Images of a Lost World East Germany, Up Close and Personal
When a West German photographer set off on a trip to the East German island of Rügen just after the Wall fell in the spring of 1990, he captured a world that would soon disappear forever. Twenty years after the epochal event, he looks back on his journey in a first-person account.
I remembered the painting from art class in school: The Chalk Cliffs on Rügen, by Caspar David Friedrich. It seemed legendary to me. On the one hand, I was fascinated by the colors, the pinks, the grays, the greens, and the shimmering blue of the water contrasting with the luminous white chalkstone. On the other hand, I was convinced that although I could always see the painting, I would never be able to contemplate the same scenery in reality. I wondered whether the landscape on the island of Rügen truly resembled the painting. It was a mystery to me.
And then the Berlin Wall came down. It was the spring of 1990, and I was 36 and living in the West Germany city of Essen. I was visiting a friend in Berlin when it all happened, and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity. It must have been May when I traveled to Rügen. I had grown up in the Ruhr region and all I knew about the other half of Germany -- other than Friedrich's painting of the chalk cliffs -- were the images of East Germany I had seen on television. One was of the Palace of the Republic, an image that led me to conclude that the German mentality over there was no different than it was where I lived. In other words, everything was very orderly and tidy. Other than that, I had seen a small slice of East Germany several times while traveling on the transit route between the Marienborn border crossing and West Berlin. I wasn't exactly tempted to see more.
There was only one occasion when I experienced a small fragment of the real East Germany. In 1985, I accompanied the singer Klaus Lage, as his photographer, on a tour through the East, but everything was set up so that there was little time to look around. It would be different the second time. Although my destination was Rügen and its chalk cliffs, the rest of my journey was more or less haphazard. I wanted to allow myself to drift around, to decide spontaneously whether to take a left or a right from the road I was driving on, to take pictures of whatever appealed to me and to spend the night wherever I happened to end up. How would people react, I wondered?
'You Can Sleep in my Daughter's Room!'
I encountered many a surprise as I traveled through the Mecklenburg Lake District, where I soon realized that some towns were quite depressing -- and very much unlike the images I had seen on TV. In one village, I asked a woman on the street if she could recommend a place to stay, and she sent me to the district nurse. I rang the doorbell, and when the woman opened the door, I said: "Hello. I was told that I might be able to stay here?" She promptly responded: "Yes. My daughter is at the university in Leipzig. You can sleep in her room."
People apologized for what they had. At breakfast, for example, they would apologize for the butter being hard -- and yet it tasted so good to me! Even when I would tell them that, it seemed that these people felt guilty because they were able to offer me so little. Of course, some were skeptical, especially men, and their skepticism became clear in many conversations. They wanted to know how they would benefit from reunification, and what would happen to their jobs "when all those people start coming over from the West now." What would happen to their business, their agricultural cooperatives? They were worried about their livelihoods, and not without reason.
Everything Was So Attractively Kitsch
Their hospitality gave me the opportunity to see how people really lived. It is hard to discover anything about the way people live just by seeing their homes from the outside. But what I saw in the interiors came as a surprise to me: bookshelves with nutcrackers, bier steins and decorative plates, and entire sets of furniture that made me realize: You've seen this before! In the Ruhr region, they call it "Gelsenkirchen Baroque." It all looked so tacky to me, and yet there was something private and cozy about the way they lived.
Something that I hadn't experienced in the West was the world of East German merchandise. I wanted to take pictures of it, to document it, because I sensed that these were images that would change very quickly: a shop window with nothing but two lonely televisions sets in it, a carefully folded price sign with the words "Logic Circuit Board: 9.50 marks" written on it in felt-tip pen, Ata cleaning and scouring agents for 13 pfennigs, "Edible Legumes" and "Yorkshire Pudding." It felt like a closing sale.
And then there were situations that were simply bizarre, like my visit to a café in Neustrelitz. The only other patrons that evening were a few women, who soon addressed me and asked whether I was from the West. Suddenly the door opened, and a man who had clearly had a lot to drink approached the women. He cursed "Wessis" (West Germans) and loudly accused me of hitting on the women. Then the door opened again, and five Soviet soldiers walked in. They walked past me, grabbed the man by the hair and threw him out. I was quite irritated and decided that it was a good time for me to leave. As I was leaving the café, the coatroom lady said to me: "Oh, are you leaving already, young man? That's too bad, because it's just getting interesting." I wasn't quite sure what she meant, but I was happy to get out of there in one piece.
And then I finally arrived on Rügen. East Germany was completely different there. My favorite place was the town of Sellin, with its old wooden villas from the days of the Kaiser, where the nobility used to go to escape the summer heat. Hans Knospe, a beach photographer, told me about the houses, and he explained that "nothing was ever done during the East German period," which was why they were as run-down as I experienced them. And then he said: "Well, you know, somehow life wasn't so bad for me. You're always in a better mood on the beach." I felt that his words were an apt reflection of a man who had worked as a photographer under an authoritarian regime.
I went to see the Cliff Hotel Rügen, where East Germany's prominent politicians stayed, and the bedroom where Communist Party SED Chairman Erich Honecker supposedly spent his nights. By then, many East Germans were visiting the place. They said that they finally wanted to "see where they always stayed." Before reunification, the hotel was off-limits to ordinary people.
On a nice day, I got up early and went to see the chalk cliff. There was no real path, and I couldn't see it at first. But I persevered, and suddenly, as I looked out at the sea, I saw it. I had to sit down and say to myself: This is it, you're really seeing it! It was a very moving experience. I sat there for about an hour, gazing at the big white cliff and the luminous ocean, and then I decided to look at it from a different perspective. There were some wooden ladders leaning eerily against the cliff, and I climbed down one of them and strolled along the water's edge. The beach became smaller and smaller, narrowing to only two or three meters, and suddenly the disturbing thought hit me that there might be high tides on the Baltic Sea.
I was euphoric as I walked back. I had seen the cliff and the fascinating color of the water, its greenish shimmer against the white chalkstone, with my own eyes. It was exactly as I had imagined! I was thrilled by the landscape, and I wanted to go back. In retrospect, my encounters with people were perhaps even more important than the feeling of having finally reached a destination. Nature would remain the same, as I had learned from Caspar David Friedrich's painting, but the people were about to face great changes.
Adapted from an interview conducted by Solveig Grothe for einestages.de, SPIEGEL ONLINE's history portal. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.
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