Last week we rented a car to travel to Bavaria, undertaking a road trip of sorts: seven hours in the car one way! My parents guffawed at the distance, “that’s a drive to San Francisco.” But having long not lived in California, I found the journey daunting, especially because the Autobahn is so dreadfully boring. While I can appreciate its laws against billboards, Germany has none of the fun roadside attractions that the US does, like giant dinosaurs housing creationist museums or a restaurant serving a 72-ounce steak that’s free if you can eat it in one sitting. These things are important for morale when you are hitting the 500th mile/kilometer.
Also, it’s not true that you can always drive as fast as you want on the Autobahn. Digital traffic signs posting speed limits in order to avoid jams appear very regularly. And most of the roads were indeed built by Hitler, including the A9 along which we traveled -which is just creepy. But as we were sitting in traffic on our way back to Berlin, Christian made a really interesting observation. We were in the former East and the road was under construction, being widened and drastically regraded. Christian was fairly certain that this was the first time since reunification, which meant we were getting a glimpse of the A9 as it looked in the GDR days, when it was one of three designated transit routes for westerners traveling to West Berlin.
Accounts of taking these transit routes are legendary. From the end of the West German border to the checkpoint into West Berlin, drivers were under the jurisdiction of the East Germany. Westerners couldn’t leave the Autobahn and were only allowed stop at specially designated rest areas. A speed limit of 100 km was strictly enforced by the Volkspolizei, which many complained was simply a way to make money off of western drivers. East Germans who had fled to the West would never risk the journey, for fear of not being arrested and detained.
My favorite story comes from an exhibit I saw at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in 1996. On display were the giant neon words “Plaste und Elaste” in a beautiful 1960s pallate and script. The wall text explained that these words were once part of a giant sign advertising the achievements of a chemical plant in the GDR. While the chemical plant was located in Schkopau, the sign was hung along the A9 just as it crosses the Elbe River near Dessau, not far from Berlin. This means that every westerner using this transit route to get to West Berlin would have seen it.
The wall text goes on to describe the psychological effect of the sign for these drivers, for whom it became sort of a beacon announcing the final approach to West Berlin. One person remembered it appearing like “a flower in the desert,” one of the only pieces of color on the landscape and a marker of the home-stretch.
I never forgot this story, but of course the details had gotten hazy. So you can still imagine my surprise when last week as we were driving back to Berlin on the A9, I looked up and saw what I looked like the brick tower on which the Plaste und Elaste sign hung. I took a mental picture and confirmed my hunch when I got back home.
And there’s more. According to Wikipedia, the tower was built by the Nazis alongside the construction of the A9, and was meant to be a viewing platform of some sort. So the moral of the story is that there are roadside attractions in Germany, you just have to look up at the right moment.