Cracks in the Ice – a weekend in the Cold War

Rostock street Jan 1987

A Rostock street, January 1987

This is a fragment of personal history about the fringes of the Cold War.  I want to post it now because the events happened thirty years ago this year and because they recall people in a time and place very different from today’s world. This piece is based on my memories and on notes that I made at the time.

My one journey behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ took place in January 1987. It wasn’t an epic of high adventure. I was a foreign guest at an international conference on maritime history at Rostock in the German Democratic Republic (DDR), accommodated in one of the country’s best hotels, and treated well by my hosts. Not exactly The Spy Who Came in From the Cold or Funeral in Berlin. However, even in this academic equivalent of ‘la-la-land’, reality managed to intrude.

I was a bit apprehensive about visiting East Germany. I didn’t speak German, and twenty-plus years of spy films, novels and other writings gave me the feeling that it was Enemy Territory of some kind.

As it turned out, the journey to the DDR was hassle-free. A British Airways’ Boeing 737 got me from Heathrow to Hamburg on time, and I was able to catch the 13.43 train to Rostock.   I shared a compartment with five other people, a young West German ambulance driver and four East German pensioners, who were probably returning from a visit to relatives in the West. The pensioners were very friendly, but we didn’t have a language in common. The ambulance driver, fortunately, spoke very good English and helped me out with the officials when we got to the border.

I wrote at the time: ‘The border (at Herrnburg) was undramatic: you emerge suddenly from the trees on to open fields, and then encounter two high wire fences separated by a stretch of ominously clear, open ground.’

The border-stop lasted about three quarters of an hour, and my papers were examined by three separate sets of state employees, dealing with money (changing hard currency), passport control and customs.   We could hear clunking sounds as other border officials checked the carriage’s toilet cistern for concealed items, and (so it sounded), even climbed on to the roof to look for anyone or anything concealed there.   Given that it was deep winter, the chances of finding any stowaways huddled on the roof were a bit low.

The green uniforms worn by the officials put me in mind of those of the Third Reich, but the officer who examined my passport was a motherly woman in middle age. With the help of translations by the ambulance driver, the process went off smoothly and we headed on to Rostock.

Once we got to Rostock, I wandered round the station for some time trying to find the right platform for Warnemünde, the seaside town where we were due to stay during the conference. One thing sticks in the memory – a poster visible in the booking hall, showing a cartoon of children playing among flowers.  It alluded to the nuclear standoff with the West in an ominous caption about ‘NATO Raketen’.

Eventually, I found the right train and got the S-Bahn to Warnemünde, a ten-mile journey for a cheap 50 pfennigs. I got there at about half-past six. The streets were well lit, but there was snow and ice everywhere, and it was very cold. There didn’t seem to be a town map at the railway station, so I wandered off, hoping to find the hotel.

On the way, I passed a building that belonged to the East German navy, the Volksmarine.   There were three young sailors outside carrying brooms. They were probably detailed to clear snow from the building entrance, but instead were just clowning around, using the brooms to plough snow into each other.

I asked a number of people for directions. Luckily for me, one was a lady who spoke very good English, and she kindly took me to the right street for the Hotel Neptun.

The Hotel Neptun was a tall, 18-storey tower block, designed by a Swedish company, and opened in 1971. I wrote then: ‘It is very comfortable and luxurious, and is apparently one of the best in the country – but it is also a machine for separating foreigners from their money!’.   According to a Wikipedia entry about the Hotel’s history, it was originally designed just for foreign visitors – its guests apparently included Fidel Castro – but much of it was later opened to East Germans. However, the cost of a stay there was very high, and local guests were selected on the basis of ‘socialist’ principles.

Once I got to the hotel, my first encounter with the desk clerk was not very encouraging. He spoke English, but denied all knowledge of the conference, and said that I should ‘come back in the morning’. As the temperature outside was way below zero, this was not an appealing idea. In the end, one of the conference organisers turned up, and everything was sorted out.

For all its modernistic sheen, the Neptun did have its peculiarities.  The western-style breakfast buffet looked very enticing, but when you bit into the rolls, they were often stale. Along with the buffet, the Neptun had western-style muzak in the dining room, though in this case it consisted of IRA songs, perhaps broadcast for the edification or otherwise of any English-speaking diners. The Neptun in those days seems to have been a government instrument as much as it was a hotel. According to evidence that has come out since 1989 it was then a ‘Stasi hotel’, used to draw information (in addition to hard currency) from foreigners (1).

DDR Jan 1987 passport stamps

Official DDR stamps in my passport

That said, the security presence wasn’t very obvious. We knew that Communist countries were police states, but the perhaps the reason that the State Security or Stasi was less obtrusive was because it was so pervasive. The paranoia of this dead state does come out in the two pages of official DDR stamps in my old passport, however. This amount of bureaucracy covered a mere five-day visit – a contemporary indefinite USA visa in the same passport occupies little more than half a page!

Apart from the museum staff, the only clear sign of an official East German government presence at the conference was a thin young man from the Culture Ministry in Berlin. He was given to nervous smiles, and looked more like the archetype of a Church of England curate than a ‘Stasi goon’.

The conference itself was hosted by the Rostock Schiffahrtsmuseum. As Rostock was the largest port in the DDR, the Schiffahrtsmuseum was effectively the country’s national maritime museum, housed in a big 19th-century house.   Both Rostock and Warnemünde looked pretty in the snow, but you got a sense of being in a very different country as soon as you went outside. The air caught at the back of your throat because it was thick with smoke from the DDR’s ‘brown coal’.

The conference went well, and it was good to see some old acquaintances and make new ones. Two people in particular stand out in my memory, along with what they said about the underlying reality of life in the East.

The first was a Hungarian, Peter (not his actual name). He was a friendly man of about my age, spoke good English, and we got on well. He told me that Hungary had a better economy than most of the Warsaw Pact nations, and more links with the West. Despite this, his salary as an academic was not enough to support his family properly, so he and his wife toured around Hungary with a puppet-show.

Peter had travelled to Russia, and was quite disillusioned with the place, its ailing economy and the restrictions on life there. For him, the state of Russia was encapsulated by the behaviour of an audience that he saw at a performance of an Italian opera at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Ten minutes before the interval, most of them got up and left the auditorium – so they could queue for the Bolshoi’s foreign goods shop.

It seemed that political controls were less strict in Hungary than in other eastern countries, and Peter had been permitted to write a book critical of Marxism. He could not, however, get it published directly in Hungarian in Hungary.  Strangely, he was allowed to publish it in German in West Germany, and planned to bring the German edition out in a Hungarian translation in his home country, because this would be permissible. In a small way this summed-up the often bizarre Alice-in-Wonderland world of the eastern bloc states (2).

The second person who made a real impression on me was a young East German woman, Rosa (not her real name, either), who was at the conference.  One evening, she came with a group of us to the Sky Bar, a ‘very flash nightclub’ (according to my notes) at the top of the Hotel Neptun, where a band played versions of Beatles songs and what I guess was East German pop music.

Rosa and I got talking. I was surprised to find how open she was about her political opinions, especially when speaking with a foreigner. To take one example, the Sky Bar was full of expensively-dressed DDR citizens. Given the nominal lack of individual wealth in East Germany, it wasn’t at all clear who they were. I asked Rosa how she thought most of these people got to this exclusive-looking place – ‘Oh, probably through corruption’, she said, in a matter-of-fact way. Significantly, she also said that ‘most young East Germans have no feeling that they belong to their country, and would quite happily leave’.

There was some problem with the trains on the day that the conference ended, so three of us got a taxi to Rostock.   The car was a Trabant.  Though the type was notoriously flimsy, the driver managed to navigate his vehicle safely through ten miles of blizzard, with snow blowing horizontally.  None of us knew it then, but the ‘Trabi’ would become famous a couple of years later when thousands of East Germans, including many young people like Rosa, used them as a means of exiting their nation during the events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

And that was my one excursion to the eastern bloc. I wanted to write about my brief experience of the place partly because the DDR is a country that you cannot visit any more, except in art, memory and history. For all the corruption and oppression, it was still a place where there were many decent people willing to show kindness to strangers.

This blog piece is also a way of saying something about the courage and honesty of the optimistic Peter and the insightful Rosa. Their words were small signs that the ice of the Cold War was finally cracking – even if at the time the reality of the eastern bloc states seemed all too solid.

I hope that both of them have enjoyed good lives since we all emerged into the world that came with the thaw.

(1) Revamped since DDR times, the Neptun remains a 5-star hotel.  Wikipedia entry: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hotel_Neptun.

(2) It could get stranger. In the 1980s I heard a story that came from someone who had family links to Poland: a museum in Moscow created a travelling exhibition about ‘Lenin in Warsaw’, to be sent for display in Poland. However, when the exhibition got to Moscow airport, the wooden display panels were found to be too wide to go into the airliner’s baggage hold. The baggage-handlers hit on a solution: they got a saw, and cut the ends off the panels. Everything now fitted perfectly. When the display got to Warsaw, the Poles did not make an anguished call to Moscow for a replacement. Just to show what they thought of Lenin, Russia and Communism, they put the panels on display with the sawn-off pieces crudely hammered back into place using nails and lengths of timber.

 

 

Advertisements

The graveyard of the great ships

IMG_5882

The site at Bursledon: to the left, the site of the Grace Dieu, to the right, the possible site of the Holy Ghost.

‘But how do we know that?’ is a good question for people to ask of historians and archaeologists, and one that they have every right to ask. On 12 October Historic England announced that it was going to investigate and assess a feature in the River Hamble in Hampshire that I had identified as the possible remains of Henry V’s great ship Holy Ghost.  The media reaction has been intense and very positive, but it has made me think some more about the ‘how do we know?’ question.  This blog aims to go some way towards answering it (1).

Back in 1982, when working in the (now sadly long-gone) Archaeological Research Centre of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, I was looking one day at an aerial photograph of the Burseldon stretch of the River Hamble in Hampshire. Near to the known wreck of Henry V’s great ship Grace Dieu I spotted a shape resembling one end of a large ship, marked in the mud. This led me to think that a sizeable and perhaps very old vessel might be buried there. Knowing that that there was documentary evidence that the Holy Ghost had been laid up at Bursledon, it made me think that there was a possibility that the ‘ship-shape’ might mark the location of the Holy Ghost. My then Head of Department, Dr (now Professor) Sean McGrail, looked at the evidence I had put together in a document entitled ‘Bursledon II?’ (Bursledon I being the Grace Dieu) and decided that ARC would investigate further.   The fieldwork was decidedly low-tech – we probed the mud with long metal rods from a boat – but about six feet under the mud the rods started hitting something solid in the area of the ship-shape. I can still remember the sense of relief that we had not come on a wild-goose chase!

The presence of the solid object was also confirmed by sonar work carried out by a University of Southampton postgraduate student, Hanna Steyne, in 2001 (2). Historic England will be undertaking further work next year and it is hoped that this will tell us whether or not the Holy Ghost lies here (Historic England is also assessing the site for statutory protection under the Protection of Wrecks Act).  I think that there is a real possibility that this is the Holy Ghost, but leaving aside the identity of the site for the moment, I wanted to write something about the documentary evidence for fates of the Holy Ghost and Henry’s three other great ships.

The four great ships were clearly intended as war-winning weapons. They were hugely expensive, absorbing about one-third of total spending on the royal ships between 1413 and 1422, but three of them seem to have justified the vast amounts spent on them.   Their basic details were as follows (3):

Trinity Royal, 500-540 tons burden, built (rebuild) at Greenwich, Kent, entered service 1415

Holy Ghost, 740-760 tons burden, built (rebuild) at Southampton, entered service 1415

Jesus, 1,000 tons burden, built at Smallhythe, Kent, entered service 1417

Grace Dieu, 1,400 tons burden, built at Southampton, entered service 1420

The Trinity Royal and Holy Ghost took part in the two battles in 1416 and 1417 that broke French seapower and opened the way for Henry V’s second, much deadlier invasion of France in 1417. The Jesus very probably took part in the 1417 battle as well, though the Grace Dieu was completed too late to play a serious part in the sea war, and its one known voyage ended in fiasco (4).

The great ships were all moored in the River Hamble from the latter part of 1420. With a wooden fort called the Bulwerk at its mouth, and two heavy harbour defence chains, the Hamble provided a sheltered and well-defended anchorage for the king’s fleet (5).

Henry V died in 1422, and most of his remaining ships were sold off in the next few years. The great ships were kept, however – perhaps the royal government believed that they could form the core of a reborn royal fleet, if needed. A lot of money was spent on keeping them afloat – paying shipkeepers to live aboard as small maintenance crews, employing shipwrights and caulkers, and purchasing pitch, tar and other materials, along with extra pumps.   Because they were mostly  organic objects, Henry’s warships were wasting assets, subject to decay and sudden leaks. The leakiest of the lot seems to have been the Holy Ghost, which in 1423 received the attentions of a dyver named Davy Owyn, who worked under the hull to stop up cracks. This may be the earliest record of a diver being used for ship maintenance work (6).

HMS Victory - shores in dockThough Nelson’s HMS Victory lies in a Georgian stone dock, it is supported at the sides by shores, just as the Holy Ghost was 

However, by the spring of 1426 the damage caused by natural decay, bad repair and storms left the Holy Ghost in a very poor condition. The authorities must have feared that it was close to sinking. The mast, rigging and much other gear and stores were removed, and taken to the king’s storehouse at Southampton for safekeeping.   Meanwhile, a dock was dug for the ship. This was no mere hole in the riverbank, but a construction project that occupied 96 labourers for much of May and June 1426. Timber for the work was bought on land owned by Titchfield Abbey, and trundled to the site by cart.   The timber consisted of a dozen large pieces of wood to go underneath the hull as stocks or keel blocks, and 100 shores to support the ship at the sides.   The time, money, resources and care used in making the dock strongly suggests that at the time the aim was to preserve the ship for future repair or rebuilding.

As much water and sand as possible was emptied out of the ship before it was docked on 21 June 1426.   The operation involved 80 sailors, as well as an unknown number of craftsmen, and they were kept fed and watered with supplies of bread, fish and local Hamble cider. Jordan Brownyng, the man who served as the ship’s only master from 1415 to 1422, went to live aboard as shipkeeper. He had already worked as shipkeeper on the Holy Ghost when it was afloat, but that was with a team of four other men.  This time, he was alone, and according to the records of the king’s ships he spent the next 1,622 days, sometimes working day and night, pumping out water and baling out mud.   This backbreaking and ultimately futile job finished about the end of November 1430. Brownyng left the ship, and this must mark the point at which the government gave up all hope of ever repairing the Holy Ghost, and left it to rot (7).

But where was the dock? The account for docking the ship is very detailed, but ironically is very vague as to location – ‘near Southampton’, is all it says, which is not much help.   Though the government had given up on the Holy Ghost as a ship, it was still used intermittently over the next twenty years or so as a source of materials, and documents from this period tell us where the ship lay.   The accounts for the king’s ships between 1439 and 1442 are explicit about the Holy Ghost’s location. When 254 boards were salvaged from the ship’s cabins, the accounts say that the boards came out of ‘the king’s ship Holigoste, being at Bruselden’ (Bursledon). This is backed up by the previous set of accounts, which records payments to workmen taking iron chains, probably shroud chains, out of (in this order) the Holy Ghost and Trinity Royal. The men took the ironwork in a boat to Southampton, the account noting that the boat went from ‘Brisselden (Bursledon) and Hamble where the said decayed ships in this way are…’. To my mind, the evidence of the accounts is incontrovertible: the Holy Ghost and its dock were at Bursledon.   The last set of royal accounts to mention the ship, from 1447-52, describe it as ‘sunk in the sea (sic) and in this way broken’.   As the Holy Ghost never went anywhere after 1426, this phrase most likely means that the ship and its supports had collapsed into the dock, and by 1452 the vessel was mostly underwater (8).

Bursledon was also the last resting-place of the biggest of the great ships, the Grace Dieu.  The ship stayed afloat at least 14 years, moored in the Hamble from 1420 to 1434. Part of the ship’s giant mainmast was removed in 1432, probably to lighten the vessel, but it was finally laid up in a dock on the mud at Bursledon on 1 August 1434. The dock for the Grace Dieu does not seem to have been anywhere near as deep or elaborate as that for the Holy Ghost – there is no record of stocks or shores, for example – though it was surrounded with a security hedge (probably thorn bushes, natural barbed wire) and an enclosure designed to deflect the water current from the hull. Tellingly, no shipkeeper was left aboard.   Just under five years later, on the night of 7 January 1439, the ship was hit by lightning. It caught fire and probably burned to the waterline.   Large amounts of ironwork and timber were salvaged from the wreck, but then the derelict was left alone, to re-emerge in public consciousness in the 19th century (9).

The end for the other two great ships was less dramatic.   At first, the Trinity Royal was moored at Bursledon. At some point between 1 September 1429 and 31 August 1430 (8 Henry VI), its single great mast, shroud, top and various other items of gear were removed. Taking out the mast was a difficult job, and a man was sent from Southampton to Sandwich to recruit a team of 15 ‘discreet and wise’ foreign shipmasters, led by a man named Peter Johnson. These men carried out the work, assisted by a number of other mariners. The ship was then towed from Bursledon to Hamble. It was emptied of mud and ballast, and laid up in a ‘digging’ (fossura) in the mud (le Wose – ‘ooze’), because of its decay. It is probable that by ‘Hamble’, Hamble-le-Rice (modern Hamble) was meant rather than Hamble Hook on the other side, which was normally called either ‘Hook’ or ‘Hamble Hook’ (10).

The mention of a ‘digging’ rather than a dock, and the lack of any expenditure on wooden stocks and shores to support the hull, may mean that its deterioration was too far advanced to make it worth preservation. It looks as if the Trinity Royal was simply dumped.

The reference that it was towed from Bursledon to Hamble in order to be laid up is pretty conclusive evidence that the Trinity Royal was at Hamble.  However, additional confirmation is offered by the 1437-39 payment (mentioned above) for taking iron chains out of this ship and the Holy Ghost.   Likewise, a payment account for removing cabin boards from the Trinity Royal between 1439 and 1442, says that the ship was at Hamble (11).

The planned fate of the fourth great ship, the Jesus, was at first similar to that of the Holy Ghost.   Like the Trinity Royal, the Jesus was initially moored at Bursledon. Its mast, shroud, top, yard, bowsprit and various other pieces of gear were taken out there in August 1432, and transported to the king’s storehouse in Southampton.   The ship was subsequently towed by stages to Southampton, where it was docked. The dock was built between 1 September 1432 and 31 August 1433 by a group of labourers, and the ship was put on the stokkes within it for ‘remaking, repairing and renewing’. The intention of the king’s Council at the time was for the ship to be ‘made and repaired’ at some future date, which explains the care and no doubt expense lavished on the dock. However, there is no record of any refurbishment work being carried out on the Jesus, though it does not seem to have been mined for timber, boards and nails in the ways that the other great ships were (12).

On 3 December 1446 ‘one feeble and perished ship called the Jesus… lying at Southampton’ was granted to Christopher Barton and Richard Greneacres, servants of Cardinal Beaufort.  The subsequent fate of the ship is unknown. The remains of a large ancient vessel were uncovered off American Wharf at Southampton in 1848, and it was suggested in 1971 that this might have been the hull of the Jesus, though some doubt has been cast on this identification (13).

Whether the ship-shape that I spotted on the aerial photograph in 1982 proves to be the remains of the Holy Ghost or not, it does not alter the fact that the official records of the king’s fleet show that the great ship was docked at Bursledon.   Anyone travelling along the Hamble in the years between the summer of 1434 and early January 1439 would have been confronted by the spectacle of three enormous derelicts, the Trinity Royal at Hamble and the Holy Ghost and Grace Dieu at Bursledon. Even in their decay, the great ships must still have made most contemporary shipping look like minnows.

© Ian Friel 2015

(1) Historic England, 12 October 2015: http://historicengland.org.uk/news-and-features/news/historic-wreck-identified.

(2) H. Steyne 2003. An integrated investigation into Henry V’s warships the Holigost and Trinity Royal, and the Bursledon II wreck site in the River Hamble, Hampshire, University of Southampton: unpublished dissertation

(3) I. Friel, Henry V’s Navy – The Sea-Road to Agincourt and Conquest 1413-1422, The History Press Stroud, 2015, pp. 99-157 (passim) and 164-66.

(4) S Rose, ‘Henry V’s Grace Dieu and mutiny at sea: some new evidence’, Mariner’s Mirror Vol 63, 1977, pp. 3-6.

(5) Friel 2015, pp. 138-41.

(6) S. Rose (ed.), The Navy of the Lancastrian Kings. Accounts and Inventories of William Soper, Keeper of the King’s Ships 1422-1427, Navy Records Society Vol. 123, London 1982, pp. 122-24.

(7) 1426 docking: Rose 198, pp. 122-24; Titchfield Abbey was on the same side of the river Hamble as the ‘ship-shape’ site at Burseldon; Jordan Brownyng’s job to 1430: The National Archives, Kew (TNA) E364/69, S m 2r.

(8) 1439-42: TNA E364/76, C m 1r; 1437-39: TNA E364/73, N m1r; TNA E364/86, G m 1r.

(9) I. Friel, ‘Henry V’s Grace Dieu and the wreck in the R Hamble near Bursledon, Hampshire’, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 1993, Vol 22, pp. 10-11.

(10) TNA E364/69, S m 2r.

(11) TNA E364/73, N m 1r; TNA E364/76, C m 1r; E101/53/7; E364/81, G mm 1r-2r.

(12) TNA E364/69, S m 2r; E364/81, G mm 1r; 30 iron chains from the Jesus, were sold off in December 1443, but these had probably been removed back in 1432 and taken to the storehouse.

(13) TNA E364/81, G m 2r; Rose 1982, pp. 55 and 247 and notes. 195 and 345; F.T. O’Brien, ‘Was this the Jesus?’, Mariner’s Mirror, Vol. 57, 1971, p. 325; reply by R.C. Anderson, Mariner’s Mirror, Vol. 59, 1973, p.48.

The Road to Hell

Conti-Atlas c 1935 - Version - Version 3

Weimar and the Ettersberg, from Conti-Atlas für Kraftfahrer (c 1935).  

   It’s strange what evidence of history you can find in banal, everyday objects.   On an impulse, years ago, I bought an old road atlas of Germany in a secondhand bookshop. To judge from internal evidence, Conti-Atlas für Kraftfahrer (‘Conti-Atlas for  the Motorist’) was published in about 1934, because it lists new designs of road signs that would come into use in Germany from 1st January 1935 (1).   The Conti-Atlas was designed in a bright, modern fashion for its day, with clear road maps and an appendix that listed cities and towns across Germany, 140 of them illustrated with streetmaps.

The names that are given to streets, squares and other public spaces reflect both the past and the present.  Even a cursory glance at the streetmaps in the Conti-Atlas reveals chilling evidence of the increasing grip of the Nazi party on German daily life in the year or so after Hitler became Chancellor in 1933.   A more detailed analysis of the streetmaps shows just how far this had gone.   Because the maps focus on town centres, they won’t include many suburban streets, and of course the analysis doesn’t cover places that did not have maps published in the Conti-Atlas. However, the roadbook featured plans of all the big German cities and towns, and quite a few of the smaller ones, so I think the results are reasonably representative.

Seventy-six of the 140 places did not seem to have any streetnames related to Nazism, though quite a few had names that celebrated the recently-deceased Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, the commander of the German army in the First World War and German President when Hitler came to power in 1933. The 64 other towns and cities all had roads and other features named after Hitler, Hermann Göring and the Nazi ‘martyr’, Horst Wessel.   Unsurprisingly, ‘Hitler’ names were the most common, linked with ‘strasse’ 44 times and ‘platz’ in a dozen other instances.   By renaming the old streets and squares of their towns, Nazi supporters were both trying to curry favour with the regime and underline its growing dominance.

Weimar c 1935 - Version 2Street-plan of Weimar  from Conti-Atlas für Kraftfahrer (c 1935). Adolf Hitler Strasse (printed upside-down) and Ettersburger Strasse are shown the left of the city centre.

The town of Weimar, featured in the Conti-Atlas map above, was the home of Goethe, the place where Germany’s 1919 constitution was promulgated (hence ‘Weimar Republic’) and a famous centre of German culture.   By the mid-1930s, very dark times had come to Weimar.  Its new Adolf Hitler Strasse led north from the town centre to Ettersberger Strasse, which ran to the Ettersberg mountain.   In 1937 the SS made a clearing in the forest on the Ettersberg and built a concentration camp there, Buchenwald.   Initially it was used for German inmates – Jews, Gypsies, Communists, Christians, gays, intellectuals or others, people seen by the regime as either inferior or as political enemies. Later, it became the biggest concentration camp in the German Reich, and provided slave labour for the German arms industry.  By the time the US Army liberated it in 1945, over 56,000 people had been murdered in one way or another in Buchenwald and its many sub-camps (2).

Following the war, the new Communist East German regime renamed Adolf-Hitler Strasse as Ernst-Thälmann Strasse, after the German Communist leader killed at Buchenwald in 1944.   For five years, the old concentration camp became a Special Camp run by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. It was used to detain former Nazis and others, and some 7,000 more people died there.

At a time when many overtly nationalist parties have achieved significant victories in the European elections, and the Crimea has been annexed by Russia, it’s worth remembering what happened the last time Europe pulled itself apart.   The new streetnames in the Conti-Atlas are a reminder that events can take a turn for the worse very quickly.   And, as the Conti-Atlas shows, the road to Hell can be well-signposted.

Blog © Ian Friel 2014

(1)      Conti-Atlas für Kraftfahrer.   Deutschland 1:50000 Mit Den Reichskraftfarhrbahnen, Continental Cauotchoc-Compagnie G.M.B.H., Hannover.

(2)      http://www.buchenwald.de/en/69, Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorial Foundation, accessed 27 May 2014.