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Time Travel into Pre-War Germany

Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Americans have made a beeline to the A-list destinations of former East German cities like Leipzig, Dresden and, of course, Berlin. Tourism dollars, private investment and government support are transforming them into showpieces, for their history as well as their modern glitz and glamour. However, thanks to Allied bombing, an East German focus on functionality rather than restoration, and a recent proliferation of striking modern architecture, these cities show few authentic signs of pre-World War II Germany.

Meanwhile, many smaller cities, towns and villages of the former East Germany offer travelers a unique view into pre-War Germany and the effects of the Communist years that followed. Since bombing raids and East German frugality left most buildings outside the urban areas untouched, it's like a time warp back to the 1930s and earlier.

Much of the landscape has been untouched as well, thanks ironically to Nazi and Communist paranoia and elitism. Some areas, especially along the Baltic, were accessible only to senior political and military officials and their guests. For security reasons, a single road was often the sole entry point, a path carved through dense forest to small seaside villas. Today, these forests untouched for a half-century or more are protected national parks. Although more trails have been added for hikers, bicyclists and horseback-riders, explorers can go for hours with minimal human contact. Eventually, the deep forests burst open to sea and sky. The more adventurous can make their way down steep paths to pristine and empty beaches.

In Quedlinburg, a sprawling medieval city northwest of Leipzig, more than 2,000 structures have been declared historic monuments by UNESCO. During the 45 years of Communist rule, 24 of these buildings were restored. In the 11 years since reunification, more than 500 additional buildings have been restored, using techniques perfected during a half-century of restoration in the West. A walk down the cobbled streets, however, reveals structures that are barely standing.

"Some German cities have been transformed into theme parks," said one Quedlinburger, making an oblique reference to Rothenburg. "We never want our city to become a tourist attraction. People live and work here. We want tourism to be part of our fabric, not our reason for being."

Furthermore, he said, "Were not ashamed that so many of our buildings are run down. It allows visitors to see the impact of neglect and to watch buildings in various stages of restoration."

In the medieval Hanseatic City of Wismar, just north of Schwerin, restoration was not a priority during frugal East German times. Work has only recently begun on the 14th-century St.-Georgen-Kirche, and a 245-foot tower is all that remains of the 15th-century Marienkirche.

"The Russians didn't tend to make churches a big priority," sighed one local resident.

Similarly, most castle tours include only their finished, polished chambers. But guides here are just as likely to spend time showing sections under or awaiting restoration.

Many buildings lie beyond hope of repair. In Basedow, a village northwest of Berlin, massive classically-styled castle stables lie in ruins. No fences or signs block entry. Walls and ceilings have fallen away and created a maze of beams and plaster. Pigeons fly freely through gaps in the walls. The structures former glory is immediately evident in fading frescoes and intricate, yet chipped tilework. It's a frequent dilemma: too hopeless to restore, too tragic to tear down. So, in the meantime, it's a monument both to former glory and the perils of neglect. It also provides perspective; the stables are probably no worse than hundreds, if not thousands, of buildings that were rebuilt in West Germany almost immediately after the war. Tourists often take these buildings for granted. A walk through the stable brings immediate reflection on the massive efforts that brought those buildings in the West back to life.

Restoration is a slow but considered process, one often complicated by conflicting claims of ownership. During Nazi times and the subsequent Communist rule, the government seized most property. After reunification, multiple parties often clashed over ownership, and cases still linger in court. In other cases, especially with more dilapidated buildings, no one has stepped forward to assume ownership. In Quedlinburg, a once glorious home has tried to escape further neglect with a sign proclaiming: "Lady Seeks New Lover."

In many cases of abandonment, the government sells property for pocket change in return for guarantees that the new owner will renovate. Such is the case with numerous castles throughout the Mecklenburg Lake District. For example, investors bought the Schloss Teschow to transform it into the Schloss-Hotel Teschow, a world-class golf and sports resort.

In some ways, whether it's a derelict district or a rundown room, the experience of seeing sights not manicured for tourists lends a feeling of authenticity. In an odd way, one feels privileged to see the "unfinished" product and the magic of transformation. It's like an artist allowing you to see a painting before its complete a private showing, a peek behind the wizards curtain.

The absence of tourism is even more striking in the many hamlets spread across the countryside. Many buildings, whether they're 100 years old or 500, haven't been altered since the 1930s. The rampant commercialism prevalent in large cities and the West hasn't arrived yet. For the most part, its just townspeople going about their daily lives. There are tractors (or horse-drawn wagons), not tour buses, and most people like it that way. Still, the rare tourist is greeted cordially.

Parts of some cities and towns, however, show more of the last five decades than of the last five centuries. Soviet practicality, functionality and frugality left their mark, often interspersed with architectural gems. As a guide in Rostock showing the impressive baroque façade of the Rathaus said, "Please don't look at the ugly buildings to its right and left." Near the Rathaus, a group of statues shows happy workers playing. Some residents say it should go; it's a bad reminder of East German times. Others say its art and makes people feel happy. More obtrusive and troublesome are the building-block rows of apartment complexes. Yes, they're ugly, but where would the residents live?

No one would ever suggest demolishing the five-star Neptune Hotel. It is neither ugly nor rundown. However, the 200-foot structure, built in 1971, looms over the beach in Warnemünde, an out-of-scale behemoth clashing against the backdrop of pastel villas and blue sea. The East Germans wanted to show off a bit, and the hotel can indeed be seen from dozens of miles off shore. (Interestingly, most of the hotels current staff has been working there since well before reunification.)

And it's unlikely that Rostock will make any changes to the Langstrasse, which, after war damage to the area, now stretches the width of three former streets and city blocks. The street was modeled after the Lenin Prospect in Moscow serving as a monument to Rostocks purported prosperity and, perhaps more important, the perfect place for frequent military parades.

"The troops used to go the length of the street and double back out of sight and form back into the parade," one local resident said. "That way it looked like there were thousands and thousands more soldiers. They didn't fool anyone."

In another time, not so long ago, a statement like that could land a person in jail or worse. While it's impossible to speak with people who experienced the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, visitors can hear first-hand about more recent history and life under Communist rule. A young woman in Schwerin, for example, recalled her 10-year-old classmate, who asked his teacher why everything west of East Germany was grayed out in the geography books. "Because there's nothing there," the teacher replied. "But my father showed me all the countries on a map at home," the pupil countered. The father was jailed the next day.

Conversations also often lead to the ambivalence felt by many former East Germans or "Ossies." Despite the political freedom and economic opportunity that came with reunification, many Ossies resent the "Wessies" as carpetbaggers. With the privatization that started in 1990, the German government sold off more than 14,000 state-owned companies, often for token amounts. With western capitalism came western efficiency. Plants closed. Jobs became redundant. Today, unemployment in the East is double that in the West, in some cases as high as 30 percent.

And, while most former East Germans supported reunification, many also say they were happier under the communist regime, with its guaranteed lifetime employment, low-cost housing and social welfare systems. Despite residents lingering concerns and attitudes, however, tourists are warmly welcomed.

Much of the former East Germany offers fundamental differences to the former West Germany. In smaller towns, few people speak English. After all, East German schools taught Russian rather than English (although no one seems to remember or want to remember a word of Russian). Travelers will also find that, in general, prices are far lower in the East, especially for lodging.

Times are changing quickly, however. Tourism in some areas is increasing at an annual rate of 25 percent. And memories are dulling: Many visitors to the Schwerin tourist office, just a dozen miles from the former border, ask whether the city was part of East Germany or West Germany. Maybe, after another generation or two, the residents will forget, too.

(November 2001)