Is an Island Off Cuba the Last Surviving Piece of East Germany?

Everybody knows the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. And that West Germany eventually reabsorbed East Germany, after which the reunited country lived happily ever after. Right?

Well, sort of. It’s true that the Unification Treaty signed in August 1990 re-Germanied the Germanies, and that West Germany (now known as “Germany”) inherited East Germany’s territories. But there may have been a tiny oversight. Turns out, there could still be a sliver of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik remaining in the Caribbean, just west of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs.

To understand the situation, we have to go back to 1972, when the wall was still up. Fidel Castro was on a state visit to East Berlin when he presented his GDR comrades with a gift. The small, skinny island of Cayo Blanco del Sur, located a couple miles off the coast of Cuba, is about nine and a half miles long and home to a coral reef, iguanas, and a number of endangered species, but no people. Castro presented it to East Germany, renaming it Ernst Thälmann Island (Cayo Ernesto Thaelman in Spanish), after the doomed Weimar-era leader of the German Communist Party who was arrested in 1933 and executed at Buchenwald on Adolf Hitler’s orders in 1944. (Thälmann was lionized by post-war Communists as an anti-fascist martyr and had many streets and schools named in his honor throughout East Germany.)

Later in 1972, in a ceremony on the southern shores of the island, the East German ambassador to Cuba unveiled a stone bust of Thälmann before a mix of East German and Cuban comrades. The beach that they—and the bust—stood upon was christened “German Democratic Republic Beach” (Playa República Democrática Alemana).

Ernst Thälmann Island was East Germany’s sole overseas possession, and it was kind of a big deal for a while. In 1975, Frank Schöbel, arguably East Germany’s biggest pop star, traveled to Cuba to film a music video for his song “Insel im Golf von Cazones” (“Island in the Gulf of Cazones”). The video featured the commemorative bust of Thälmann, and footage later showed up in a documentary celebrating the great friendship between Cuba and East Germany.

Fast forward to the early ’90s, when the wall had been torn down and reunification paperwork was being drafted in Germany. A treaty on the economic, monetary, and social union came into effect on October 3, 1990, and the German Democratic Republic split itself into five new federal states that joined the Federal Republic of Germany. East Berlin merged with West Berlin to form a new, augmented city-state, which was also added to the new version of Germany. But none of the language in the documents said a word about Ernst Thälmann Island. It appeared to have been forgotten and neglected, thousands of miles away in the Caribbean.

Germany remained silent on the subject of Ernst Thälmann Island until 2001, when Thema 1, a German online newspaper and think tank, ran a report arguing that it belonged to modern Germany. At that point, the whole island had been trashed by Hurricane Mitch three years earlier, during which the bust of Thälmann was knocked over and broken. Cuba, still under Communist rule, seemingly reacted negatively to the article and denied journalists access to the island, claiming their gift to East Germany had only been symbolic. The German Foreign Ministry concurred, telling the news service EFE that the 1972 agreement between the countries was "not a gift, but a change of name." Since then, neither country has seemed willing to press the issue.

The island is also involved in some other international conflicts, too—sort of. Since 1983, a man named Kevin Baugh who founded his own micronation, the Republic of Molossia, has been fighting a war with East Germany, claiming the dispute is focused on Ernst Thälmann Island. The micronation, the bulk of which consists of Baugh’s house and yard in Nevada, made the declaration of war before East Germany went out of business and didn’t bother to dissolve it after 1990, once the nation was defunct. When asked in an interview with Atlas Obscura if he ever plans to visit the tiny island, Baugh said yes, but added, "Of course, that would likely end our never-ending war, which would be a major milestone in our nation's history—and something we may not wish to happen!” The Molossian website also states that since no one lives on the island, there’s no one there to negotiate a peace treaty, although they cannot rule out the possibility of “covertly trained attack iguanas.” For now, the micronation is issuing war bonds to finance the ongoing military effort.

Regardless of who owns it, Ernst Thälmann Island still retains its German moniker on the world’s maps to this day, and you can actually go there and check it out if you want. Tourists are welcome to visit the island—although it should be noted that it’s only accessible by boat and there’s no dock, so you’ll have to drop your anchor a ways from the beach and wade in. If you do, maybe you can put the bust of poor Ernst back up.

The U.S.-Canada Border Runs Directly Through This Library

Though the Haskell Free Library and Opera House might not be as well known as the Grand Canyon or the Statue of Liberty, it's undoubtedly one of America's most unique tourist attractions. Completed in 1904, the building is stationed directly between Stanstead, Quebec, and Derby Line, Vermont, with the official U.S.-Canada borderline running right across the library's floor.

Martha Stewart Haskell and her son, Colonel Horace Stewart Haskell, both Canadians, built the building as a tribute to Mrs. Haskell’s late husband, Carlos. The family hoped that citizens from both countries would use it as a “center for learning and cultural enrichment,” according to the official Haskell Free Library website.

The Haskell is divided between the two countries. While the library’s official entrance is on the U.S. side of the building, most of the books are on the Canadian side. The opera house is similarly split, with most of its seats in the U.S. and its stage in Canada. As Atlas Obscura reported, it is often said that the Haskell is the only library in the U.S. with no books, and the only opera house in the country with no stage.

U.S. Border Patrol Agent Andrew Mayer speaks to Nancy Rumery as he stands on the Canadian side of a line on the floor of the Haskell Free Library and Opera House that marks the border between the U.S. March 22, 2006 in Derby Line, Vermon
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Passports and other forms of identification aren’t required to cross from country to country in the library, though the Haskell’s website notes that the border inside the "building is real and it is enforced.” Visitors are expected to return to their side of the border after a visit; if they don’t, they risk possible detention and fines.

Even beyond the building's unique position, library director Nancy Rumery told CTV News that Haskell staffers—Canadian and American alike—consider the institution to be like any other library in the world.

"We're just trying to be the best library we can, and our community is made up of people from two different countries," she said. "We don't think of it in that big symbolic way that I think a lot of people do. These are all our neighbors and we do our very best to help them on their life-long learning journey."

This article originally ran in 2016.

Are You Smart Enough to Pass Thomas Edison's Impossible Employment Test?

 Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

If you thought Elon Musk's favorite question to ask job applicants was tough, you should see the employment test devised by Thomas Edison. When he wasn't busy inventing the light bulb or phonograph, or feuding with Nikola Tesla, Edison was apparently devising a trivia test of nearly impossible proportions.

As Smithsonian reports, the 146-question quiz was designed to weed out the candidates who would be ill-suited to work at his plant, which was a desirable place to get a job in 1921. College degrees didn't impress him much—"Men who have gone to college I find to be amazingly ignorant," he once remarked—so he needed to find a more effective method of determining prospective employees' knowledge.

The test may have been too effective, though. Of the 718 applicants who took the test, only 57 achieved a passing score of 70 percent, and only 32 scored Edison's desired result of 90 percent or higher. This was certainly frustrating to applicants who considered themselves to be pretty well-educated. An unsuccessful applicant named Charles Hansen, who shared all of the questions he remembered with The New York Times in 1921, called the test a "silly examination." Another applicant said it was "not a Tom Edison but a Tom Foolery test" [PDF].

After the test questions became public knowledge, reporters went out and started polling people to see how well they'd do on Edison's test. Albert Einstein reportedly failed (he didn't know the speed of sound offhand), as did Edison's youngest son, who was a student at MIT at the time.

If you want to challenge yourself, check out a few of the questions below, then scroll down to see the answers that appeared in The New York Times. (Note: The answers given were the correct answers in 1921, but some may have changed since then. Some questions and answers have been edited lightly for clarity.)

1. What city in the United States is noted for making laundry machines?

2. In what country other than Australia are kangaroos found?

3. What region do we get prunes from?

4. Name a large inland body of water that has no outlet.

5. What state is the largest? The next?

6. What is the name of a famous violin maker?

7. What ingredients are in the best white paint?

8. What causes the tides?

9. To what is the change of seasons due?

10. Who discovered the South Pole?

11. How fast does light travel per foot per second?

12. Of what kind of wood are axe handles made?

13. What cereal is used all over the world?

14. Name three powerful poisons.

15. Why is a Fahrenheit thermometer called Fahrenheit?

Feeling stumped? Scroll down to see the answers.

1. Chicago

2. New Guinea

3. Prunes are grown in the Santa Clara Valley and elsewhere.

4. The Great Salt Lake, for example

5. Texas, then California (Note: Today it's Alaska, then Texas)

6. Stradivarius

7. Linseed oil, with a small percentage of turpentine and liquid dryer, together with a mixture of white lead and zinc oxide

8. The gravitational pull of the moon exerted powerfully on the ocean because of its fluidity, and weakly on the Earth because of its comparative rigidity.

9. To the inclination of the Earth to the plane of the ecliptic. In the Earth's revolution around the Sun, this causes the Sun's rays to be received at varying inclinations, with consequent variations of temperature.

10. Roald Amundsen, and then Robert Falcon Scott

11. Approximately 186,700 miles a second in a vacuum and slightly less through atmosphere.

12. Ash is generally used in the East and hickory in the West.

13. No cereal is used in all parts of the world. Wheat is used most extensively, with rice and corn next.

14. Cyanide of potassium, strychnine, and arsenic are all acceptable answers.

15. It is named after Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit, the German physicist who invented it.

For the full list of questions and answers, check out Paleofuture's article about the test on Gizmodo.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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