Berlin, Between East and West

‘Berlin – oh, what a great city! I’d rather not be anywhere else’.

Mention Berlin to most people and they will respond in some such fashion.

It is the hip place to be. No matter whether you seek the ultimate shopping experience, a weekend party, a worthwhile property investment as part of your portfolio, or revel in its anti-capitalist reputation, everyone seems to be able to find a reason to go to Berlin. After all, Berlin is now harmoniously one. The monstrous wall – the symbol of the iron curtain, of communist repression – was pulled down more than two decades ago. And so Berlin has at last been able to recover its historical place as a major, global city, with something for everyone.

But live in Berlin for a while – as I did for some months in 2012-13 – and a different picture emerges. Almost every day you are bombarded in an ideological war that seeks to cast the former DDR, East Germany, as a grey, repressed place. The standard of living was low, there was no industry or initiative, people were not free, all they wanted to do was escape. Throughout the city, plaques and denkmale – points of interest – seek to peddle the official, western narrative, the narrative of the victors. Westerners continue to resent the east, spinning a narrative concerning the cost of integrating the east, resenting the tax that still applies for ‘redevelopment’, while rapidly attempting the gentrify to inner city that was part of east Berlin. In the east, they resent the way ‘reunification’ has been a one-way process, steam-rolling a Western, capitalist agenda on an east that has lost nearly everything. And they fume at the misrepresentations of the east. Why is it that photographs of the former DDR are nearly always in black and white, often grainy and grim and grey? Did the sun not shine occasionally? Did people not enjoy and make the most of life?

So I set myself to find out a little more about a city that is still very much struggling over these tensions between east and west.


Three people, three conversations, each an instance of denigrating the east. One concerned dialects, another focussed on ideology, and third simply on discrimination.


‘Were you born in Berlin?’ I asked her after she sat down next to me on the train to Berlin. Thrilled to find someone from Australia since she had lived there recently, she was keen to talk.

‘Yes’, she said.

‘So do you speak the Berlin dialect – Berlinerisch?’ I said.

‘Only when I am angry’, she replied. ‘My mother is from outside Berlin, so she made sure that I did not grow up speaking the dialect. But my father, he is from Neukölln and he speaks it well and truly’.

‘But why do you speak it only when angry’, I said.

‘It’s not a good dialect’, she said.

‘But why not?’ I said.

‘It’s a working class dialect’, she said. ‘In the west, it was very much the dialect of the lower class, while the upper class looked down on it’.

‘What about the east?’ I said.

‘There it was the official language, spoken by everyone’, she said.

‘Is that still the case?’ I said.

‘Of course, east and west no longer exist as such’, she said. ‘But these differences are still present’.

‘Yeah, I guess such deeper differences don’t disappear overnight’, I said. ‘But do you think that’s a result of the emphasis on workers in the communist east? The language of the lower class becomes the official language’.

‘I suppose so’, she said. ‘But now that difference, between a capitalist west and communist east, is overlaid by the difference between middle class and working class’.

‘So a double condemnation’, I said. ‘It marks one as either from the old east or from the working class, or both – at least in terms of the ruling class’.

‘Yes’, she said, laughing. ‘But it’s still not a good dialect’.

Ideology and Science

‘I could have left’, he said. ‘I could have gone to the west, but then I would not have seen my family for a long time’.

In a modest apartment we sit and talk late into the evening. He was a professor of theology at one of the universities, but grew up in the east.

‘Where did you study?’ I asked.

‘Leipzig’, he said.

‘And why?’ I asked.

‘It was an obvious development’, he said. ‘I was one of the few who showed an interest in Christianity and went to church. So it was assumed that I would study theology’.

‘Did you work in a parish?’ I said.

‘Yes, around my home in Saxony’, he said. ‘I had five small churches in villages. The congregations were small, but now they are even smaller. We would apply for money from the state to maintain or restore the churches. And then everyone in the village would join us to work on the church, for even if they didn’t go to church, the people felt that the church was very important for the village. People forget that about Germany. Even in the east, the church was so much part of the culture that is was inconceivable not to have one in a village’.

I mentioned a theologian from Amsterdam, who had been called as a minister to a Reformed parish in the DDR. The congregation was quite left-wing and wished to provide resources for a renewal of the DDR.

‘Yes, we had those in the theological faculties’, Stefan said. ‘They were the ideological ones, working for the state and for the Stasi, and not the “scientific” scholars. The state took two approaches. At Humboldt, they took over the faculty, ensuring appointments by those who were left-wing. But at Leipzig they took a different approach: every second appointment was made by the state, while the other one was made by the churches. So at least we had a few “scientific” scholars where I studied’.

‘But were not the church appointees also “ideological” in their own way?’ I asked.

‘Not at all’, he said. ‘They carried on “scientific” research. You need to understand that anyone who was in some way employed in the public service of East Germany, who cooperated with the government, who was an enthusiastic supporter of the DDR – they were all ideological. It was the same as working for the Stasi’.


‘I have just lost my court case’, she said. Dejected, she sat across from me at a table in a minuscule shop, imbibing the other beloved beverage of Germans – coffee.

‘You, a court case!’ I said. ‘What was that about?’

‘Discrimination’, she said.

‘Sexism?’ I asked. ‘Homophobia? Age?’

‘None of the above’, she said. ‘Political discrimination’.

‘Political discrimination?’ I said. ‘How so?’

‘I recently applied for a job’, she said. ‘But I did not get it’.

‘But that happens all the time’, I said.

‘Yes, but I was reasonably sure that I was the best qualified for the position’, she said. ‘So – against my nature – I wanted access to all the documents, you know, associated with the application and decision’.

‘Freedom of information?’ I said.

‘Exactly’, she said. ‘And you know what: scrawled across the front of my application in large red letters was the word “Ossi,” Easterner. It gets worse, since throughout my application every single one of my qualifications was circled in red’.

‘What in the hell for?’ I said.

‘I gained all of my qualifications in the DDR’, she said.

‘But what about the other applicants?’ I asked.

‘As I suspected’, she said. ‘Their qualifications and experience were quite inferior to mine’.

‘So you were denied the job simple because you were from Communist East Germany’, I said.

‘Exactly’, she said. ‘That’s why I took the case to court’.

‘That didn’t work either, by the sound of it’, I said.

‘No’, she said, ‘but I wanted to test the system. They have all sorts of anti-discrimination legislation: gender discrimination – tick’, she drew a large tick in the air. ‘Racial discrimination – tick; discrimination of the basis of sexual orientation – tick; age discrimination – tick; discrimination due to disability – tick …’

‘But not political discrimination’, I said. ‘Especially against former communist countries in Europe’.

‘No, that is acceptable’, she said. ‘It doesn’t count as discrimination, since my training was obviously tainted, “ideological,” and therefore not acceptable. It smacked me in the face how the very framework of the anti-discrimination legislation is determined by Western, capitalist assumptions. And you sure as hell can’t challenge these “natural” and “universal” categories.


With these conversations in mind, revisited from myriad angles, I decided to dig a little deeper into the history of east and west. Of course, that difference goes back much further, to the emergence of capitalism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the small variations in economics and social realities (land shortages in the west, labour shortages in the east) that led to significantly distinct paths. Or perhaps it goes back to the split between eastern and western Christianity in the early centuries of the Common Era, along with the successive waves of peoples who invaded the east during the massive shifts in populations over the centuries. But I was particularly interested in the specific history that followed in the wake of the Second World War.

East and West

How and why were the two Germanies divided after the Second World War? Was it because of Stalin’s aggressive policy to put under the Soviet yoke as much of Europe as possible? Was it a defensive act on the part of the occupying powers in western Germany against communist world domination, all of which was embodied in the ‘Berlin blockade’ of 1948-49?

Not quite. Let us go back to the Potsdam and Yalta conferences, where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed to three key items in post-war Europe:

  1. The four Ds: disarmament, demilitarisation, denazification and democratisation of Germany.
  2. Reparations, vital for the USSR’s recovery.
  3. German unity.

Stalin had even agreed to three occupation zones, with each symbolically represented in Berlin, despite it being deep in the Soviet zone. (How the French ever managed to get a toe in was beyond many, since they had embraced the Nazis a little too enthusiastically.) This was despite the fact that the USSR had exerted by far the major effort and lost the most in winning the war.

How did these three items fare after the end of the war?

  1. The four Ds. Only in the eastern, Soviet sector was there any significant progress on these items. The occupying forces in the western areas were too keen to rearm Germany, which already began by the early 1950s. They found ‘ex-’ Nazis willing participants in the anti-communist struggle, and they fostered pliant governments. Of course, Stalin too favoured a government sympathetic to the USSR’s concerns, but he believed this would happen through popular groundswell.
  2. Reparations. Soon enough, the occupying forces in the western zones reneged on the earlier agreements. The last thing the Anglo-Americans wanted was for significant resources, technology and money going to the USSR, so they stalled and blocked reparations from the west of Germany.
  3. Unity. In contrast to the standard narrative, Stalin favoured political unity, the Anglo-Americans did not – this is perfectly clear from the increasingly rancorous discussions over what was to be done with Germany. Whenever Stalin or Molotov or other Soviet representatives pushed for a unified German government, the Anglo-Americans countered by arguing that the economic situation had to be addressed first. In other words, they wanted to axe reparations and keep Germany divided.

Why? The Americans and British could see that communist parties were becoming extremely popular, not only in Germany but across Europe. For his part, Stalin hoped that this ‘new democratic’ wave would continue in a united Germany and lead to a government favourably disposed to the USSR. In March 1948, Stalin urged the east German communists to draft a constitution for the whole of Germany as a beginning point for discussion with western politicians. He was even prepared for a non-socialist government as long as it was ‘democratic and peace-loving’. Yet he was realistic enough to see that the Americans in particular would not agree since it would threaten their desire to control western Europe. On that point he was correct: the Anglo-Americans were certainly not interested in such a united Germany, for then it would risk falling out of their control. So they preferred a divided Germany.

Events unfolded. In June 1948, the UK, France and USA issued a communiqué stating their intention to form a western German state. A few days later a new currency was introduced in the western zones. By the end of June, Stalin ordered restrictions on access to West Berlin. Despite all the western propaganda concerning the ‘Berlin blockade’, it was not a blockade. Air access was permitted the whole time, for the purpose of supplies. Stalin’s reason for the restrictions was simple: he wanted to get the former allies back to the negotiating table. As soon as they agreed, the restrictions were lifted in May 1949.

Despite clear Soviet desires for unity, the fours Ds and reparations, the Anglo-Americans were simply buying time. By this time NATO had been formed. In September 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany was declared and the first formal meetings of government held. The east had no option but to respond, reluctantly, with its own state soon afterwards.

Representing the Wall

A little more than a decade later the wall went up, reinforcing the perception of vast divide. Its remains were not far from where I lived in the east. A few sections stand still, perhaps preserved from the wrecking balls at the last moment because someone in the west realised their tourist and propaganda potential. The Mauerpark, with its museum, plaques and tastefully sprinkled sculptures of wall-parts, or the ‘East-Side Gallery’, a collection of murals along the River Spree, or the tackiness of ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ – they all work a little too hard to assert that life in the east was grey and grim and deathly. The ‘wall of shame’, Willi Brandt – the West German chancellor – called it. For Winston Churchill it was the clearest marker of the ‘iron curtain’.

At first sight, the finality of the wall’s fall is marked by a double-row of bricks – cutting across roads, footpaths and intersections – that traces the path of the former wall. Bronze plaques appear regularly, at least through the city: ‘Berliner Mauer, 1961-1989’. Contained, interpreted, neatly packaged – all in order to present the perspective of the supposed ‘winners’. Yet at nearly every point along the former wall, one finds more ambiguous dimensions of a memory and a project that cannot so easily be contained in this fashion.

Soon enough, in my search some facts emerged from the mists of that narrative. First, the wall does not cut the city in ‘half’, between a communist east and a capitalist west. Rather, the centre of Berlin is mostly in the east, with the suburban rump of the western part left to the occupying American, British and French forces after the Second World War – a deal to which Stalin had graciously agreed even though the Red Army had captured Berlin.

Second, it actually circles the whole of west Berlin, covering some 155 kilometres that includes canals, lakes, villages, fields and vast forests. Far from the grainy pictures purveyed by the ‘official’ history of the wall, towards the south-west it skirts the holiday playground of the Wannsee. Here inland beaches where nudists still frolic in summer – for nudism was fostered in the DDR – sit cheek by jowl with extensive forests and their tracks. I can imagine the pleasure of the builders as they cut through the areas where mansions of the rich and famous are found, isolating some – in the western part – from the water and thereby their source of value, and turning others – on the eastern side and beside the water – into places for all to visit on holidays, subsidised by the government.

But who did the wall seek to stop? In western mythology it was the whole population of the DDR, desperate as they were to flee to the land flowing with milk and honey. According to this story, a good number had already left the DDR due to communist ‘repression’, so the wall was built to prevent more – neglecting the facts that most of the border had no wall at all and that many of those who did leave had connections with the Nazis. But let us look more closely and see precisely who was preventing whom from crossing over in the early days of the two Germanies.

Since I have already traced the origins of the two countries, let me begin in 1950, when Konrad Adenauer was chancellor of West Germany, with massive army bases manned by American, British, French and many other troops. In that year the Korean War was underway and rabid McCarthyism was dominating not only US politics but all those parts of the world now under its imperial sway. So Adenauer proposed a combined European force with a German contingent, which would be sent to attack the communists in the east. With hardly time to draw a breath, after the Second World War, West Germany was on the path to rearmament. Back home, the West German government announced a new decree concerning ‘Anti-Democratic Activities by Public Employees’ – a McCarthyist code for anyone who was vaguely left. Actually, anyone who was not openly and vocally anti-communist was subjected to defamation and discrimination. For example, the Roman Catholic writer, Reinhold Schneider, wrote a couple of articles urging public debate on rearmament and the need to come to an understanding with East Germany. Given the repression of public debate in the West, he published them in East Germany. After that ‘mistake’, most West German avenues for Schneider to express his views were closed to him. Newspapers, magazines and radio refused to deal with him.

Further, the police were deployed to prevent West Germans from making contact with the East. In 1950, the police arrested more than 10,000 young West Germans at the border. They were returning from a meeting in East Berlin and were held at the border for over 24 hours until they agreed to register their names and undergo a ‘health’ examination. The following year, in May, the police arrested another large group, again over 10,000, which was returning from a ‘Meeting on Germany’ in East Berlin. This group refused to register their names, so they were held under arrest for more than 48 hours. Another event was on the calendar later in the year, the ‘Third Youth and Student World Peace Festival’ (5-9 August). The West German government ordered the police to close the border, which was at this time open and through which free passage was possible. And in May of 1952, a member of the Free German Youth was shot dead by police during a banned protest in Essen.

So the movement was very much from the west to the east, especially by young people seeking a way forward for a united Germany. The western powers were less than keen on the idea, so they did their best to block such movement. Not a story that is told in the lead-up to the wall’s construction.

But what is the wall actually like? My initial impression of the sections left standing was, ‘How low it is and how thin!’ Western representations of the wall presented it as a massive fortification, towering to the heavens. But the reality was less than the political spin. It was barely two metres high and perhaps 20 cm thick, a rather flimsy construction really. I was therefore surprised at the foundations that had been too difficult to remove, that were now used as the basis for other constructions. In quiet corners I encountered unexpected slabs of concrete, a twisted piece of cement reinforcement, a run of foundation blocks that proved too much to remove. In some cases, the line of bricks and concrete at ground level merged into a newer wall that had been built – behind an apartment block, a warehouse on the outskirts, a house that needed some sturdy grounding. Solid foundations it would seem, which can still be used in order to build again. Perhaps that effort at socialism was not so fragile after all, its foundations running deeper than one might have expected.

Denazification (Entnazifizierung)?

The wall’s real name is as telling as it is little known: the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall, the Anti-Fascist Security Rampart. Was this merely hyperbole in the face of western aggression? Was it really a screen to keep east Germans out of the western rump of Berlin? Or was there some truth in the name? In order to find an answer, we need to revisit I some more detail one of the four D’s, denazification, since it has become a hot issue once again.

Spend a little time in Berlin and one of the standard lines you hear trotted out these days is that East Germany never went through a proper process of ‘denazification’ (Entnazifizierung), unlike the good people in the West. Instead, goes the narrative, nearly all the ex-Nazis in the east simply joined the new communist government, which explains the ‘totalitarian regime’, the dreaded Stasi and now the supposed burgeoning of neo-Nazi groups in the east.

The problem with this convenient story is that it ignores a rather inconvenient fact: communism was and is implacably anti-fascist. Stalin’s victory over Hitler’s Germany (for which the western front was a diversionary tactic of limited success) was explicitly celebrated as a victory over fascism. As soon as the war over, virtually all the Nazis in the east were arrested, banned from any involvement whatsoever and put in ‘re-education camps’. And in good old Stalinist fashion, a goodly number of them were granted an early funeral.

Meanwhile in the western occupation zones, the Americans made a show of denazification, with a massive censorship program that spent most of its time censoring criticism of the occupation. At the same time, the Americans shipped out most of the Third Reich’s leading nuclear scientists, ‘intelligence’ officers and whatnot, in order to bolster their anti-communist struggle. Not a few of them were awarded prestigious US medals. The British and French didn’t even bother with the show of denazification. They wanted people to run the civil service and since a significant number of the intelligentsia and the civil service had been Nazis not long before, they were simply reappointed. The British and French made some token arrests of a few elite members of the Nazi party.

But even the Americans gave up on their efforts by the early 1950s, under pressure from Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. In one measure after another, ‘former’ Nazis were released from prisons and pardoned. Those pardoned included Nazis responsible for dragging people off to prison, for shootings, executions, causing bodily injury and so on. Above all, ‘article 31’ removed restrictions on persons ‘incriminated’ with the Third Reich, since they had suffered so much since the end of the war. In an early example of anti-discrimination laws, they were given preferential treatment for government, educational, medical and many other positions. Thus, whenever a vacancy occurred, the committee was instructed to check with a list provided by the Ministry of the Interior to see whether someone with this past was available so that he or she could be given preferential treatment for the post ahead of better qualified candidates. Once in positions of influence, these ‘ex-’Nazis worked hard to ensure their buddies gained posts elsewhere. Why? The new enemy was communism and who better to fight the good fight against communism than unreconstructed fascists.

Benefits of ‘Reunification’

What is the German economic secret, especially since a capitalist West Germany overran the east? How has a ‘reunified’ Germany managed to become the economic powerhouse of a once again crumbling Europe? Is it due to the good, solid, hard-working Germans, putting their shoulder to the wheel of commerce? Is it because they have been prudent with their finances, not letting the welfare system get out of hand, unlike those lazy and profligate Mediterraneans? No, it is due to the internalisation of western and eastern Europe. Despite all the complaints from the western side, ‘reunification’ – a euphemism for a capitalist west overrunning the east – has been immensely beneficial for German big capital.

Unlike the increasingly racist countries in other parts of western Europe, Germany includes the cheap labour of eastern Europe and the exploitation of western Europe within itself. While others focus on racialised class conflict, with desperate and ugly efforts to keep out those dreadful Poles, Balts, Slovaks, Balkans, Romanians, Hungarians and Bulgarians who both take jobs and drain their welfare systems (no contradiction there, of course), Germany has much of it nicely within. This has enabled the suppression of wages for the whole of Germany for the last couple of decades. For example, the university system is in tatters, living on reputation alone. Public services are minimal, a non-computerised labyrinth that repels even the doughtiest. People work harder for less pay – apart from the unemployed owners of capital. As a result, the other countries of western and southern Europe find themselves outmanoeuvred, for German manufacturing is cheaper, wages are lower, profit margins higher.

Further, the German banks ensure that the capital flow from the rest of Europe is centripetal. Interest rates for the whole Eurozone suit Germany. And while they may tout their loans as benefitting all, prophesying dire warnings should a cash-strapped country exit the Eurozone, the reality is a little different. They need everyone stay in the Eurozone to ensure a steady run in their own direction.

In fact, I had my own experience of how the German approach to debt operates. At one point I purchased a ‘Bahn 25’ card: at 25 Euro it gives you 25% discount on all travel on the German rail network for three months. The German network is adequate, not brilliant, but the deal sounded attractive. Soon enough, the outlay seemed to be returned. Generous buggers, I thought, especially if you book early, get a 29 Euro ticket for anywhere and then an additional 25% off.

But … when the initial period of my Bahn 25 card ran out, I was sent a friendly looking notice about renewing it, now for a year. This time it was over 60 Euro. Since this one wasn’t worth my while, I simply ignored it. Before I knew it, a stern letter arrived in the mail. Pay up, it said. You have seven days or the debt collectors will call, with leather straps, pliers and chains, in order to extract that amount. A flurry of inquiries ascertained that I had automatically, without any acquiescence on my part or even notification, been signed up for the year-long contract and that I was now – without warning – indebted to the German state.

A small insight into the experiences of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, let alone all those countries in eastern Europe?

Resistance and Persistence

Is the story all grim? In the midst of the denigration and overdone efforts to assert the narrative of the victors, is there not any sign of resistance? What about ‘Ostalgie’, the various efforts to recall life in the DDR? Trabiworld, close by the Brandenburg Gate, offers Trabi Tours, parties, hire cars, even a Trabant limousine. Ostel, near Ostbahnhof, presents an ‘authentic’ DDR experience, should you wish to stay there overnight. The DDR museum gives a hands-on display of life as it was supposedly lived. And the DDR shop, which sells all manner of items from before 1989 – from egg cups to school textbooks, salt shakers to writing paper. Plenty of material, to be sure, but is it really a form of resistance? Not really, for it fits within the larger narrative: the DDR is carefully contained, sealed off and located in the past. Relics, kitsch, flotsam and jetsam – all that left from a failed experiment in communism. No resistance here.

But find resistance I did, in some unexpected places. Some are small glimpses, moments that one may pass over without noticing, signals of an approach to life that offers a better possibility. I think here of the cups, jugs and plates that turn up occasionally at the flea markets. Not any crockery, piled in the worn boxes hauled out of trucks every weekend, rain, snowstorm or shine. No, the ones marked ‘Made in the DDR’ are of a simple, functional design. Each milk jug is of the same dimensions as the other, with perhaps different decoration. And each fits neatly within the other so that they may be stacked compactly and efficiently. So too with the cups, plates, saucers, bowls and so on. The same dimensions, the same curve, the same size. So what is so spectacular about that? In the false ideology of choice under capitalism, one finds all manner of designs and shapes, most of them useless, all of them faux variations on what should be a simple, functional item. Simplicity, function, efficiency, singularity – when you have the right item, why change it?

Second is the Ampelmann, the little traffic light man. The West tried to abolish this one, but the innovative design from Karl Peglau, the traffic psychologist, has become more popular than ever. Introduced in 1961, the Ampelmännchen became extremely popular in education, children’s stories, television and so on. Soon they were joined by the Ampelfrau, sometimes sitting on a bicycle at special crossings. After a failed effort by the West to remove the Ampelmännchen and enforce their own images, the Ampelmann and Ampelfrau had the last laugh, since now they even adorn western parts of the city and parts of the rest of Germany. As Peglau put it: ‘It is presumably their special, almost indescribable aura of human snugness and warmth, when humans are comfortably touched by this traffic symbol figure and find a piece of honest historical identification’.

Third is the truly stunning ‘Stalinbauten’ or Stalin baroque of Karl-Marx Allee. At once grand and very human, elaborate and restrained, these are true examples of the availability of decent accommodation for workers. After the victory of the Second World War, Stalin was handed a gift – a ruined street (previously called Große Frankfurter Straße). His response was to launch an architectural competition for the construction of what would come to be called ‘Europe’s last great street’ (Aldo Rossi). The result was something that draws me back again and again. Stone and architectural tile, metalwork and high quality timber, frescoes and grand stairways, facing facades with traditional Berlin motifs, open spaces and theatres, restaurants and shops, matching towers at either end (Frankfurter Tor and Strausberger Platz) – all of it constructed a distinct sense of proportion that is very welcoming indeed. Everywhere are opening and walkways, leading out to back streets that contain yet more award-winning examples. Apart from celebrating the boulevard, or allee, itself, the Stalinbauten also provides wide green spaces in squares and fields (although one or two of these have been filled in by dolts since). Completed in 1962 and running more than two kilometres along (and back) from Karl-Marx Allee, it became one of the models for Stalin Baroque or socialist classicism – works of architecture that still stand and are acknowledged from east Germany to Siberia.

Fourth, there is nudism. Nudism? Like Lenin and many of the leading Bolsheviks, the East Germans were and remain much more enthusiastic about nudism, or FKK (Freikoerperkultur). Stemming from the naturalist movement in the 19th century, the communists were much more advanced on this score and fostered the tradition. Indeed, they were more relaxed about bodies and sexuality more generally, so much so that the first sex change took place in the DDR, paid for by the state. Probably the best area for nudism still is the Mecklenberg Lake District, particularly the beautiful Müritz National Park. Here one engages in nude camping and hiking, for there are nude beaches and holiday places for the whole family. But one also continues to find nude trains and airlines. My love is nude cycling, not merely since it means you need carry less with you. The trick, as I have found, is not to stand up in the pedals too often, especially when people are behind you.

Finally, the memory and practice of communism still runs deep. Many in the DDR supported it to the end. All the activity during the ‘Wende’ (turn) of the 1980s indicates as much – by groups in the new civic movements (Bürgerbewegungen: Neues Forum, Demokratischer Aufbruch), the Church and the sections of the government working for renewal. They produced a manifesto, For Our Country (Für unser Land), which was signed by no less than 1,167,048 signatures. And it was one effort among many, seeking to renew the socialist project from within.

What is that project? I mean not an ossified government that faced the inevitable difficulties of maintaining legitimacy, that made many mistakes such as restricting travel by its citizens. I mean the assumption of communality, that we are all – especially workers – one. I mean the assumption that each gives according to ability and to each is given according to need. I mean the assumption that whenever oppression and exploitation arise, people will desire liberation. And I mean that a far better way to live is not to produce much, but to desire little. It assumes a simple life shared by all, without the obscene acquisition of useless wealth.

Refugee Train across Europe

‘Where are you from?’ I asked.

‘Syria’, said the young man.

‘Do you speak English?’ I asked.

He smiled and shook his head. Some minutes later, his friend arrived and they asked me about their train ticket. Or rather, they showed it to me, with quizzical faces. Their final destination was Kiel, in the north of Germany, which required a change in Hamburg. I promised to help them when we arrived in Hamburg.

I noticed that they had a small backpack each and that they looked weary, very weary. Holidaymakers hereabouts usually carry much more. And they usually stay in hotels with comfortable beds, or perhaps – like me – they stay with friends and acquaintances. These two young men were not holidaymakers and they had clearly not slept in a comfortable bed for quite a while.

My thoughts went back to the crossing of the border between the Netherlands and Germany, an hour or so earlier. I was on my way from the small town of Alphen aan den Rijn to Copenhagen, a journey that should have taken twelve hours. At the German border crossing, an unusual number of police patrolled the station and the train itself. The open borders of the European Union were not so open any more. In my carriage, they stopped to speak with another young man.

‘Where are you from?’ The police officers asked.

‘Tunisia’, he said.

‘May we see your passport?’ They asked. Upon perusing it, they said: ‘You do not have a visa. Please come with us’.

He followed them off the train, where a number of people had also gathered. Soon enough they were led off by the police for processing.

At that time, I had not yet made the connection. But with the two Syrians on the later train, it hit me: I was experiencing first-hand the European refugee ‘crisis’ of late 2015. Or rather, it was only the first, very small taste.

By the time I arrived at Hamburg, I realised I was in the midst of the greatest movement of people in recorded history – from countries destroyed by foreign intervention, such Syria, Afghanistan, Libya … It is one thing to see stories on the television or read about it in a distant newspaper, with the usual distortions and sensationalism. It is another thing entirely to experience it directly.

The train on which I was travelling arrived late, having left Osnabrück late. Hoping that in Hamburg my connection to Copenhagen was also late, I raced to find the platform. The train had already left. After rescheduling my travel at the Deutsche Bahn ticket office, I had an hour or more to explore the station. As an ancient centre, Hamburg always bustles. But this was no ordinary bustle. It was packed full of people.

In the toilets, many Syrian men were having a wash. The cost of entry may have been one euro, but the attendant was letting them in for nothing. On the stairs, in the passageways, on the platforms were group upon group of tired refugees. A family sat in a corner, with the mother quietly breastfeeding the baby. A man from Afghanistan spoke with a women next to me, saying he and his group had been on the road for four weeks. They would stay in one country for a night, perhaps two, and then move on. All of them – families, groups of young men and women, occasional older people with someone to help them – had nothing more than a small backpack and perhaps a smartphone in order to keep up with what was happening.

Finally my train arrived, although now I had to go via Jutland and around to Copenhagen. The German railway system was straining, with all trains running late. My train was soon full to overflowing with refugees. I sat next to a German woman from Flensburg.

‘I never expected this’, I said, ‘although I should have’.

‘There are so many’, she said, ‘even more this month’.

‘Where are they going?’ I asked.

‘To every city, town and village in Germany’, she said.

‘How do they get there?’ I asked.

‘The German government provides them with tickets’, she said.

‘In the Netherlands’, I said, ‘people were saying, “it is what you do”’.

‘Yes’, she said, ‘this is what we think too. However, we cannot do it alone’.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘Other countries need to help’, she said. ‘This is a global problem. But Denmark, Norway, Hungary … they refuse to take any refugees’.

‘Really’, I said. ‘But they are rich countries, with many resources to share’.

She smiled ruefully.

At Flensburg, in the midst of one of my ancestral homes by name of Schleswig-Holstein, we had to change trains. For many, Flensburg was the end of their journey for now. Arabic-speaking Germans were ready on the platform. They wore ‘Welcome Refugees’ jackets and guided people to the station centre. There they provided some food, drink and arranged accommodation for those who were staying in Flensburg.

Yet again, I had missed my connection, so I had to wait for the next train, now in the middle of the night. I did not expect anyone to board the train to Denmark, given that country’s less than welcoming reputation. The barriers on the platform for Denmark reinforced this impression. However, when the train arrived, a large group of refugees were led onto the platform. The station personnel at the barriers did not request passports – only valid tickets. Soon the train was full.

Now I became fully involved.

One young man spoke English, so he became the interpreter and de facto leader of a train full of anxious refugees. They were constantly keen for information in a foreign country with strange customs. At the Danish border, I expected them all to be hauled off the train.

Instead, a Danish police officer came through and asked, ‘Anyone seeking asylum in Denmark?’

One by one, everyone responded, ‘Sweden’.

He walked on.

An Arabic speaking woman followed him, checking to see if people had understood. One or two had further questions. By her shrug and sour look, one could tell immediately that she didn’t care and had no desire to help.

At Fredericia, in Denmark, the train stopped for some time. An announcement stated that we would not have to change, for the train would now go through to Copenhagen. Obviously, the authorities feared some might disappear on their way to another platform. A large group gathered around me as the interpreter asked what was happening. I explained the change in plans in detail, answering further questions.

Soon enough the last toilet on the train stopped working. I advised those whose bladders were about to burst that a corner on the platform was a good place for such purposes – having done so myself. A couple of women were not so keen, so I asked some station attendants of they could fix the toilets. They did so – with much relief.

After yet another delay, we departed. A weary train soon fell asleep. Children slept on seats and on the floor between seats. Old people were given the best spots. Young people did the best they could with the remaining space.

By 3.00 am we finally arrived in Copenhagen – five hours later than my original schedule. Everyone disembarked and asked me – through their translator – whether they had to take a ship to Malmø. The train will take you there, I told them.

‘I wish you all the best’, I said. ‘I hope you find a welcoming country and a place to make a new home’.

They thanked me profusely for the little help I had given, shaking my hand one by one. We waved farewell.

Walking out of the station and into a rainy Scandinavian night in mid-November, I found I could barely imagine what such a journey must be like for them, fleeing a home engulfed in war. Their towns and villages were being destroyed, people around them were being killed, mostly by foreign forces. They did not know what lay ahead.

Yet I was struck by the way everyone was very helpful. No-one pushed or shoved to get on or off a train. Instead they assisted each other. People constantly made room for anyone else, offering seats and places where needed. The feel on the train was far from any sense of danger, but rather a sense of weary and hopeful collective will.

The situation went beyond politics and propaganda. It boils down to a simple question: if someone is in dire need, you either turn your back or you help. For you never know when you will be in such a situation.

Geometry, Land and Track: Bodily Memories on a Bicycle

The feel of the air, the sense of a track, the lie of the land, the geometry of a bicycle – many are the triggers for unexpected bodily memories. Even a reasonable amount of long distance cycling in different parts of the world is enough to build up a collection of memory tracks; except that they are not mere memories but intensely felt experiences, returning with a bodily intensity and vividness that continues to surprise and delight.

The preconditions: leave the world for a couple of days or more. Mount a bicycle, loaded with enough supplies and gear, and set off into remote parts. Soon enough, the great pleasure of a ride is upon me. To be a dualist for a moment, while my body settles into its rhythm, my mind is free to wander according to its own preferences. Or rather, my mind finds itself subject to the messages my body is sending. And unexpected messages they are.



On a recent ride and on a new bicycle (a Surly Long Haul Trucker), I began to recall my many rides in Germany on an old Pegasus. I had bought it second hand, and over a couple of years I had cycled the route of the Berlin Wall (Mauerweg), along the Spree river from its source (Spreeradweg), and many rides around Herrnhut in the far east of Germany. Fond I became of that worn but reliable German bicycle. I even began to taste lunches of ryebread, cheese and cherry tomatoes, as well as the chocolates for energy that cost next to nothing. I felt intensely the bumpy farm tracks, the empty single lane roads through forest and farmland, the dirt paths through biospheres, and even the dedicated bicycle paths that criss-cross the country. But why those rides, tastes, experiences? And why that bicycle? Unable to answer the question, I let my mind wander again, only to return the Pegasus. At last I realised: the geometry! Both bikes put my body in a similar position. The position of the seat in relation to the pedals, the places for my hands on the handlebars, the angle of lean – all felt the same. But it went further, for the gear shifts and ratios, the cornering, and the comfort with a load brought the two even closer together.


Lie of the Land

Moments later my memory tracks were in the Netherlands, on a glorious ride of self-discovery a decade ago. My body began recalling not the bicycle I rode then, but the way seas and land are inescapably part of one another. Dykes and polders seemed to be about me, as did the exhilarating experience of finding myself all alone on the Waddenzee in the north of the country. Mostly, however, I felt I was in the midst of waterways and opening bridges, which would be raised to allow canal traffic to pass. Why did I recall the Netherlands so vividly? I pondered this question while salt spray hit my face, born by a sea breeze that ruffled the waves and formed white caps on the chop. I was actually passing through Swansea, south of Newcastle. Here Lake Macquarie passes into the sea, the passage winding its way like a sea canal. The low-lying land on either side is bolstered by seawalls to protect the land in a storm. As I rode up to the bridge crossing the passage, the red lights came on and I pulled up. The bridge began to open to allow some boats to pass through. The Netherlands indeed.

2010 August 009a

Sense of a Track

A little later, my senses of balance, sight and smell had me transported to a glistening wet fahrradweg (bicycle path) through a deep European forest. A ribbon of black twisted its way through ancient and dripping trees. Rain spattered on my jacket, soaked through my helmet and splashed up on my shoes (mudguards seem designed to direct all water into the tops of one’s footwear). About me I felt a biosphere, and I began to recall that intense feeling of wishing that the path and its forest would never end.

2013 April 092 (Spreeradweg)a

Actually, I was cycling along a relatively rare experience in Australia: a dedicated bicycle path through a forest. These paths tend to be rail-trails – old railway lines (for coal mines, sugar cane or fruit orchards) that have been converted the bicycle and walking routes. Rare though they may be, I seek them out whenever I can. On this ride, the day was cool and threatening rain, and soon enough the track was a glistening wet black ribbon through a dripping forest. No wonder I found myself in a European forest.

Warm Bed

As I gradually became soaked from the driving rain, an intense anticipation came upon me. A dry, warm hostel, with a massive meal and a chance to dry out – my body leapt at the expectation. Now I could have been anywhere: towards the end of that endless fahrradweg through the dripping forest; crossing the border in Jutland between northern Germany and Denmark; the soaking rain along a quiet track in the Dutch Veluwe; autumn rains on the North Sea Bicycle Route in Norway; or a squall blown in from the sea in Denmark. On each occasion, I felt the bodily pull of dry clothes, a grand meal, a shelter for the bicycle (after its wipe-down), a warm and dry bed.

Loss of Pride: Post-Communism in the DDR

‘People are proud of their mining history’, she said.

‘Mining?’ I said.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘But lately, the mines have been closing and the economy is much worse’.

We had stepped off a single carriage rail-motor at the bustling station of Oberröblingen, in Thuringia, Germany. Apart from a couple of women, the platform was deserted. We pondered the faded lettering on the dilapidated station building – a wonderfully strong brick structure that had once been the glory of the village. Now the bricks were cracked, the window frames rotted, the guttering rusted.

But we were not to stay in Oberrblingen, for our destination was Allstedt, the next village but one. We were following the trail of Thomas Müntzer, the theologian of the revolution from the sixteenth century. He had been hereabouts, in Allstedt, and we were keen to get a feel of the place. But now our trail seemed to run cold. A bus? We meandered onto the road by the station building, vainly seeking a bus stop. How about we ask a local? The two women, whom we had seen briefly on the station, disappeared around the corner.

At a loss, we turned this way and that, seeking someone, anyone who might be able to help us. I heard a noise, a scrape of shovel in soil. Turning, I noticed a woman in dirty jeans, bent over in the corner by the station building. Tentatively, I walked over and asked in broken German, ‘Excuse me, do you know how to get to Allstedt’.

‘A bus’, she said in equally broken English, as she put down the shovel and wiped her hands. ‘Ah, that is a little difficult’.

A three year old child came out of the side door of the station building, eager to see what the excitement was about.

‘I know’. She pointed to a beaten up car, full of junk. ‘I’ll drive you’.

‘Are you sure?’ I said. ‘That would be wonderful’.

‘You’ll have to wait a moment while I clear some space’, she said.

After a veritable truckload of gardening tools, boxes, children’s playthings, and intriguing objects one could only speculate concerning the use thereof, enough space had been cleared. We jammed in, tugging protesting doors closed. After endless attempts, she managed to get the machine running and we were off.

As we backfired our way through the village and out along the country road, she said, ‘I am sorry for my poor English. We learnt English at school for many years, but I have little opportunity to practice it here’.

‘It’s far, far better than my German’, I said, smiling.

She was obviously keen for the company, relishing the chance to meet and talk with some visitors.

I asked. ‘Do you own the station building?’

‘Yes’, she said. ‘But it has many problems’.

‘Was it expensive?” I said.

She smiled. ‘€5,000. Places are not expensive in East Germany’.

‘Do you mind me asking, but were you born here?’ I said.

‘No’, she said. ‘I’m from Hamburg. I came here with some friends to set up a small hotel, hoping some tourists would come. But it didn’t work, so I bought the station’.

‘Are your friends still here?’ I said.

‘They all left’, she said, ‘Looking for work elsewhere. There are no jobs here’.

‘What about you?’ I said.

‘I’m a biologist’, she said. ‘But there are too many biologists in Germany, so it is difficult to find work. I stay here because it is cheap. If I find work somewhere, I will move. But I would love to find work here, since it is so interesting from a biological point of view’.

‘Oh’, I said. ‘I thought that Germany was the economic powerhouse of Europe’.

‘For a few, perhaps’, she said. ‘But most people find it very difficult. There is not so much work, and the pay is usually quite low. Wages have been kept low for more than twenty years now’.

On the way to the next village, we passed a copper mine, its presence marked by a massive mountain of tailings.

‘People are proud of their mining history’, she said.

‘Mining?’ I said.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘But since the end of the DDR, the mines have been closing and the economy is much worse’.

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘The official propaganda is that the reunification of Germany has been an endless good for those in the former East Germany’.

She laughed. ‘Hardly! People here are proud of their mining history. It goes a long way back, and provided the economic strength of the area. It’s part of their identity as Ossies. I never thought much about the Wessie-Ossie divide until I came here. I thought they were all keen for the reunification. But the differences are still very strong – among Wessies as well as Ossies.’

I looked out over the mines dotting the rolling hills and fields, and thought of the miners and peasants that had been keen on Thomas Müntzer’s message some 500 hundred years ago. He spoke with them in a language they understood, of oppressive lords and bosses, of hard labour and rough treatment. No wonder he was sought after in these parts, firing people up with his preaching and writing.

‘And now?’ I said.

‘They are losing their pride’, she said. ‘It was bad enough in the 1990s, when one industry after another was closed down in East Germany. At least then the mines kept working. But not now. The young people leave and there is no work. So they are depressed and losing their pride’.

Reconnaissance: The Trail of Thomas Müntzer

It was a journey of discovery, in all senses of the term. We began with no more than a rough idea: we wanted to follow in the footsteps of Thomas Müntzer. Other than that, we had no idea of how to travel, or where to stay. So each day was a search for routes, for buses and trains where they existed, for a bed for the night, indeed hoping there would be a bed. At a deeper level, it was a search for what traces were left of the Peasant Revolution of the 1520s, and especially of Thomas Müntzer, the theologian of the revolution.

To Zwickau: 24 September 2013

Zwickau was Müntzer’s first parish, after completing his further studies at Wittenberg under Luther and Melanchthon (he had initially trained as a priest and been ordained in 1513). He had come to the place with Luther’s recommendation in 1520, at the age of 31, to spread the word of the Reformation. We came to the place by rail motor from Leipzig, to a seedy railway station on the edge of town. For us, however, there was no room at the inn, so we ended up in the curious Goldener Helm, a few villages away in Lichtenstein. The next morning we bussed back into town, experiencing what is for me still an extraordinary event: a town bus running through the countryside, from village to village. You can of course run such busses when the landscape is dotted with villages at 3-4 kilometres apart, within sight of one another. It is another story when they are, say, 100 or more kilometres apart.

Back in Zwickau, I was struck by the humbleness of Müntzer’s first church. A small stone structure, it resembled more a country church of the type with which I had become familiar as a child: a few stained-glass windows, a modest steeple, stone blocks and worn front door. To find it, we had to dodge the old fogeys at the local markets and avoid the big church with its high steeple (on advice). At the entry to the church, we came across a simple engraved stone, indicating that Müntzer was minister here for eleven months over 1720 and 1721. Here he was initially in tune with Luther, pushing at the edges perhaps but largely in agreement. It would not be long before he pursued the more radical implications of Reformation teaching and practice.


To the side of the church we found a statue of Müntzer. He looks slightly heavenward and his robes flow out, full of movement and the vigour of his message. He holds his hands clenched together below his neck. Above all, your eyes are drawn to his mouth: full lips, open in speech, earnest if not anguished about the state of the world and the need for God to intervene. Nearby is another sculpture, made out of a rough rectangle of rock.


On one side, four horsemen leap forward in grim anticipation, at once both the troops of the princes and the four horsemen of the apocalypse. They strain towards a jumble of peasants on foot, who scramble to put up resistance to the apparent power of the horsemen. On the other side of the sculpture is both a simple inscription concerning Müntzer and, beside it, clouds from which sunbeams stream. An artist’s way within a communist country of depicting divine inspiration, perhaps, but it is also coupled with the sense of a higher calling, a vision of a better world that beckons.

At least here is some commemoration of Müntzer and the peasants, we thought. But then we noted when the sculptures were completed: September 1989, for the 500th anniversary of his birth. Around the corner were three more sculptures, of workers engaged in cloth production, beer brewing and fruit picking. They too had been erected at the same time, recalling the working basis of the town and its region when Müntzer was in these parts. Yet all these sculpted forms had appeared at a curious moment, barely weeks before East Germany was invaded by the West. Sculptures are not made overnight, nor does the planning and organisation of a major anniversary happen at the last minute. More than a decade was devoted to preparing for the event, yet at the same time as all this activity, others were undermining the DDR. I could not help thinking of that sculpture with the horsemen competing with one another to hack down the peasants. Was it an unwitting parable of the destruction of the DDR? Initially, they too seem to have succeeded, but the cause of the peasants was not erased so easily.


The legacy of Müntzer is thereby caught in the uncertainty over what to do with the legacy of the DDR, for the two are entwined with one another. Marginalisation versus appreciation, efforts to erase and forget versus commemoration, ideological warfare versus resistance and even persistence – we were to see these tensions and more embodied in the further traces of Müntzer.

Zwickau to Allstedt: 25 September 2013

In the astounding Allstedt these tensions were particularly present. Here is the church where the first German liturgy was written, printed and enacted; yet the church is a ruin and the liturgy absent. Of course, it remains a slight ‘problem’ that Müntzer rather than Luther wrote the first German liturgy. Or it is so for those who hold Luther to be the hero. Yet Müntzer it was, when he was minister in the Domkirche in Allstedt, in 1523-24.

Before Allstedt, he had been in Prague, the town to which he had journeyed after the year in Zwickau. Prague was not the success for which he might have hoped. There he had preached in the church where Jan Hus had done so a century before. There he had produced the Prague Manifesto, but he stayed only six months. Eventually and via many brief stops, he made it to Allstedt, whither the locals had called him.

He had come to Allstedt, in his home state of Thuringia, via Reimer, Erfurt, and a few other places. We too journeyed through Reimer and Erfurt, although by bus and train rather than horse and cart. Alighting at Oberröblingen, we stepped off the empty platform and vainly sought a bus. We asked a woman in dirty jeans and with soil on her hands, and she offered to drive us to Allstedt. It was barely two villages away. She seemed keen for the company, living along with her four-year old daughter in the old railway station that she had bought for €5,000.

On the way, we passed a copper mine, its presence marked by a hill of tailings.

‘People here are proud of their mining history’, she said.

‘Mining?’ I said.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘But since the end of the DDR, the mines have been closing and the economy is much worse’.

I looked out over the rolling hills and fields, and thought of the miners and peasants that had been keen on Müntzer’s message. He spoke in a biblical language they understood, of oppressive lords and bosses, of hard labour and rough treatment. No wonder he was sought after hereabouts, with people fired up by his preaching. Today, a town like Allstedt struggles again. Many of the houses are empty, with broken windows and faded ‘for sale’ signs. Many young people leave town to look for work elsewhere, while those who stay find their own amusement with grog and drugs and home-made tattoos.

We stayed at the old Stadtmühle, which has a couple of simple rooms for visitors. Within minutes we were out walking, drawn in a curious way to the church tower nearby. A quick look was all that was needed, we thought, for this one is a small affair. Müntzer must have preached at the church with the higher tower and greater presence some distance away.


But this was his church; it was a ruin. The tower was somewhat intact, with a clock that had ceased to mark the time. The shell of the church remained, with arches and windows through which one could ponder the momentous events that shook these walls. By the old church door were a couple of faded tombstones, although on their reverse sides we could still make out the verses from Isaiah and Job. A worn-down relief sculpture of a lamb and banner was worked into the lintel of the doorway itself. And beside it was a rusty sign, with letters we could barely make out: ‘Thomas Müntzer Denkstätte’.


It that it? In this building, the first German liturgy was written, printed and performed. In this town, the fiery Sermon to the Princes was delivered (during a later return visit, on 13 July, 1524). challenging the powers that be and calling the peasants to arms. Is that it? You might read of the importance of these acts, especially in a recent novel called Q (by the radical Italian collective known as Luther Blissett/Wu Ming), or in a Verso Radicals book that has republished the Sermon to the Princes, or in the publications by the Thomas Müntzer Gesellschaft. But on the ground, in their material presence, these acts have been decisively marginalised. It is as though the radical legacy of Müntzer, even his historical importance, is cultural rather than material, superstructural rather that infrastructural.


Thankfully, we later found there was a little more of the material traces, although by no means enough. That evening, a light in the tower drew us back. We met a local couple, who had lived, seemingly forever, right at the foot of the ruins. They spoke of the annual Thomas Müntzer day, which takes place sometime in September each year, of the opening of the ruins, of the light that is perpetually lit in the church tower.

Allstedt to Frankenhausen: 26 September 2013

The next day we were to find some more traces. Up in the Schloß, a museum reserves a corner for Müntzer (much more is given over to Friedrich, the Elector of Saxony, as well as Goethe, who seems to have graced the area with his presence for a few nights). All the same, the museum corner does come from the time of the DDR, another part of the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Müntzer’s birth. Here at least was mention of class conflict, and of Müntzer’s achievements in Allstedt. Here too was the printing press, which had been in the church and which had pumped out those revolutionary texts and spread them far and wide. Indeed, the whole of his life was mapped out, as far as it is known, along with some fascinating samples of his writings. In the Schloß’s chapel is the most likely place where Müntzer delivered that sermon to the princes. Not a large chapel, but it was a sermon that has reverberated through history.


By the afternoon, which grew increasingly chilly, we boarded a bus for Frankenhausen, changing in Arten. Our journey was full of reflection, but less stricken with urgency than Müntzer’s some five centuries ago. After being banished from Allstedt (at Luther’s bidding), he had become a revolutionary on the run. Hiding, travelling incognito with Ottilie von Gersen, he travelled far and wide, organising, preaching, inspiring the revolution. Eventually, they made his way to Frankenhausen. Using the wide networks of peasant and miner communication, they had gathered their forces. Schloßen were burnt, lords turned out, armies trained. The lords themselves hired mercenaries and set out to crush the movement. They all converged on Frankenhausen in May of 1525.


Frankenhausen is quite a contrast to Allstedt. Today, hot springs draw tourists to a town on the hillside, with its sloping and twisting streets, as well as church towers bent at alarming angles. Houses are painted, young people have something to do, shops buzz a bit more. But the only buzz we had was of weariness and the need to find a bed. Intrigued by a sign that said, ‘Hotel Straube’, we followed it into the centre of the old village. The hotel was something your grandparents might have designed, and it seemed as though the visitors were of the same vintage.

Frankenhausen: 27 September 2013

After a reconnaissance of the town the evening before, we had one aim today: to climb the grimly named ‘Schlagtberg’ to the Panorama Museum and seek out the famous masterpiece of Werner Tübke. On a rough track, we clambered up the mountain, stripping down in the unseasonable heat of autumn and stopping to take in the view of the valley where the battle of Frankenhausen had taken place. On the top is a simple but imposing circular building, with the appealing features of a DDR construction.


Passing through vast doors and a spacious entry lobby, we climbed the stairs and stepped into the midst of a truly stunning painting. It towers 15 metres above you and then circles around for some 124 metres. Although it is painted flat, the perspective gives the impression of drawing in at the top. We felt as though we were in a dome. Werner Tübke spent ten years on the painting: three years research; a couple of years producing a 1:10 model; the remainder painting it, with 14 assistants. The style echoes medieval patterns to some extent, with colour playing a crucial role in its meaning. The painting is far more than a depiction of the battle of Frankenhausen. Full of biblical symbols – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the fish of Jonah, the ark, Hagar and her child, Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, and much more – it moves between the four seasons of the year. Of course, it concerns the human condition and the continual pattern of human fears, dangers, hopes, and searches for redemption. Yet, one can detect certain emphases: the lords and rulers and bishops do not come out well, and human beings themselves are depicted as caught between sin and salvation, between evil and good, between oppression and freedom. Further, although the initial impression is of the eternal return of the same, the cycle of history is also one of change. Müntzer’s time was the beginning of the shift from medieval society to the beginnings of the modern bourgeois era. Müntzer of course challenges both the old order and the newly emerging one, for he was a revolutionary. Not unexpectedly, he is a centrepiece of the painting, appearing first as a preacher to the common folk against the evil of Babel, and then at the centre of the battlefield at Frankenhausen. What struck me most was the way the battle is undecided. Neither the well-armed mercenaries of Philip, Landgrave of Hesse, and the other lords, nor the simply armed peasants streaming from the wagons, have the upper hand. Their banners remain aloft, especially the peasant one of frÿheit. Müntzer himself stands in the middle, untouched by any blade, looking beyond the battle field and seeming to cross himself. Most notably, there is no scene where he is executed after the battle. The hope of true freedom continues.



On our walk back down the mountainside, picking our way over quartz, limestone and marble, we came upon a grassy knoll. Upon it is a carved stone, recalling the style of a headstone. The date of the Battle of Frankenhausen – 15 May, 1525 – is inscribed on the stone, while at the top flies a banner proclaiming the same slogan of the peasants: frÿheit. As we dropped further down the slope, I pondered the DDR in the 1980s. The propaganda from Western Germany, which still seeks to set the agenda, would have one believe that the DDR of those times was an economic basket-case and a cultural wasteland. Yet here was a masterpiece of art, a stunning commemoration of Müntzer that is also a parable of human history. The time seems to have been more creative than one is led to believe.



Frankenhausen to Mühlhausen: 28 September 2013

In the crisp air of an autumn morning, we tracked down a minibus that would take us to Sondershausen (its station still decked out with DDR features) and then the train to the fateful Mühlhausen. In this town, Müntzer and some other leaders had finally been executed on 27 May, 1525, after almost two weeks of excruciating torture and interrogation. But he had been here before, called by the congregation of Marienkirche in February and then again, briefly, a couple of months later. It was enough time for what should be called the revolution of Mühlhausen, when the common people of this imperial free city had seized control of the town council and produced a new constitution. Henceforth, the town was to be governed by the ‘Eternal League of God’, established by popular election from the citizens of the city, based on God’s justice. Those with power and wealth were deprived of these encumbrances, and justice was exercised by and for the poor – all of which was outlined in the revolutionary Mühlhausen Articles. The problem at this moment was that many felt they could sit back, secure behind the double walls and its guns, assuming that they could bargain with the princes and would be left in peace. A few followed Müntzer to Frankenhausen, where others had gathered, but many stayed behind and did not send the crucial aid in the peasant army’s hour of need. The Mühlhauseners were to learn the lesson of revolutions the hard way. As Lenin would point out later, revolutionaries need to act swiftly and with a united front, taking advantage of the disarray of their opponents and before the counter-revolution can be organised. Mühlhausen was soon crushed by that counter-revolution.

Today, Mühlhausen still attempts to claim historical importance due to the peasant war and Müntzer. Yet that claim is somewhat muted by comparison with the time of the DDR. Then, the town was subtitled Thomas Müntzer Stadt, although you can still find postcards with just that name for the place. Then, the museums were more elaborate, with greater and more detailed displays. By contrast, today, the Bauernkrieg museum (am Kornmarkt) relies on a minimal display, one that is neat and tidy in a way that sanitises peasant life in Müntzer’s time. Luther is even credited with the possible inspiration for the peasant war, overriding the importance of Müntzer. And the museum in Marienkirche, where Müntzer preached for a few weeks in early 1525, has an even smaller display, barely worth the three euro entry fee. A few texts and pictures, a map of his many movements, and a cabinet that recognises yet downplays his importance in the DDR. It mentions the sections of the armed forces named after him, the clubs and school programs devoted to his legacy, yet it describes the coins and medallions and artworks as ‘curious devotional’ items. Stunningly, it asserts that there was no recognition of Müntzer’s role as a theologian. Rubbish. Obviously, the people responsible for such an assertion have neglected to read Karl Kautsky and Ernst Bloch, who did so much to establish the importance of Müntzer and the Peasant Revolution.


All the same, some items cannot be downplayed so easily. The prime example is the statue by Willie Lammert at the Frauentor gate of the inner walls. Made out of the local white stone, it presents Müntzer holding a Bible close in his left hand (the afore-mentioned museum curators take note), while the other hand rests on a writer’s pallet held ready at his waist. Given that the site of his execution is not known, this has become the place. Erected in 1956, it also welcomes you to Thomas Müntzer Stadt.


This was to be our last contact with the material legacy of Müntzer – for now at least. This journey may have begun as a journey of discovery, but it ended with the realisation that it was really a reconnaissance mission. We had touched on only some key points in the itinerary of Müntzer’s brief life (1489-1525). In doing so, we had to find our own way, for the material traces are scattered here and there. Uncharacteristically for Germany, there is no Radweg that enables one to follow his steps, with its maps for walking and riding a bicycle. There are no guides, signs, even brochures that assist one in pursuing his trail. Above all, it had become startlingly clear that Müntzer’s legacy is a troubling one for the locals, if not Germany and its theo-political history. They know not what to do with that legacy, whether to forget or celebrate, to marginalise or claim as their own. That Müntzer and the peasants are now inseparable from the DDR only makes the situation more intriguing. As the driver of a mini-bus simply put it, without the DDR, Müntzer would hardly be remembered at all.

Obviously, a more involved exploration beckons, a month or more on a bicycle at least. We can’t wait.


Wolfsberg Walking: In the Forests of Oberlausitz

Can one find a part of Europe where land is plenty and people are few? This is not the usual image of that western peninsula of the Eurasian landmass. Then go eastward, to regions few think of when ‘Europe’ is mentioned, to Eastern Europe. There you will encounter endless forests, marshland and mountains. To be sure, it is still relative, for farmland always has the next village within eyeshot, and you can be sure that someone, at some time over the last few centuries, has been before you in this spot in the quiet forest. Yet, at a particular moment, you can be entirely alone, not a human being within range. So it is one year in a late winter, in the easternmost parts of Germany. The snow keeps falling and the ice lingers and people hope for spring. Indoors they stay, restless and fidgety, but I am out hiking through snowdrifts and snowstorms, relishing the crisp air, the walde and burge all to myself.

Day One: The Silence of the Forest (March 2013)

2013 March 151 (Herrnhut)a

A couple of days ago the snow returned, reminding us that spring isn’t quite here. Until then, we had begun to feel the warmer touches to the air; the bushes had thought about a bud and some birds began gathering twigs. Too soon, it seems. Recently thawed ground once again lies under a thick cover; pines that had shed their heavy loads are once again blanketed; snow clearing equipment put away until next season is hauled out again.

I am keen to walk – in the forest. My route takes me eastward from my lodgings in Herrnhut, down the hill along a well-known path – Galloping Tuberculosis (the alternative to Langsamer Tod, the Slow Death) – which is the age-old track for villagers between Ruppersdorf and Herrnhut. Along the Petersbach brook it trails through the forest to Oily Crotch (Eulchratsham), before turning northwest and up again through the forest. The last stretch is through open fields, over the Hutberg and to the village of Strahwalde.

For much of the trek, my footsteps are first in the snow. Drifting up to half a metre, it is deep enough so my foot sinks in past my ankle, shallow enough so it is not my whole leg. With temperatures no more than minus 10, it is perfect weather and quite mild. Progress is slow, occasionally slippery, but steady. Beneath the layer of snow lie icy ridges, strange angles, holes – all ready to catch an unwary ankle, to test and tone muscles used to slack walking on the flats. A thorough workout for gluts, thighs, calves and the multiple muscles of my feet and ankles.

In the midst of it all, I am thoroughly absorbed with three things:

First, the silence of the forest. I have experienced the quiet after a snow storm in the city, in Montreal where it was wonderful to be out after a storm with the noise absorber of a white blanket everywhere. But here in the forest, the usual sounds of animals, wind, trees, have disappeared; or rather they are absorbed by the interlocked flakes.

Second, the animal tracks are everywhere. They may be small, dainty steps, perhaps of a bird prancing about on the snow; they may be slightly longer hops, perhaps a squirrel; they may be the pointed toes and sweep of a tail that I guess is a fox; they may be what appear to be rabbit prints, two at a time in neat pairs; or dog tracks, out with an ‘owner’, following their own olfactory path rather than the visual one humans follow. But the triple prints in a triangle are a puzzle, until some deer bound across the track, startled, and I note their tracks. Many other tracks contribute to the intricate tracery, made by animals I cannot not even guess. It may be easy to hide in a snowy landscape at some level, if one knows how (I see very few animals), but well-nigh impossible to cover one’s tracks unless you follow exactly in the footsteps that have gone before – if there are any like one’s own.

Third, the extraordinary effect of snow on trees. On bare branches, a line of snow renders a stark outline, throwing into relief the line of the branch itself. By contrast, conifers seem to set themselves to catch snow on their webs of needles. Whole trees seem to compete with one another to see who can collect the most snow.

Eventually, the forest and its silence, with laden trees and animal tracery in the snow, come to an end. My path takes me out of the forest and over the open fields past the Hutberg. Now I trail someone’s cross-country skis – of which there are many tracks this late winter. I stride up the hill and skid lightly down, a solitary figure in the expanse of white. The sun appears and glistens on the snow; villages and their houses huddle beneath heavy white brows, puffing smoke. Then a magical moment: a brief snow storm, with myriad large fluffy flakes swirling down and cutting down visibility. A low sun peaks beneath the clouds and I am captured – again.

Yet I am also captured by the lowness of the sun, or rather, almost trapped. I am so absorbed by the storm and its light that dusk comes to an end before I know it. Visibility runs down quickly and I am still far from my lodgings. Fortunately even the smallest amount of light is enhanced by the snow. I make for the glow of warm yellow lights in the village windows.


Day Two: Bone-Chiller (March 2013)

Some winds brandish their wind-chill with bitter glee, anticipating the gasps and shivers as they hit yet more warm-blooded creatures. So it is today as I set out on the trails. As soon as I come out from behind the shelter of the wall, the wind hits. Turning to face it, with eyes watering and nostril hairs frozen, I realise I am looking directly towards Siberia. Later I am to discover that this was the coldest spring morning Germany has ever had.

The forest beckons, promising to block the bone-chiller. And so it does. The conifers may whistle higher up, snow may come tumbling down from a waving tree branch, but down below, among the roots and trunks, I am comparatively warm. Underfoot, the snow is compacted to some extent along the trail, so the going is easier than I experienced earlier.

It takes little time for me to feel as though I have been on the road for ages. The kilometres may roll past more slowly underfoot, but pass they do. Well-tried walking boots, comfortable clothes, muscles working smoothly and generating their own warmth, a small pack – nothing more is needed.

Now it is the mountain, the Hengstberg (Horses Hill), where fresh teams of horses used to haul heavy carts up the slope. The trench where the old road ran is still to be found here. I clamber up the slope, beginning to sweat, removing caps and gloves for a brief period. And then it is a slide down the other side, on my bum due to the steepness, and I find once again the childhood glee of pleasure in the snow.

Now I eschew the protective forest and set out over open fields. Here the snow drifts in the Siberian wind, and ice forms on roads and paths, eager to send an unwary foot skidding. Extremities begin to freeze as my body seeks to protect its core. In the village of Batromjecy-Berthelsdorf I pause out of the wind and still I shiver – I find out later that it is minus 20 degrees with the wind chill. I seek out the church. The spirit may have moved here in 1723, sending a handful of Moravian Brethren out to Africa, Greenland, North America, and Asia, but the spirit is not going to warm me today. I seek the spirit in a coffee at the local Gastäte, but it is closed, despite the exuberant sign proclaiming that it is open. Now my body core itself begins to cool, so I turn and march to my lodgings – up the long hill and exposed to the wind. Climbs like this are supposed to get circulation going, but only the coffees and strudel in the cosiness of the Hutbergkellar can achieve that.

2013 March 187 (Herrnhut)a

Day Three: Wolfsberg Wald (March 2013)

Winter seems as though it may be defeated through sheer willpower. Today with the mercury pushing above zero, living creatures have decided to wait no longer. The birds emerge from whatever shelter they had found from the bitter winds and are out, seeking nesting materials and food, squealing, squawking, chirping. Deer seem to leap out every time I look ahead on the still snowy forest track. Dogs are frisky, barking, eager to be out and sniffing anyone and everything. Human beings burrow in garages looking for the implements of spring – gardening tools, bicycles, old chairs in which to sit and enjoy the sun to come … Or they festoon bushes beside their front doors with eggs for Easter. Or they are out walking.


I seek out the wald to the north. This is no patch of trees on a hilltop, for it is huge enough to swallow you and get you seriously lost. It is also vast enough to provide sanctuary for wolves, for they like to avoid human beings. I am told this is not merely due to old fears of hunters, but because human beings stink to high heaven in a wolf’s nostrils. I have actually seen wolf tracks in this forest, so I like to call it after one of its mountains, the Wolfsberg Wald.

On this trek, I walk some 15 kilometres from Herrnhut to Kemnitz and then Bernstadt. I pass through jumbled village cores first established about a millennium ago, along snow-covered trails deep in the forests, along muddy paths across fields, and then finally alongside the main road into Bernstadt. On the way I learn three more lessons about walking through German forests.

First, Germans like to organise their ‘wildernesses’. Of course, there are the sign-posted tracks, marked with routes for walking, horse riding and cycling. And yes, they have hunter/wildlife observer platforms throughout. But when it comes to numbering the bird boxes, it goes to a whole new level. At a scratch I can understand how such boxes help threatened species. But to number them consecutively … ‘There’s a new batch of chicks in number 96 on Berthelsdorfer Strasse’.


That brings me to the second lesson. Tracks through forests are not logging tracks or fire tracks – the sort to which I have become accustomed back home. They are ‘streets’. In fact, they are named according to the village at the other end. So in Berthelsdorf, Kemnitzer Strasse takes you to Kemnitz. And the same track in Kemnitz is called Berthesldorfer Strasse and takes you to, yes, Berthelsdorf. Hold on: they are forest tracks! I can understand a paved road with such names. But forest tracks? Of course, if I cast my mind back a few centuries, when only the rich had horses and carriages and the majority walked, then such a track was the best way between villages. No one would think twice about a 10 km walk from one to the other. It is simply what you did to get around.

Lesson three: German beer tastes much better after a day out walking, even with snow still thick on the ground. Your legs and feet appreciate it more, especially when they have passed from well-oiled pistons to stiff and tender limbs urgently in need of rest and resuscitation. Your carbohydrate deprived body is thankful, since beer provides a concentrated replenishment that is far better than those oddly coloured, fancily bottled and highly sugared ‘sports drinks’. And your throat is eternally thankful.


Day Four: Lost in the Village (March 2013)

Most often on a longer hike, you stride through villages, perhaps stopping for a little to eat and a piss. Apart from a couple of houses strung out along the ever-present stream, there’s nothing much to them. Or is there? For some reason or other I end up in the back streets of the village of Strahwalde, perhaps due to a ‘wrong’ turn. It is hard to know what a ‘wrong’ turn is, since the streets twist and bend in that medieval way.

Before I know it, I have crossed the stream, which is variously dammed for washing clothes in times past, runs through a small mill, or has a diversion for a reason long forgotten. I sidle past a house with an ageing mural on its side, the work of an artist perhaps, who decided long ago to relocate here. Up a twisting path and I am in the midst of run-down stables before striding past the front door of the old schloß, or manor house of the lord. Built in the seventeenth century, it was part of the ‘refeudalisation’ of eastern Europe that was underway. Less a return to feudalism per se, it was a manifestation of early capitalism, but in an area where land was plentiful and labour scarce. So peasants were legally tied to the land of their lord, or perhaps one of his early factories, in a way that seemed as though the old order was returning. But it actually enabled the transition to more fully fledged capitalism. These days the schloß is cracked and worn, windows broken and doors boarded up. I wish that for all the ruling class.


I drop down from the hill – for rulers ‘need’ to have the best views – and come across a man rummaging in his garage. Snow may still be on the ground, ice may still be forming in the creek, but it is March and it is supposed to be spring. So he is sorting out his gardening tools, ready to dig and plant, hoe and rake the moment the thaw arrives. But the garage takes my fancy, for it is a simple rectangular construction, with a light sloping roof to the wooden double door at the front. It is exactly the same design as countless others I have encountered, with cement-rendered finish over large bricks. Simple, functional, cheap – a product of the DDR when one still made such things. This one has a few extra touches: some paint on the timber door, a large thermometer out the front, a weather-cock on its corner. For his sake and for mine, I hope spring comes soon.

A bicycle passes by, upon which is the same man I have seen on a number of occasions. A slightly vacant stare, with one eye to the side; perhaps his family has been in the village a little too long. At the next turn, a woman leans out of her kitchen window and talks to a neighbour on the street. The neighbour’s only errand may well be to meet and chat a little like this. A dog scampers on its way somewhere, and a child follows on a bicycle, trying to keep up with the dog.

Now I twist around the corners of the small farmer’s houses, some with the local braces-and-shingle style. On the lower floor, heavy timber forms arches that look much like braces to hold up one’s pants, should one be of that vintage. Two such braces are at one short end of the house, while three run to the front door. From the door to the other end the braces stop and angled timber and brick takes their place – the kitchen and perhaps (if retrofitted) a small toilet and bathroom inside. Upstairs is for sleeping, and here are shingles aplenty. They cascade down from the roof, past windows and to the intersection between the two floors. And each village has its own distinct pattern. Here the shingles are predominantly black, with white spot patterns in between. Tight and warm in winter; unbearably close in summer.

The spatial relationship between this house and its neighbours seems to have no clear plan, except perhaps to be close to the creek. Or rather, they reveal a very different production of space that dictates such arrangements. With corners jutting out, with designs at all angles apart from 90 degrees, each place is set obliquely to the other. It looks as though a giant child has been playing with them, only to toss them aside and then walk away to seek some other amusement. Here, at the core of a twelfth century village is a living reminder of almost impossible to imagine senses of lived space. Yet, at least one item of spatial production is clear to me: no matter which path you take, with its many twists and unaccountable bends, it always seems to wind its way to the church. Once, long ago, it may have been Roman Catholic and then Lutheran, but now it bears the lamb and banner of the Moravian Brethren over its doors.

I look at my watch: three hours have passed! Is not a village supposed to be tiny, a few houses strung out on a stream?


Day Five: Crossroad (March 2013)

Clearly, everyone and everything wants spring to arrive. The birds have had to put away their sticks and string and straw for the time being. The deer had been hoping for fresh shoots of grass to nibble, but instead find they need to scratch about in the snow for old, frozen leaves. The squirrels’ winter supplies have well and truly run out, but the new stock is by no means ready. Even the first flowers of spring, the yellow winter aconites and white snowdrops, have pushed up in the odd corner only to be frozen stiff.

But spring refuses to arrive. Or rather, winter is undertaking an excellent rear-guard action to keep spring at bay. My winter rhythms continue, baby-steps over slippery ice remain the norm, coats-hats-gloves are still firmly in place. I set off out the back of Berthesdorf, keen to try new paths, through scatterings of houses that collectively call themselves the villages of  Kränke, Neuberthelsdorf, Heuscheune … Even though I know that each house has a dog, even though I am occasionally apprehensive, the German dogs are well-behaved indeed. Perhaps it is the mundane reality of walkers and cyclists that makes such prey unexciting. Perhaps it is the German way, that all must be ordered and controlled. But a barking dog is a rare experience.

I stride over hills and cross creeks, each with a village huddled along it. I hike across fields still white with snow. I plunge into forests full of the animals that are perplexed by the absence of spring. I come to a crossroad – a temptation, a choice, a compromise. Is that not always the way with crossroads? Turn that way and I follow an unknown path; turn this way and it takes me home. Homeward I must turn – not without a longing look towards the other path – for the light is fading and hunger calls me. As do warm lodgings.

2013 April 005 (Herrnhut)a

Crossroad: Saxon Walking (Part 5)

Clearly, everyone and everything wants spring to arrive. The birds have had to put away their sticks and string and straw for the time being. The deer had been hoping for fresh shoots of grass to nibble, but instead find they need to scratch about in the snow for old, frozen leaves. The squirrels’ winter supplies have well and truly run out, but the new stock is by no means ready. Even the first flowers of spring, the yellow winter aconites and white snowdrops, have pushed up in the odd corner only to be frozen stiff.

But spring refuses to arrive. Or rather, winter is undertaking an excellent rear-guard action to keep spring at bay. My winter rhythms continue, baby-steps over slippery ice remain the norm, coats-hats-gloves are still firmly in place. I set off out the back of Berthesdorf, keen to try new paths, through scatterings of houses that collectively call themselves the villages of  Kränke, Neuberthelsdorf, Heuscheune … Even though I know that each house has a dog, even though I am occasionally apprehensive, the German dogs are well-behaved indeed. Perhaps it is the mundane reality of walkers and cyclists that makes such prey unexciting. Perhaps it is the German way, that all must be ordered and controlled. But a barking dog is a rare experience.

I stride over hills and cross creeks, each with a village huddled along it. I hike across fields still white with snow. I plunge into forests full of the animals that are perplexed by the absence of spring. I come to a crossroad – a temptation, a choice, a compromise. Is that not always the way with crossroads? Turn that way and I follow an unknown path; turn this way and it takes me home. Homeward I must turn – not without a longing look towards the other path – for the light is fading and hunger calls me. As do warm lodgings.