The Czech Port in Hamburg

A Hole in the Iron Curtain.
The Czech Port in Hamburg during the Cold War 


A project by Dr. Sarah Lemmen

Project Description


On the basis of a right to maritime access enshrined in the Treaty of Versailles, in 1928 Czechoslovakia received an area within the port of Hamburg of around 42,000 m². It became a central hub for Czechoslovak goods intended for the world market. With the post-war European order and the start of the Cold War, Czechoslovakia’s “gateway to the world” in Hamburg took on a new function: while its economic significance remained undisputed, the port territory now also became a socialist outpost in the middle of Hamburg and a microcosmic laboratory for socialist forms of society and their confrontation with Western ideas, influences and conflicts. 




This Czech port area in Hamburg, with several Czech workers, bargemen, clerks and their families, but also with regular and uncontrolled contact with the “Western” world while under strict surveillance by the state organs of both East and West, was a site of conflict and mediation between East and West throughout the entire Cold War. The constant confrontation between the two systems created a microcosm in which questions concerning ideological persuasiveness, state control and cross-border transfer were negotiated on a daily basis. This project examines this microcosm with its specific and exposed position on the frontline of the Cold War in order to consider fundamental questions concerning the functioning of state and society in socialism and in the context of bloc confrontation. It is thus rooted in the cultural and social history of lifeworlds, ideology and statehood in the Cold War in the context of (open) bloc borders and their everyday crossing. The temporal focus is placed on the phase from the immediate post-war years of the 1940s to the 1990s, but overall the project examines the planning and existence of the Czechoslovak port from 1919 to the present day. It thus examines not only the actors and structures of the Cold War, but also the development, implementation and transformation of the Czechoslovak/Czech port.




Drawing on archive material (state/secret service, municipal, entrepreneurial archival sources in Germany and the Czech Republic) and oral history (especially interviews with Czech and German dockers and bargemen as well as their families), the project analyses and intertwines three levels: on the micro-level, the lifeworlds of sailors and dockers are examined in terms of their everyday life between East and West, control and freedom, and rule and self-will. In contrast, on the macro-level the focus is on state surveillance of the port in Hamburg. On the meso-level, the study examines actors who due to various interests moderated the Cold War conflicts on the economic or local political level and intervened much more directly in the lifeworlds of the workers.

None of these actors consciously regarded themselves as moderators between East and West. The smooth running of the Czechoslovak port in Hamburg was of great interest for everyone involved however. Hence Cold War conflict moderation was part of the daily work on all levels: from state functionaries and municipal and economic representatives in East and West to the dockworkers and bargemen themselves.