Long, long ago Stanford University maintained branch campuses in several European countries, including West Germany. From June to December 1964 I was a member of Group XIII, along with about 80 other students. The campus was at Landgut Burg, an old estate on a hill above the village of Beutelsbach, just east of Stuttgart. We took regular Stanford classes and one hell of a lot of German and were adopted by local families, accustomed to the gaggle of young Americans that arrived at the Burg every six months.
We were all young, very young, ranging from 18 to 21, and we were not just Americans, the Masters of the Universe, but we were also Stanford students, the best and the brightest. To varying degrees we were naïve, relatively well-off and arrogant. We stood out simply because of the way we were dressed, and we knew the latest popular music and dances. We were proud to be Americans, and many of us, certainly myself were stupid, a facet of being 18 years old, I now know.
For most of us Stanford-in-Germany was an introduction to a wider world. Many of us were in a foreign country (at least other than Mexico) for the first time, and in 1964 Germany was still a foreign country, a taste of old Europe. Most Germans spoke German. Chasing German girls generally meant pursuing them in German, a strong motivation to learn the language. We were of course also in a place where we were adults and old enough to drink.
And drink we did. Reading my diary from that year, I was surprised by just how much beer and wine swilling there was, at least until the novelty of legal alcohol wore off. Then we continued to drink a lot anyway, because that is what college students do. I was amazed to discover just how many classes I, the normally oh so responsible student, cut in order to drink and court. It appears that I spent almost as many evenings at my favorite watering hole as at the campus, which naturally put a bit of a squeeze on my classwork.
There was a small informal gathering of Group XIII alumni at Stanford some several decades ago, but after graduating in 1967 I essentially did not see any of these people again. Until a few weeks ago. A fifty year reunion in Germany (no more West) was organized, and since Landgut Burg is now a hotel, we were able to actually stay on the old campus. The old buildings were we lived and attended class were renovated but still there, allowing us to seriously savor those experiences of fifty years ago. About half the people who made up Group XIII attended.
This was an exercise in nostalgia. Back to the land of one’s youth, the happy highways where one went and cannot come again. The downside, of course, which did not seem to bother the others, is that fifty years have passed. In 1964 we were all young, and the future stretched ahead, filled with hope. America was at its apogee, and a citizen could be proud. Now, we were old, retired, with grandchildren, and if one had not done it yet, it was not going to be done. Germany was no longer the poor relation; we were. Our country was now in decline, the recognized bully of the world. It was all a vivid reminder that things change in a half century.
Beutelsbach, the village at the foot of the hill, had not changed all that much. It and four other villages had coalesced into the city of Weinstadt, but it was still familiar to us. Stuttgart was extensively rebuilt, but it was still the city we remembered – or thought we remembered. It was we who changed. I could still see the young students under the wrinkles and grey hair, but most of us had grown up, probably I the least of all. We were no longer students but doctors, attorneys and professors, groups not traditionally known for drinking and raging. In 1964 most of us smoked; now only three of us did: I and another couple, my Rauchenkameraden.
Even in the still familiar confines of the Rems valley, where Weinstadt is located, it was clear that Germany was a different place. It was no longer old Europe. No more piles of manure outside houses in the villages, no more horse drawn vehicles and far fewer people speaking the incomprehensible Swabian dialect. Immensely wealthy, the country is no longer a bargain, and where we once got four marks for our dollar, now we got only three-quarters of a Euro. We now looked no different from Germans, and our pop culture edge had completely disappeared. And apparently everyone in Germany now speaks English. It does get a little annoying being around crowds of people who speak at least two languages.
That fifty years is a long time, however, was nowhere more obvious than in Berlin, where about half of us spent a second week. In November of 1964 we took a field trip to Berlin, then the front lines of the cold war. The Wall had gone up only three years earlier, and West Berlin was a neon island in the socialist sea of the German Democratic Republic. For us the center of town was the Kurfürstendamm in Charlottenburg, and Checkpoint Charlie and access to the western marches of the Soviet empire was way off to the east. The Ku’damm was alive, filled with shops and clubs and open 24 hours. By contrast East Berlin was a tomb, seemingly closed at night; there was still some rubble from the war two decades earlier. Berlin was almost literally a city in film, the West in vivid technicolor, the East in black and white.
A quarter century later the Wall, the DDR and the Soviet Union itself were gone, and Berlin then had another twenty-five years to rebuild itself before we visited again. It might have been a completely different city. With the fall of the Wall the city center moved east to where it was before the war, and our hotel was near the Alexanderplatz, now one of the major candidates for the “center of town.” The Ku’damm is now a relatively quiet neighborhood way off in the west, and all the action is in what was once the mean streets of East Berlin. Our major landmark and point of orientation, the Wall, is gone, along with the checkpoints and expanses of no-man’s land. The only obvious traces of the former capital of the DDR are the prefabricated apartment blocks and the streets named after German socialists.
This Berlin, the once and future capital of Germany, is fun and extremely engaging, especially for an historian, but it can hardly match the Berlin of five decades ago. The Berlin of 1964 was a large scale piece of cold war performance art, history encapsulated in single city. In old West Berlin, the showcase of the free market world, there was a vibrancy, an intensity, an edge that certainly no longer exists – that can no longer exist. And it was the Berlin of an eighteen year old student, which brought its own intensity and edge, and that too can never again be regained.
For me Berlin was emblematic, a vivid reminder of lost youth. And it was a full circle of sorts. I remember the young and undecided student standing in awe before the altar in the Pergamon Museum, and now the retired classical historian has done the same, with far more cynicism but with the same awe.