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Bautzen doesn’t hide from its history

Eastern German town maintains prison as memorial to victims of political prosecution

click to enlarge Bautzen boasts 17 towers from the late Middle Ages.
  • Bautzen boasts 17 towers from the late Middle Ages.

Through most of the 20 th century, tourists gave the city of Bautzen, in eastern Germany, a wide berth. “We had a bad reputation because of our prisons,” says Hendrik Jünemann, a 50-something tour guide who has lived in Bautzen all his life.

Today this 1,000-year-old city, on a plateau above the Spree River, is again attracting visitors — in part for the 17 intact towers that once served as bastions on its walled perimeter, or water towers within it. Round or square, and of brick or stone, these fully restored towers collectively give Bautzen a medieval look.

An added attraction is that Bautzen is home to a sizeable proportion of the country’s only indigenous minority, the Sorbs.

As for its prisons, the federal government and State of Saxony, in which Bautzen is situated, is making the best of the regrettable imagery — not to mention history. Jointly they’ve adapted the Stasi prison, or more formally Bautzen II, as a memorial to victims of political prosecution during the Third Reich, Soviet occupation and German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Closed in 1989 after the collapse of the GDR, Bautzen II remains utterly authentic. (An unintended advantage of visiting the former East Germany, particularly its easternmost countryside, is that it has not yet been ravaged by the über-affluence and mass tourism of Western Europe. Said Wolfgang Gärtner, of the Saxony tourism board, as we sped eastward from Dresden on the auto-bahn: “Villages in the east still look like villages. You still have a feeling of the old days.”)

Bautzen II (now called the Bautzen Memorial) is located in a leafy residential neighbourhood smack in the centre of this city of 42,000. “It was a totalitarian regime — it didn’t matter where it was,” said Gärtner, as we pulled up to an unobtrusive entrance gate where Jünemann was waiting.

Inside the prison, tiers of all-metal floors and staircases, and neat-as-a-pin cells containing basic bedding, garments and utensils, appear all order and efficiency. Apart from a factual exhibit of historic photos (of prisoners and officers) and other documents, the prison remains mercifully unembellished by the more annoying signage and tourist-luring devices found in entertainment-driven museums around the world.

Of its GDR period, Jünemann said: “In the 1950s, it was enough to simply talk about the system, to paint a negative picture of Stalinism, and you got five to six years.” Prisoners — who included a founder of the German Green Party — were kept in isolation.

“The main point was to break your will,” he continued. “Everyone was described as a criminal. Everything was censored.” The cells were bugged; interrogations went on for hours.

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