Hickley, right, with Ulf Mauder, now head of dpa's Moscow bureau.
Hickley, right, with Ulf Mauder, now head of dpa's Moscow bureau.
Photo: Alastair Bassett

Berlin - In August 1989, I packed my student belongings into a pink Volkswagen Beetle called Gretel and drove from a NATO base in West Germany across the world’s most heavily fortified border.

I had just graduated in French and German from Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, London University. A few weeks before my final exams, I decided I wanted to spend the following year in a German-speaking country. I had already lived in France for a year and spoke fluent French. My everyday spoken German, however, was poor: I could discuss Heinrich Heine’s use of metaphor, but ordering the right bread at a bakery was a challenge.

After a Heine seminar in my final term at university, I mentioned my plan to my lecturer. I told him I was not so interested in going to West Germany unless I could go to West Berlin, but I couldn’t find any openings for native speaker English-language teachers at the universities there.

“What about East Germany?” my lecturer said. The idea hadn’t even occurred to me, but it sounded like the kind of adventure I craved aged 22. He gave me his contacts in the English department at the Martin Luther University in Halle. I applied for a job and got one. So did my friend Alastair Bassett.

Photo: Xiomara Bender

Catherine Hickley graduated in French and German from London University in 1989 and spent the following year teaching English at the University of Halle in East Germany. Her journalism career began with a dispatch about the fall of the Wall written from within the GDR. She worked as a journalist focussed on politics and economics until 2005 when she switched to covering arts. In 2015, she published her acclaimed book on "Hitler's art dealer", Hildebrand Gurlitt, titled The Munich Art Hoard. Hickley divides her time between Berlin and Quedlinburg. 

For a while though, it looked as though I wouldn’t be able to go. My father was a navigator in the Royal Air Force and at that time, he was based at RAF Wildenrath in North Rhine-Westphalia. His job entailed flying to Berlin twice a week in an old transport plane, a Pembroke. He told his family these were routine flights to patrol the Berlin Air Corridor, the airway to Gatow over East Germany designated for use by U.K. military planes after World War II.

That was, however, only part of the story. It wasn’t until years later that he told us the rickety Pembroke was full of state-of-the-art camera equipment and he was photographing Soviet military positions in East Germany from the air in a top-secret operation, code-named HALLMARK. My father was a spy of sorts, if not exactly in the James Bond mould.

Although he wholeheartedly approved of my plan to spend a year behind the Iron Curtain, he was not sure the Air Force would agree. His boss thought the security risk was too high, but agreed to check with his superior. And so it continued, up through the ranks to the centre of power in Whitehall, until someone – I think it was the Air Chief Marshal – said: “She can go.”

By the time I set off in my car from my parents’ home on the NATO base at Geilenkirchen with Alastair in the passenger seat, cracks were starting to appear in the Iron Curtain. The BBC had been covering the mass exodus of East Germans through the recently opened Hungarian border. But Erich Honecker was still in power and little had changed on the ground in Halle when we arrived, late at night, bumping along dark, empty cobbled streets.

Today Halle is a handsome, clean city with imposing architecture. Then it was a crumbling, polluted scene of devastation. When it was foggy, the air was yellowish. I once wore a woolen scarf over my mouth and was horrified at the brown stain where I had breathed. The dust of dilapidated buildings and the wintry smell of burning lignite penetrated the classrooms, the trams, my clothes. If I catch a whiff of it today, I am transported right back to 1989.

But I grew to love Halle, despite a few hitches at the start. In my first week, I got talking in the tram to Lutz, who invited me out for dinner. Keen to meet new people, I agreed to a date. On our first encounter he was wearing normal street clothes. But when he came to pick me up, he was dressed in a police uniform. I was horrified. The one piece of advice my father had given me was to avoid socialising with military personnel and police officers. I had a beer with him, made my excuses, and went home.

The shabby 1950s student hall of residence where Alastair and I had neighbouring bed-sits had no washing machine, so I did my laundry by hand in the bath until we managed to get hold of a huge, ancient top-loading machine. My first letter to my parents never reached them, so my anxious mother phoned Alastair’s mum, who set her mind at rest. All my letters from my parents arrived having already been opened – no attempt had even been made to hide the fact. My father sent some newspaper cuttings that were never delivered.

We learned to join queues outside shops before asking what they were for. (I once queued for hours to buy a bottle of some kind of Hungarian tomato sauce that I didn’t like.) And we made the odd guilty trip to the Intershop, where western goods were offered for deutschmarks. I never got used to East German toothpaste or tampons.

They feared the one Stasi informer who, statistically, was likely to be sitting in every class.

Alastair and I taught students training to be English teachers. I had taught English conversation to foreigners before, but in Halle much of what I had done in the past seemed not only pointless, but even tactless. Why get the students to practice buying a train ticket or ordering at a restaurant if they were never going to be able to visit an English-speaking country?

Our lurid orange textbook, inappropriately called "Modern English," was full of dry, propagandistic articles that placed Britain eternally in the Victorian era. Everyone worked in mining pits and attended Chartist meetings. Many times during those first weeks, I set "Modern English" aside in disgust and tried to get the students to talk about the momentous changes taking place in East Germany. I met with silence. They feared the one Stasi informer who, statistically, was likely to be sitting in every class.

And yet history was unfolding before our eyes. Week by week, another seminar group would be missing yet another student who had slipped over the leaky Hungarian border.

Alastair and I drove to Berlin in October because the British Embassy in East Berlin had promised us some new textbooks. We decided to seize the chance to hop across the border for a West Berlin pizza. Waiting in the line of cars at Checkpoint Charlie, we fantasised about toppings that seemed a distant memory. “Anchovies,” Alastair said. “Olives,” I replied. “Artichokes.” And so on.

The East German border guards checked our passports and waved us through. But the West German guards asked for the car documents. I had – somewhat dozily – left them behind in Halle. We were forced to do a U-turn back past the East German guards, who apparently found it hilarious that two British passport carriers in a pink Beetle were denied entry to West Berlin. We parked near Friedrichstraße and took the S-bahn across the border. It was the best pizza ever.

In private, East Germans felt safe with us: they knew that as foreigners, we wouldn’t be working for the Stasi. So over countless bottles of Rotkäppchen and Bulgarian reds, we listened to friends deliberating whether to escape and learned about their fear of crackdowns by the authorities.

We also heard all the jokes. A student told us how he enjoyed ordering his papers at the kiosk: “I want Freedom and a New Germany please.” (The regional paper was Freiheit – now Mitteldeutsche Zeitung – and Neues Deutschland was then the official party newspaper.) We were invited to meetings of new dissident groups like Neues Forum. But we avoided the Monday demonstrations after friends warned us that if we were discovered, the authorities might try to scapegoat us and claim the protests were fomented by capitalist foreigners.

On the evening of 9 November, I was with a group of theology students in their hall of residence in the Franckesche Stiftungen, a beautiful baroque complex built by the Pietist preacher August Hermann Francke that was slowly but surely decaying. Often, the students had no running water. The roof of one house had collapsed into the top floor.

The day the Wall fell

I went every Thursday evening to speak English with them for an hour, and often stayed for supper. We watched the evening news programme, Aktuelle Kamera, by then obligatory viewing. When I first arrived, its bulletins were full of triumphant stories about harvest or steel quotas being exceeded. Now it was covering the main political events, albeit cautiously.

We saw the now-famous clip from the news conference where Günter Schabowski mumbled – almost as an aside – that travel restrictions were easing and East German citizens would be able to visit the west with immediate effect. We switched to the Tagesschau on West German television for confirmation, and saw a reporter standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate, excitedly waiting for hordes of East Germans to come streaming through.

The theologists were by turn ecstatic and disbelieving. One minute, someone would jump up and whoop with delight. The next, he or she would sit down and shake his or her head, saying, "No, this can’t be for real, it will all change again tomorrow." Then they sang a hymn and cracked opened a bottle of Sekt. One group decided to drive up to Berlin that night; they were convinced this was a brief window of opportunity they had to seize.

I stayed, because I had to teach the next day. I could have gone – the few students who turned up for class were so euphoric and shell-shocked that the only sensible option was to take them to a café and help them hatch travel plans to Paris, London and beyond.

A few dozen English native-speakers taught at universities across East Germany. Some were there out of political conviction – they wanted to live under “real-existing socialism.” The younger teachers, like me, tended to be merely curious. At that time, I was apolitical and only averagely well-informed about current events. But that year was a crash course in politics for me.

I have never, either before or since, experienced such passionate discussions and intense exchanges of ideas about what kind of society we want to live in. Everything was in upheaval: everyone was asking the questions that I was asking myself as a young adult, and everyone was working out their place in the new world order, just as I was trying to find my way in the world.

Most of our acquaintances at the university were eager for change, but to most, the west was no model for the future. There was much talk of a Third Way between capitalism and communism, even if this remained vague. Those debates seem as relevant now – when the capitalist model is creaking under the weight of the challenges of our times – as they did then.

People often ask if I have ever been tempted to track down my Stasi file. I did fill out the application form once, but never sent it off. Something has always held me back. It was such a magical time, I don’t want to taint it retrospectively with the discovery that someone I was close to betrayed me. But maybe curiosity will get the better of me one of these days.

Ordering bread at the bakery is no longer a linguistic challenge.

For both Alastair and me, that year has had a huge, direct impact on the course of our lives. Alastair stayed in Halle for six more years. Since then, he has mainly lived in central Europe, including a five-year stint as deputy, then acting director of the British Council in Berlin. He is now the director of the British Council in Slovakia.

I wrote my first national newspaper article from Halle, for The Times. It was the start of a career in journalism that has so far spanned more than three decades. I returned to London in September 1990, but stayed only three years and was constantly hankering to get back to central Europe. After two years working in Budapest followed by another two in Bern, I moved to Bonn in 1997 to cover German politics for Bloomberg News. And I finally got to Berlin – 10 years after I first decided I wanted to live here – in 1999.

This year, to avoid any permit problems caused by Brexit, I obtained German citizenship. As a German, I definitely consider myself more of an Ossi than a Wessi – after all, I have lived in East Berlin for 21 years (okay, I admit it – in Mitte, not Marzahn).

But Saxony-Anhalt, combined perhaps with a touch of Ostalgie, still has a hold over me. Twelve years ago, I bought a ruined medieval house in Quedlinburg and renovated it. I now spend almost as much time there as I do in Berlin. And ordering bread at the bakery is no longer a linguistic challenge.