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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.

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Courtesy of Chronicle Books
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How a Scottish Swindler Lured His Countrymen to a Fake City of Untold Riches
Courtesy of Chronicle Books
Courtesy of Chronicle Books

Mythological mountain ranges, illusory oceans, and apocryphal islands crowded the maps of early navigators. Some imaginary features, though, remained on charts well after satellite imagery and GPS should have confirmed their nonexistence. As Edward Brooke-Hitching writes in his new book, The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies, and Blunders on Maps (Chronicle Books), some fake places made a lasting impression simply because their promoters were so brazen. In this excerpt, Brooke-Hitching describes one scoundrel's scheme to lure settlers to a fictional Central American city of untold riches—with disastrous results.

There are shameless liars, there are bold-as-brass fraudsters, and then there is a level of mendacity so magnificent it is inhabited by one man alone: ‘Sir’ Gregor MacGregor. In 1822, South American nations such as Colombia, Chile, and Peru were a new vogue in a sluggish investor’s market, being lands of opportunity, offering bonds with rates of interest too profitable to pass up. And so, when the charismatic ‘Cazique of Poyais’ sauntered into London, resplendent in medals and honors bestowed on him by George Frederic Augustus, king of the Mosquito Coast, and waving a land grant from said monarch that endowed him his own kingdom, he was met with an almost salivary welcome.

Perhaps if he had been a total stranger there might have been more wariness, but this was a man of reputation: Sir Gregor MacGregor of the clan MacGregor, great-great-nephew of Rob Roy, was famous from overseas dispatches for his service with the ‘Die-Hards,’ the 57th Foot regiment that had fought so valiantly at the Battle of Albuera in 1811. As a soldier of fortune, he had bled for Francisco de Miranda and for Simón Bolívar against the Spanish; the man was a hero. And now here he was in London, fresh from adventure, with the glamorous Princess Josefa of Poyais on his arm, looking for investment in his inchoate nation.

And the tales he told of his new homeland! Some 8 million acres (3.2 million hectares) of abundant natural resources and exquisite beauty; rich soil crying out for skilled farming; seas alive with fish and turtles, and countryside crowded with game; rivers choked with ‘native Globules of pure Gold.’ A promotional guide to the region was published, Sketch of the Mosquito Shore: Including the Territory of Poyais (1822), featuring the utopian vista below and further details of ‘many very rich Gold Mines in the Country, particularly that of Albrapoyer, which might be wrought to great benefit.’ Best of all, for a modest sum you too could claim your own piece of paradise.

Map of the imaginary Territory of Poyais
Courtesy of Chronicle Books

For a mere 2 shillings and 3 pence, MacGregor told his rapt audience, 1 acre (0.4 hectares) of Poyais land would be theirs. This meant that, if you were able to scrape together just over £11, you could own a plot of 100 acres (40 hectares). Poyais was in need of skilled labor—the plentiful timber had great commercial potential; the fields could yield great bounty if worked properly. A man could live like a king for a fraction of the British cost of living. For those too ‘noble’ for manual labor, there were positions with prestigious titles available to the highest bidder. A city financier named Mauger was thrilled to receive the appointment of manager of the Bank of Poyais; a cobbler rushed home to tell his wife of his new role as official shoemaker to the Princess of Poyais. Families keen to secure an advantage for their young men purchased commissions in Poyais’s army and navy.

MacGregor himself had got his start this way in the British Army at the age of 16, when his family purchased for him a commission as ensign in 1803, at the start of the Napoleonic Wars. Within a year he was promoted to lieutenant, and began to develop an obsession with rank and dress. He retired from the army in 1810 after an argument with a superior officer ‘of a trivial nature,’ and it was at this point that his imagination began to take a more dominant role in his behavior. He awarded himself the rank of colonel and the badge of a Knight of the Portuguese Order of Christ. Rejected from Edinburgh high society, in London he polished his credentials by presenting himself as ‘Sir Gregor MacGregor.’ He decided to head for South America, to add some New World spice to his reputation and return a hero. Arriving in Venezuela, by way of Jamaica, he was greeted warmly by Francisco de Miranda and given a battalion to help fight the Spanish in the Venezuelan War of Independence. He then fought for Simón Bolívar when Miranda was imprisoned. Operations extended to Florida, where he devised a nascent form of what he was later to orchestrate in London, raising $160,000 by selling ‘scripts’ to investors representing parcels of Floridian territory. As Spanish forces closed in, he bid farewell to his men and fled to the Bahamas, never repaying the money.

MacGregor was intelligent, persuasive, charisma personified, with a craving for popularity, wealth, and acceptance of the elite. This was the man to whom the prospective Poyais colonists were faithfully handing their every penny. Every detail of his scheme was planned to perfection. They never stood a chance.

On September 10, 1822, the Honduras Packet left London docks, bound for the territory of Poyais, carrying 70 excited passengers, plenty of supplies and a chest full of Poyais dollars made by the official printer to the Bank of Scotland, for which the emigrants happily traded their gold and legal tender.

Having waved off the Honduras, MacGregor headed to Edinburgh and Glasgow to make the same offer to the Scots. The dramatic failure of the Darien scheme in the late 17th century (in which the kingdom of Scotland had attempted to establish a colony on the Isthmus of Panama) had virtually bankrupted the country, and any indication of history repeating itself would have been met with extreme caution. But MacGregor was a Scotsman himself, a patriot and soldier. Unfortunately, he was also in possession of a tongue of pure silver. A second swath of Poyais real estate was sold off, and a second passenger ship filled. Under the captaincy of Henry Crouch, the Kennersley Castle left the port of Leith, Scotland on January 14, 1823, carrying 200 future citizens of Poyais, eager to join the Honduras Packet travelers in their new home.

Phantom Atlas book jacket cover
Courtesy of Chronicle Books

To their utter confusion, when the colonists arrived at their destination, they found only malarial swampland and thick vegetation with no trace of civilization. There was no Poyais, no land of plenty, no capital city. They had been fooled by a conniving fantasist. Unable to afford the journey home, they had no choice but to unload their supplies and set up camp on the shore. By April, nothing had changed. No town had been found, no help had arrived, and the camp was in total despair. Disease was rife and claimed the lives of eight colonists that month. The cobbler who had been promised the role of ‘Shoemaker to the Princess’ gave up hope of ever seeing his family again, and shot himself in the head.

At this lowest point, a vessel appeared on the horizon—what’s more, it flew a British flag. The Mexican Eagle from Belize had been passing nearby on a diplomatic mission when it had caught sight of the camp. The weak settlers were brought aboard and began their slow and awful journey back to London, via the hospitals of Belize. Of the 270 or so men and women who had set out for Poyais, fewer than 50 made it back to Britain. By this time MacGregor had high-tailed it to France, where he tried and failed to run the scam again. (He was foiled when the French government noticed the rush of applications for visas to a country that didn’t exist.) He was eventually forced to flee to Venezuela, where he later died in 1845, never properly brought to answer for his extraordinary and terrible crime.

From The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps, by Edward Brooke-Hitching, published by Chronicle Books.

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Is This Route in North Dakota the Longest Straight Road in America?
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When planning a road trip, you might scope out the route with the most roadside attractions or the prettiest scenery—or, if you're interested in activating cruise control and giving your feet a break, you might look for something straight. According to Ken Jennings, writing for Condé Nast Traveler, North Dakota claims to be home to the longest straight road in the country.

State Highway 46 covers 124 miles of Midwestern prairie between the communities of Streeter and Lithia. A quick glance at a map suggests that the road does unfold in a straight line as advertised, but closer examination reveals that its status is more complicated than North Dakota would like to admit. There are places where highway 46 diverges off its narrow path slightly, like the spot where it runs over the Sheyenne River, for example. If you're sticking to the strictest definition of the word "straight," 40 unbroken miles of the highway is the longest stretch that qualifies.

Forty miles of driving in the same exact direction is impressive, but for an even smoother ride you'll need to travel west to Utah. There you'll find a 30-mile section of Interstate 80 that crosses the Bonneville Salt Flats. Not only is this route straight, it also falls along one of the flattest spots in the country.

Of course, not every road tripper is looking for the route that takes the least effort to drive. Roads with insane hairpin turns built in treacherous locations aren't hard to find if you know where to look.

[h/t Condé Nast Traveler]

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