Impressions of a foreign country linger as single, disconnected scenes, like tourist snapshots, and that is how I remember my brief excursion into East Germany late last summer. The nation itself hung in limbo: The week I roamed the countryside, its government voted away its own sovereignty by agreeing on merger with West Germany. I wanted to see the land before it disappeared, or was “franchised” by the affluent West.
You needn’t drive far—100 yards across the former border will do—to note glaring differences. West Germany looks as uniformly neat and prosperous as any society on earth. East Germany is drab, run-down, colorless. The farms are bigger (communal), but far less productive. Soot-colored buildings sag, in dire need of repair. Railroads are slow: After World War II, Soviet conquerors stole half the railroad tracks so that now a train must pull onto a siding to get around each oncoming train.
Strange, I think, how we romanticize societies less developed than our own. Right-wing regimes in Spain and Portugal forestalled development for decades, and when they opened up, Western tourists flocked in to see pristine coastal villages and charming cities unspoiled by modern skylines. After a few years of freedom they began looking like those in France and Italy. Now the tourists are invading East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary for a last look before those nations, too, sprout McDonald’s and video rental shops. We yearn for what we’ve lost; they yearn for what they’ve never had.
West Germans love to gossip about their Eastern cousins, who wear bumpkinish clothes, putter about in ridiculous Trabants (“plastic cars that rats eat,” said one friend), and gawk at gaudy window displays. Stories abound of those who eagerly ...1