“East Germany and things happening there had been in the news all the time. We understood the seriousness of the political situation, but we didn’t let it affect our decision making. . . . There was always a feeling of tension, no one was really sure where things were going, but no one was in any panic about it as I recall.”
The words and tone are remarkably sanguine, even with the benefit of 55 odd years of temporal distance.They come from George Hynna, a retired lawyer living in Ottawa, reflecting on the mood among his fellow students as they boarded a boat to West Germany in September 1961. Only weeks before the group’s departure, East Germany had erected the Berlin Wall, reigniting fears that the Cold War might heat up and that a confrontation over the divided city would yet serve as a trigger to armed conflict between East and West.
Hynna was part of that group of promising young Canadians who, having received scholarships from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), were headed to spend a year studying at the University of Freiburg in the southwest corner of West Germany, just across from both the French and Swiss borders.
While Hynna suggests that the geopolitical situation hadn’t been decisive in his decision-making, another member of the group, Michiel Horn, now a retired history professor, remembers that the conflict had been on his radar: “When I was making up my mind where to go in the summer of ’61, that was a particularly difficult time in US-Soviet relations. But Freiburg seemed like a good place as I liked the idea of being near Switzerland in case anything happened!”
And something very nearly did a few week’s after the group’s arrival when in late October when American and Soviet tanks faced off in a 16-hour confrontation across the border at Checkpoint Charlie, an act which brought “the two superpowers . . . closer to kicking off a third world war than in any other cold-war confrontation, bar the Cuban missile crisis a year later.” (Guardian, “Berlin Crisis: The standoff at Checkpoint Charlie” by Leslie Collit, October 24, 2011).
Horn has clear memories of that time: “There was a certain excitement that winter of ’61 and ’62. Both major powers were setting off hydrogen bombs and I remember seeing a report in a newspaper about what the consequences would be if a bomb exploded in the Ruhrgebiet (Ruhr valley, West Germany’s heavily populated, industrial heartland).” He adds with no small amount of understatement: “This was not the most reassuring thing to be reading about.”
Hynna recalls how the atmosphere of the times even infiltrated the campus in idyllic Freiburg: “There was an American student there, from Van Nuys, California. He sort of disappeared intermittently, but then he’d be back and part of the group. I remember that some of us felt that he was CIA.”
However, rather than being off put by escalating tensions, some of the Canadians were keen to get a closer look at the front line of the Cold War for themselves. In February ’62, Hynna, Horn and a group of other international students at the University of Freiburg were given the chance to explore the divided city of Berlin for one week as guests of their “hosts”, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).
Road Trip to Berlin
The group traveled to the GDR by bus. Horn remembers an eventful trip:
“There was a major delay at the border in Hof. In fact, we ended up spending the
night there because . . . there had been some ‘unpleasantness’ at the border
and at that point West German police tended to get involved if there were
people shot while trying to escape. They put us up at a hotel in Hof, but even
the next day we had to wait four hours at the border before we finally got moving
in the early afternoon.”
Hynna recalls that once they arrived,
“Things were very tense [in Berlin] at the time and it was very exciting for us students.
One of the things I recall is that one afternoon we had one of our group sessions in a
large meeting room with stained glass windows. The whole time we were there,
these windows kept rattling. We couldn’t understand why this was until we asked
afterwards and were told that the Russians were sending their jets over the city to
break the sound barrier just to annoy everyone. That was the sort of thing that was
going on there all the time.”
Horn’s recollections of the feeling of those days emphasize how something like everyday life had reasserted itself in Berlin by the time of the group’s visit: “Things had been normalizing. The Wall had been up for seven months, it had become a fixture.”
While Berliners may have acclimatized to their “new normal”, the situation remained intriguing to visitors. As part of the group’s itinerary, they were taken on a bus tour through West Berlin, stopping at the Wall at the Bernauer Strasse (see photos at the top of this post and above) and the Brandenburg Gate’s western side. The official tour, however, did not venture beyond to the other side of the Wall.
This did not discourage many of the students though, and one of Horn’s most vivid memories of this trip was setting off with a small group, including Hynna, to explore exotic East Berlin:
“We were told that it would be best to cross at Checkpoint Charlie (in the American
zone, ed.) as they would record our exit and notice if we didn’t return. So we went
there and met a somewhat suspicious American soldier who wanted to know why
we were going that way. He said the way to go in was through Bahnhof Friedrich-
strasse, but we said,’We want to you to know that we’re in there.’ He said, ‘Buddy,
nobody gives a fuck if you’re in there; you’re on your own. Just make sure you’re
out before midnight.”
Once over, Horn’s impressions were mixed:
“We visited the Museumsinsel (Museum Island, a site with several of Berlin’s major
museums in central East Berlin, ed.) and I think the East Germans had made a real
effort to get things into shape, in part because they saw that themselves as being
in competition with West Berlin. This was not a competition they were likely to win,
but still, they could fix things up and they did.
I was not impressed with East Berlin’s shop windows, which seemed to be pretty
well empty and what was there didn’t seem to be particularly interesting. I remember
thinking to myself, that an economy that could do no better than that was no threat to
the West. And we’d also been told that, from the point of view of the Russians, East
Germany was actually pretty opulent and that one of the reasons they kept Russian
soldiers away from East Berlin was because what was available there . . . was much
better than what was on offer in the Soviet Union at the time.”
Hynna wasn’t blown away either: “It was pretty drab. Of course everybody went and looked at the Stalinallee (ed. later renamed Karl-Marx-Allee) and the Frankfurter Allee with their Kruhschev-era housing. I thought they were pretty unimaginative piles of concrete.”
Horn: “By West Berlin standards the streets were almost empty except for pedestrians and cyclists. There very few few cars. That photo I gave you of me at the Stalinallee was a case in point (see left); there was virtually no traffic at all.”
Hynna experiences on that trip proved pivotal: “It was the beginning of this excitement for Berlin and the moment when I decided to leave Freiburg. I wanted to go back to Berlin to get closer to what seemed to be the real life of the times. Freiburg was a pleasant place to be, but I was hankering for big city life.”
Berlin: Slight Return
Once back in Freiburg, Hynna and Horn shared their enthusiasm for Berlin with the rest of the Canadian group. One member in particular, Frederic Schroeder, now a retired professor of classics, was taken by these accounts and decided to join Hynna and relocate to Berlin as well, a move they made at the end of April 1962.
Having made the move, Schroeder was impressed:
“I don’t know what I was expecting from Berlin, but . . . I found it [to be] very distinct,
as it is with great cities. Just as London is not England and New York is not Amer-
ica, Berlin is a thing unto itself. The people are more open, they have this wonder-
ful Berliner Schnauze (the irreverent, local dialect, ed.). I remember having this conver-
sation with this lady that I played accordion. She said, ‘Oh, my son plays accordion
too! That’s a party already!’ And that’s the way it happens in Berlin.”
Hynna remembers the mood that greeted him and Schroeder upon their return this way: “The atmosphere was tense and there was excitement. The escape attempts from East Berlin continued, from Bernauer Strasse and elsewhere. And the papers were full of stories of people trying to escape and being shot or getting out.”
“I remember reading a book at the time that I’ve thought of many times since.
It was titled Berlin und Keine Illusionen (Berlin and No Illusions) and it was all about
how there was no way that Berlin could survive in this way (ed. as an island,
cut off from the West) and that eventually the GDR would put it down.
There was a lot of pessimism of that kind going around [the city, ed.] and a
feeling of malaise among that population that this [invasion by the GDR, ed.]
would eventually happen.”
Schroeder took a room in a student dorm in Krumme Lanke in the southern part of West Berlin. Here the reality of Germany’s division was front and centre on a daily basis as most of the other residents were refugees from the East. “I heard many different accounts from these people [about life in the East], all of them quite interesting,” he relates. “One of my friends was a law student who escaped from the GDR by making his way through the forest. He was desperate to get out of there and that story stayed with me.”
He recalls that one of the ongoing controversies in the dorm was whether or not they should tune the radio [in the dorm’s common room, ed.] to an East German station or not. “I remember there was this one Eastern station we listened to which played old hits and German Schlager (a very popular German version of easy listening, ed.) where these announcers with Saxon accents would read these ads inviting listeners to “Come spend your vacation in the socialist world! “
Shortly after arriving in the city, Hynna had a memorable Berlin experiences on the May Day holiday. He relates:
“May Day was a big thing in Europe . . . there were May Day celebrations both
East and West at the time. I wanted to go see what was happening at the West
Berlin celebrations, they were held somewhere around the Tiergarten (very near
the border to East Berlin, ed.)
I was heading for that on the streetcar when I noticed that people were already
streaming away. I was too late. So I turned around and took the S-Bahn to
Friedrichstrasse in East Berlin. Once there I walked down Unter den Linden to
Marx-Engels-Platz. The reviewing stand had been set up there and was filled with
about two thousand dignitaries of all kinds.
When I got close to the reviewing stand, the streets were roped off. By this time
there were only workers groups coming in with big banners and what not, from
five different directions. I stepped under the rope with my camera to take a picture.
That’s when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was a Vopo (People’s Policeman, ed.)
signaling to me to get back under the rope, so I did!
But by this time I was so close with these streams of people coming in I didn’t dare
buck the tide and go against it. So what did I do? I decided to go with it and I did.
Here I was in with a group carrying a huge banner of Kruhschev. And then I noticed
that the parade was being televised live. There were television cameras all over
that I could see and if you looked carefully you could tell which one was live by
a light on top of the camera. I kept an eye out and made sure that that big banner
stayed between me and the television camera. It would not have been good for
a DAAD scholarship holder to be seen marching in the East Berlin May Day parade!
We went by the reviewing stand and I recognized Ulbricht and Grotewohl, but
when we got passed it, the crowd dispersed and I turned and took a picture. May Day ’62.
Then when I was walking, circling back to get back down Unter den Linden and
passing back alleys and what not, I saw that they were full of soldiers and armour.
They were ready for anything that might happen.” (East German authorities
very nervous about large gatherings near the Wall, concerned that the crowds might
use the opportunity to storm the border. These fears remained throughout the entire
GDR period, ed.)
Over time, the two Canadians settled in to their new surroundings, but it took some time. Schroeder recalls his nerves when he made a trip into East Berlin alone on the S-Bahn. Again, he decided to try and register his trip with the authorities, this time the Canadian Consulate in West Berlin:
“I called them up and I remember hearing teacups clattering in the background. And
when I told them my plans, the response was, ‘Oh, do have a nice time!’ To which I
replied, ‘That’s not the point! I want you to know that one of your citizens is going over
there and might not come back!”
The trip into the station did nothing to alleviate his fears:
“I remember sitting in the S-Bahn and I could see the Wall going by underneath as we passed over it and it really was quite terrifying. As we pulled into the station, a voice came on and basically told us, ‘We’re coming to a stop, you must get out, you can’t go any further’. And when you got off, there were these Vopos (People’s Police, ed.) standing there on the station platform. I though ‘Oh my God!’ It was really quite exciting and I got more courageous by the moment when I was there.”
Hynna too continued exploring the “Eastern Sector” and in late May was initiated first hand into the violent reality that was life in divided Berlin. On the afternoon of Sunday, May 27th, Hynna decided to take a walk along the sector border near Bernauer Strasse, the site of many escape attempts. He recollects:
“I went for a walk starting at Bernauer Strasse and walked along the Berlin side
of the Wall where it became a canal that marked the dividing line. On the eastern
bank there was a barbed wire fence. So I walked along it and it was a sort of
industrial district with a Güterbahnhof along that stretch. There were piles of
coal sitting there along the bank.
At one point I was coming up and there was this bupp, bupp, bupp, bupp, bupp
and I said to myself, ‘That’s machine gun fire!’. So I continued on and quickly
came across some policemen, West German policeman, peeking out from be-
hind the piles of coal. The firing had stopped, but they were still very vigilant,
looking to see what was going on over there.
I came up and it turned out that a young fellow had tried to escape. Right on the
other bank was a hospital, some university clinics and what not. Close to the
canal there was long, low building like a carriage house or something like that
and apparently this fellow had been on the roof of that. He left his coat there
and it was still there. He had gone for the canal but he was shot before he got
to the fence. And the body lay there for at least an hour, I stayed watching.
That was a sort of a dreary aspect of the time, this experience underlined the
reality of that city at that time.”
(For a more detailed account of this instance incorporating not only Mr. Hynna’s
recollection but also the historical record, please see my earlier post on this
Culture and Night Life in the East: ‘What in God’s name was I doing?’
Though he had not chosen to relocate to Berlin like his friends George Hynna and Frederic Schroeder, the city remained attractive to Michiel Horn and when he saw a poster from the West German government’s Ministry for All-German Affairs (Ministerium für gesamtdeutsche Fragen) offering a two-week stay in June 1962, he jumped at the chance.
Horn remembers that the trip involved a study program during the day that included a close look at various aspects of East German life:
“One of the instructors was a fellow who had come from the East in the late 1950s
and he introduced me to a book I found quite fascinating, Die Revolution entläßt
ihre Kinder by Wolfgang Leonhard (Children of the Revolution in English, this
work published in 1955 was the first ‘tell-all’ by a disillusioned former high-ranking
East German official). I remember reading that with considerable interest.
They put us up in a Studentenheim in Grunewald. It was rather spartan, about
5 or 6 to a room, but it was essentially a freebie. I mean 50 DM, which at the time
was about $12.50 Canadian.”
Horn has clear memories of how he spent some of his free time: “I had two weeks and got into East Berlin several times, at least twice to see the Berliner Ensemble at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. I saw two performances first “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” and “The Three Penny Opera”. I remember at that second performance there was a bit of commotion at the end of the intermission, applause before the curtain had gone up. I didn’t know what was going on, but my neighbour said, ‘Das ist die Loren!’ (‘That’s Sophia Loren!’). I guess that she and Vittorio De Seca were in Berlin filming “The Condemned of Altona” at the time and obviously they were recognized.”
Trips to the East for cultural pursuits were high on the agendas of both Hynna and Schroeder as well as they also made stops at East Berlin’s Opera and theatres as well. However, the night life of the East German capital was also attractive, largely due to the economics that were involved.
“The one thing that we found useful when we did go across, was you were supposed to change money at a rate of one-to-one at the Wall. What we did was we exchanged most of our money at a bank in West Berlin so we got four East German marks for one West mark. Of course you had to do that carefully and one made a show of changing money as your crossed [into East Berlin]. We were smuggling money in effect, you see.
I had a little pocket underneath the collar of my jacket at the back of the neck
where I stuffed the bills. We always got across without any problems, but while
I was living there an American student was caught doing that and he received
three years in an East Berlin jail for that. So there was a risk involved, but I
guess that made it all the more exciting for us young students.
At the time it seemed sort of like a lark, you didn’t really think of the possible
consequences and what not. It was only afterwards that you started to worry.
Years later, you asked yourself, ‘What in God’s name was I doing?'”
Horn remembers venturing out into the East Berlin nightlife, specifically in the company of another member of the June travel group, a fellow by the name of Lutz who had both German and Russian nationality. Horn recollects:
“Lutz knew his way around and he invited me to join him and his girlfriend
for dinner one night after the show. I said, ‘Sure’. We went to the Café Sofia,
one of the places you could eat well and they didn’t take foreign currency, but
Lutz had smuggled in substantial quantities. He said he had got it at 5 Ostmark
for1 DM in West Berlin which made for a very cheap meal. Since he was the
one who was smuggling, I didn’t feel I risked anything.
I do remember that he and his girlfriend were very good dancers and Latin
rhythms were allowed because Cuba of course was an ally . . . Anyway, I think
the dance was a Cha-Cha-Cha, and they knew how to dance the Cha-Cha-Cha.
So they got on the dance floor. Within a minute the head waiter approached
them and tapped them both on the shoulders and they came back to the table.
I asked, ‘What did he say?’. Lutz answered, ‘He told me that this was the kind
of bourgeoise decadence that was not permitted on a socialist dancefloor.’
With their scholarships winding down, the Canadians headed home separately over the summer of 1962. For Hynna this meant traveling back to Holland by train from West Berlin via the GDR, a trip which necessitated an transit visa. Normally this was not particularly problematic exercise, but Hynna recalls that his schedule had left him only one such day to complete this errand in East Berlin: August 13th, 1962, the first anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall.
“The day before there were all kinds of warnings in the newspapers about a
possible insurrection on the anniversary and so on. It said, ‘If you have any
business in East Berlin, make sure you get out by noon.’ So I went in before
11 am, I remember walking down Unter den Linden and it was almost deserted
at the time. Every once in a while you might encounter someone, but it was
almost as if they were furtive, not wanting to look you in the eye. It was an eerie
I got my visa and was out by twelve and got the train later that day. And when
we were leaving the East but before we crossed into West Germany, all the
railway sidings were filled with flatcars with tanks, armour and what not. They
really were very, very scared of an insurrection at that time. I remember breathing
big sigh of relief when we got out of East Germany that day.”
I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Michiel Horn, George Hynna and Frederic Schroeder for their willingness to share their recollections with me and the readers of my blog. I hope that people enjoy reading this post as much as I enjoyed putting it together.
All the quotes featured in this article are taken from the following interviews:
- Dr. Michiel Horn, December 18, 2015
- Dr. Frederic Schroeder, January 23, 2016
- Mr. George Hynna, February 12, 2016.