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Across the Curtain in the ’60s

by
22 January 2016

John Arnold enjoys a personal account of an East German stay

by permission of the deutches historisches museum, berlin

“Our answer!”: an East German propaganda poster illustrating the German Democratic Republic’s reaction to the perceived threat from Western capitalists backed by military power. From the book under review

“Our answer!”: an East German propaganda poster illustrating the German Democratic Republic’s reaction to the perceived threat from Western capitalist...

Stepping off the Map. . .: Memories of a Cold War adventure
Merrilyn Thomas, editor
Medlar Tree Publishing £7.99
(978-0-9576491-1-8) 

 

TEN years ago, Merrilyn Thomas published Communing with the Enemy, based on her doctoral thesis about the Coventry-Dresden project of reconciliation in 1965. She modestly omitted to mention the reckless idealism of the young volunteers (of whom she was one), their adventurousness and curiosity, their discipleship, and the sheer exoticism then of crossing the Iron Curtain, as we used to say, to experience the “real, existing socialism” of the German Democratic Republic.

Now she fills that gap and supplements her academic work with a more personal introduction and epilogue, together with seven short memoirs, and a foreword by the Dean of Coventry, testifying to the lasting value of that adventure.

As in any symposium, there is much overlapping. All speak of the pervading “greyness” of the GDR (thrown into relief by the colour and gaiety of Prague in its short-lived spring), of the contrast between the docile, rule-abiding Germans and the irresponsible, exuberant young Brits, and, above all, of the sheer goodness, even sanctity, of the Lutheran deaconesses, whose unruly but welcome guests they were. The trauma of the destruction of Dresden had been such that they had not spoken of it for 20 years; then one of them said: “It is not only the rubble out there you removed, but the rubble in our hearts.”

All agree that the most lasting effects were upon the participants themselves. Character and personality are self-selecting in escapades such as this, but it is still gratifying to learn what some went on to achieve later, as Co-President of the Ecumenical Forum of European Christian Women, for example, or Director General of the Royal National Institute for the Blind. The Chaplain, Martin Turner, emerges as an exemplary leader of an expedition into unknown territory, shrewd, brave, and with enviable people skills.

Richard Leachman goes to the heart of “the paradox . . . that there we were, embedded in a society that was . . . repressive, abusive and in every sense unfree, and yet my experience of living there was wholly illuminated by the deep-felt humanity, integrity, trust and mutual respect that we encountered in its people. . . our own group glowed with a spirit, holy or not, . . . that was wholly positive, inspiring, loving and life-giving.”

Who could ask for anything more?

 

The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.

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