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In the Heat of the Cold War: Diplomats in a Divided Germany

Ever since the Foreign Service’s infancy, Foreign Service spouses have traveled with their partners to all corners of the world, helping to represent America and her interests overseas. Many of these spouses were former Foreign Service Officers themselves. Helen Brady Lane is one such individual, who entered the Foreign Service in 1957 and left after just a few years to follow her husband, Larry, for his own career in the State Department. Together, Helen and Larry went to countries as close as Mexico and as far as Germany.

The Consulate General of the USA in Hamburg (March 2009) (Garitzko) | Wikimedia
The Consulate General of the USA in Hamburg (March 2009) (Garitzko) | Wikimedia

It was in the heat of the Cold War that Helen and Larry were sent to Hamburg, Germany. Upon arriving, Helen immediately noticed the tremendous influences of both the Cold War and World War II on local life. Helen closely observed this, all while navigating her own role in Germany as a new mother and Foreign Service spouse. Read more in this “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History” about how a Foreign Service couple adapted to life in a divided Germany, and all they learned along the way.

Helen Brady Lane’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy in September 2014.

Read Helen Brady Lane’s full oral history HERE.

For more “Moments” referencing Germany and the Cold War, click HERE.

Drafted by Natalie Schaller

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“At that time there were two Germanys, West and East. East Germany was like the other side of the moon.”

The Hamburg Firestorm (Date Unknown) (Photographer Not Named) | DPA
The Hamburg Firestorm (Date Unknown) (Photographer Not Named) | DPA

Moving to Germany:
Q: Where in Germany were you sent?

LANE: We were assigned to Hamburg. Larry was assigned first though to Washington to learn German at FSI. At that time there was no provision for teaching wives languages. So I didn’t start learning German until I got to Hamburg. We had an excellent language teacher at the Consulate General in Hamburg. Madame Claire Malignon. . . . It was a challenge to learn German but I soon got to where I could read the newspaper (Die Welt), do our grocery shopping and talk to taxi drivers. But my main focus at the time was raising little children. . . . Larry was assigned to Hamburg as a labor officer.

Q: So what was Hamburg like then?

LANE: Hamburg was the largest city in West Germany and its biggest port. At that time there were two Germanys, West and East. East Germany was like the other side of the moon. Americans could not go there, even though the border wasn’t far away. Hamburg is a working class city with a vibrant arts community. Hamburgers care deeply about music, especially great opera. One of the first buildings that had been built back after the devastation of the war was the opera house, which was a state of the art opera house, one of the best in Europe. Hamburg had great opera and ticket prices were reasonable. Larry and I became opera lovers.

There was also a large international community. I made close friends among the young junior officer wives. Hamburg was an interesting place, but if anybody had asked me if I would like to go back to Cochabamba I would have been on the first plane because I missed Victoria, my super Bolivian maid. I had Andrew, who was an active toddler and Julia, our new baby girl. I missed the household help I had had in Cochabamba.

“It permeated everything.”

The Cold War:
Q: Did you get any feel about the Cold War being played out in Germany?

LANE: It permeated everything. We had been in Germany only a week when the border crossing between East and West Berlin closed, and buildings on the East Berlin side of the wall were leveled to create the Death Strip. Several years later the Berlin Wall went up. To go to Berlin from Hamburg one could fly or drive by a roundabout way via Helmstedt on the one autobahn between West Germany and Berlin.

We made a visit to Berlin to see the German production of My Fair Lady. We went on a Meine Schöne Dame Reise (“My Fair Lady Trip”), which included airfare, a hotel stay, and theatre tickets. The German production of My Fair Lady was terrific. The Berliner dialect was used instead of Cockney and was hilarious. We also made a visit to the East Zone, a very sad-looking place where there had been little post-war reconstruction; the contrast with the lively West Zone was total. Another historic event while we were in Germany was the Cuban Missile Crisis. We had gone for a week’s vacation in South Germany. It was late October and I had a wonderful time. The countryside and the mountains were beautiful. When we came back to Hamburg, we found out that something awful might happen. Everyone was worried but, optimist that I am, I thought things would likely work out. I do remember that Larry said that every post had to have an evacuation plan. He had recently updated the Hamburg evacuation plan. He told me that according to the plan we were supposed to get in a caravan of cars and head up to the Danish border. But things did work out. The saddest and most shocking event during our tour in Hamburg was the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963. . . Larry and I felt as though we had lost a best friend.

“Few people survived . . . Even if they managed to get into a shelter, the fire was so intense they were smothered because the fire consumed all the oxygen.”

Fire Raids:
Q: When I think of Hamburg I often think of the tremendous fire raids there in the bombing of Hamburg during World War II. Did that come up much?

LANE: Yes, it did come up. Our neighborhood had not been bombed. We lived in an upper class neighborhood. The neighborhoods that were firebombed were the working class neighborhoods. Few people survived in those neighborhoods. Even if they managed to get into a shelter, the fire was so intense they were smothered because the fire consumed all the oxygen.

We had a nice babysitter, a woman who often looked after the children for us. . . At the time of the fire-bombing, she and her mother were visiting her grandparents who lived on a farm south of Bremen. So she and her mother were not in Hamburg when the terrible fire bombings happened. Her father was a dock worker and he was at work the night of the bombings. When he came home from work there was nothing left of their neighborhood. Anyone who was there was gone, dead, burnt to a crisp or asphyxiated in a shelter. The life changing thing for her was that in Hamburg she had done very well on her exams and had been admitted to a gymnasium.

The bombing was beyond terrible for the people of Hamburg. But the survivors built their city back. By the time we were there, big cranes dominated much of the skyline. A big church was built next to us to replace a major church downtown that was being left in ruins as a memorial. The brand new high church St. Nickolas was under construction on the property next to our building. Huge bells were hung in the bell tower. That was an interesting thing to watch. My little son and I watched the construction with fascination. German workmen are like workmen everywhere. If a young woman walks down the street they whistle. More than once they made my day.

“I certainly was not talking to only Americans.”

Hamburg in the 1960s (August 1960) (Frank da Cruz) | Columbia University
Hamburg in the 1960s (August 1960) (Frank da Cruz) | Columbia University

Social Life and the Service:
Q: I was just wondering whether you got involved with any of Larry’s work, representation.

LANE: Of course. We gave cocktail parties and small dinner parties, so I did get to know his contacts. We also met people from other consulates. We were really in the British zone. The British consulate was bigger than ours. So we had friends at the British consulate. We had some friends who were Chinese from Taiwan and friends who were Ecuadorian and Chilean. The consular corps in a big city like that does get together and exchange information and ponder the ways of the host nationals. I certainly was not talking only to Americans. There was also the German-American Women’s Club. I remember it as the “Frauen Club.” Mrs. Bailey thought it was very important that we go to the Frauen Club and make an effort to meet the German members. We worked together on Christmas bazaars and card parties and played bridge together now and then. Sometimes we would get together just for coffee and eat wonderful pastries and a big bowl of whipped cream. The custom was to put extra whipped cream on top of the pastries.

Q: Again, during this time you are pretty busy with kids, but did you have the sort of keeping your Foreign Service skills honed and thinking about maybe someday [you] will come back in or not?

LANE: I don’t remember thinking I would rejoin the Foreign Service again as an officer. As a Foreign Service dependent I thought of myself as part of a team. One thing though that I observed was that many of the Foreign Service wives were just as smart as their husbands. Sometimes they were more interesting, more down to earth, and less full of themselves than the guys they were married to.

Q: . . . Did you find that you were resentful of the fact that the service used to make no bones about the fact that you were part of a two-fer? Two people were really one unit and they wanted to get something from you.

LANE: Yes, but on the other hand, the Service provided us with housing in interesting places. So if one was expected to give cocktail parties that you wouldn’t think of doing on your own, well fine. Throw a cocktail party. I didn’t mind being useful to my country.


BA in American Studies, Smith College
Foreign Service Spouse
Washington, D.C. 1975–1978
Santo Domingo, Domincian Republic 1978–1981
Mexico City, Mexico 1981–1983
Madrid, Spain 1985–1988