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“Greek dockworkers informed me that the Wall had fallen”

October 3 marked the 27th anniversary of German reunification. Hapag-Lloyd Captain Axel Werth, a former resident of East Germany, tells how he was surprised by the fall of the Wall.

On October 3, 1990, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the Federal Republic of Germany – also known as East and West Germany – joined together to form a single country. At the time, East Berlin native Axel Werth experienced German reunification as an able-bodied seaman with the state-owned GDR commercial shipping company DSR (Deutsche Seereederei). Today, the 58-year-old is a captain with Hapag-Lloyd.

Axel Werth, captain at Hapag-Lloyd since 1998.

When the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, Werth was on board a DSR ship moored in a port on the island of Crete. The crew was completely unaware of this historical event, as there were neither televisions nor cellphones on the ship. In the end, it was Greek dockworkers who informed them about what was happening back home. Still, the fall of the Wall didn’t strike Werth as a complete surprise. “One already noticed that something was going on there,” he recalls.

At first, there wasn’t any rollicking party on the ship. But, in the evening, those on board did raise a beer and toast the fall of the Wall. “When I was back home a few weeks later, I drove over to West Berlin for the first time,” Werth says. “There was a whole lot going on there.”

However, the West wasn’t entirely new to Werth. Before the Wall fell, his job had already given him several opportunities to get to know the Western world outside. “Of course, it was worse for those who were always only sailing east toward Russia,” he says. Still, one of his greatest experiences after the Wall came down was being able to take private trips to wherever he wanted.

There was a lot of team spirit and camaraderie at DSR, Werth notes, and even today former employees still get together regularly. “But I go only rarely, as I’m often simply too far away,” Werth says with a touch of regret. “The biggest challenges after reunification were getting used to the new system, working together with West Germans and adjusting to their ways of working, as they worked more freely and in a more self-determined manner,” Werth continues. “At first, there was occasionally severe discord between East and West Germans on board, though that was fortunately the exception.”

The "Antwerpen Express", Axel Werth's favorite vessel.

After his time with DSR, Werth spent almost a year on feeder vessels for a shipping company based in Hamburg. In 1991, when Hapag-Lloyd put its “Kiel Express”-class ships into service, he applied for a position and was hired. Once there, he earned his engineer’s commission and was eventually promoted to the rank of captain in 1998. “I’m rather proud that I succeeded in becoming a captain sailing the seas for Hapag-Lloyd,” he says with a smile.

At the moment, Werth is working on land. Until the end of this year, he will be stationed at the Fleet Support Center in Hamburg. Here, employees keep track of Hapag-Lloyd ships across the world and provide their captains with routing advice that can help with things like optimizing fuel consumption and reducing emissions. Beginning in January, Captain Werth will finally be back at the helm on “his” ship, the “Antwerpen Express” (13,167 TEU).

In his free time, Werth lives in Pankow, a northern borough of Berlin. There, his favorite things to do are cycling, skating, riding his motorcyle or going to the fitness studio. And, in the summer, there’s nothing he likes more than spending time at his garden house in Oranienburg, a rural town just north of the city.

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