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My first visit to Dresden GDR 1980: A city caught in a time warp

My first attempt to visit Dresden, East Germany, in 1980, ended in failure. Clutching my old-style British passport with a GDR visa stamped in it, I presented myself at the checkpoint inside Berlin's Friedrichstrasse Station, and after gaining entry to East Berlin, took the S-Bahn to Ostbahnhof and boarded the Dresden train. It was hauled by an ageing locomotive of the GDR Railways or Deutsche Reichsbahn, a name with pre-war overtones.

Travelogue by Aidan O'Rourke written July 2005, illustrated with photos taken on more recent trips which aim to recapture the atmosphere of Dresden in 1980.
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The train set off on time but at Königs Wusterhausen south of Berlin, it came to a grinding halt. I waited patiently and then heard the conductress say: 'Die Lokomotive ist kaputt'. Any further delay would mean I'd arrive in Dresden after my return train had departed, so I decided get off and stealthily make my way back to East Berlin. Leaving the train was a risky venture as my visa wasn't valid for this district of East Germany. I got on a train with double decker carriages which soon departed. There were some Russian soldiers on the train, but they didn't bother me and I wasn't aware of any attention from the Volkspolizei or Stasi. I spent the rest of the day in East Berlin, finally returning to the Western side via Friedrichstrasse before midnight.

My second Dresden trip was more successful. With a second GDR visa stamped in my British passport, I went to Friedrichstrasse, crossed into the East, and departed on time from Ostbahnhof. After a slow and meandering journey through the grey landscapes of the GDR, I arrived at Dresden main station. It was similar to stations all over Eastern Europe with its lack of adverts, plain decor, communist slogans and general run-down appearance.

I made my way to the main entrance hall and walked outside, to be greeted with the sight of Dresden's post-war centre, not the historic Old Town, but the outer area leading to it. I saw a long pedestrianised street with blocks of flats to the right and left. It could have been a main street in Minsk or Moscow, but this was Prager Strasse Dresden. The East had a smell, which I later discovered was from the blue exhaust plumes spewed out the ubiquitous Trabants and Warburgs with their two-stroke engines.

I walked in a straight line up the Prager Strasse, always looking out of the corner of my eye in case a policeman or Stasi agent was following me - I didn't notice one. Being alone in the hostile East was exciting, like being in a spy thriller. There were the usual features of the Eastern European streetscape: newspaper stalls with a limited range of magazines and dailies, including Neues Deutschland, daily mouthpiece of the ruling Communist party, restaurants like university cafeterias with dated lampshades, dismal shop windows with dated stock, old Czechoslovak-built trams grinding along poorly maintained tracks, and a general air of decrepitude and economic stagnation. On the top of the third of the blocks was a large sign proclaiming: 'Der Sozialismus siegt' 'Socialism is Victorious'.

I continued further towards the heart of the city which seemed empty of tourists. Soon I entered the historic Altstadt, once famed as Florence on the Elbe but I found a depressing and apocalyptic sight. Still mostly in ruins, it seemed much of the Altstadt had been left untouched since 1945.

The castle was an empty shell with only a section of the tower visible. Weeds grew in the empty window frames. The walls were pockmarked by shells from 35 years before, but it looked as though they had exploded only yesterday.

The most striking and chilling ruin of them all lay in an open space not far from the castle. A huge pile of rubble had been left exactly as it had been following the devastating air raids of 1945. Only two tall sections of wall to the left and right remained standing. This was all that was left of the historic Frauenkirche, former symbol of Dresden, destroyed, like most of the rest of inner city, during the terrible air raids of February 1945. Added poignancy was provided by the statue of Martin Luther which stood in front of it.

But the centre of Dresden wasn't all gloom and doom. A few minutes walk away was the Zwinger Palace, actually my main reason for visiting. After stumbling on a photo of it, I was determined to see it with my own eyes. I wasn't disappointed, It had been impressively rebuilt. Standing in the Zwinger you'd never have imagined there had been a war.

An inscription by the entrance mentioned something about the city being destroyed by 'bands of Anglo American bombers' and that the Zwinger was one of the first buildings to be rebuilt by the people, assisted by the gallant soldiers of the Soviet Union, liberators of Dresden.

Whoever did the work had done a very good job. The reconstructed Zwinger was a rare gem in the grey landscape of the GDR, a jewel kept hidden behind the Iron Curtain, accessible only to people from there, and a few adventurous travellers from the West such as myself. I went into the Museum of Old Masters, part of the Zwinger complex, and admired the Sixtine Madonna and paintings of old Dresden. In the museum shop, for a few East German Pfennigs, I bought a postcard of the Sixtine Madonna, and a black and white view of the Zwinger. I was curious to see how Dresden looked before the war but the postcards on sale seemed to show only concrete tower blocks.

Nearby was a construction site, another historic building being reassembled stone by stone. This, I later discovered, was the Semper Oper which would be completed in 1985.

Dresden had a leaden quality. I stood near the ruins of the Altstadt, looked across the Elbe and watched one of the old Czechoslovak trams crossing the bridge and with a screeching of metal and a twanging of cables it turned the corner towards the Zwinger Palace. I saw tourists from the Soviet Union and other parts of Eastern Europe being led around in groups. Dresden seemed to exist in a time warp, with an added sense of geographical displacement: Closer to 1945 in the Altstadt and 1960 in the modern areas, closer to Moscow or Rostov-on-Don than fellow German cities on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

I was ready to explore more of Dresden but sadly, it was time to return to the station. The few hours between my arriving and departing trains had gone quickly.

Sitting on the train after my brief trip to the sad but fascinating city of Dresden, it seemed highly unlikely that it would ever regain much of its former glory. If it did, it would probably take another 50 or a hundred years. That's how long Communism would probably last. How wrong I was.

See my GDR-related photos, including the Berlin Wall

See all Dresden and related photos

See images of Prague and Berlin

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Aidan O'Rourke studied German and French at Trinity College Dublin 1976-1981. During his year abroad 1979-1980 he was based in West Berlin, from where he made several trips into the Communist East. His final year dissertation, completed 1981, was on the development of East German literature. As a lecturer in German at South Trafford College near Manchester, 1983-1991, one of his special subjects was Berlin and the post war division of Germany.

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2005-07-14

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