I owe it to Dr K Christian Kuhlo that I found myself with a research scholarship at Hamburg University in November 1956. We became friends at the London School of Economics (LSE), and he asked me what I would do when I graduated. He suggested, given my interest in Germany, to apply for a British Council Scholarship.
I had not heard of them before. I applied and with references from the LSE – Dr Ralph Miliband (Yes, later father of the MPs David and Edward) and C A W Manning, Professor of International Relations at the LSE (1930–1962), a key contributor to the formation of the discipline in Britain.
Off to Switzerland
I was awarded a scholarship with the condition that I spent the summer in a German-speaking country to improve my limited German. The LSE found a place for me in Switzerland. I travelled to the Swiss frontier where I had, to my surprise, to undergo a medical examination. Before long I was on my way through Switzerland on a train packed with armed Swiss troops. As was later explained, this had nothing to do with the Soviet invasion of Hungary, which was taking place at the time; it was normal, just Swiss summer manoeuvres.
Eventually, we reached the small town of Schönenwerd right off the tourist map. This was where I would take up a management traineeship at the famous Bally Shoe Company. I learned a great deal about the business and more about Switzerland.
I had been quartered with a Swiss family during my traineeship but was soon given to understand that I was being given B&B only. There was no social communication with them nor with my colleagues at work. In the office I wore, like my colleagues, a long, white, lab coat or overall. This promoted me to the officer class. The foremen wore brown, and the workers blue overalls. In most cases these reflected the military ranks of the employees, except that is, for the many Italians.
Another surprise for me was how anxious my Swiss colleagues were to remind me of Switzerland’s positive role in WWII. Interestingly, the only Messerschmitt 109 pilot I have ever met was Swiss. My sojourn in Switzerland ended 30 November 1956. It had been interesting but I was glad when I boarded the train bound for Hamburg.
Arriving in Hamburg
What awaited me in Hamburg? The huge rail station was a little daunting, still showing some WWII damage. I was just 60 years too late for the grand opening in December 1906.
Kaiser Wilhelm II, the supreme construction and railway chief of his empire, rejected the plan of the architects, who wanted to build an ornately decorated Art Nouveau building. He found it simply “horrid” and recommended the Hamburg City Hall as a model, a square building in the ornate Neo-Renaissance style.
Two world wars later, I stood there, finding my way where millions of soldiers, prisoners, emigrants, refugees, manual and white-collar workers and others had stood. Another surprise awaited me not far from the station. Hundreds of students were demonstrating against the Anglo-French-Israeli Suez invasion.
I did not tarry long but took public transport to Europa Kolleg where I was housed. The building was in Groß-Flottbek, a leafy suburb of Hamburg. It housed foreign students, male and female, from Canada, France, Greece, Turkey, UK, USA, as well as Germans. The manager was Swiss. A mistake put me sharing with a Canadian for a few hours, followed by a German but a short time later I had my own room.
Getting to grips with the language
Determined to learn German, I had to improvise, as the German for foreigners’ classes at the university were miserable. Luckily, I did a deal with a Europa Kolleg student and got a radio, a Volksempfänger (people’s receiver) developed at the request of Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister for Propaganda. It could only receive German stations.
I received free copies of the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and the weekly Der Spiegel. Another piece of good luck came in the kitchen. The German girlfriend of an American student taught me a little elementary cooking. It was there that another German said he had heard I was interested in the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Yes, that was my mission, to research the main opposition party, ally of the British Labour Party. Would I like to have a chat with an SPD member of the West German parliament, the Bundestag?
It was not long before I was in the modest, high-rise flat of Peter Blachstein (1911-1977). Blachstein was a German journalist and politician of Jewish background. During the mid-1930s he spent time in the Hohnstein Concentration Camp, but he was released and participated in the Spanish Civil War on the anti-fascist side. The rest of the Nazi years he spent outside Germany, mostly in Norway and Sweden. On his return to Germany, he was elected to the Bundestag. He was a constant critic of Konrad Adenauer’s Christian Democratic-led governments and of his own SPD. Following the restoration of diplomatic relations between West Germany and Yugoslavia, in 1968, he was appointed West Germany’s ambassador to Belgrade.
A meeting with Helmut Schmidt and Karl Schiller
Blachstein welcomed me to the West German parliament, and gave me the opportunity to interview several top SPD members of the Bundestag, including Helmut Schmidt. I arrived the following morning at the suburban home of the future West German Chancellor. His first question was: “What do you want to drink, Coke and rum?” An ex-Wehrmacht officer, he was quite forceful! I asked about the SPD’s view of socialism. Unlike Blachstein, a supporter of democratic socialism, Schmidt thought it was out-of-date nonsense. Over the years we met again in Hamburg and London.
Among the other leading Social Democrats I was able to meet was Professor Karl Schiller, who had joined the paramilitary Nazi Stormtroopers in 1933, and the party itself in 1937. He served as an officer on the Russian front in WWII. After the war, he joined the SPD in 1946 and, surprisingly, had a lightning career as professor of economics at Hamburg University. From 1948 to 1966, he was a member of the scientific advisory board of the Federal Ministry for Economics.
In the first cabinet of Willy Brandt, Schiller served as Minister of Finance from 1971 to 1972. On 7 July 1972 he resigned in protest against Brandt’s economic decisions. After stepping down, he soon left the SPD. In 1972, he participated in a Christian Democratic Union (CDU) campaign, as a defender of the market economy. In 1980 he returned to the SPD. Not surprisingly, he did not discuss his wartime adventures with me.
In part two, David will continue with more memories of his Hamburg interlude.