It wasn’t planned that way, but my first visit to Rostock came at a major turning point in recent German history. I arrived there on 14 November 1989, just five days after the opening of the Berlin Wall and four days after the opening of the heavily fortified fence, wall and death-strip that had separated East and West Germany for the previous 28 years.
When I changed trains in Hamburg, the platform at track 8 was packed with East Germans returning home from their first day-trip to the West. Many of them had large bags and boxes of things they had bought in Hamburg with the 100 DM “Welcome Money” (Begrüßungsgeld) they had been given by the West German government — that would be roughly 50 Euros in today’s money.
Why did the West German government give “Welcome Money” to all these thousands of people? Mainly to undermine the East German GDR (“German Democratic Republic”) government, which was rapidly disintegrating in any case. But also as an economic stimulus for retailers in West German cities, where all that money was spent. Otherwise the GDR visitors wouldn’t have had anything to spend, because their East German Marks were unconvertible.
The mood on the train from Hamburg to Rostock was excited and exhilarated — aufgekratzt would be the German word for it. After their first visit to the Golden West they all seemed convinced that from now on their lives were going to be different, and of course better, than under the stifling GDR regime.
One woman who ran an HO-pub in a small town — HO was the state-owned Trade Organization — was delighted at the idea that she would no longer have to take any crap from the arrogant local bureaucrats who came to drink at her pub. I didn’t have the heart to point out that it was the state’s pub, not hers, and that the HO was bound to crumble along with the rest of the GDR’s state-owned institutions.
Many of the people on the train had bought electrical appliances that were not available in the GDR. Some were starting to doubt that they had spent their 100 DM wisely, but one young man told me proudly that he hadn’t spent a Pfennig of it, but had spent the day just browsing the record and CD shops in Hamburg. “I just wanted to see what’s on the market,” he said, “and check the prices. In two weeks I’ll come back with a list and buy the recordings I really want.”
As always, the train stopped for an hour at a place called Herleshausen at the border between East and West Germany, but this time no People’s Police came through with dogs to search the train, because travel between East and West had suddenly become legal.
During the stop they called my name on the loudspeaker and asked me to come and get my visa stamped in my passport. As an American I still needed a visa to enter the GDR, but suddenly it was no problem to get one.
This train trip in 1989 went quite smoothly, despite the overcrowding that resulted from thousands of East Germans returning home from their first day-trip to the West. The railroads were efficient and flexible in those days, and the West and East German railroad systems worked together despite the political differences of their governments, so they added extra cars to the West-East trains. This made the trains longer than the platforms at some of the East German stations, but nobody minded this, and people helped each other off onto the ground.
My reason for going to Rostock in 1989 was that I had been invited to attend a conference at the university on computer-assisted language learning. The conference had been postponed twice, in part because the organizers had been hassled by the GDR authorities for daring to invite a few people from the West to participate. So it was purely by accident that the conference took place during the first week of open borders.
My photos in this post are from 2009 (not 1989). I revised the text in 2017.
Next: Rostock twenty years later (coming soon).