Crazy Communist Tours

Anyone who’s been to Berlin will note the abundance of ‘Trabi Safaris‘ on offer.

In recent years, though, Berlin has had stiff competition from Krakow and Eric’s Crazy Communist Tours.

One distinct advantage Eric has is the crazy terrain of Nowa Huta. In Soviet times, Kracow was just too middle-class for its own good. So the concerned authorities blighted the city with a Lenin steelworks and some Stalin Empire-style housing estates.

The steelworks were a total nonsense, since there were neither raw materials locally nor any immediate market for the product. But it was a triumph of socialist, social engineering, burying the Kracow bourgeoisie under thousands of fast-breeding, Polish peasants.

Nowa Huta fell just short of a worker’s paradise, however. The vast housing estates proved high on crime and low on God, which bothered traditionally Catholic-minded Poles. First there were demonstrations to build at least one church. Then, even worse, the Lenin steelworkers all joined Solidarity and became a real nuisance – right up until the fall of communism.

By contrast, the Berlin Trabi tours offer the thrill of self-drive, but it’s certainly easier and more informative with Eric driving. You will learn, for example, that Trabant is old German for foot soldier and also that the ‘old soldier’s’ hydrocarbon footprint is ten times that of any modern car.

But do the giant test for yourself. Below is a clip from a Berlin Trabi Safari.


Sex, Drugs, Bronze’n’Gold

East Germany’s ‘Wonder Girls’ were the most successful Olympics team ever.

At the 1980 Olympics, East German girls won 11 of the 13 swimming events. Wunderkind Rica Reinisch won three medals at the age of 15. The DDR – a country of just 17 million people – could outsport both the US and the Soviet Union.

But . . . something wasn’t quite right about the girls. That’s what US athlete Wendy Boglioli remembers. ‘The girls were huge – and they had beards’, she said. At the time, she was panned by the press for being bitchy and a sore loser.

Now it’s common knowledge that the DDR babes were on a programme of anabolic steroids.

It worked . . . and how. Olympic records set by the babes stand to this day. So do the after-effects of the drugs they took:  cancers, swollen livers, miscarriages, identity crises –  as well as a hugely enlarged clitoris and nymphomania.

Some girls gave birth to deformed children.  A shot putter called Heidi changed sex altogether. (She’s now a guy called Andreas Krieger.)

The tablets they took were Oral-Turinabol, a steroid containing testosterone. It is ideal for athletes, increasing muscle-mass and speeding recovery from injury. The scientists from East Germany’s Jenapharm, who manufactured the drug, worked closely with the trainers (and the Stasi) monitoring performance and analysing results.

Importantly, the scientists knew exactly how long traces remained in the body, which is how girls with Tarzan biceps (like Kornelia Ender, pictured right) always passed doping tests – to everyone’s surprise.

In 2005, the girls began a court case against Jenapharm (the firm became Schering after re-unification) for damages. To its shame, the pharmaceutical firm was unrepentant and flatly denied its involvement with a covert Doping-For-Gold programme. Sadly, many girls were told only that the little blue pills were vitamins.

East Germany has shown a reluctance to come clean about the past, but after a four year case Jenapharm finally owned up and settled out of court. It’s believed 170 athletes won damages totalling 4 million, but it’s likely hundreds more were affected.

Would they have won without the drugs? Maybe not by a country mile, but certainly the East German Olympic Programme was formidable. It took any kid with athletic prowess from school and put them on a conveyor belt of accelerated and sophisticated training.  Their families were simply told to forget academic studies –  they were needed by the State.

Example: for the Mexico Olympics, everyone from canoeists to cyclists were flown to the Caucasus for altitude training. Meanwhile, the DDR invested 50m in computer timing and athletic simulation as early as the Seventies – light years in advance of other countries.

So, perhaps reality is not a big shift from history. Though it’s true that the girls wouldn’t have needed to shave every day.

More: A video docu here, (50 mins) made a few years ago before the legal settlement


The Red Elvis

Dean Reed’s is a truly astonishing, true story. Unknown in the US, he’s the all-American boy who became a Soviet superstar during the Cold War.

Dean defected from Nashville to East Berlin, going by way of Argentina and Chile. It was in ’60s South America that he had his first number one record and picked up his Marxist politics.

Dean soon discovered he could fill arenas with fans and give rousing speeches to farmers. It made him an enemy of Peron and Pinochet and earned him a blacklisting by the CIA.

No matter, he moved on to conquer the East Bloc, with number one records in East Germany and Czechoslovakia. He starred in movies made in Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. He didn’t forget his country-rock roots and kept up a long-distance friendship with Phil Everly, who once travelled to East Berlin to perform with Dean. Crossing into the East was scary, recalls Phil.

Yet in America, it’s still Dean Who? Just for starters, he’s the only American ever to have won a Lenin Prize – for rock’n’roll, no less. Along with his native English, Dean could speak Spanish, German and Russian.

In East Berlin in the 1980s, Dean Reed had it all – a lakeside villa, an East German film starlet as a wife, an Estonian actress as mistress. He toyed with a plan to tour America. But on June 12, 1986 he inexplicably disappeared, his dead body found floating in the lake four days later.

More: American Rebel (DVD), Comrade Rockstar (Paperback)

Dean with Phil Everly in Karl Marx Stadt (now Chemnitz), 1984


The Way We Weren’t

Yuppie pads edge out artist squats. It’s been property developers versus people for a few years now in East Berlin.

Restoration is welcome, of course. But sacrificing all to the property god is changing the social fabric of East Berlin. What made East Berlin trendy and desirable – the artists, students and oddballs – are being priced out. A bland bourgeoisie is replacing the buzz.

The Government is as responsible as any for denuding the place of culture. Rents have risen 40% in some places after lifting controls. It’s also been busy demolishing Plattenbau which could have been recycled. This is definitely the property lobby at work. A surplus of housing isn’t good for prices.

When affordable apartment blocks are torn down, while single rooms can command 1000 Euro a month, anger ensues.

2009 saw the rise of the ‘flambe activists’, torching yuppie cars. There’s even a map to track the activity. Recent peaceful protest involves activists turning up for an apartment viewing and then stripping naked. The impending closure of Tacheles (to make way for a luxury hotel) has seen plenty of street demos.

As well as sad, it’s self-defeating, of course. Social and cultural diversity was East Berlin’s main attraction. Tourists actually visit Berlin to see places like Tacheles, not plate glass. Time for a reality check.


Rubbish Bag

Bag made from re-used number plates and an inner tube

The Berlin home of Garbage Art is at Kunst-Stoffe, in Pankow.

It describes its activity as: ‘an artistic, aesthetic and sociological exploration of re-use and second-hand culture’. So you can get started, the atelier helpfully maintains its own garbage tip which is just full of materials ready for ‘creative upcycling‘.

Before you say, ‘what a load of rubbish’, note that Kunst-Stoffe takes it all very seriously and has international artists in residence.

Silje Figenschou Thoresen is going to look into the ‘grammar of aesthetics in back yards, streets and hallways‘.

Telly Woo from China plans to research ‘the methodology of collecting, arranging and processing waste materials while exploring of issues of garbage and recycling in the context of different places and cultures’. (Translation: Hong Kong garbage is different from Berlin’s.)


The Berlin Wall Just Moved

East German border, 1989

Königsberg border, today

John F. Kennedy was rather famous for standing in front of the Berlin Wall, complaining how inhuman it all was.

No one, however, stands in front of the Fortress Schengen wall, which has effectively imprisoned one million people in Kaliningrad. (As it happens, roughly the same population as the former East Berlin.)

As far back in 2002, the Institute of Security Studies wrote ‘The EU has apparently no idea what to do, choosing benign neglect in place of policy.

If you think the road trip looks bad, try the Kaliningrad – Gdansk train. You’ll pass plenty of barbed wire and watchtowers. For ostalgic, Cold War scenery, it’s the real deal.

Time to name and shame a few people? They’re listed here.


Heaven Is A Sky Blue Trabant

The DDR’s Sonja Schmidt never really made the big time until she released  ‘Ein Himmelblauer Trabant’ in 1971.

It’s an unashamed, uninspired novelty song with pathetic lyrics . . . so it should have won the Eurovision Song Contest hands down if East Germany had been a contestant at the time. All the same, it grabbed a gold for DDR’s  State record label – Amiga.

Still today, equally pathetic Trabant enthusiasts pay fortunes on e-Bay to get hold of a copy of the record Sonja made in 1971. It’s a Trabant owner, glove-locker, must-have.

A two-stroke car, the Trabant requires you to open the bonnet to fill it up with its noxious mixture of oil and petrol. The ritual is celebrated here by a fellow Ostalgist and modelmaker.


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