Ernst Thälmann Island: A piece of the GDR in the Caribbean4 min read

 In Blog, Central Europe, Culture

A middle-aged, single man, Matthias, raised in the German Democratic Republic, wants to fulfil his mother’s last wish, which is to scatter her ashes on a small island in the Caribbean Sea, a few metres off the coast of Cuba. This is broadly the plot of Ernesto’s Island, a German film released in May 2023. While a fictional story, it has an element of truth: the island, where Matthias is to go, really exists and it once “belonged” to the GDR. Here is the island’s incredible story.

The GDR in the Caribbean thanks to a “gift” from Fidel Castro

In the summer of 1972, Fidel Castro, in power since 1959, made a trip to Europe, to visit the countries of the Warsaw Pact. The German Democratic Republic (GDR) was one of the stops on his itinerary. When he landed in Berlin on 19 June with his inseparable military uniform, cap, and guerrilla’s long beard, Castro was greeted at the airport by the traditional songs of his country. He was given flowers and a stuffed animal by his hosts.

He, too, had a present for his counterpart Erich Honecker. When he met the leaders of the GDR, he unrolled a map of his country on the table. He pointed his finger at an island. “It is in the Bay of Pigs” — he underlines in the reconstruction film made by Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk (MDR) — “where the invasion of the imperialists was stopped.” He added that he wanted to donate that island, consisting of just over seven square kilometres of beach, uninhabited and without buildings, to the people of the German Democratic Republic.

He also wanted to change its name from Cayo Blanco del Sur to Isla Ernst Thälmann, renaming it after the opponent of National Socialism executed in 1944, a true hero in the pantheon of the “State of Workers and Peasants.” Contextually, the island’s beach is renamed Playa GDR. Castro wrote the name of the island on a sheet that both he and Honecker signed.

A map showing the location of Ernst Thälmann Island

The next day, Neues Deutschland, the newspaper of the ruling United Socialist Party (SED) of Germany, wrote that the gesture was a sign of the “indestructible friendship between Cuba and the GDR.” A gesture of “generosity” behind which another truth is hidden. Cuba is subject to a UN embargo and Honecker’s government has promised Fidel Castro to buy 6% of its sugar production.

A statue and a song

Two months after the visit, on 18 August 1972, on the day of the 28th anniversary of Thälmann’s execution, a delegation of the Cuban Communist Party, representatives of the East German embassy in the country, and a group of sailors from the commercial ship Fichte participated in the inauguration of a statue depicting Ernst Thälmann and the official birth of the Playa DDR. Those people would be among the few citizens of the German Democratic Republic to actually set foot on the Caribbean island.

In 1981, Erich Honecker spent a few days on the island during his state visit to Cuba. So had, a few years earlier in 1975, Frank Schöbel, a singer of the Schlager genre, together with his colleague Aurora Lacasa, the daughter of a Spanish refugee couple who fled after the Spanish Civil War, where, as fate would have it, a battalion named after Ernst Thälmann had fought. The goal of that trip? Filming a music video, as requested by the GDR authorities, of the song “Insel am Golf von Cazones”. The result has since been lost in the state television archives.

The reunification and doubt

On 9 November 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, and about ten months later, on 31 August 1990, the Treaty of Unification of the two Germanys was signed. In more than a thousand pages of text there is not a single mention of the GDR island in the Caribbean. However, interest in Germany, now reunified, remains. A banker from Pirmasens wanted to buy it, offering potential investors a small piece of the now former Playa DDR. The project failed due to lack of interest.

Meanwhile, in 2001, the editors of the newborn digital magazine Thema 1 raised the possibility that, since every possession of the GDR was transferred to the Federal Republic with the 1990 Treaty, Ernst Thälmann Island also belonged to a united Germany. To clarify this matter, both the foreign minister and the Cuban embassy were consulted. The response was clear: Fidel Castro’s act was only symbolic, not affecting the country’s sovereignty. The place, in the present as much as in the past, has remained enchanting but desolate. No inhabitants, a lack of infrastructure, and since 1998, not even the bust of Thälmann, which was swept away by hurricane Mitch.

This article was originally published in Italian on 30 June 2023 by our partner Meridiano 13

Feature Image: Wikimedia Commons
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