we read. Not only are we allowed to drive to East Berlin by car on Saturday, we will even be allowed to get out of the car there. Great, isn't it?


* * * * *


About 330 kilometres separate us from Berlin. Meticulously I keep a constant eye on the speedometer for more than three hours. Not for a second the needle rises even slightly above a hundred kilometres per hour. After all, the speed checks of the Vopos – the Volkspolizei – are notorious.


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Brandenburger Tor (summer 1961)

First we're heading east, then due north on the E6 towards Berlin. We drive on monotonous concrete roads without the slightest frills. The rhythmic sound of the tires on the rough asphalt joints torments our ears. On the other side, Mercedes, BMWs and Audis swiftly ride south, often with caravans behind them or a lot of stuff on their roof racks. Apparently quite a few West Berliners are heading to Bavaria for a weekend trip.

Then we see a few Vopos standing on the other side of the road, ordering many western cars to pull over. It is not immediately clear to us why they do that. About three kilometres further north, everything becomes clear. A Multanova, perfectly camouflaged with broken branches, almost flashes on the assembly line. Only coming from our direction you can recognize the pale green radar screen of the archaic device between the foliage. Cars that are flashed are mostly western cars, because East German Trabants and Wartburgs don't even drive that fast. At a constant high rate western currencies are flowing here into the pockets of the East German government.

Once you've passed this bridge, you don't have any excuse for your misbehaviour

Things start getting exciting, as we are approaching the E8. It runs through the GDR from the west to the east, from the border between West and East Germany to the Polish border. It is also the lifeblood of West Berlin, as the bulk of the city's supplies run through this Transitstraße. Resolutely we turn the wheel eastwards, towards Poland. About ten kilometres further on, gigantic road signs order us to take the exit for West Berlin. All western drivers should obey that order.

But that's not our intention. Calmly we drive further east, with only a handful of Trabants in our wake. A few kilometres further there even is an emergency bridge with only one function – to give villainous NSW citizens like us, who have dared to miss the crucial West Berlin exit, a very last chance to correct their wrongdoing. Once you've passed this bridge, you don't have any excuse for your misbehaviour. Unless you have an Aufenthaltsberechtigung, of course.

The Vopo can hardly hide his disappointment when he sees the stamps

We are approaching the East Berlin exit. A watchtower rises high above the exit. With impressive binoculars, a Vopo is scanning the environment. No doubt he has spotted our western car. On top of the bridge we are promptly confronted with the outstretched right arm of a second Vopo. He stands in the middle of our lane and orders us to stop.

Your papers please. Putting it to the test, I open our passports to the pages with the stamps of our Aufenthaltsberechtigung. The Vopo can hardly hide his disappointment when he sees the stamps. With a surly gesture he makes clear we can continue driving. He didn't even check our identities.

We spend about half a day in the museums of Museumsinsel. It fully meets our expectations. We are especially moved by the fabulous Ishtar Gate from ancient Babylon. The rest of the collection is also impressive.

But West Berlin is calling us, and we still have quite a bit of Ostmark left over. Refuelling is the best investment, we think.

What are you doing there? asks the operator of the gas station, slightly irritated. A very strange question is that, considering that our car is parked next to a gas pump with the gas cap open and I am getting ready to pick up the gas hose.

Refuelling, I answer cautiously.

Do you have a receipt document?

Even the East German administration can take an example from the quality of our paperwork

Obviously, he wants to see our Wechselschein [Exchange receipt], the proof that we have acquired our East German marks legally. This brave chest doesn't know who he's dealing with. Even the East German administration can take an example from the quality of our paperwork. I proudly show him our passports with the precious stamps and the Wechselschein which shows that we each bought thirty Marks at the official rate.

That's an Aufenthaltsberechtigung, he says. We knew that, of course. But we didn't know we are only allowed to pay for food and drinks with the thirty Mark we had to convert when applying for an Aufenthaltsberechtigung. To buy goods, to fill up with petrol, to pay for an overnight stay we need another Wechselschein.

Empty-handed we drive on. Having just finished our lunch, we're not hungry. So what should we do with our money? Not very enthusiastic, we settle down in an ice cream parlour. For lack of anything better some young people hang out there. We order the most expensive sundae on the menu. With cream. Two large glass beakers appear on the table, containing ten watery imitations of ice cream balls in the most diverse colours. Sprinkled on top of that are pastel-coloured sugar granules. The stuff tastes like sand and involuntarily reminds us of the delightful conversation with Klaus and Irina. Courageously we swallow most of the stuff – we don't want to seem to be arrogant westerners, looking down on important socialist achievements.

We don't want to seem to be arrogant westerners, looking down on important socialist achievements

You cannot see the Brandenburger Tor from the west unless you are standing high on a platform behind the Wall. So we want to see the monument in all its glory from the east. A highlight, let's hope. We park in a side street and take a short walk to the world famous monument.


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Brandenburger Tor (1985)

The square is eerily empty. A few Eastern European tourists stand behind a crush barrier to look at the Tor. Two armed Vopos don't lose sight of us for a second. An oppressive silence hangs over the square. The contrast with the lively cacophony that bubbles up from West Berlin behind the Wall could not be greater. Inevitably, we're completely fed up with the DDR and all its rules. We want to be on the other side. There we will feel free again.

The contrast with the lively cacophony that bubbles up from West Berlin behind the Wall could not be greater

But first we have to get over that damned Wall. A closer look at the city plan informs us that almost all border crossings have a specific function. There are border crossings for West Berliners, for residents of the Federal Republic, for soldiers, for diplomats, for foreigners, for train passengers, etc. But where can fearful Belgian tourists cross the border? Übergang Friedrichstraße für Ausländer – better known in the west as Checkpoint Charlie – seems the only option. But in East Germany you can't ever be sure of anything. If anything, that became crystal clear in the past week.

Who better to turn to with the question of how to legally leave the GDR than Vopos? After all, they are the specialists in the field. For it is them who would be happy to shoot us, should we dare to cross the Wall illegally. With a kindness that is almost unearthly, I ask one of the Vopos where Belgians can cross the Wall.

Your papers, is his only reaction. Not even a polite Your papers, please. Our passports are subject to a thorough inspection. Without any comment, they're put back in my hands. Thank you, sir, but which border crossing should we actually use?

Don't know. It sounds as gruff as possible.

We'll just have to take a chance, there's no other option. Uncertain, we head for the Leipzigerstraße. The street is becoming increasingly desolate. The tall, grey buildings seem to be empty. There is a dead silence in the street. Where the Leipzigerstraße crosses the Friedrichstraße, in the far end on the right, we see a barrier across the street. Surely, that must be the border crossing.

Promptly there is a Vopo standing next to my car yelling at me

Enthusiastic about our discovery, I drive to the barrier. Promptly there is a Vopo standing next to my car yelling at me. Don't I have eyes? Didn't I see the white line drawn over the road surface about ten metres in front of the barrier? Shouldn't I have stopped there? Obediently, I put the car in reverse.

Your papers. We're getting used to the gruff sounds these guys make. He browses through our passports. Then he searches the interior of the car – the back seat, the trunk, the glove box. Finally, the chassis is inspected. A mirror on wheels is rolled under the car, the chassis is meticulously examined on all sides.

You can move ahead. Satisfied, Marleen and I exchange a look of understanding. We passed our first test. Cum laude.


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Checkpoint Charlie (1986)

The barrier goes up. Cautiously we drive on, with our passports in hand, fully determined not to let any Vopo, barrier or white line surprise us. A few tens of metres further on, without incident, we reach a rectangular square surrounded by high pale walls. We park our car neatly next to the other western cars and present ourselves in one of the container buildings. The official apparatus that's accommodated here is not to be messed with. And we certainly have no intention to do that. They check our personal data, they thoroughly compare our photos with our real selves, but they find nothing that's out of order. With a dull thud the stamp of liberation appears in our passports.

With a dull thud the stamp of liberation appears in our passports

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Remaining fragment of the Berlin Wall (2005)

Once again we can move ahead a little bit. To the corner of the square, to be exact. There another Vopo is waiting for us next to a closed barrier.

Your papers. Routinely we open the window and hand out our passports, expecting more trouble. But everything is fine. The barrier is raised without much fuss.

Are we in the west now? Apparently not, since a few tens of metres further on, another barrier is waiting for us. Although it's open, I don't dare to drive on. In the door of the guard booth, a soldier hangs casually with his shoulder against the jamb, hands in trouser pockets, jacket wide open. That Vopo certainly can count on a strong reprimand if a superior catches him in that condition.

Routinely I open the window and put out the passports. Annoyed, the soldier comes to the car.

What's the problem? he asks. Damn, it's an American. We are free.


* * * * *


Twenty-nine years later. The Brandenburger Tor and the Pariser Platz are buzzing with life. Tourists just stroll through. Germans cherish this square, which has become an icon of German history. A large semicircle of cobblestones in the road surface around the Brandenburger Tor marks the exact line where the infamous Wall once stood. Cars race over it in all directions. Just like that. As if freedom was never restricted here.

Cars race in all directions over the place where the infamous Wall once stood. Just like that. As if freedom was never restricted here

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Brandenburger Tor after die Wende

In the Behrenstraße, where we parked our car and approached the gruff Vopos, you now look out over the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas [Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe]. Haus am Checkpoint Charlie in the Friedrichstraße has become a busy museum. Even in 1989 – the year in which the Wall fell, four years after we visited the GDR – three people still were killed trying to flee the GDR, we learn there, among other things.

For more than three years now, Stage Theater am Potsdamer Platz has been playing the musical Hinterm Horizont. The story is a bit sticky for an outsider, but captivating for those who experienced it. Popular West German pop star Udo Lindenberg and East Berliner Jessy from Pankow have a short-lived but impossible relationship, the story goes. Yet a child emerges from it – a trivial metaphor for the new Germany. It is very quiet in the hall when Udo exclaims that twenty-five years after die Wende, the Wall in our heads still has to be demolished. The public's hands quickly come together when he calls this case too big to fail. Even an old joke about the anabolic steroids of the GDR athletes still elicits spontaneous applause. And during the applause finale, the actors who play the Stasi agents are guaranteed to be booed.

West Berlin is not a paradise, one of the main characters sighed after fleeing the GDR. West Berlin is a jungle. But rather the jungle than the zoo, he adds

West Berlin is not a paradise, one of the main characters sighed after fleeing the GDR. West Berlin is a jungle. But rather the jungle than the zoo, he adds.


Jaak Palmans
© 2022


1) These names are made up.

Source of the photos: