The East German Friedensrat (Peace Council) had invited me to meet a person they believed would interest me. They were working hard to gain recognition in the West and were ready to invite anyone they believed had any influence, however modest, in the West. I had started a career at Nottingham University at that time but, through journalism, had met many prominent people.
The man I went to see, Manfred von Ardenne, in the palatial ‘club’ certainly fitted the setting. He was well-dressed, charming with an air of quiet authority. It was easy to forget the devastating Anglo-US bombing raids of February 1945 on Dresden, then considered one of the world’s most beautiful cities because of its architecture and art treasures. Many thousands died in what was perhaps the most devastating Allied raid on Germany in WWII. We did not talk about that! We uttered some of the usual platitudes about peace, the ‘fight for peace’ and so on as well as some of the other places in Germany I had visited in the past.
A fitting place to meet von Ardenne
What of the palatial club? The club where I sat with von Ardenne had originally been the home of Karl August Lingner (1861-1916), now known as the Lingnerschloss. He was a businessman who had become rich by marketing Odol mouth wash. Lingner bequeathed his stately villa on the river Elbe to Dresden as somewhere open to all the population.
From 1957 until the end of the German Democratic Republic, however, the property on the Loschwitz Elbe slope was used for a completely different purpose; it became the home of a unique cultivation of socialist bourgeoisie. On 23 March 1957, the time had come: the Dresden Club was opened with a big speech by its first chairman, Manfred von Ardenne.
He praised the idea “conceived by our government itself” (translated from the original German) of creating “a club for creatively active intellectual workers in the district of Dresden” who would “use their energies to their physical limit in order to promote the raising of the general standard of living”.
In fact it was von Ardenne’s idea which he had ‘sold’ to Walter Ulbricht, head of the ruling SED and, de facto, of state. The great mass of DDR citizens would be excluded from membership. This caused resentment in the badly damaged city.
Ardenne’s political experience
I had been informed that Professor von Ardenne was a member of the East German parliament, die Volkskammer (People’s Chamber) representing the Kulturbund (Cultural Association). He was also an activist in the Friedensrat (Peace Council), a body that sought contact with organisations like CND, local authorities (Coventry, for example), other bodies in the UK and other Western states. In East Germany they were all closely watched by the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) and by officers (Vadimir Putin was one) of the Soviet Security Service (SSD).
But who was this brilliant scientist/engineer? How did he start? Manfred, Freiherr (Baron) von Ardenne, was born in Hamburg into a military family in 1907. His father recognised his talent and allowed him to leave school at 15. In that year he obtained his first patent. Largely self-taught, he carried on with his work.
I was truly amazed when I learned much more, much later, about von Ardenne. It was in 1931 that von Ardenne demonstrated a television system using a cathode ray tube for both transmission and reception. He succeeded with his first transmission of TV pictures on 24 December 1933, and after more test runs, for a public TV service in 1934. The world’s first electronically scanned television service, the Paul Nipkow, then started in Berlin in 1935, culminating in the live broadcast of the 1936 Summer Olympic Games from Berlin to public places in various parts of Germany.
During World War II, von Ardenne took part in the study and application of radar. More recognition followed. The Soviets became interested in von Ardenne for his developing a cyclotron, a particle accelerator used for atom research, in an underground Berlin laboratory. When the war ended, in 1945, the Soviets were waiting for him, and others, with an offer he could not refuse. Working in a Soviet laboratory on the Black Sea, he developed a process for splitting isotopes to create highly enriched uranium 235, a key to the Soviets’ success in creating a nuclear bomb.
Honoured from east to west
When he was allowed to return to East Germany in 1955, with two Stalin medals on his chest, von Ardenne established a research institute, which, with 500 employees, became the largest in East Germany. More medals followed. The Berlin Wall opened in 1989 and Germany was reunited and von Ardenne carried on with his work.
Von Ardenne’s last work was on cancer, which he conducted up to shortly before his death. He held around 600 patents, and had received awards from Nazi Germany, West Germany as well as East Germany and from re-united Germany. His home town of Hamburg decided to honour him (twice); the French also honoured him. With the help of his wife, Bettina, he also managed to father four children.
He died on 26 May 1997, aged 90.
I have puzzled over von Ardenne many times. What kind of a man was he? What drove him on? Was he just a self-centred opportunist? Did he believe, as Iris Murdoch once put it, “We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion. The great task in life is to find reality.” Or did he simply think: “Life is a fantasy, think as you may, the tale of an hour, the dream of a day. Here today, gone tomorrow, what does it matter?