19 February 2017

Berlin Memoir, Part 5

[In Part 5 of my “Berlin Memoir,” I try to describe some of the unusual—you might even say weird—experiences that occurred daily, or at least weekly, in the West Berlin of the Cold War.  As you’ll see, living in this little island of democracy inside the German Democratic Republic, especially as a Military Intelligence agent, could be . . . well, odd is a moderate way of saying it.  If you haven’t read he first four parts of this series, I suggest you go back and catch up on them before setting out on part 5.  It provides background for much of what follows and I explain and define some things in the earlier sections that come up again in the rest of the series.  (Parts 1 through 4 were posted on 16 and 31 December 2016, and 20 January and 9 February 2017.)]

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 discreet 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 was), Kreuzberg (where a surveillance fiasco in which I was involved happened), 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 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 at the Yalta and Potsdam wartime conferences, the Soviets rejected an equal share in the Occupation for France, so the U.S. and Britain agreed that the French zone would be ceded from their areas.)  The Wall did not always conform exactly to the border dividing the eastern section from the west; the Soviets 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. 

One aggravating result of this formation of the city is that streets with the same name could exist in several boroughs but not be connected at all—like Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn.  But the reverse is also true: the same road might change names as it passes through each borough.  If someone gave you an address to find in Berlin, you needed to know in which borough it was in order to find it.  Driving in Berlin was hard enough—an old city with unplanned street layouts and narrow and crowded streets, not to mention my big, American car.  (I had a red 1970 Ford Torino I got after I graduated from college.  Man, it was a pretty car!  And did it attract attention on the streets of Berlin and the roads of West Germany!  Candy-apple red with airplane bucket seats, a black interior, and a fastback.  Mmm-mmm.)  I’ll never know how I learned to drive around that town—but I did.  (There was a tiny little stretch of Autobahn in Berlin, and I used to take the Torino on it and let ’er loose for a couple of miles to let the engine run after weeks of cramped city driving.  There are—or were in those days—no speed limits on Autobahns, even within Berlin.  I’d get ‘er up to 100+ mph for a few minutes, once up and once back.)

The Wall went up beginning in August 1961 and took about a year to construct—though it was always under alteration and sections were rebuilt and sometimes shifted from time to time.  Mostly, however, the Wall was a constant presence in the city and in the minds of Berliners for 28 years.  It was grey concrete and ugly—a scar across the middle of the city.  I arrived in Berlin just before August 1971, the tenth anniversary of the Wall’s construction, and was immediately added to the Station’s contingent of observers for the massive demonstrations that were planned for the commemoration.  One of the tasks we 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 did not disrupt any demonstration, hassle any participants, bug anyone’s office or home in connection with a demonstration (we did for other reasons), or in any way try to prevent a demonstration. 

Remember that Berlin was not only the spy center of Europe, so keeping an eye out at such large political gatherings was no more than watchfulness, but the city attracted large numbers of young anarchists and militant activists who were performing terrorist acts all over Germany.  (Students in Berlin were exempt from the German draft, so many West German young men came to the city for university.)  I mentioned the RAF/Baader-Meinhof Gang; there were other, smaller cells, too, such as the Movement 2 June and SPK (Sozialistisches Patientenkollektiv – Socialist Patients’ Collective).  These folks had a habit of blowing things up and kidnapping people.  And people like Michael “Bommi” Baumann (1947-2016) and Red Rudi Dutschke (1940-79), radical student revolutionaries, 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.

Those 1971 demos—there were two, one leftist-oriented 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 a 19-year-old laborer in East Berlin who made an escape attempt with a friend in 1962, one of the first after the Wall was erected.  Fechter and his friend hid in an abandoned building next to the Wall on the eastern side—the Soviets kept the area uninhabited, unlike the FROG which encouraged people to move into the area near the western side—and watched the Vopos (Volkspolizei, ot “people’s police,” the East German police and border guards.).  When they thought there was a gap in the coverage, they made a run for it, scaling the fence that formed the eastern side of the no-man’s strip (sometimes, for obvious reasons, called the death strip) on the eastern side of the Wall.  They made it over the fence and through the death strip, and Fechter’s friend made it over the 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.  Western Observers, 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 several hours 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, in riot gear, with tall 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 whichever side, 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 cops were the guys 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 a little over a year earlier) at the time.

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, it also had little orphans.  All of Berlin isn’t contiguous: there are little communities that are 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 satellite communities of the Western Sectors was also surrounded by a wall, since they were still Allied territory in the midst of the DDR.  (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 never visited one—I don’t even know if I could have.

Berlin attracted young people, both political and not, because of a couple of very salient reasons.  When I was there, in the early ’70s, West Berlin was a vibrant and active city, with a full social and cultural life—a real city of two-and-a-half million inhabitants.  (East Berlin was a little grey and lifeless, even 25 years after the war.)  In contrast, when my parents visited Berlin in the early ’60s—they were there, by the way, for Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech—they reported that the city seemed artificial, that life was sort of staged and forced, like a Potemkin city. 

I mentioned in passing that Berlin Station had to participate in BB alerts, like any other unit.  I also said that there was an agent on duty all night and over holidays and weekends—like the CQ in ordinary line units.  He spent the night in an office just inside the building entrance and between the building entrance and the second entrance, controlled by an electronic lock which required a numerical combination to open, into the unit’s offices.  The DA office was furnished with a bed, a desk, a TV, a file cabinet (mostly empty)—and a bank of telephones, perhaps a dozen or so.  Some of the phones were ordinary BB lines—one of them “9666,” our public number.  (9666, colloquially known as “Trip-6,” was the Military Occupational Specialty for counterintel officers, which is what we all were.  There were similar or equivalent MOS’s for enlisted personnel.  This was also the license number of the CO’s staff car.) 

Other phones on the Duty Agent’s desk were special lines which were used for sources to call in with information and to arrange meets with their handlers.  Since in most cases, these sources had cover stories, and sometimes so did the handlers, these phones all had to be answered with specific cover phrases, as if they were extensions at some business, say, or some innocuous agency.  (During the time when junior officers pulled this duty, none of those phones ever rang when I was DA.  I suspect some were part of defunct operations.)  One phone was, of course, the red alert phone.  That rang once a night to check the communications system, and the DA had to answer it with a prescribed phrase: the name of the unit and the DA’s initials in phonetic alphabet.  So, when I was DA, I’d have to say, “66th MI.  Romeo-Echo-Kilo.”  It invariably rang when I was sound asleep—which I assume was intentional. 

(There was one other piece of equipment in the DA’s office at night.  Until I handled money, at the end of my tour in Berlin, except for the firing range, this was the only time I went armed.  At the end of the day, the assigned Duty Agent drew his weapon and six rounds of ammo—we carried .38 caliber Police Special revolvers—from the unit armorer.  Standard procedure while on duty was to keep the pistol loaded, but the cylinder open, and stand it on the desk, propped up by the open cylinder.  Since every DA drew the same rounds, I sometimes wondered if they’d even fire if the need ever arose.  Lord knows how old they were!)

I never got an alert call while I was DA, but during the time I was in Berlin, we had three or four full alerts.  Since we 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 all gear up and go to the points they are expected to defend, the MP’s get 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 have 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 can 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 “unmarked” fatigues—the ones with the U.S. device where the branch and rank insignia ought to go—and making jokes until the alert had ended.  The recurring theme of those jokes is what would probably happen if an actual war did break out in Central Europe.  As I’ve mentioned, Berlin is 110 miles inside East Germany, surrounded by the Soviet 40th Tank Army, 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.  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 boom 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. 

(By the way—those U.S. insignia for our fatigues?  By this time, all insignia on fatigue uniforms were “subdued”—no shiny silver or brass or bright yellow chevrons.  The Vietcong had developed a habit of taking potshots at anything that glittered in the jungle.  But there’s no such thing as a subdued U.S. device—they only came in brass because they’re only officially worn on dress uniforms, not fatigues.  So we each had to get a couple of pair of U.S.’s and turn them in to the unit clerk; he’d get them painted matte black so we could put them on a set of fatigues to stash at the Station for alerts, range-firing, and other activities that required that uniform.  I think I still have mine put away somewhere.  Needless to say, since this uniform configuration didn’t officially exist, we got some stares and wry remarks when anyone saw us dressed in it.  Most people figured we were CIA or something.  Of course, we could neither confirm nor deny . . . .)

I said that aside from the firing range—I think we went out there once officially; I went privately once to fire Dad’s souvenir Luger he brought back from WWII—the only other time I was armed beside DA duty was when I carried Army cash.  When an officer is carrying money, such as a payroll, he must be armed.  When I was reassigned to the spook bank for Intelligence Contingency Funds (ICF) in the Station’s basement, I would periodically have to buy Marks, Francs, and occasionally other currencies.  We bought Marks at the Army Finance Office in another part of the main compound, so I didn’t have to leave the grounds—but I had to wear my sidearm.  Just like the cops on TV, I had a holster on my belt, under my suit jacket.  A .38’s not large, especially the snub-nosed Police Special, but it makes a noticeable lump on your hip beneath the jacket.  So, I walked into the Finance Office the first time I had to buy Marks, feeling pretty self-conscious to start with, and, of course, there were lots of other people in there transacting business.  The FO is where the GI savings accounts are maintained, the credit union is, payments are made for such things as late pay or special disbursements, and all kinds of money business.  And in I walked, packin’ iron.  So what did the NCO behind the counter shout?  “I’ll take the guy with the gun first!”  Well, I felt like Butch Cassidy fixin’ to rob a bank!  Everybody in the place turned to took—no, stare at me.  And my gun!  I felt like I was packin’ a howitzer!  “No, that’s all right.  I’ll just wait.”  Haw-haw!!

The first time I had to get Francs, which we bought at the American Express bank in the PX across the street—where everyone had his personal checking account and what have you—I didn’t know what to expect.  I still had to carry the weapon, but this time I was going out in public.  Thank goodness, nothing happened—but I was very self-conscious.  Very self-conscious.

Needless to add, this was not a job I liked much.  Not that it wasn’t important.  It was extremely important.  But it was booooring.  First of all, it’s nothing but numbers.  Keeping books, checking requests for disbursements (I did get to know about all the really spooky stuff people in my old unit and its sister unit next door were doing, which I didn’t need to know before—but most of it turns out to be routine), reconciling conversion losses and gains (when the dollar amount is different from the amount of Marks or other foreign currency because the exchange rates are never an even ratio), counting up the cash on hand, and such.  The most excitement I had was when we had to prepare for an audit, quarterly by the Class A Agent from Group or semi-annually by the Class B Agent from USAREUR. 

Second, since I’m not a banker or an accountant and I got slammed into this job without any preparation, I couldn’t really run the day-to-day routine until I learned it OTJ.  So I had a Spec 4 clerk who had been there for some time, and he did most of the daily stuff—it was his job anyway.  He was all of 19, by the way—we had lots in common (though he was a nice enough kid).  Third, the job was what it was—I had to wait in my office until someone needed money for an op.  I couldn’t develop ops, I couldn’t make work; I just waited, drank coffee (not a habit I ever really developed except here), and read the newspaper or the Sears catalogue when it came. 

Fourth, I was no longer part of Berlin Station.  The ICF Class A Custodian (that’s what I was) is part of HQ—which, you remember was in Munich.  None of my old colleagues were, well, colleagues anymore.  Fifth, my office was in a vault in the basement.  Even if a former colleague wanted to come by to chat—I was way out of the way, with a big vault door to greet them.  As soon as the Army started riffing people, when the reduction in force began after combat in Vietnam ended, I started asking around if I could get out even though my tour in Berlin still had six months to run and I still had a few years on the obligation I incurred to get Trip-6 and Europe.  (Berlin was a lagniappe, but I worked the system to get Europe.)  Also, my name was on the promotion list for captain, and it used to be that an officer had to stay in for, I think it was a year, in order to accept promotion.  I figured I earned that promotion—it took long enough, I thought—and I was damned if I was going to be cheated out of it if I didn’t have to be. 

I was hoping that the Army, which was paying people who were riffed something like $10K for each year over five, I think, they served (unless they were riffed for incompetence), would jump at the chance to get a freebie.  If you got out at your own request, the Army didn’t pay.  I’d been in just over five years, seven counting senior ROTC—which did count as enlisted reserve—so the Army’d have had to pay me $20K or so if they riffed me.  I found out that I could accept my promotion—the requirement to stay in had been dropped when the time-in-grade for eligibility was extended—and that the Army would release me from the remaining obligation, though I’d still have to be in the inactive reserve for the remainder of my obligation.  I put in my papers.  (I might have stayed in the Army longer if they hadn’t made me an accountant.  Maybe we were both better off in the long run.)

As a parting shot, I recommended that the Class A Custodian, which had to be an officer—it was actually supposed to be a captain—should be redesignated as an extra duty for someone.  It seemed wrong to waste a trained and experienced officer like that for so little activity.  I believe they accepted my suggestion, though, of course, I wasn’t around to see if they implemented it.

I was promoted to captain on 1 December 1973, shortly before I left Berlin.  I had planned a big party at the Officers’ Club, the Harnack House, to celebrate my 26th birthday (“Closer to 30 than to 20”) in ’72, but first Harry Truman died (26 December 1972, the day after my birthday) and then Lyndon Johnson died (22 January 1973), and O-club parties were cancelled or postponed.  So I had a combined belated-birthday/promotion/departure left-over party: we tried to drink up all my remaining booze.  (We did pretty good, as I recall.  And I kept a well-stocked bar in Berlin—it was sooo cheap to get the best stuff.)  At the promotion ceremony in the CO’s office—I wasn’t part of the unit officially, but they were my administrative support since the umbilical didn’t stretch as far as Munich—I used my dad’s WWII railroad tracks.  I had had him send them to me just for that purpose.  I still have them.  (My dad made captain in WWII, and it took him about three years, I think—but he started as an EM.  It took me nearly four years, and I started as a second looie.  I got first looie about 12 months in—while I was at Monterey.)

(Speaking of my dad. there was one very personal peculiarity for me to this assignment in Berlin.  Because there hadn’t been a peace treaty to end WWII, Berlin was still under occupation until 1990 when a formal peace was finally negotiated.  While the Allies had relinquished political responsibility for what became the Federal Republic in 1949, Berlin remained occupied territory for half a century.  That meant that my service in Berlin in the ’70s made me eligible for the Army of Occupation Medal.  That’s the same ribbon my dad was awarded for service in the Occupation of Germany—he was in Cologne after VE Day—30 years earlier.  I always found it a little ironic that my dad and I both wore the same military decoration from the same war, a generation apart.  Maybe I’m the only one to find this an odd comment about the state of our modern world.  I recall there’s a Cold War Recognition Certificate that was authorized a few years back.  I qualify and I think my dad did, too, since it recognizes all Federal service, military and civilian; I had some vague idea of getting us both the same award—there’s no official medal to go along with it, though I think someone has put out an unofficial one—for some sentimental reason.  My mom didn’t feel like I did, so I never followed up on this notion.)

I had decided to go to acting school after leaving the service by this time—I had contacted Lee Kahn, the professor of theater at W&L, my alma mater, for advice and he was going to help me prepare audition pieces and, of course, recommend me to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts where he was a member of the board (and a grad school friend of the director at the time, Charles Raison).  When people asked me what I was going to do when I got out and I told them I was going to acting school, they thought that that was a helluva change from the military.  “Why?” I asked.  “I’ve been playing the part of an Army officer for five years.”  (Mine wasn’t the oddest change in career path by any means.  A friend in Berlin, who had been an infantry officer and part of our theater group—his dad was a general, and was furious about this—got out and went to clown school!  No comment.)

I’ve said that while I was living in Germany when I was a teenager, back in the early ’60s, I knew while it was happening that I was having an adventure.  When I was in Berlin, my feeling was a little different.  I had this sense that I was into something special and edgy.  It wasn’t so much danger—there was some, but, of course, nothing to compare to what was happening in Southeast Asia.  Maybe I was just taken with the romantic notion of the world’s second oldest profession—I had read all the James Bond books and, of course, the movies had already been around for a decade.  Not to mention Man from U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, Mission: Impossible, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and so many other fictionalized renditions.  (I’ve already mentioned our unofficial theme song, “Secret Agent Man.”)  But I had this pervasive sense that I was involved in something special.  The fact that other people with whom I came into contact treated me somehow differently—some with a kind of hostile resentment, some almost with awe—didn’t hurt, that’s certain.  (Flashing our “box tops”—what we called our badges and credentials, also known as “B’s & C’s”—was a lot like being in a neat movie.  Special Agent K*****, Military Intelligence.  I used to watch The FBI and now I was in it!)  But on top of any of this, was the feeling that I was actually doing something fairly important—even the background investigations.  My decisions would affect the security of the country, even if it was at the lowest level.  Drilling with an idiot stick or driving a tank in an exercise just didn’t match that, not in Berlin.  Of course, I was all of 24 when I arrived in Berlin, and my sole Army duties up till then had been going to class: armor school, language school, intel school.  Now I was getting to do something, and something for which I was specially and uniquely qualified—and I’m sure that had a significant effect on my attitude.  But, man, I got to know things—things other people weren’t supposed to know.  How cool was that?

Being back in Germany was also part of my consciousness.  As soon as I got off the plane at Tempelhof and drove off with Chuck through the city—remember, the airport is right downtown: you drive through the city as soon as you leave the arrivals terminal—I felt a surge of nostalgia.  (I had never been to Berlin when I lived in Germany before, but a German town is a German town in many ways.  If nothing else, all the street and store signs were in German.)  It felt like, not being home again, but being someplace very familiar.  I’m sure I was projecting, but nevertheless . . . .

(I remember watching Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, about two angels who hang around Berlin and watch as the humans live their lives until one of them decides he wants to become human and experience life himself.  The movie was released in ’88 and meanders around odd parts of Berlin, including some sites near sections of the Wall.  I’m not sure I can make this make sense—I’ve never articulated it before—but at one point, one of the angels crosses a street and passes in front of a row of buildings that all looked as if they dated from the immediate post-war period—’50s and ’60s or thereabouts.  It was only a few seconds of film, and it wasn’t in the least significant to the movie, but it made an odd connection for me.  For those few seconds, the scene could have been anywhere in West Germany where those kinds of buildings were ubiquitous in the early days of my family’s time there.  They were just little shops—bakeries, groceries, tobacconists, and such; I don’t even know what they were, but it could have been any street in any West German town where new buildings had been erected to replace older ones that had been destroyed in the war—they went up fast as Germany was recovering, and they all looked alike. 

All of a sudden, and just for a second or two, I was right back there in ’63 in Koblenz in those first weeks and months when my brother and I moved there to join my folks.  (See my two-part post, “An American Teen in Germany,” 9 and 12 March 2013.)  It was the oddest kind of nostalgic sense—sort of Proustian, I guess.  I reexperienced a feeling I remember having, but had never tried to describe or even, really, recognized until much, much later.  It was this absolutely certain feeling that here I was, doing this extraordinary thing—living in a foreign country—that I knew was both unique and special and exciting.  I was doing this really, really different thing—and I knew it.  All this came back to me in that brief piece of movie, just because the setting looked vaguely familiar, the Germanness of it all, the strangeness, was actually palpable.  That’s the feeling that came back driving away from Tempelhof that first day in Berlin.)

*  *  *  *
From 18 June to 12 July 1981, the New York Shakespeare Festival (now the Public Theater) presented a stage adaptation of  Wie Alles Anfing (How It All Began) by one of the anarchist militants whom I mention above, Michael “Bommi” Baumann.  I saw the show and on 1 July 1981, wrote the following brief report (slightly edited), which I’m appending here as a sidebar to Part 5 of my “Berlin Memoir”:

Based on the 1979 autobiography of former West German terrorist Michael “Bommi” Baumann (1947-2016), How It All Began was developed by the May 1981 graduating class of the Juilliard School’s Theater Division.  It was started as a class project and both dramatically and thematically, that is what it remains in the Dodger Theater production at The Other Stage (later the Susan Stein Shiva Theater) at the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Public Theater.  It appeals neither as good theater nor as good socio-history.

Pieced together from excerpts of Baumann’s book Wie Alles Anfing (How It All Began, published in Germany in 1975 and in the U.S. in 1979 as Terror or Love?) and other bits of research from the period of the mid-’60s to the early ’70s in West Germany and West Berlin during the heyday of Baumann, the Red Army Faction (AKA: The Baader-Meinhof Gang), Baumann’s Bewegung 2. Juni, and various other terrorist and anarchist groups, the student actors improvised, rehearsed, and taped the scenes and transcribed them into the collage presented here before a tar-black set resembling a ghostly version of a Feydeaux farce, with several doors, windows, and alcoves which provided access to the myriad characters of Baumann’s terrorist life in Berlin.  Most of the scenes were staged by director Des MacAnuff in the center of the floor with locale-differentiation accomplished by the use of odd pieces of furniture.  Since most of the actors played multiple roles (including several women playing men), it was not always easy to know where we were or whom we were watching.

In the end, though earnest performances were turned in by the young cast (including Val Kilmer as Baumann, Linda Kozlowski as his lover, Benjamin Donenberg as “Red” Rudi Dutschke, Jessica Drake as Ulrike Meinhof, Pamela M. White as Andreas Baader, and Mary Lynn Johnson as Gudrun Ensslin), nothing unique was accomplished, and it all remained a somewhat curious foray into the milieu of the leftist terrorist without having learned much at all that we did not already know.

One thing that I found most disturbing was the (apparently) inadvertent near-romanticization of Baumann and his RAF comrades.  Though passing lip-service was given to the violence these anarchists (their own term) perpetrated on often innocent people (an elderly night watchman in Berlin killed in the bombing of a recreational yacht basin; two sergeants and a captain blown up at the U.S. Army headquarters in Frankfurt), they were allowed to come off as lost little children, searching for vague justice—sort of Robin Hood-cum-Peter Pans.  It was my experience while I was in Berlin between 1971 and 1974 that they were no such things.  I knew that captain in Frankfurt: he had a wife and two little girls.  he was not a threat—or even a symbol; just a man.  Baumann, Baader, and Meinhof were not attractive, romantic outlaws, and they stood for nothing concrete.  They were violent and politically fuzzy-minded.  One important bit of research the young students missed was the reaction of the people for whom the RAF claimed to fight.  There was little support outside their radical student enclaves at Berlin’s Technical and Free Universities.  They were not the German counterparts of our war-protesters or even the radical Weathermen.  This missing element rendered How It All Began a vaguely troubling experience.

[I hope ROTters will return in a few weeks for Part 6 of this memoir, which will continue with my life as a GI in West Berlin and some of my escapades on and off duty.]

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