10 February, 2016

New Year's in Leipzig: Impressions and History

I realize this post is more than a month late. I have no excuse, especially since January saw a flurry of activity on the blog about things that had nothing to do with current happenings in my life (except for my continuing vanilla extract supply issues). Anyway, better late than never.

So, Leipzig! I went to Leipzig for a few days over New Year's with Maxim and his family, which was somewhat of an exciting first for me. Other than Berlin, it was my first time in the former East Germany, the part that was under Soviet-supported, communist control from the end of WWII until 1990. (I guess it wasn't actually my first time in the former East, since half of Berlin was also part of East Germany, but somehow it feels different.) Before we got to Leipzig I really had no idea what to expect of it, since I had heard almost nothing about it except the name. Based on the fact that it used to be part of a separate communist country, I thought it might not be as nice to look at as other parts of Germany (due to bland Soviet-style architecture), but that didn't turn out to be true.

Notice what he's holding in his hand? lol

Just because it was it prettier than I expected doesn't mean it wasn't different, though. Compared to other cities I've been to in Germany, Leipzig seemed to be on a different scale. Not in terms of the population or the total area of the city, but in terms of the size of the buildings and how the city is laid out. Other than the pedestrian-only streets in the downtown shopping area, the main roads were wider and there was often more space around them than I usually see. There were many large, grand buildings that we drove by on our way into the city, and the opera house and the large square in front of it gave the entrance to the shopping streets an air of grandeur (unfortunately I didn't get pictures of those). And one of the highlights of the trip, the Rathaus (city hall), continued the trend of grandeur:

It's so big I couldn't get it all in the picture!

This is one of my favorite pictures from this trip.

Panorama of the front.
In addition to the Rathaus, highlights that we saw included a monument commemorating the Battle of Leipzig in 1813 (known in German as the Völkerschlacht bei Leipzig), which ended with the defeat of Napoleon by the Russian, Prussian, Austrian and Swedish armies.

In the last picture you can really see the scale of the monument. Can you spot the people walking around near the base? This thing is simply enormous and certainly fits well with the grand scale I was talking about. (There's also a museum inside, but it was closed the day we went.)

Another highlight was climbing to the top of the tallest building in Leipzig, the City-Hochhaus. (I didn't get a picture of the building, but you can see it in the background of the second picture from the top earlier in this post.) Luckily we didn't have to walk up all 36 flights of stairs; there was an elevator that brought us most of the way to the top and then we climbed the last two stories ourselves. The view from the top was worth it, despite the wind.

Here you can see the Rathaus that I showed pictures of before.

And of course it wouldn't be Germany without a museum teaching us about the consequences of World War II. In contrast to Dachau, which as all about the Holocaust, and Berlin, where I was reminded of the cultural repercussions of WWII, in Leipzig the lessons were about life in East Germany under the communist rein of the GDR (German Democratic Republic). The museum in question is the "Runde Ecke" Memorial Museum, which is housed in the building where the Stasi (Staatssicherheit or "state security") offices used to be.

During the years after World War II, the Soviet-supported German Democratic Republic (ironically named because it was neither democratic nor a republic), was run essentially as a dictatorship by a very powerful communist government. The GDR, by way of the Stasi, conducted extensive surveillance of its own people and employed large numbers of average citizens to spy on their neighbors, friends and families. Surveillance reports from these average citizens were cataloged and kept, and to this day anyone who lived in the GDR can go to the office where the records are now held and request any reports that may have been collected about them during that time.

The museum, which adjoins the records office, displays information about the surveillance program, sample surveillance reports and photos, and additional exhibits about the decline of the GDR, the reunification of Germany and life during the transition. Something I learned through this exhibit is that not everyone was in favor of German reunification. Some people still feared that a reunified Germany would become too powerful, which is the reason it was divided in the first place. There were also concerns from women that the rights and support they experienced in the GDR, such as government-run childcare and access to the workforce, would be taken from them (and they had valid reasons to be concerned). I had always assumed that the reunification of Germany was a given, but apparently I was wrong.

Learning about this recent history reminds me that Germany as we know it today is only as old as I am. Only 25 years ago almost a quarter of the German population was living under a communist dictatorship. A coworker of Maxim's grew up and worked the beginning of his career in the GDR, and through Maxim I've heard a few of his anecdotes about life under such a restrictive system. It seems like something out of a dystopian novel.

For example, the borders were so tightly controlled that to go on vacation outside of the GDR you had to apply, and if your application was accepted you were only allowed to go to one of several pre-approved, GDR-friendly locations (like Russia) and stay in a GDR-owned hotel. You weren't given money, just some coupons that were only redeemable at the hotel, so you couldn't go far before you got hungry and had to come back. Despite this, some people managed to procure enough money to buy stuff outside of the GDR bubble; just buying a pair of jeans was like an act of rebellion. Some people, in a true act of rebellion, used their vacations abroad as a way to escape the GDR, which is exactly what the restrictions were supposed to prevent. I've had this thought before as I've pondered German history and it applies very well here: if people are so desperately trying to escape your country, you're doing something wrong!

It might seem like this post became somewhat dark for what started out as a light-hearted travel post, but for me the cities I visit are inseparable from the history that I learn there. The events we learn about in school can seem so distant and unreal, but learning about something in the original context makes it come to life in a way that nothing else can. Wandering through the museum and seeing surveillance photos taken in places I had walked just hours before was eery, but powerful in a way that can't be replicated. When I think of Leipzig now it's impossible not to think about the issues such as governmental power and personal freedom that my encounter with the city brought forth, and when I write about this city I can't possibly leave those things out.

Now to bring things back to the present, a quick update about me: since this bit of New Year's traveling, I haven't been up to anything very exciting. After the Christmas/New Year's break I had another month of classes and now it's exam time. I've had my first exam already (hoping for a good grade!) and my last three exams all take place in the next two and a half weeks, so my time has mostly been spent doing all the studying I should have been doing the whole semester. After exams are over I'll focus on my final writing assignments and then I will finally have some free time! Wish me luck!


  1. Nice post, I lived in Leipzig for almost a year before I moved to Berlin. Lovely people although there are a few eccentricities I found amusing and sometimes challenging. The reunification commemorations last year were very special...Its a fab place to live in summer when you can swim in the lakes and enjoy the parks :)

  2. I imagine that would be such a strange this to do, pop down to the museum and see what people had wrote about you when they were spying on you. I'm not sure I'd want to know.

    I haven't had much chance to venture into Germany for adventures, even though I'm right next door in Belgium... it's been on my must visit list for a long time. I'm hoping to get over there this year, and see some places at least close to the Belgian border. We're going all out for local travel this year.

    ~ K

    1. That would be a strange thing to do, you're right. I'm not sure I'd want to know either. Although the people who did the spying used code names, so at least you wouldn't know which of your neighbors had written the report you were reading. That is maybe some consolation.

      I definitely recommend venturing into Germany! I don't have experience with the area directly next to Belgium, but I can recommend Berlin (of course) and Hamburg, as well as Tübingen and Freiburg in southern Germany.