29 November 2009

The Berlin Wall

Earlier this month, on Monday, 9 November, the world acknowledged the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The celebration was grand in the city of Berlin itself, with dignitaries from Germany and many other nations, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gathering at the Brandenburg Gate, which for 28 years stood on the eastern side of the barrier. Ironically, the landmark was built in the late 1780s as a sign of peace. The Wall, known by Germans on both sides as Die Mauer, was the most potent and visible symbol of the division of the aligned nations into a communist East and a capitalist West. It was for nearly three decades the metaphor for the Cold War. Its fall, which wasn’t so much a “fall” as the willful demolition by energized Berliners who tore the structure down with sledgehammers and their bare hands, started on the night of 9 November 1989 and signaled the fall of European communism and the Soviet bloc of eastern and central European governments. The Soviet Union itself, of course, ceased to exist two years later.

As some readers will know from earlier posts, I spent 2½ years in West Berlin as an army intelligence officer, assigned to Berlin Station of the 66th Military Intelligence Group. The Wall was more than a symbol for us, of course. It was both a physical barrier and the tangible demarcation between the territory of the U.S. and our allies and our adversaries in the Soviet bloc. It was, in many ways, a daily--and very real--reminder of what my comrades-in-arms and I were doing there in the first place.

Early in the morning of Sunday, 13 August 1961, the German Democratic Republic threw up a temporary barrier of barbed wire and trenches along the boundary between the Soviet Sector of the still-occupied city and the three Western sectors and around the border with the GDR. The East Germans officially called it the Anti-Fascist Protection Wall. The GDR also tore up much of the pavement of streets that crossed into the Western sectors to impede transit. From 18 August on, the GDR constructed a permanent wall of concrete blocks, topped with barbed wire. The Wall took about a year to construct--though it was always under alteration and sections were rebuilt and sometimes shifted from time to time. The Wall did not always conform exactly to the border dividing the eastern section from the west; the GDR built the Wall within its territory and sometimes construction, roads, or the Spree River meant that the Wall was many yards east of the actual border. Die Mauer, however, was a constant presence in the city and in the minds of Berliners for 28 years. It was grey concrete and cinderblock--an ugly scar across the middle of the city. Along the eastern side, the land was mostly barren; the East Germans kept the buildings that stood along the Wall’s path unoccupied and bricked them up, creating an unsightly, uninviting eyesore of decrepit ghost structures across the center of the city. The government of the Federal Republic, however, made special deals for anyone who’d move into apartments overlooking the Wall on their side in the hope that they could keep that area from looking so much like a blasted heath. (My parents, who visited Berlin when JFK made his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963, 22 months after the erection of the Wall, reported that it was a Potemkin city--a fa├žade of reality with no life behind it. By the time I lived there, almost a decade later, West Berlin was a thriving city with a culture and life of its own again.) I’d been gone from Berlin for 15 years when the Wall came down, but the date of its erection was a significant one in my life.

I arrived in Berlin on Thursday, 29 July 1971, just before the tenth anniversary of the Wall’s construction, and was immediately added to Berlin Station’s contingent of observers for the massive demonstrations that were planned for the commemoration. One of the tasks the Station had was “demo coverage”--watching political demonstrations to note who was there and what anyone said or did. I know that this sounds totalitarian, and I suppose in the abstract it is. But we only observed--we didn’t disrupt any demonstration, hassle any participants, bug anyone’s office or home in connection with a demonstration, or in any way try to prevent a demonstration. First of all, Berlin was the spy center of Europe, so keeping an eye out at such large political gatherings was no more than watchfulness, and, second, the city attracted large numbers of young anarchists and militant activists who were performing terrorist acts all over Germany. Many people know about the Red Army Faction/Baader-Meinhof Gang but there were other, smaller cells, too, such as SPK (Sozialistisches Patientenkollektiv – Socialist Patients’ Collective) and the Movement 2 June (see Michael “Bommi” Baumann’s Terror or Love? [Grove Press, 1979]). These folks had a habit of blowing things up and kidnapping people. (See my columns on “Berlin Station,” 19 and 22 July.) And people like Red Rudi Dutschke, the radical student leader, were active in Berlin. Prudence dictated that we keep an eye on them, especially when something as charged as the Wall was the subject of an action.

The 10th-anniversary demos of Friday, 13 August 1971--there were two, one leftist-oriented demonstrating in favor of the Wall and one rightist, opposing it--were both aimed at the same spot: the saddest place in Cold War Berlin--the Peter Fechter Memorial.

Fechter was an 18-year-old bricklayer in East Berlin who made an escape attempt with a friend and co-worker, Helmut Kulbeik, on Friday, 17 August 1962, one of the first after the Wall was erected the year before. Fechter and Kulbeik hid in one of the abandoned buildings next to the Wall on the eastern side and watched the Vopos. At about 2:15 in the afternoon, when the pair thought there was a gap in the coverage, they made a run for it, scaling the fence that formed the eastern side of the death strip on the eastern side of the Wall. They made it over the fence and through the death strip, and Kulbeik made it over the 6½-foot Wall into West Berlin, but Fechter was shot in the hip as he scaled the Wall and fell back into the no-man’s land. Observers in the West, including journalists and some U.S. military, were prevented from helping Fechter by the Vopos who threatened to shoot anyone entering the strip. No one from the East went to Fechter’s aid, though he screamed in pain for help for an hour as he bled to death. When he died, the Vopos did enter the no-man’s land to recover his body.

A memorial plaque was mounted in front of the Wall on the Western side at the spot where Fechter fell and died. Both demos, numbering several thousand each--maybe even tens of thousands--were headed for that same spot. Everyone knew that if they got there together, there’d be a street battle between the leftists and the rightists, and no one wanted that. (We observers, following along with one or the other march, also knew that we didn’t want to get caught either between the two groups of protestors or between the protestors and the police. We had a special code word to shout at the police line as we ran toward them for protection--we were not armed, of course--so they’d let us through their ranks and not shoot us in mistake for attacking protestors.)

This was the most astonishing example of competence, resolve, and steadfastness I have ever witnessed. When signs of violence broke out--some stones thrown, some sticks that had been holding up protest signs snapped off and swung--the police moved in to clear the streets. They had been lining the streets--just standing still along the curb, clad in riot gear with tall plexiglas shields, and the biggest German shepherds I have ever seen--until the violence started. Now they just moved in slowly, walking with their shields in front of them, forming a moving wall. They simply herded the protestors from both sides down the streets and into the subway entrances. The message was clear: You can stay in the subway station or you can get on a train and come up somewhere else, but you’re not coming back up here. Not one billy club was swung, not one weapon was drawn (much less fired), not one cop shouted an epithet or insult (some of the protestors did, though--but the cops didn’t overreact). They just calmly and professionally--and evenhandedly--cleared the streets and restored order before things got out of hand. Bang, it was over. No riot, no serious injuries, no nothin’. The protestors got to march, carry their signs, make their statement--and they would have been able to make their speeches or whatever if they hadn’t turned potentially violent--and the police kept order without any excess. Now, the Berlin police had infantry training--the German army was not permitted to operate in Berlin, so the cops were paramilitary stand-ins if necessary--but I was still impressed with the way they handled this situation. Think of it: a generation earlier, the predecessors of these guys were the ones who roughed up and killed civilians in the streets. But these cops were in better control of themselves and their turf than any U.S. force (or the National Guard--Kent State had been just 15 months earlier) at the time.

Living in Cold War Berlin was crazy-making in many ways, as you might guess. We were on an island 110 miles inside East Germany, encircled by a double wall. (Outside the Wall, the city was surrounded by the Soviet 40th Tank Army. Not a brigade or even a corps--an army. That’s a total of about 300,000 Red Army soldiers plus whatever East German units were out there, and any additional Warsaw Pact troops that happened to be in the region.) You couldn’t go very far in the city--and West Berlin alone was 2½ million people at the time--without literally running into the Wall. It made you claustrophobic.

The city of Berlin is a slightly peculiar entity in itself. It’s a very old city--something like 750 years now, I think--and, like New York, it grew out and swallowed up other towns which became boroughs of the city. Unlike New York, with its discrete five boroughs, Berlin had some two dozen (reduced in recent years to about a dozen), and some of the official boroughs had neighborhoods that seemed more like separate boroughs. When someone asked a Berliner where she lived, she’d usually start with the borough or neighborhood: Tempelhof (where the airport, recently closed, was), Kreuzberg (where many immigrants, especially Turkish Gastarbeiter, lived), Zehlendorf (where the U.S. HQ was), Spandau (where the infamous prison that held Rudolf Hess was), and so on. The Wall split Berlin in two parts, each with its own boroughs; the Soviet Sector was approximately one-third of the old city (about a million people) and the Allied Sectors about two-thirds. (The reason that the three Western Allies shared two-thirds instead of the obvious three-quarters of the city--the same had been true of Germany as a whole--was that the Soviets rejected an equal share in the Occupation for France, so the U.S. and Britain agreed that a French zone would be ceded from their areas.)

One odd thing about the Wall (and old Berlin, too) that has no real counterpart in New York is that, though the Wall did surround the Western sectors of the divided city, the city also had little satellites. All of Berlin wasn’t contiguous: there were little communities that were legally and politically part of the city, but which aren’t attached. Like little islands--maybe that’s where the parallel to New York lies. Think of land-locked versions of Governor’s Island, Roosevelt Island, and North and South Brother Islands. Each of these little orphan communities of the Western sectors was also surrounded by a wall, since they were still Allied territory in the midst of the GDR. (Eastern satellites didn’t need this, of course.) Some of these enclaves--they’re not towns, but neighborhoods--were connected to West Berlin by walled corridors so residents could get back and forth and the enclaves could be serviced by Berlin police and firefighters. I don’t know how many of these little islets there were, but it was at least half a dozen or ten, I’d guess.

I wasn’t allowed to go to East Berlin because of my security clearances, so I never crossed the Wall. I drove up to it many times while I lived in Berlin, but I never saw the other side. (When I was in high school, I went on a trip to eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. It didn’t include Berlin, but I had visited several Soviet-dominated cities before I lived in West Berlin.) Actually, crossing the Wall wasn’t all that hard--if you weren’t trying to escape the East and if you weren’t a Berliner. (Residents of the city of Berlin were prohibited from traveling to East Berlin, though they could go to other Eastern Bloc countries. West Germans were not restricted from visiting East Berlin, and some Berliners kept ID cards identifying them as residents of Frankfurt or Munich or some other city in the Federal Republic.) In fact, GI’s were not only allowed to travel east, but they were encouraged to do so, especially in uniform, to keep the border open and maintain free access as prescribed by the occupation agreement. In uniform, GI’s and their British and French counterparts could ride the subways and busses for free, and the subways, which predated the Wall, crossed under it. Berlin has two subway systems: the U-Bahn was controlled by the West and the S-Bahn, more like the PATH, was controlled by the East. (I wasn’t allowed even to enter an S-Bahn station because it was considered GDR territory.) Both systems went to and fro under the Wall, and those without restrictions, both Germans and foreigners, passed back and forth every day. Tourists, shoppers, and others could also walk or drive through the various transit points above ground.

The famous Checkpoint Charlie was the official crossing point for military or diplomatic personnel; Checkpoint Bravo was the crossing point from West Berlin into East Germany and the access to the highway to West Germany. (The crossing point at the western end of the road was Checkpoint Alpha, at Helmstedt in the Federal Republic.) Every month or so, there’d be a firing incident at the Wall or Checkpoint Charlie, and when that happened, MI personnel mobilized to investigate. People were still trying to escape from the East even as late as the ‘70s and another Peter Fechter incident was always on our minds. During the time I was in Berlin, however, none of these incidents ever turned out to be anything involving security or intelligence; they were always either someone deliberately trying to cause a disturbance, a matter handled by the Berlin police, or an overanxious Vopo or Soviet guard with a hair trigger. Nonetheless, the Wall was part of what we dealt with and thought about every day in the Berlin of the 1970s. One way or another, it loomed over everything we did on and off duty.

I was also part of a bleak joke among the GI’s of Berlin Brigade and the units like mine which were attached to it. BB had alerts just like every other unit in the U.S. Army all over the world. Since intel personnel wore civvies to work, we kept uniforms at the Station to change into, so we all reported to the locker room when we got the call. Each unit has an assignment for the outbreak of hostilities, and we are all supposed to go about preparing for that mission in an alert. The infantry and armor units would all gear up and go to the points they are expected to defend, the MP’s got into their positions to guard the compounds and other sites and to control the streets, and so on. Our mission was to round up potential enemy agents who had been previously identified, secure sensitive personnel and get them on ‘copters out of the city, and assist with the security of VIP’s and U.S. facilities. Obviously, in an alert, there’s not much of that we could actually do--I can just see us running around Berlin, pretending to arrest suspected commie agents. That would go over big. So we ended up sitting around our locker room, after putting on our fatigues and making jokes until the alert had ended. The recurring theme of those jokes was what would probably happen if an actual war did break out in Central Europe. As I’ve mentioned, Berlin was inside East Germany, surrounded by a Soviet tank army . . . and the Wall. The Soviets, not being stupid, probably wouldn’t fight for Berlin--why waste the men and time? We decided what they’d do is simply roll some tanks up to Checkpoints Bravo and Charlie, hang a sign on the gates that read “Berlin POW Camp,” and move on to the real war on the border and beyond. That would be the end of our participation aside from some Warsaw Ghetto-type uprising or a sort of hyper-Great Escape. No one would even have to build a stockade. We lived inside one!

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