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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 Ernest 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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Douglas Grundy, Three Lions/Getty Images
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This 1940 Film on Road Maps Will Make You Appreciate Map Apps Like Never Before
Douglas Grundy, Three Lions/Getty Images
Douglas Grundy, Three Lions/Getty Images

In the modern era, we take for granted having constantly updated, largely accurate maps of just about every road in the world at our fingertips. If you need to find your way through a city or across a country, Google Maps has your back. You no longer have to go out and buy a paper map.

But to appreciate just what a monstrous task making road maps and keeping them updated was in decades past, take a look at this vintage short film, "Caught Mapping," spotted at the Internet Archive by National Geographic.

The 1940 film, produced by the educational and promotional company Jam Handy Organization (which created films for corporations like Chevrolet), spotlights the difficult task of producing and revising maps to keep up with new road construction and repair.

The film is a major booster of the mapmaking industry, and those involved in it come off as near-miracle workers. The process of updating maps involved sending scouts out into the field to drive along every road and note conditions, compare the roads against topographical maps, and confirm mileage figures. Then, those scouts reported back to the draughtsmen responsible for producing revised maps every two weeks. The draughtsmen updated the data on road closures and other changes.

Once those maps were printed, they were "ready to give folks a good steer," as the film's narrator puts it, quietly determining the success of any road trip in the country.

"Presto! and right at their fingertips, modern motorists can have [information] on any road they wish to take." A modern marvel, really.

[h/t National Geographic]

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David Rumsey Historical Map Collection // CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
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The Largest Known Map of the 16th-Century World Has Been Digitized
David Rumsey Historical Map Collection // CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
David Rumsey Historical Map Collection // CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

The challenge of designing an accurate, detailed world map has stumped cartographers for centuries, but Urbano Monte got pretty close to achieving perfection in 1587. Now, for the first time, his full 10-by-10-foot world map has been assembled and digitized, Co.Design reports.

There are only two copies of the map: one in Milan, Italy and the second, digitized one at the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection at Stanford University. The massive, extremely detailed illustration, which comprises 60 hand-drawn sheets, is the largest known early map in the world. The Italian cartographer drew it using the azimuthal equidistant projection, which depicts the flattened globe with the North Pole at its center. According to Monte, this gave a more accurate view of the Earth than the Mercator Projection, which was published just two decades earlier in 1569.

The map's depth of detail becomes more apparent the longer you look at it. In addition to country names and geographical landmarks, Monte took the time to note information on weather, meteorological events, length of days at different latitudes, world leaders, and significant countries and places.

Map details.
David Rumsey Historical Map Collection // CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

To view the completed map in all its glory, you can download the 3D image through Google Earth or view it through Apple’s augmented reality app AR Globe.

[h/t Co.Design]

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