A half-century ago, culture and education had drawn me to Europe. In my American high school, we had exchange students—three from old Europe, one from Turkey. They were all so smart, so nice, so well-educated—already ahead of their American counterparts. And of course they spoke at least two foreign languages, sometimes more.
I wanted a taste of what made those young people so impressive. Thanks to a wave of postwar exchange programs to reintegrate Germany into the world, I received a fellowship to Göttingen University.
To save money, I traveled by coal freighter from Virginia, a 13-day trip across the heaving Atlantic to Bremerhaven, the city of emigrants. Over two centuries, more than seven million Germans left Bremerhaven for foreign lands, mostly America.
On one day in 1961, one American arrived, going the other way.
My little ship docked during the night of August 13, 1961. Something was wrong. The captain and the immigration police crowded around a radio. They would not left me off the ship. Berlin is being divided, they said. American and Soviet military were facing one another. It was one of the tensest moments of the Cold War.
Hours later, I went ashore and walked into history. I did not know what a large role the Berlin wall would play in my future.
During my first year in Germany, I was like a hog in mud. I reveled in studying German in the Black Forest, in hitchhiking and motorcycling from Flensburg to Berchtesgaden, in staying with many German families I met. I loved the easy access to culture (student discounts for the opera!), the cosmopolitan flavor of Göttingen (I lived in the Fridtjof-Nansen-Haus), and especially the electric atmosphere in Berlin.
Crossing through the newly fortified Checkpoint Charlie with my illegally-exchanged East Marks, I was rich. I could take East Berlin students to lunch in a nice restaurant on the pompous Karl Marx Allee.
Even in the 1960s, even with the war only 16 years in the past, I was astonished at how modern Germany seemed, thanks to postwar construction. And, at the same time, how rooted in the past: the village wine festivals, the official meeting of the village council (over beer!) in the local pub.
The little things were striking to me. How smoothly and frequently the buses ran—just 16 years after World War II. Yet how hard it was to shop for simple things: You had to stand in line and ask for a bottle of milk or a can of beans in a little mom-and-pop grocery store—no super-markets then.
As an American, I was treated alternately like a malefactor—because of abuses against blacks in the U.S. (even though I was active in the civil rights movement)—or as a hero. There was not yet an Americanized Vietnam war, no ugly American. Especially away from the universities, Germans’ memories of the Marshall Plan and Care Packages were still alive.
An exchange student’s energy went into learning the language, the culture, the geography, the people. All the focus was on Germany’s recovery from war, its return to the ranks of civilized nations. Even if the shadow of the war still fell across the land, there was a general sense of optimism about the future. Konrad Adenauer ran the country. Ludwig Erhard ran the economy. The Americans kept the peace.