This is the first of a number of posts about my Summer visit to south-eastern Germany.
The highlight of my trip to Germany was not the wonderful black pilsner I found, or the glories of a grandchild developing language skills, but a visit to the Gedenk und Bildungsstätte (Memorial and Education) Centre in Erfurt, a rather fine old town in south-east Germany where Luther was a monk.
The Gedenk und Bildungsstätte Centre commemorates oppression, bravery and triumph during the German socialist dictatorship between 1949 and 1989. The building in which the Centre is situated was the remand prison run by the DDR's Ministry of State Security (the Stasi). Over 5000 people were held there by the Stasi for not being willing to make a contribution to building the new Jerusalem on the regime's terms.
On the face of it, it's a nice-looking building, all warm red brick and fine detail, and the modern glass and steel, ground-floor entrance does not give the grim game away. It's only when you get to the start of the museum on the second floor and walked round a corner that you realise that you're in a prison: the remand cells and interrogation rooms stretch out down a forbidding corridor. Up to that point, owing to a lack of detailed info in English, I'd assumed it was a rather conventional museum; not so.
The second floor was about conditions in the remand prison, and why people were incarcerated there; the first floor was about the workings of the dictatorship that held its malign sway for 40 years; and the ground floor was about how the house of cards came tumbling down when it became clear that Red Army tanks wouldn't be turning up to keep the regime's old men in power. People's human stories were at the centre of it all, and it was hard not to be moved by such courage in the face of seeming overwhelming odds.
But the odds eventually shifted with, at first, hundreds on the streets, and then thousands, and finally many hundreds of thousands all across the country, but especially in the south-east, in and around Leipzig, Erfurt and Dresden. It was good to see a country facing up to its past in this way. Over a beer afterwards, I wondered about the UK and slavery, and whether we have yet really faced up to that awful legacy. We certainly like to remember the likes of William Wilberforce and Hannah Moore, and tell good stories about abolition; but it seems we're less ready to remember all the profits we made from its misery. All that's for another blog sometime.
The final wall of the Gedenk und Bildungsstätte Centre was a chance to write a message. I wrote this:
All this effort – and for what? So that VW could lie to the public.
This is a theme I shall return to tomorrow.