A long story

From West to East and East to West: Four transit corridors were used by drivers crossing the GDR on the way to West Berlin. The needle on the speedometer was not permitted to cross the 100-km/h mark. Stopping was discouraged, and leaving the corridor was strictly forbidden. Most of the corridors were perfectly straight, though bumpy, and that made the drive seem almost endless.

My Aunt Ursel used to visit us in Tübingen every Easter. She came from the town of Radebeul near Dresden, bringing us piles of presents from the East. These presents included odd-looking toy cars, unfamiliar sweets, and wood carvings from the Ore Mountains region. One of the things I remember is a gigantic nutcracker. In 1960 we celebrated Easter together, but in the year after that I waited for my aunt in vain. None of the grown-ups could explain to me why she wasn’t coming because they didn’t understand it themselves. I was six years old.

Berlin wall - Road closed

After the end of World War II, Germans’ ability to travel within their own country was severely restricted — and that applied to everyone, whether they lived in the West or the East. The four occupying powers wanted to know who was entering or leaving their respective zones. The three Western allies — the UK, France, and the USA — agreed on a uniform set of travel regulations fairly quickly, but the situation in Berlin was more problematic. The city was divided into four occupied zones, and it lay like an island in the middle of the Soviet zone. This was the place where two political worldviews collided. That made it very complicated to trade goods back and forth or travel to and from Berlin. After the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, the travel opportunities were even more drastically limited. And it took a long time to create the transit corridors that made it possible to travel to West Berlin by car.

Before Ottfried Harbusch joined Daimler, he was a freelance auto and motorcycle journalist. Today, the motorcycle enthusiast works in the communications department of the Mercedes-Benz sales organization in Germany.

Transit corridors from West to East and from East to West

The GDR made travel visas compulsory in June 1968. A visa was valid for a single passage on one of the four transit routes. The date and time of the traveler’s entry into the GDR was precisely noted by the border guards. That made it possible for the border guards at the end of the trip to determine whether the traveler had complied with the strict rules. These rules included a speed limit of 100 kilometers per hour. Leaving the highway was prohibited, and visitors from the West could stop to get gas only at the specially marked Mitropa rest areas. If they did so, they had to take good care of their receipts and present them at the end of the trip. Any violations of the rules were punished with huge fines. Visitors from the West could buy alcohol and cigarettes cheaply at the Intershops — for deutsche marks, of course. These were very welcome in the GDR. It was impossible to meet any GDR citizens in the Intershops, because they were strictly forbidden to enter them. Communication with the employees at the restaurants, shops, and gas stations was limited to the absolute minimum, because they were not allowed to converse with West Germans. Back then it was a surreal situation. Today it’s incredible that it ever existed.

The Four-Power Agreement came into force in 1971. That was also the year the two German states signed an agreement to improve the transit conditions. For example, travel to and from Berlin was exempted from the prohibition of travel on Sundays and holidays. Trucks driving to Berlin could be recognized by the special ties that held down the right rear corner of their tarpaulins. These were to enable the loads to be opened and inspected faster on the ramps of the GDR’s border installations.

Our teachers explain the war to us

Over the years, my memories of Aunt Ursel faded. At the same time, my realization that there were two countries called Germany grew. There was the Berlin Wall, a fence — people from the Eastern zone were not allowed to travel to the world in the West. It all became terribly normal for a teenager who had enough to deal with in his own daily life. But this always changed when there were news reports of failed escape attempts and guards shooting to kill at the Wall or along the border. But there were also positive reports: Again and again, people put bold ideas into action and made successful escapes to the West. Windsurfers sailed across the Baltic Sea, people flew over the borders in hot-air balloons or small aircraft, and still others dug tunnels under the Wall. They became heroes for us schoolchildren — heroes out of desperation.

As I remember it, in the 1970s schools started to teach their pupils about World War II and its consequences. From my present perspective, I believe that our teachers were the ones who most urgently needed this reappraisal and confrontation with the past. They tried to explain everything to us. As a result, we knew horrifying facts, figures, and data, but at that point I didn’t really understand them.

The bulwark “anti-imperialist protective wall”

When I was 14, I saw the border between the two Germanys for the first time, near the town of Bad Neustadt an der Saale (Bavaria/Thuringia). It was a bulwark — massive, frightening, impassable. And it seemed to me like the end of the world. You could go this far, but no further. Before that day, I could not have imagined anything like the watchtowers, the glaring lights, and the death strip. It was followed by two sleepless nights. I now clearly saw the effects of the division, but I was still unable to understand the motivation behind it, which had a different dimension all its own. This “anti-imperialist protective wall” — as it was called in the GDR — and all its obstacles affected me very deeply. In the GDR, the border was officially referred to as the “demarcation line.” In geopolitical and military terms, it was called the “Iron Curtain.”

East Berlin customs police stopping a car on the Charlottenburger Chaussee with a tire puncturing heavy barbed chain

A dreary landscape

People who have traveled through the GDR along one of the four main transit routes often describe the feeling of oppression that accompanied them. Let’s hope the car doesn’t break down. What if the children need a bathroom break, or if some Volkspolizisten simply feel like carrying out inspections? Random inspections did in fact take place. At night the border installations looked like crime scenes. Glaring spotlights cast an eerie light on the dreaded and arbitrary forced stops. During the daytime, the armed border guards made it absolutely clear that the sensible choice was to simply stop your car and submit to all the inspections without asking any questions.

The transit routes themselves were usually former Reichsautobahnen, and their road surface was worn and bumpy. Whether you were traveling by motorcycle, car or truck, you rattled across the gaps between the concrete slabs and were mercilessly jolted and bounced around. Besides, back then the vehicles had nothing like the smooth ride we’re used to today. Cruise control had not yet been invented, and keeping the needle of the speedometer constantly on the 100-kilometer mark was a strenuous task.

The entire trip was dreary. There were no signs of life to the left or right of the highway. Even the natural features looked gray. At night you couldn’t see any lights. I only remember that the Leuna chemical plant on the stretch between Hirschberg and Drehwitz-Dreilinden was brightly lit — the rest of the time the surroundings were pitch-dark.

Today's view of the highway, past the industrial area of Leuna

Traveling to West Berlin and a reunion

I made my first trip to West Berlin in 1972. I traveled there by a safe route, flying from Stuttgart to Berlin Tempelhof Airport and back again. Back then, the air corridor was served by the Allies’ airlines: PanAm, Air France, and British Airways. The plane tickets were inexpensive, because they were subsidized by the West German government.

In the years after that I often traveled to West Berlin on my motorcycle or in my car via the transit route Rudolphstein/Hirschberg – Dreilinden/West Berlin. This was because some of my friends wanted neither to serve in the Bundeswehr nor to do alternative service as conscientious objectors. If you were a resident of West Berlin, you were exempted from military duty until your 27th birthday — so these friends moved to West Berlin. By then we were once again in touch with my Aunt Ursel and our entire “Eastern family.” Aunt Ursel was allowed to visit us again starting in 1980. Pensioners in the GDR were generally permitted to visit their relatives in the West.

As I’ve already mentioned, the trip was nightmarish. It was the edge of the zone — a boundary area that nobody wanted to live in or visit. I always had a very queasy feeling when I was crossing the border. Once I had two motorcycle tires in my trunk because I was bringing them to a friend. What a hassle that turned out to be. Another time, we were laughing at a border officer while we were inside the shelter of our car. The man was so fat and so draped in military medals and decorations that he could barely fit into his tiny Trabant P601 Kübel — a vehicle like a Jeep with a cloth roof that was nicknamed “the stuffed dog.” He looked simply hilarious. We were detained for about two hours. He had obviously noticed us making fun of him. Crossing the border with a motorcycle was also no fun at all. The border guards seemed to find motorcycles so interesting that they inspected every screw separately. And keeping a high-powered motorcycle within the speed limit was an even bigger problem than it was in a car.

The move to Berlin

I’ve been working for Daimler since 1991 at the Mercedes-Benz Sales Organization Germany. The unit moved to Berlin in 1998, and that’s when I decided to move to the new capital of reunited Germany. When I drove along the old transit route once again, everything was different. The borders were gone, traffic on the highway was heavy, and Berlin had been turned upside down. During this period, the number of people moving away from Berlin was greater than the number of newcomers. Today that has changed. During my first five years as a Berlin resident, I traveled through all the new states of the Federal Republic of Germany As I wrote down these memories, I often thought to myself, am I allowed to say all this? Yes, I am. All of us have been free to do that for the past 30 years — without any transit corridors or obligatory visas.

The four most important transit routes:

Otfried Harbusch was born in 1955. Before starting to work at Daimler, he was a freelance auto and motorcycle journalist. He has been working in the Communications department of the Mercedes-Benz Sales Organization Germany since 1991 — in Stuttgart until 1998 and after that in Berlin. He will retire at the end of this year. On the day the Berlin Wall came down, Harbusch was in his home town, Tübingen. He didn’t find out about this historic event until the morning of November 10.

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