Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic Coast

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Read 23/11/2020-06/12/2020

Rating 5 stars

Ghosts on the Shore is a travel book partly inspired by family history. Paul Scraton is a British writer who has lived in Berlin since the early 2000s. His wife grew up in the GDR and spent her early years on the Baltic Coast. Scraton became fascinated by this part of Germany, in part thanks to his wife Katrin’s family photographs and her childhood memories, but also because of the Baltic Coast’s place in the wider history and mythology of Germany. And so he decided to take a trip.

I read Scraton’s novel about place and meaning last year. Built on Sand is still one of my favourite books of recent years. I loved the way he mixed his knowledge of the geography and history of Berlin and Brandenburg, built up over years of being a tour guide, with character sketches of the people who live in and are shaped by those places and their history. I loved how he turned a novel into a literary geological map. I wanted to read his first book, this book, to see how he wrangles facts, but I kept putting it off. It can be risky to try an author, whose work you have been absorbed by in one form, in a different jacket.

I needn’t have worried. The thoughtfulness that curves through his novel, making it feel too personal to be fiction, is present in this work of non-fiction. He begins with a rumination on the German concept of Heimat, the sense of belonging and completeness a place can give you that is more than simply ‘home’. Reading his perspective on Katrin’s feelings about the Baltic Coast, I thought about places that conjure Heimat in me, delivering the feeling that every part of me is in alignment. This current pandemic makes me miss them, discouraged as I feel about travelling.

Scraton uses Katrin’s Heimat feeling as the springboard for a mostly solo exploration of the region, occasionally accompanied by Katrin or her parents. I got the feeling that he wanted to experience the other places ‘clean’ of someone else’s associations and memories, rather than secondhand as an outsider or as part of a family trip, with all the negotiations and compromises that would entail.

The ghosts on the shore are manifestations of Germany’s complex history. That history runs through Scraton’s journey. In family photographs of Katrin’s grandmother holidaying as a child, taken in 1934, the Nazi swastika flag flies nonchalantly in the background. Scraton talks about dead writers from the area, about Thomas Mann being exiled from Germany and, specifically, from the Baltic Coast where he grew up, because his outlook on the world didn’t match that of the Nazis, about Mann’s older brother Heinrich, about Günter Grass, Goethe, playwright Gerhart Hauptmann, and also Theodor Fontane whose Effi Briest is partly set on the Baltic Coast. Most movingly for me, he writes about Rudolf Ditzen, better known as Hans Fallada. I read and loved Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone/Alone in Berlin, but knew nothing of the man who wrote it. Scraton describes his life as context for his writing, and made me want to read more by him.

Scraton begins his journey on the old internal border between West and East Germany, pushing into the East to the border with Poland. He encounters remnants of the past separation that are, at times, surprising – such as the GDR road that is in better condition than the FRG one on the other side of the former border. He mixes hard facts with creative nonfiction, too, imagining the stories of ordinary people who lived through Germany’s rolling 20th century upheavals, considering the compliance without conviction that many performed under oppressive regimes in order to survive.

Scraton observes his surroundings and the people he encounters in a way that makes you feel you are there with him. Perhaps my sense of being on the train, walking in the rain, peering over walls and fences with him was heightened because of the lack of travel I’ve undertaken this three quarter year of lockdown. I really enjoyed the opportunity to virtually escape my four walls, all the same. I love visiting places out of season, avoiding the crowds, seeing a place in its quiet moments, and Scraton’s journey had a similar feel to it.

Train travel is a key part of the journey, and of the history of the Baltic Coast. Scraton charts the beginnings of the exclusive seaside resorts and spas, and the way in which the railways democratised access to the coastal cure. He also positions modern development of Germany’s train network as a tool to strengthen the reunification process by building over the physical gaps left behind by the internal border. Because Scraton is British, and because we invented rail travel, he can’t resist making comparisons between the burgeoning holiday resorts of North Germany with their equivalents and predecessors in Lancashire and Yorkshire. So we have Scarborough and Blackpool alongside Heiligendamme, only briefly, but in a way that suggests Scraton’s journey recorded in this book is an attempt to plant roots of his own and establish his own Heimat.

The history is punctuated with Scraton’s own memories of past visits to this coastal region. Trips with friends, one of whom he was in love with and is now married to, a visit to Rostock at the time of the 2007 G8 summit in Heiligendamme, holidays in small coastal towns, each one experienced as a tourist, someone who doesn’t quite belong. This enables him to reflect on Germany’s history of excluding people, from the early days of the resort towns, through the oppressions of the Nazi and GDR regimes, to the modern attempts to suppress protest and to keep the immoderately wealthy separate from the rest of the population. But he also observes the opposite in the cheap rent on a summer dacha in the GDR, with leases taken for 50 years or until death, whichever came quickest, that allowed ordinary people to build a holiday home.

As with Anna Funder’s Stasiland, Scraton is interested in the stories of the ordinary people who lived in the GDR. Unlike Funder, who seeks out the ordinary people whose lives were at best hampered, at worst ruined by the arbitrary punishments doled out by the Stasi, Scraton is interested in the people whose lives were good, who didn’t rebel and who didn’t fall foul of Stasi suspicion. People like Katrin’s parents, whose only brush with the authorities came when Katrin’s father, who was in the navy, was no longer allowed to go to sea because his sister moved to Austria. People who live the best life they can, along with the vast majority of people on the planet. Part of their unconscious capitulation, he suggests, was the offer of state controlled holidays through the Free German Trade Union Federation, or FDGB. The state nationalised all of the hotels, pensions and villas along the Baltic Coast, and the FDGB acted as travel agent for workers across the GDR.

Some families had access to a dacha, a small cabin in the woods or part of a garden colony that allowed people, especially apartment dwellers, to escape the city for weekends or summer vacations. But if you had no dacha or no family or friends who could get you access to one, and if you were not a member of the FDGB or other state institution that controlled the vast majority of hotels, holiday camps and campgrounds, then it could prove very difficult to arrange that escape from everyday life, especially during the school holidays.

As we’ve seen during the pandemic, holidays are important to everyone. Even at risk of a potentially fatal illness, some British people have still gone on holiday. We haven’t, and it’s something that I’ve missed very much this year. I can see how the opportunity to holiday, to leave behind the rituals of work even for a short period, would be a reason to join the state machine.

The leases on the dachas were coming to an end during Scraton’s coastal trip and extensions only offered at the current market rate, pricing people out of their memories. These empty dachas were then pulled down and more marketable properties built in their place, pricing ordinary people out even further. Gentrification is everywhere. Scraton talks about Prenzlauer Berg’s transformation over the last 30 years, and it sounds like the changes happening in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, first with long time residents being forced out by a hike in rents and then with bars and clubs being hampered by the new residents who don’t like the noise of a vibrant nighttime scene. The changes in the coastal towns along the Baltic sound like those happening in Devon and Cornwall, where new houses are built for partial occupancy during a calendar year and old houses are snapped up by people looking to expand their rental portfolio or as second homes, so that the people who live and work in the area, servicing the needs of these part-time residents can’t afford a home of their own. It begs the question who belongs in these places now?

Around three quarters of the way through the journey, and the book, Scraton reaches Greifswald. As well as being the home town of Hans Fallada, Greifswald is where Caspar David Friedrich was from. The opening to the book sees Scraton and his daughter mesemerised by Friedrich’s canvases in the national art gallery on Museum Island in Berlin. Friedrich’s atmospheric representations of the early 19th century Baltic Coast inspired Scraton’s trip as much as his wife’s family history. I enjoyed finding out more about this artist, whose work Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog I only know thanks to comedian Stewart Lee recreating it using a pile of discarded cultural consumables in his touring show Content Provider three years ago.

There’s also an amusing interlude in the nearby fishing village of Wieck, where Scraton attempts to engage in conversation with a team of fishermen about their catch and is stared down. His reluctance to explain his interest in their work made me smile – to be a travel writer requires a certain amount of ease in talking to strangers, I think – and also bolstered that sense of Scraton being an outsider in the place he has made his home.

He visits Germany’s largest island, Rügen, site of the never completed Nazi holiday resort Prora. He finds it a place transformed, its history obscured. Its existence reminds him of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, in which Peter and Otto visit the island and see the swastika flag flying on the beach among other flags. Their holiday contains experiences that prefigure the Third Reich. The chapter is based on a trip taken by Isherwood and Stephen Spender around 18 months before Hitler took power. Scraton questions whether we imbue Isherwood’s contemporary observations with the enhanced meaning that comes with hindsight and reflects that

The Nazis were only in power for twelve years, and yet their legacy has so tainted our idea of Germany that it is used to understand not only what happened during the years from 1933 to 1945, but also – whether we like it or not – what happened before those twelve years, from Friedrich’s paintings to Goethe’s oak tree, and what has happened since.

On the subject of Goethe’s oak tree, the place where he reputedly composed his masterpieces, Scraton notes that it became part of the footprint of the Buchenwald concentration camp and was destroyed by an Allied bombing raid. Scraton encounters the word buchenwald, which means beechwood, on interpretation signs at cultural landmarks. For him, the word’s now double meaning is another indicator of how the twelve years of Nazi rule has tainted the way we think about Germany.

Further down the coast is Usedom, location for the testing of Wernher von Braun’s V2 rockets. Scraton reflects on how the dreams of a young boy of travelling by rocket to the moon turned into a job with the Nazis destroying civilian life. Von Braun escaped punishment at the end of the Second World War by being a desirable asset for the USA. He appears in the excellent history of the development of rocket technology, Escape from Earth. Scraton is slightly kinder about von Braun than Fraser MacDonald is.

The end of the Second World War brought a redistribution of land, particularly in the east where some German-speaking places were re-located in Poland and Czechoslovakia, and a reluctance to acknowledge why refugees from those places found themselves further west, transported from their homes. Günter Grass was one such person, expelled from Danzig to Lübeck. He recognised that the silence around the recent past and the consequent changes, if it was intended as a means to forgetting, ended up being a rallying point for extreme right wing views, something that continues to inspire the neo-Nazis of today. Scraton is frank about the things that led to these changes, and the nostalgia felt by those Germans and their descendants who feel they have lost something. Their loss stems from a greater loss, with its roots in Kristallnacht, death camps, death marches, and the slaughter of around 5,000 people on a beach in Palmnicken in reprisal for the Soviet Union’s torpedoing of a ship carrying German civilians attempting to flee the Red Army.

Ghosts on the Shore feels like an important work in the way it places the Holocaust in the modern landscape. The history Scraton recounts must never be forgotten, or even hidden in plain sight. We must all learn to live with the acknowledgement of it, if we want to prevent it happening again, and prevent the skewed nostalgia for that mid-century 12-year period being used as an excuse for other forms of harm.

The book concludes with a comparison of meaning in art and meaning in place, and the fact that our understanding or interpretation of either depends on what we carry with us, in terms of knowledge and experience. Scraton acknowledges that all of his experiences, from growing up in northern England to being the father of a half-German girl, and being neither local nor a complete outsider, have shaped his understanding of the towns and cities along the coast on this journey. I really appreciated his slight outsider status, as I think it lent him an edge of objectivity. As he puts it in relation to his daughter, “… this history is her history in a way it will never be mine.”

His final words are perfect.

If there were ghosts on this shore, here at the water’s edge, it was because we had brought them with us. Those ghosts are indeed our responsibility, and they will live on in our memories of this place and others, and in the stories we choose to tell.

5 thoughts on “Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic Coast

  1. I think you may have solved a. Christmas present problem for me. Here’s a book I’ll get for my husband so I can read it! He knew this part of Germany as a young man when he taught in Lübeck for a while and thanks to German friends came to know the wider area quite well. Apart from visiting later with him, my only experience of the Baltic area is Gdansk. You’ve made this seem an absorbing read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was deeply absorbing, Margaret. It’s less than 400 pages, but it took me a fortnight to read, because I wanted to ponder it and absorb the history he relays – much of it unknown to me. I think your husband will enjoy it, knowing the area. I’ve never been, but I felt like I was there with the author and now want to visit.

      Like

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