On Tuesday, we sailed into Germany. The ship rolled into the port of Warnemunde, a small city in the state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, land that was part of East Germany after World War II. We chose a tour to see a medieval town, church, and castle. We did see those things and they were amazing. But it was the remnants of communism that I found most fascinating.
Our tour guide, Tom, was an English teacher who had grown up in the region. He was in his late 40s, old enough to have grown up under communism and therefore in his 20s when the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989. As we drove through the countryside (lovely…..it looks a lot like the American midwest), headed to Rostok and Schwerin, towns first build in the 1200s, he showed us the fading signs of the recent communist past.
He explained that we were driving on roads that were mostly new, having been built after 1989. East Germany had an epic car shortage (you could get on the waiting list at age 18 but the wait was 25 years) and so western cars were highly desired. The first thing people did when the wall collapsed was cross the border to the Federal Republic of Germany to buy a used car, which they then drove back to the eastern territory only to realize that there weren’t nearly enough roads. And so West Germany built roads between towns to help modernize the East.
There was the McDonalds that opened within months of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which he jokingly called “the American Embassy. “ Then he explained that at the time it was the first Western experience he could remember in his lifetime. He showed us the wall between the sea and the city of Rostok, a wall the prevented the citizens from going to the harbor and trying to escape. He explained that apartment buildings built by the Soviets in the aftermath of WWII once featured Stalinist style (all the same, all shaded a dirty grey from the smoke generated by burning coal for heat). Since 1989, they have been slowly renovated with additions to distinguish them from one another. We saw roof gardens, window flower boxes, lovely muted pastel colors, and buildings that had only a glimmer of their identical past. In some towns, the post-Soviet period meant that old places of historical value could once-again be restored and their history noted. For example, in Rostok he showed us this ornate doorway, now restored to look as it did when the Burger of Rostok issued coin money in this yellow building 700 years ago.
Tom also explained other elements of German history ignored in the Soviet period. Castles like the one we saw in Schwerin were neglected and allowed to deteriorate while the communists ruled. Since 1989, they have been renovated so that their splendor and history can once again be appreciated.
We saw this as well in the St. Mary’s Church in Rostok, first built in 1200. It is still consecrated so I refrained from taking pictures of the inside, which is slowly being restored to splendor, having barely survived the Allied bombing at the end of WWII (the blocks from the north to the harbor were destroyed in the war).
Though I know why it is that one of our most powerful associations with the Germans is the horror of WWII, I was struck by how impressively this divided nation reunited in 1989. From new roads to renovated buildings and a renewed understanding of their own history, the East German world has been reorganized and made whole in the past 25 years. The people here show a powerful appreciation of their history, embracing all the things lost to them while the Soviets controlled their lives.