The Brandenburg Gate. November 1983. Photo by the Author.

East Berlin

Early one cold and overcast November day in 1983 I crossed through Check Point Charlie for a day in East Berlin.

After the obligatory look at the Brandenburg Gate, my next priority was Karl Marx’s old alma mata, the Humboldt University of Berlin, just down the road on the Unter den Linden. I was most keen to wander around the corridors of the spiritual home of Hegel and the intellectual birthplace of Marxism. Given the communist state had restored the building after the predations of the war I was quite sure that the University would have made a feature of such history.


It must have been time for lectures as I arrived - students were milling around outside and climbing the steps to go inside. An opportunity to sit in on a lecture I thought - fond memories of my undergraduate days – so I joined the throng of remarkably clean cut and quiet students, climbed up the steps and entered the foyer.


As I did so from the shadows appeared at my sides two sets of muscle in identical suits: no you cannot enter – said one in English – did I look English with my beard, longish hair, duffel jacket, camera and note book?  I want to see where Karl Marx studied – It is verboten - You are not a student - Go now please. Please? I had no option as they physically escorted me down the steps. So much for intellectual solidarity with the leader. I settled for a cup of coffee and cake in a grubby café over the road.


As I thought about the incident over my cup of German workers coffee I was struck by the irony of exclusion and paranoia in the Workers State. I could almost hear old Karl groaning all the way from Highgate.


It was not until very recently that I learnt that Humboldt University, during the heady days of the East German Workers Paradise, catered for those ideologically pure students destined for higher things in the State. The authorities took their charges most seriously and instituted steps to ensure that the State’s future intellectuals were not infected with any liberal western ideas, such as curiosity for curiosities sake. There would have been no room for young Hegelians at Humboldt then.