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East Germany Travel Guide

A Luminous Past and a Thriving Present

by André Gayot

Dresden: "Florence on the Elbe"
Dresden: "Florence on the Elbe" at sunset

Why would one want to travel to East Germany, this former Soviet satellite? Beyond the bright façade of wealthy West Germany, this part of Europe seems so far away and yet so rich — if one can say that — with names reminiscent of wars and battles.

Few remember the days of thunder. The years of merciless war and of the communist yoke are but a faded memory. The flowers of peace and liberty have erased the nightmare of the devastation of World War II, and life has bloomed again. The resilient Saxons (the inhabitants of this part of Germany, Saxony) have lifted up their heads, rising from the rubble. They have straightened up their country, boldly boarding modern living quarters while preserving their past, rebuilding brick by brick their awesome cathedrals and their impressive monuments. The rest of Germany accomplished its reconstruction years ago, but its Eastern part (left in the shadow until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989) is not yet out of the woods and is still active in its recovery. It’s reassuring to watch the ongoing process of revival and to listen to this lesson of hope.
 
In the middle of Europe, this area is a green land, organized, neat and tidy. Pristine cities boast large parks. Downtown, pedestrians and cyclists are more welcome than cars. Past the urban areas, speedy sedans can be driven at ease in a web of freeways where speed is unlimited. Towns benefit from a dense network of public transportation and are linked by fast trains, docking on time in impressive stations.  For its monumental architecture, the Leipzig “Bahnhof” (rail station) merits a visit. The modern, well-groomed environment facilitates the discovery of a prestigious past illuminated by art and culture. Dresden, almost entirely ravaged by bombardments in 1945, stands today as one of the most beautiful cities in Germany (with its churches, theater and palaces and their wonders), after a careful and tedious reconstruction of its architectural treasures. This is also a heaven for music lovers: Johann-Sebastian Bach was “Kapellmeister” in Leipzig; Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler lived and worked here as well as poets and playwrights such as Goethe and Schiller. Thomas Mann and Günther Grass were born in Lübeck, and Mann won the Nobel prize with his story of the bourgeois family the Buddenbrooks.

The Hanseatic League

In the middle ages, among the corporations of merchants and the alliances of cities, the Hanseatic League or Teutonic League was the most important. Founded in 1241, the League climbed to its summit in the fourteenth century and dwindled in the sixteenth. About 200 cities — mostly trading centers of Northern Germany and those of the Baltic, some from Belgium and Russia — participated in the association, whose original aim was to protect the merchants against pirates and to share services and representation. The League developed its economic, political and even military powers and became a more powerful organization than the German states, suppressing customs between them and even declaring war on Denmark and winning it. The League exercised tight control over the commerce of Northern Europe, including Great Britain. The Kogs, big bulging vessels, plied the northern seas loaded with goods from the west, wines, clothes, fabric to be traded against raw material, furs, wax, honey of the north and the east. Members of the League, merchants and cities, benefited from lasting prosperity. This wealth financed the architectural and artistic development in the Hanseatic cities.

The Hanseatic cities Lübeck, Stralsund and Wismar along the Baltic Sea tell us a fascinating story of the time when the commercial alliance (Hanseatic League) of the seaboard towns generated a very profitable business that spread wealth over the region and favored the development of economy and, by the same token, art and culture, which today stamps its mark on this land. This is also a land of engineering. Cars and trains have been built here for a century, and still are. This is also where European porcelain was reinvented from the Chinese. At last, this is where a major event took place in the Western spiritual world with the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther and the split of Christianity into two different faiths.

To discover the essence of East Germany, we have chosen to begin our visit in Hamburg, the largest Hanseatic city, and after a drive alongside the Baltic Sea to continue with Lübeck, Wismar and Stralsund, making a foray inland to Leipzig and Dresden.

To see more examples of
East Germany's stunning architecture, such as the doors of its historic merchant homes, visit our image gallery.

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* Dresden image by Keute, Jochen, courtesy of the German National Tourist Board

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