Before The Wall: Berlin, February/March 1960

1960 - Homeric JWK II

My father, John Kleiner, at a masquerade ball on board the Homeric, the ship which transported him to Europe in the fall of 1959.

Today would’ve marked the 82nd birthday of my father, Dr. John Kleiner, a professor of at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Canada, and the man whom I have to thank for my interest in German history. To mark this date, I thought that I’d share some photos and notes from a trip he took to Berlin in the winter of 1960. I think that these provide an interesting perspective on the divided city before the Wall and I hope that after reading this post that you’ll agree with this assessment.

1960 - Homeric JWK I

My father being welcomed on board the Homeric.

My father was in Germany pursuing university studies through the DAAD – German Academic Exchange Service. As part of its standard program, DAAD took its scholarship holders to Berlin for a week long information tour as a way of sensitizing young people to the reality of Germany’s division. The itinerary included stops on both sides of the border and, judging by the memorabilia and ephemera he collected and kept, my Dad seems to have made the most of the opportunity the trip presented.


The DAAD travel group after arriving in Berlin (photo: J. W. Kleiner).

Friday, Feb. 26, 1960

“We left for Berlin early [from Nürnberg on February 26, ed.]; weather still bad; we drove all day and were in the city by supper time. Of course, a couple of hours were wasted going the the “zone” boundaries. How sad it was to see this dividing line running through the heart of Germany! Inside the DDR flags abounded, as did military personnel; however, the people were noticeable by their absence. The countryside is different than in Schwaben (Swabia, the region in West Germany where my father was studying, ed.). It is flatter, the fields are larger + the forests are perhaps more numerous. The cosy little “schwabische Dorfe” (Swabian villages, ed.) are missing too. It’s a pleasant area, but when one thinks that the people are being imbued with the Communist ideology, one cannot help but be sad. Our trip through the zone was strictly regulated, so we were forced to pass by such “sehenswürdige” (visit-worthy, ed.) places as Leipzig + Halle. Wittenberg is only about 20 km. off the highway, but this too had to be bypassed.” (It’s worth noting that all these cities were key sites the history of the Protestant Reformation, a topic with which my father, son of a Lutheran pastor, was quite familiar, ed.)

West Berlin

AK - Kudamm Berlin W 1960

Postcard of West Berlin’s “magnificent” main drag, the Kurfürstendamm.

“Once in Berlin, we immediately moved into our quarters in the “Haus der Zukunft” (House of the Future, ed.) , a home that is not completely unlike a Jugendherberge (youth hostel, ed.) although it is run on a much more lenient basis + so is more pleasant. The first night we just paraded up and down the “prachtvoll” (magnificent, ed.) Kurfürstendamm (West Berlin’s showpiece main drag, ed.) for a while + then went to a cafe for coffee.

Saturday, Feb. 27, 1960

“The next morning we had a lecture. Johannes Voelkers, on the present Berlin situation. Very good. He showed that the idea of Berlin as a free city is untenable because once the city is left stranded like that in the East Zone, the Communists will sooner or later exert pressure on it, possibly by suddenly cutting off all trade relations + so force it into the[ir] system.”

The Hansa Quarter

“That afternoon, we made a bus tour of West Berlin. I was really amazed. The amount of modern + daring architecture that has been used in Berlin is fantastic. Especially exciting was the “Hansa Viertel” (Hansa Quarter / see above, ed.). The streets in Berlin are the widest I have ever seen; there is even an Autobahn through the city.”

“There is an interesting anecdote connected with the “russisches Ehrendenkmal” (Russian Memorial of Honour, below, ed): there are now two Russian soldiers ‘guarding’ the place. Until about 1.5 years ago, only one soldier had been necessary, but when one of these soldiers used this opportunity to flee the East + seek political asylum in the West, the Communists made a change: there is now one soldier to watch the “Denkmal” + another to watch the soldier.”


“Russian ‘Denkmal’ in W. Berlin, with supposedly the first tank to enter Berlin. Background: the Reichstag.” (photo: J. W. Kleiner).

1960 - Kudamm Theater stub

Stub for matinee performance of “Die Kassette” at Theater am Kurfürstendamm” on Feb. 27, 1960.

“After the “Stadtrundfahrt” (city tour, ed.) we messed around for some time arguing about what to do. Finally we ended up going to the “Theater am Kurfürstendamm” where Carl Sternheim’s Die Kassette was playing. Theo Lingen was enjoyable + the play – practically a farce – was at least amusing. Evening rating: only fair. Reason for relative failure: lack of participation by some lively members of the opposite sex. Prospects for improvement in this category are at the time of writing (Feb. 29, 1:40 am) poor.”

Sunday, Feb. 28, 1960

“Absolutely appalling”: “‘Typical’ street in the Eastern Sector of Berlin” (photo: J.W. Kleiner).

“This morning Heinz + I took a 2 1/2 hour walk along the Wannsee (lake in southwestern Berlin, ed.). The weather is slowly improving. This morning it was cloudy but mild. After dinner we drove to the East Sector + spent the afternoon walking around there. The difference between the East Sector + the West Sector is absolutely appalling. In the East Sector there are piles of rubble + ruined buildings on every side – after 15 years! The streets, once one gets off the ‘show streets’, are quite literally deserted. One gets the impression that the city is either a ghost town or has just been evacuated.”

We also saw the places where the rising of June 17, 1953 took place in the East Sector against the Communist Regime. It’s hard to imagine the courage that it would take for people armed with stones + bricks to stand up against tanks + machine guns.” (The reference here is to what was then known as the Stalinallee, a broad boulevard labeled “the first socialist street in Germany” and built to contrast with the “sterile, modernist” architectural language of West Berlin’s Hansa Quarter (see above)).”

“I had a pleasant experience over there though; I was just taking some pictures when 4 kids (ages ca. 5-8) came running up + asked me to take a picture of them, which I gladly did. I shall send them a copy as soon as I can.” (no word as to whether he was able to do this, ed.)

“This evening we saw Johann Strauss’ “Der Zigeunerbaron” (the Gypsy Baron, ed.) which was very enjoyable.” (at East Berlin’s Metropol Theater, ed.)

Ed. note: Scrawled onto the side of one of his daily recaps, my father wrote: “East – change rate 4:1, theatre tickes, books, records, etc.” It’s an interesting aside, likely jotted down during one of the lectures the group received from local scholars. My father often recalled the privileged position of North Americans traveling in post-war Europe where “new world” currencies had dramatically enhanced purchasing power. Add to this the favourable exchange rate with the East German mark and it’s easy to see why my father spent so much of his free time in the “appalling” Eastern Sector.

Monday, Feb. 29, 1960

At this point in his trip, my father took a break from recording details on his activities; all I have are a few cursory notes for the next four days.

This Monday, he took in the first of three visits to plays presented by the Berliner Ensemble in their home in the theatre at Schiffbauerdamm in central East Berlin. The Ensemble, founded in 1949 by Bertolt Brecht, a German theatrical icon and critical Marxist, was undoubtedly the GDR’s best known cultural institution in the wider world. Although Brecht had been dead nearly four years by the time of my father’s visits, the BE still enjoyed a reputation as a harsh and trenchant critic of “the powers that be” and, given his interests, it is none too surprising to see that my father gravitated to its performances.

1960 - BE 29 02 60On this evening, he took in “Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder” (Mother Courage and Her Children, ed.), Brecht’s anti-war masterpiece featuring his widow, Helene Weigel, in the main role. It would be interesting to know what my father’s impressions were of this play, but sadly he makes no mention of the production in the notes I have.

Tuesday, Mar. 1, 1960

The only note for this date is brief, but telling: “Presentation, Dr. Hildebrandt. Need to tell West, W. Germany falls 2 years after Berlin.” With this note, one gets a very real sense of dread that hung over West Berlin in those years, a feeling that the city was doomed and Soviet occupation only a matter of time.

That evening, my father returned to the Berliner Ensemble, this time for one of Brecht’s parables: “Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui” (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui). Written in exile in 1941, this work looks at the rise of Hitler through the story of a group of gangsters. It would appear that my father was witness to something quite special. Theatre Historian Dr. David Barnett notes that this production of Ui, directed by the duo of Manfred Wekwerth and Peter Palitzsch and featuring BE icon Ekkehard Schall in the title role, “established the BE as a theatre that had survived Brecht’s death and that had been able to stage one of his great plays to the standard to which the audience had become accustomed over the years.” (Peter Barnett, The History of the Berliner Ensemble (Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 2015.) , pg. 164.)

Wednesday, Mar. 2, 1960

1960 - Aquarium stub
All I have to go on for this day is a note reading: “nil!

This stub for a visit to the Aquarium Berlin would correspond nicely with that description.

Thursday, Mar. 3, 1960

Notes: “morning: Pergamon Museum. Afternoon – Ernst Reuter Kraftwerk (power plant, ed.). Evening – Carmen”. (I have to hand it to the program organizers for this trip, this was a nicely varied program, ed.)

The Pergamon Altar remains a “must see” on the itinerary of virtually every visitor to Berlin. Brought to the city from Greece in the late 19th c., the altar is massive structure from the first half of the second century B.C. During the war years, it was dismantled and stored for safekeeping, but a large number of pieces discovered by Red Army soldiers during the Battle of Berlin were then shipped to Leningrad’s Hermitage Museum where they remained until they were returned to the GDR in 1959. Just in time, it would appear, for my father’s visit the next year.

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Upon closer inspection, the seemingly incongruous inclusion of the Ernst Reuter Power Station on the group’s schedule is easily explained. At that time, the power plant was a newly renovated piece of vital physical plant for the west side of the city which had been built under the trying conditions of deteriorating relations between Berlin’s occupying powers. Construction began not too long after the end of WW II, but progress was slow. When the Soviet blockade of 1948 cut off both all land access to the Western sector and deliveries of electricity as well, the power station’s completion took on both practical and symbolic importance. Unwilling to bow to Soviet pressure, the western allies made the decision to transport the large-scale machine parts needed for the power plant via the “Air Bridge” which was supplying the city with virtually all the necessities of life. This  masterwork of logistics went so well, in fact, that it apparently helped convince Soviet authorities of the blockade’s futility, an assessment which led to its lifting in early 1949. Given this history, it’s not surprising that West Germans were interested in parading international students through the plant, then the physical manifestation of a Cold War victory.

Friday, Mar. 4, 1960

“Friday morn. – Bundeshaus Berlin (Federal House, ed.) – showed the mistake that Roosevelt made by vetoing Churchill’s plan of estab. a 2nd front in the Balkans rather than in Normandy as was done. If this been done, the gains made by Russian in this area would have been minimal whereas in reality they have been gigantic. We also saw a film on the colossal May Day celebrations in E. Berlin (Click here for photos and anecdote from East Berlin’s May Day parade in 1962). These troops (German – contrary to treaty) carried banners stating “Wir sind kampfbereit” (We are battle ready, ed.), yet the speakers constantly spoke of peace, etc., + demanded a “free, demilitarized Berlin” – this, in the face of their great military preparations.”

“One of the greatest tragedies in this struggle between 2 ideologies,” writes my father, “is that we no longer understand one another. We both use the same terms, but they have different meanings. They, too, believe in ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’, etc., but understand something completely different under these terms than we do.”

“Friday afternoon, Dahlem Museum – an exciting collection of such great masters as Botticelli, Dürer, Holbein, Van Dyck, Rubens, Rembrandt, Tizian, etc.”

“Frid. evening: Die Distel – a pol. cabaret in E. Sector. I suppose I should have realized that everything would have political overtones, but I really found the whole thing quite disturbing, so that even the good jokes (which were quite infrequent) still left me rather cold. It was hard to feel any respect for the cast either as artists or even entertainers, because their show had so obviously been meticulously cut to the Communist pattern. Examples: a man travelling in West, has a Jewish name. His whole life is a series of misfortunes. His W. German travelling companion is shown as a real unfeeling oaf. The poor fellow decides to becomes a Jew so that his persecutions will have some sense. Another act was a man singing a song which stated that he didn’t want his old homeland (Stettin) back (as did his former compatriots in the war-mongering revanchist West), because a person’s home is where he lives, not where he was born, etc.”

Saturday, Mar. 5, 1960

1960 - BE 05 03 60

My father’s 24th birthday. No notes of how he spent this the final day of the group’s week in Berlin, but there is a third ticket stub for a performance at the Berliner Ensemble. A bit of archival digging shows that this was for a production of “Kabale und Liebe” (Intrigue and Love) by Friedrich Schiller, the second major dramatist (after Goethe) of the literary and cultural moment known as Weimar Classicism.

As seen in a number of comments in my father’s notes above, it is fair to state that he was not positively predisposed towards the GDR. That he took in three performances of the BE suggests to me that the troupe’s was perceived as something other than state-approved cultural content (of the sort on offer at the cabaret “Die Distel”). I would imagine that this had something to do both with the fact that Brecht’s initial cultural impact predated the founding of the “Workers and Peasants State” and that he remained true to a set of aesthetic principles which were quite different from those espoused by Soviet cultural functionaries and their followers in the East Bloc.

Interestingly, the relationship between the East German state and its most famous cultural export, the Berliner Ensemble, was rather fraught. The official attitude of the GDR’s ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) and its cultural apparatchiks towards Bertolt Brecht and his creative heirs at the BE is captured rather succinctly by Wolf Biermann in his recently published autobiography Warte nicht auf bess’re Zeiten (Don’t Wait for Better Times, Propyläen Veralg, 2016). Biermann, a key protagonist in GDR history for reasons far to complicated to go into here, was in his younger days a critical Marxist cut from a similar cloth to Brecht. Raised in a devoutly Communist household in western German Hamburg, Biermann went East for his high school in the mid-1950s and, after graduation, was accepted into the BE’s apprentice program for directors. Biermann describes the troupe’s place in  the East German cultural landscape thusly:

“The big-wigs from the Party’s cultural sections hated Brecht. They tolerated him, because they wanted to show up West Germany by pointing to the fact that the world-famous dramatist had chosen to make his home in the East. But at their core, they feared the subversive effect of Brecht’s works and mistrusted his style, something they held to to be bourgeois and decadent. It was, in short, a love/hate relationship tolerated for purely pragmatic reasons.” (pg. 76, Warte nicht auf bess’re Zeiten.)


I hope you have found this glimpse into pre-Wall Berlin to be interesting. I believe that seeing the Berlin of this era through my father’s eyes and words helps shed some light onto what life was like in the city at that pivotal moment in its history, but for me, this post was a welcome opportunity to reconnect with my dearly missed father on a number of subjects in which we shared a common interest.






1 comment
  1. Nice to read about Berlin again, as always. And especially this time about your young dad there many years ago, at that historical juncture in the city/world . . . redeemed by culture, in which he immersed himself. No mere politician or historian, or even religionist, I suppose. Thanks, man.

    Was an honour to know him . . . that one evening in their home in Saskatoon, as Wes and I crossing Canada. He would have talked with us all night, but your mom reminded him we had been on the road all day. A fond memory of your parents’ hospitality.

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