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DDR/West Germany

John Simkin

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I’ve studied for four months at the University of Hamburg in 1963 and for one month at Karl-Marx University, Leipzig, in 1976. I have visited Germany virtually every year since 1958, just after I passed O-level German and took part in a school exchange. I taught German for 25 years.

West Germany had its negative side, but you did not get shot trying to get out of West Germany. My first sight of the Berlin Wall in 1963 was a traumatic experience. There were numerous wreaths on the West Berlin side, commemorating the deaths of people who died while trying to “escape”.

Leipzig in 1976 was dull. The shops never had enough of anything, and my landlady would get up at 5am in order to queue for meat, fruit, vegetables and coffee. I saw oranges appear in a fruit shop just once in the space of four weeks. I met a young electrical engineer and his wife in Leipzig and visited their “home” in Bitterfeld. Their “home” was a single bedroom in a nurses’ hostel – the young woman worked as a nurse in the general hospital. They had been on a waiting list for a flat for four years. Bitterfeld was an awful place. It was dominated by a huge chemical factory that poured out pollution, covering the leaves of the trees in the park with a sticky green-black deposit, which also found its way into people’s lungs, reducing their life expectancy by around five years. On the whole people were nice, but there was an absence of a work ethic compared to West Germany. Everyone was “employed” even if there was no work to do, e.g. it was quite common to find restaurants where the staff always outnumbered the customers. The customers weren’t there because there wasn’t much on the menu – or rather there was a huge menu but most of the dishes were not available. If you had relations who sent you West Marks you could buy goods in the "Intershops", which stocked items that were unavailable in "HO" shops. e.g. detergent powder that worked!

I visited the GDR again in 1989 in order to check on my students at the Frei Uni in Berlin and to take part in a conference in Rostock. This just happened to coincide with the week that the Wall came down. Read about it here:


If West Germany was a “fascist-ridden Yankee colony” then all I can say is that I enjoyed living there much more than in the GDR.

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