East Germany blossoms 20 years after reunification

Story by Linda DuVal
Photos by Rick DuVal

The Zwinger, a palace in the heart of Dresden, has been carefully restored after the devastation from Allied bombing during World War II.

When The Wall came down, we saw rubble remaining from World War II and some ugly gray concrete buildings erected by the Communist regime. That was 1989.

The year after, East and West Germany were officially reunified. Twenty years later, East Germany has blossomed into an inviting destination of modern hotels, fine restaurants, sea-side resorts and restored historic attractions.

Cathedrals have been rebuilt, palaces reconstructed, medieval buildings returned to their historic splendor. Some were only completed in the past few years, but look as if they have been there for centuries.

This brief timeline for its transformation is nothing short of remarkable.

Ancient cities like Dresden, which was firebombed for three days in February 1945, at the end of the war, had not been rebuilt under Russian occupation. But in the past two decades, the city has become the showplace it once was.  It’s hard to tell new buildings from old, so careful was the reconstruction.

“The war destroyed much of Dresden,” says tour guide Cosima Curth. She waves her arm to encompass several blocks of what look like old buildings.

“For many years, there was nothing here. We couldn’t afford to rebuild. Our poorness made us rich, though. The ruins remained, so after Reunification, we could rebuild them.”

What the war didn’t destroy, the Russians did, she says.  “They practiced destruction by neglect.”

Curth, who protested along with other East Germans back then to get The Wall torn down, says growing up in her homeland was not easy.  Raised Catholic, she was ridiculed in school by both peers and teachers. She didn’t get the educational advantages she had earned because she openly practiced her faith. Her “best friend” turned out to be a spy for the state police.

“Things are so different today,” she says. “Religion is not an issue.”

Today, it’s hard to tell East from West. Except, perhaps, that there is more active construction in the East. They’re still making up for lost time.

Dresden

Despite heavy bombing by the Allies, a block-long mural of 24,000 porcelain tiles was miraculously untouched. Although the building that holds the murals was partially destroyed, only 1 percent of the tiles had to be replaced. It depicts 35 rulers of the region, including the revered Augustus the Strong. Augustus was as much admired for his virility as for his wisdom as a ruler. Supposedly, he could lift a grown man with one hand and it’s rumored that he fathered 365 children -- several legitimate.

A block-long mural featuring Augustus the Strong and others remained intact, though the building to which they are attached was heavily damaged by bombing.

The Zwinger (pictured at story opening), a complex of buildings surrounding a vast square, was seriously war-damaged. But many of its buildings have been beautifully reconstructed in their original styles. Here, costumed characters perform small plays and dances to delight crowds that gather on fine days.

The complex took 800 years to complete, and its buildings include Romanesque, baroque, rococo and contemporary.

In Dresden, don’t miss the Green Vault, a museum with one of the largest collections of treasures in Europe. Terribly damaged during the war, its contents were confiscated by the occupying Russians, who later returned them. Entire rooms are devoted to nothing but ivory, amber, silver, gold and jewels – including the Dresden Green Diamond (41 carats), the Saxon White Diamond (44 carats) and a spectacular 648-carat sapphire – a gift from Czar Peter I of Russia. The rooms of this museum are themselves jewel boxes to hold all these gems.

Leipzig

Established in the 12th century as a center of trade and commerce, Leipzig, also badly war-damaged, has resurrected many of its stunning buildings, including a city hall that looks like a cathedral.

A bit more bohemian than Dresden, you’ll find absinthe and “goth” bars here along with grand churches.

Don’t miss seeing the Battle of Leipzig monument, the largest single monument in Europe. It marks a historic battle involving 600,000 soldiers and the defeat of Napoleon. Built in 1913 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the battle, it weighs 300,000 tons and is 91 meters (about 300 feet) high.

The Baltic Coast

If you don’t think of Germany as a seaside destination, then you haven’t visited the Baltic Coast. This northern edge of the nation borders the Baltic Sea and has wide, sandy beaches and a faithful following among Germans who vacation here.

In Rostock, one of the most important ports in this region, you’ll find a Hanseatic League city with both medieval and modern architecture, including an unusual brick church and a city hall with seven turrets (mostly rebuilt after Reunification, having been demolished by Allied bombing). Take a short jaunt to Warnemunde on the Warnow River, a popular, quaint resort town.

The Baltic coast invites people, as well as waterfowl, to come bathe.

Next, stop at Zingst, a seaside resort town with a broad beach that invites walking. Early in the morning, don’t be surprised to find a few hearty Germans doffing their robes and diving naked into the surf! Rife with authentic charm, Zingst is a favorite summer getaway for Berliners – who live just a few hours away.

Then head to Stralsund and get a real look at the Baltic up close – at Ozeaneum, a new, modern aquarium that explores the sea life of the Baltic and beyond. It was named European Museum of the Year for 2010.

Finally, take time to visit the island of Usedom and the spa towns that attracted the wealthiest Germans for centuries. Grand mansions and one of Europe’s longest piers make for a great walking tour, or one by horse-drawn wagon.

Berlin

You can’t really visit East Germany without visiting East Berlin. The Wall is gone, except for protected remnants that are now tourist attractions.

Berlin is a big city and, like New York or London, folks there are more brusque than in the small towns. To get oriented, take a city bus tour, which shows the highlights of both East and West, including the Reichstag (the historic German parliament building), which was finally restored after Reunification and the Charlottenburg Schoss, a grand palace built for a Prussian empress.

The Brandenburg Gate has become a symbol of peace in Germany.

Especially visit the magnificent 18th century Brandenburg Gate, once the symbol of divided Germany and now a symbol of peace and Reunification. Seriously damaged in the war, it was finally fully restored in 2002.

Checkpoint Charlie is another reminder of the Cold War – today a tourist attraction where faux soldiers pose for photos for a couple of euros.

Take advantage of the proximity to do a day trip to Potsdam. See the church where Hitler assumed power, the headquarters of the KGB, the KGB prison where American pilot Gary Powers spent some time, and visit Sanssouci, an imperial palace so grand even the Soviets maintained it as a tourist attraction.

Sanssouci in Potsdam was such a glorious palace, even the Russians did not let it fall into disrepair.

History echoes through every step you take on the cobblestones of East Germany. Every place you visit harbors reminders of war, like the still-visible writing on the side of a church in Dresden that says: Building checked. No bombs.

Each town, church or castle reminds us of the destruction of war and the ability of the human spirit to overcome it. Given time.

Cover photo courtesy of Dresden Marketing GmbH.

Linda DuVal is a freelance writer and former travel editor for The Gazette  in Colorado Springs, Colo.

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