East Germany’s First Super Star Ingrid Engel-Krämer Part 2: The Pride of East Germany (and West)

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Ingrid Engel Kraemer Rome 1960 Getty

I remember walking the streets of Dresden in then East Germany in 1985, noting how modern the city looked and felt compared to my previous destination of Prague. And yet, I was constantly reminded of the terrible toll World War II had on this city, as I strolled by buildings in elegant decay, reduced to skeletons by the incessant firebombing by the Allies some 40 years before.

One of the greatest female divers of the 20th century, Ingrid Engel-Krämer, was a little less than two years old when the sky rained fire on her home town.

When the 1960 Rome Olympics rolled around, East Germany was still in a tremulous existential state. Born of the ideological split between Allies at the end of the Second World War, the Potsdam Agreement dictated a “provisional border” that would separate Germany into East and West, the former to become The German Democratic Republic (GDR), and the latter the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG).

And yet, in 1960, tensions between the two Germanys, and their proxies in the global cold war battle, the Soviet Union and the United States, were still high. Author of the book, Rome 1960, David Maraniss quoted a US National Security Agency report stating that East Germany was “teetering on the brink of stability”, meaning that the possibility of East German government collapsing was diminishing rapidly. Of course, a year later, a wall was constructed on the East Berlin side, symbolizing in a very real way that East Germany was here to stay, making Germany, by default, the epicenter of Cold War hostility.

During the Rome Olympics, the GDR government declared that West German citizens would not be allowed to enter East Germany – this while over a 100,000 East Germans snuck through the border into West Germany. This ban was a reaction to an event in West Germany celebrating the return of World War II German POWs and their relatives. East Germany viewed this event as a celebration of Germany’s fascist past.

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Ingrid Engel Kraemer carries German flag at Rome Olympics closing ceremony

It was under this geo-political cloud that athletes around the world gathered in Rome for the 1960 Olympics. The condition by the International Olympic Committee for German athletes to compete was that they had to do so as a unified team, which meant competing under a specially created German Olympic flag. East and West German athletes on the whole got along as teammates on the field and in the Village. But, as Maraniss wrote, the press in each of the two Germanys turned Engel-Krämer’s stunning achievements in Rome into a proxy Cold War battle, not because Engel-Krämer, an East German, defeated an American, Paula Jean Myers-Pope, in the 10-meter platform dive, but because both East and West Germany claimed her as their own.

When Kraemer was competing to make the unified team, she felt that the West German press was very “unfriendly” to her; at least one journalist, but her account, cursed her because of politics. But now the West Germans were embracing her as a German first, one of their own. The Western newspapers covered her events with obvious national pride, as though there were no separation between East and West. Accounts in Die Welt and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung raised no questions about the judging and described the final dives in a way that left no doubt that Kraemer had again outperformed her competition. German fans, who dominated the Stadio del Nuoto audience during her events, cheered long and loud for her every effort.

Yet the warmth the West Germans showed Kraemer infuriated the East Germans, who thought the other side was trying to steal her show and diminish the ideological implications of her triumph. Kraemer’s victory was no accident, East Germany’s Neues Deutschland proclaimed. Rather, she owed her success to her “joyful life in the socialism of the German Democratic Republic.” The paper also complained that for all the copy Kraemer in the Western press, it was never mentioned that her father was an official of the SED and that the young diver herself was a member of the socialist mass youth organization.