This article was originally published on my WordPress blog – February 2017.
A Rostock street, January 1987
This is a fragment of personal history about the fringes of the Cold War. I want to post it now because the events happened thirty years ago this year and because they recall people in a time and place very different from today’s world. This piece is based on my memories and on notes that I made at the time.
My one journey behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ took place in January 1987. It wasn’t an epic of high adventure. I was a foreign guest at an international conference on maritime history at Rostock in the German Democratic Republic (DDR), accommodated in one of the country’s best hotels, and treated well by my hosts. Not exactly The Spy Who Came in From the Cold or Funeral in Berlin. However, even in this academic equivalent of ‘la-la-land’, reality managed to intrude.
I was a bit apprehensive about visiting East Germany. I didn’t speak German, and twenty-plus years of spy films, novels and other writings gave me the feeling that it was Enemy Territory of some kind.
As it turned out, the journey to the DDR was hassle-free. A British Airways’ Boeing 737 got me from Heathrow to Hamburg on time, and I was able to catch the 13.43 train to Rostock. I shared a compartment with five other people, a young West German ambulance driver and four East German pensioners, who were probably returning from a visit to relatives in the West. The pensioners were very friendly, but we didn’t have a language in common. The ambulance driver, fortunately, spoke very good English and helped me out with the officials when we got to the border.
I wrote at the time: ‘The border (at Herrnburg) was undramatic: you emerge suddenly from the trees on to open fields, and then encounter two high wire fences separated by a stretch of ominously clear, open ground.’
The border-stop lasted about three quarters of an hour, and my papers were examined by three separate sets of state employees, dealing with money (changing hard currency), passport control and customs. We could hear clunking sounds as other border officials checked the carriage’s toilet cistern for concealed items, and (so it sounded), even climbed on to the roof to look for anyone or anything concealed there. Given that it was deep winter, the chances of finding any stowaways huddled on the roof were a bit low.
The green uniforms worn by the officials put me in mind of those of the Third Reich, but the officer who examined my passport was a motherly woman in middle age. With the help of translations by the ambulance driver, the process went off smoothly and we headed on to Rostock.
Once we got to Rostock, I wandered round the station for some time trying to find the right platform for Warnemünde, the seaside town where we were due to stay during the conference. One thing sticks in the memory – a poster visible in the booking hall, showing a cartoon of children playing among flowers. It alluded to the nuclear standoff with the West in an ominous caption about ‘NATO Raketen’.
Eventually, I found the right train and got the S-Bahn to Warnemünde, a ten-mile journey for a cheap 50 pfennigs. I got there at about half-past six. The streets were well lit, but there was snow and ice everywhere, and it was very cold. There didn’t seem to be a town map at the railway station, so I wandered off, hoping to find the hotel.
On the way, I passed a building that belonged to the East German navy, the Volksmarine. There were three young sailors outside carrying brooms. They were probably detailed to clear snow from the building entrance, but instead were just clowning around, using the brooms to plough snow into each other.
I asked a number of people for directions. Luckily for me, one was a lady who spoke very good English, and she kindly took me to the right street for the Hotel Neptun.
The Hotel Neptun was a tall, 18-storey tower block, designed by a Swedish company, and opened in 1971. I wrote then: ‘It is very comfortable and luxurious, and is apparently one of the best in the country – but it is also a machine for separating foreigners from their money!’. According to a Wikipedia entry about the Hotel’s history, it was originally designed just for foreign visitors – its guests apparently included Fidel Castro – but much of it was later opened to East Germans. However, the cost of a stay there was very high, and local guests were selected on the basis of ‘socialist’ principles.
Once I got to the hotel, my first encounter with the desk clerk was not very encouraging. He spoke English, but denied all knowledge of the conference, and said that I should ‘come back in the morning’. As the temperature outside was way below zero, this was not an appealing idea. In the end, one of the conference organisers turned up, and everything was sorted out.
For all its modernistic sheen, the Neptun did have its peculiarities. The western-style breakfast buffet looked very enticing, but when you bit into the rolls, they were often stale. Along with the buffet, the Neptun had western-style muzak in the dining room, though in this case it consisted of IRA songs, perhaps broadcast for the edification or otherwise of any English-speaking diners. The Neptun in those days seems to have been a government instrument as much as it was a hotel. According to evidence that has come out since 1989 it was then a ‘Stasi hotel’, used to draw information (in addition to hard currency) from foreigners (1).
Official DDR stamps in my passport
That said, the security presence wasn’t very obvious. We knew that Communist countries were police states, but the perhaps the reason that the State Security or Stasi was less obtrusive was because it was so pervasive. The paranoia of this dead state does come out in the two pages of official DDR stamps in my old passport, however. This amount of bureaucracy covered a mere five-day visit – a contemporary indefinite USA visa in the same passport occupies little more than half a page!
Apart from the museum staff, the only clear sign of an official East German government presence at the conference was a thin young man from the Culture Ministry in Berlin. He was given to nervous smiles, and looked more like the archetype of a Church of England curate than a ‘Stasi goon’.
The conference itself was hosted by the Rostock Schiffahrtsmuseum. As Rostock was the largest port in the DDR, the Schiffahrtsmuseum was effectively the country’s national maritime museum, housed in a big 19th-century house. Both Rostock and Warnemünde looked pretty in the snow, but you got a sense of being in a very different country as soon as you went outside. The air caught at the back of your throat because it was thick with smoke from the DDR’s ‘brown coal’.
The conference went well, and it was good to see some old acquaintances and make new ones. Two people in particular stand out in my memory, along with what they said about the underlying reality of life in the East.
The first was a Hungarian, Peter (not his actual name). He was a friendly man of about my age, spoke good English, and we got on well. He told me that Hungary had a better economy than most of the Warsaw Pact nations, and more links with the West. Despite this, his salary as an academic was not enough to support his family properly, so he and his wife toured around Hungary with a puppet-show.
Peter had travelled to Russia, and was quite disillusioned with the place, its ailing economy and the restrictions on life there. For him, the state of Russia was encapsulated by the behaviour of an audience that he saw at a performance of an Italian opera at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Ten minutes before the interval, most of them got up and left the auditorium – so they could queue for the Bolshoi’s foreign goods shop.
It seemed that political controls were less strict in Hungary than in other eastern countries, and Peter had been permitted to write a book critical of Marxism. He could not, however, get it published directly in Hungarian in Hungary. Strangely, he was allowed to publish it in German in West Germany, and planned to bring the German edition out in a Hungarian translation in his home country, because this would be permissible. In a small way this summed-up the often bizarre Alice-in-Wonderland world of the eastern bloc states (2).
The second person who made a real impression on me was a young East German woman, Rosa (not her real name, either), who was at the conference. One evening, she came with a group of us to the Sky Bar, a ‘very flash nightclub’ (according to my notes) at the top of the Hotel Neptun, where a band played versions of Beatles songs and what I guess was East German pop music.
Rosa and I got talking. I was surprised to find how open she was about her political opinions, especially when speaking with a foreigner. To take one example, the Sky Bar was full of expensively-dressed DDR citizens. Given the nominal lack of individual wealth in East Germany, it wasn’t at all clear who they were. I asked Rosa how she thought most of these people got to this exclusive-looking place – ‘Oh, probably through corruption’, she said, in a matter-of-fact way. Significantly, she also said that ‘most young East Germans have no feeling that they belong to their country, and would quite happily leave’.
There was some problem with the trains on the day that the conference ended, so three of us got a taxi to Rostock. The car was a Trabant. Though the type was notoriously flimsy, the driver managed to navigate his vehicle safely through ten miles of blizzard, with snow blowing horizontally. None of us knew it then, but the ‘Trabi’ would become famous a couple of years later when thousands of East Germans, including many young people like Rosa, used them as a means of exiting their nation during the events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
And that was my one excursion to the eastern bloc. I wanted to write about my brief experience of the place partly because the DDR is a country that you cannot visit any more, except in art, memory and history. For all the corruption and oppression, it was still a place where there were many decent people willing to show kindness to strangers.
This blog piece is also a way of saying something about the courage and honesty of the optimistic Peter and the insightful Rosa. Their words were small signs that the ice of the Cold War was finally cracking – even if at the time the reality of the eastern bloc states seemed all too solid.
I hope that both of them have enjoyed good lives since we all emerged into the world that came with the thaw.
(1) Revamped since DDR times, the Neptun remains a 5-star hotel. Wikipedia entry: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hotel_Neptun.
(2) It could get stranger. In the 1980s I heard a story that came from someone who had family links to Poland: a museum in Moscow created a travelling exhibition about ‘Lenin in Warsaw’, to be sent for display in Poland. However, when the exhibition got to Moscow airport, the wooden display panels were found to be too wide to go into the airliner’s baggage hold. The baggage-handlers hit on a solution: they got a saw, and cut the ends off the panels. Everything now fitted perfectly. When the display got to Warsaw, the Poles did not make an anguished call to Moscow for a replacement. Just to show what they thought of Lenin, Russia and Communism, they put the panels on display with the sawn-off pieces crudely hammered back into place using nails and lengths of timber.