A Venture into Former East Germany

Modern university mixed with old church in Augustusplatz, formerly Karl-Marx-Platz
Modern university mixed with old church in Augustusplatz, formerly Karl-Marx-Platz

I wasn’t familiar with the term DDR. In English, our abbreviation is GDR. Deutsche Demokratische Republik = German Democratic Republic. The former East Germany.

I had started taking German lessons when I arrived with several goals, one of the main ones being to be able to converse with James’s relatives in Germany. This past weekend, I felt that this goal had been achieved. Of course, still with a lot of room for improvement.

We had been kindly invited for a visit by relatives in Leipzig, four hours or so hours east of us. Now retired, they were born during World War II and lived in the DDR until Germany became reunited in 1990. In DDR times, children learned Russian as a foreign language in school, and citizens could only enter West Germany with special permission even if they had family members there. (The rest of this branch of the family was, in fact, scattered throughout West Germany.)

The highlight of the trip, of course, was getting to know these cousins and learning more about family history from a completely different perspective. We also had the opportunity to tour Leipzig and learn about the historical context of the city firsthand.

Café with medieval tower and flags for the World Cup
Café with medieval tower and flags for the World Cup

The main downtown area is a complete mix of old and new. A medieval tower on the corner of a modern café; a shopping center with a bar that Goethe used to frequent (and included in Faust); parts of a church left in the center of a main university building.

Leipzig currently has a large university student community, and people-watching was particularly interesting while we had lunch along the Marktplatz square by the old town hall. Colorful stockings, brightly-dyed hair, black clothes with buckles. A colorful cast of other non-university characters drifted through the square as well.

Altes Rathaus = Old Town Hall
Altes Rathaus = Old Town Hall

From a Hop-on Hop-off bus, one of the first sights we saw was the remains of the Hotel Astoria (now closed), covered in graffiti and short an “S.” But not far away we saw many extremely modern hotels, expensive riverside lofts, and extensive public parks.

The Leipzig Hauptbahnhof (main train station) is the largest terminus in the world. Sachsen, or Saxon, and Prussia operated two separate state railway systems from different wings of the building in the earlier half of the 20th century. Bombings during World War II badly damaged the Hauptbahnhof, but the glass and other structural features have since been restored.

Part of Leipzig Hauptbahnhof
Part of Leipzig Hauptbahnhof

Leipzig is also home to the Monument for the Battle of the Nations. Standing tall over a long pool, it commemorates the defeat of Napoleon’s armies in 1813. Russian, Prussian, Austrian, and Swedish forces had triumphed over French, Italian, Polish, and some Rheinland soldiers.

Monument to the Battle of the Nations
Monument to the Battle of the Nations
Bach's grave in St. Thomas Church
Bach’s grave in St. Thomas Church

We visited two churches that we had seen from the bus tour: One related to the Reformation and one to the Revolution against the DDR government.

The composer Johann Sebastian Bach had worked in both churches during the 18th century. In fact he is buried in St. Thomas Church, where Martin Luther had led his Reformation movement about 200 years earlier. The world-renowned St. Thomas Boys’ Choir was first formed here some 800 years ago.

In 1989, St. Nicholas Church was where the East German peaceful freedom demonstrations began. People filled the streets and walked through the city, ultimately gaining rights as East and West Germany became reunited a year later.

DDR protest mural
Freedom mural

One of the most striking sights I saw was an enormous mural, still in progress, depicting this nonviolent struggle to independence. Colorful people cover every inch of the side of a building, displaying their unity. Their absolutely cartoonish appearance belies the powerful messages in the mural. Asserting, accusing, demanding.

We are the people.”

“Fat cats in production.” “Stasi in the opencast mining.”

“The Wall must go.” “Visa free till Hawaii.” “New forum.” “Freedom of the press.” “Free elections.”

“No violence.”

“Democracy.”

Freedom.”

The whole mural (part of the middle remains to be filled in)
The whole mural (part of the middle remains to be filled in)
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