Genre of the Week: Three and a Half Hours

Probstzella: The memorial using the remains of the border control building. The train station complex is in the background. Photo taken in 2010

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This week’s Genre of the Week is in connection with the 60th Anniversary of the Construction of the Berlin Wall. On August 13th, 1961, the East German government sealed off the border with its western neighbor, West Germany- first by constructing the Berlin Wall, a 155-kilometer long wall that encompassed all of West Berlin. In addition, the border was fenced off and walled from a point east of Lübeck, going south then east before terminating at the border with Czechoslovakia, located east of Hof. It separated the eastern states with the like of Shcleswig-Holstein, Lower Saxony, Hesse and Bavaria. The walls remained for 28 years until the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November, 1989 and the reopening of the border along the state borders days later.  While Germany has remained a unified country for 30 years, the scars of the divided Germany, which started after the capitulation of the Nazis on 7 May, 1945 still remains and serves as a reminder that events like this must never be repeated anywhere.

The next genre I’m presenting is a book that I’m reading at present but one that has been converted into a film, which one can (and should also) see when talking about the Berlin Wall.  Three and a Half Hours (German: Dreieinhalb Stunden) is a historic fictional book that has its roots to those who were in fact forced to decide between East and West, capitalism and socialism, freedom and supervision. The idea came from author Robert Krause, whose grandparents and parents both were caught in that line of fire on 13 August, 1961. Krause (*1970), who originates from Dresden, mentioned that his grandparents had traveled on that day when the border closed, his father was with a friend in West Berlin.  It looks at a situation which can be used in a classroom on history, German or other classes that focuses on governments, foreign languages and culture in a form of “Make a Decision:”

Imagine this situation: You are traveling on an Interzone Train from Munich to Berlin on 13 August, 1961 and you learn that the border between East and West Germany would be closed off to ensure that no one flees the Communist state. If you have three and a half hours time, before crossing the border at Probstzella, and you had a choice between entering East Germany or staying in West Germany, what would you do?

Keep in mind that you have a residence in the East and you wish to return there.

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The book and the film have a set of characters that want to travel to East Germany because they either have homes there, have concerts there, want to escape the laws in Bavaria in two cases or in one case, want to return one’s remains home because that person died in Munich. At the train station in Probstzella, a train conductor, who falls in love with a camera person from DEFA in East Berlin, also is faced with a difficult decision. Each character has his/her past and ideas behind their decision.  The book has a lot of suspense especially when the passengers learn of the construction of the Wall and the closing of the border, which amps up the temperatures of each of the characters for the decision they make would be the one they have to live with for a long time- even for the rest of their lives.  The pages go by as fast as the characters who are face with the decisions, which makes sense to divide up the chapters based on each of the affected characters. One by one, the puzzles fall into place, yet the decision impacts families, friendships and lastly, their futures.

The book was converted into film in 2020 and both have received a mixture of praise and criticism. Krause is considered a great storyteller and placed emphasis on history based on personal experience, while getting the readers involved in the suspense. He himself escaped to the West at the age of 19 to start a new life in Munich, so some of the stories he collected as a child can be related to what happened. It opens the wounds of the past to find out the motives behind people making the most important decision of their lives, and the construction of the Wall served as that testament to deciding between the continuation of their normal lives and starting a new life.

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Photo by Raka Miftah on Pexels.com

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It brings up a game which teachers and students can put together based on this story. It’s called Stay or Go.  You need different colors of pens as well as different colors of index cards, preferably the smallest available. Then you do the following:

  • Divide the index cards up by colors into the different categories that should read the following: The Characters, Their Lifestyle, Their Career, Their Family Status, Their Satisfaction with their Lives, Their Motives for being in West Germany, and Their Motives for being in East Germany.
  • Minus the characters in the story, for each category, make as many points as possible. They don’t have to be stuck solely on the book or film themselves but one can add some points from their own ideas and thoughts. Please make sure a color is assigned to each category.
  • Each participant is assigned a character.
  • The participant must choose from each category one card. The cards in each category can be stacked or mixed in a pile.
  • As soon as the participant chooses each card from all of the categories, he/she must decide whether crossing the border would make sense, keeping in mind the following points:
  1. If you go from West to East, you may not be able to escape back into West again
  2. If you go from East to West, you face the risk of getting arrested or shot
  3. The conditions of both East and West Germany must be mentioned prior to playing the game, both as positive as well as negative aspects
  4. You must provide reasons for your decision. This can be done in a short presentation.

The game can be played in small groups but also in classroom size where the teacher can make a buffet of categories and students can choose one from each category on the buffet.  

This game not only helps a person better understand the history of Germany during that time but also provides a chance to discuss with others regardless of which foreign language you use.

The book and the film, based on the events that happened 60 years ago, serves as a remembrance of the events that must not be forgotten. Many of us have a tendency of forgetting about history before it’s repeated again somewhere else. Yet such stories exist because we want to remember the events and share them with the next generation for them to understand. Three and a Half Hours is one of those books turned films that fulfills that purpose and then some.

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The border station Probstzella at the Thuringian-Bavarian border is in one of the stories and you can read up on my visit there by clicking here. The border station was shut down on December 12th 1961 and remained closed until 1989, thus forcing trains to cross into the West through Gutenfürst near Hof.

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