West Berlin Stories – Part 2

My stay in West Berlin actually happened in two pieces. From January to March 1973 I attended the advanced German language course at the Goethe-Institut under the auspices of a Dartmouth Foreign Language Program. From October 1973 – March 1974, having graduated from Dartmouth in June, I was back in Berlin, happy to be away from the United States that had just reelected Richard Nixon in a landslide and aimlessly trying to figure out what the next chapter of my life should be about. It was a remarkable time to be away from the US. I first read about the Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision in the International Herald Tribune on a platform at Bahnhof Zoologischer Garten while waiting for the U-Bahn. It was on another train platform, at Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse in East Berlin, that I first read  in  Neues Deutschland,  the official organ of the Socialist Unity Party, which governed the German Democratic Republic at the time, about the Paris Peace Accords that led eventually to the end of the Vietnam War.

It was also a remarkable time to be in Germany altogether. As a consequence of the Ostpolitik  pursued by Willy Brandt, West German Chancellor and former Mayor of West Berlin, and of the general thawing of tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States, 1972-73 was the period when routine interactions across the divide became easier to conduct. When I first arrived in January 1973, visiting East Berlin was doable, but there were hassles to overcome to do it – even barring unusual passport issues such as I described in Part 1. By the time I returned in the fall of 1973, the two Germanies had been recognized by each other’s allies and both had been admitted to the United Nations. It was immediately noticeable at the border crossings  between the two Berlins:  simplified paperwork and a small fee yielded an automatic 24 hour visa, basically no questions asked.

One consequence of this was that cross-border romantic entanglements started happening, as partners from the West could simply make it a daily routine once every 24 hours to hop down to Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse, go around the turnstiles from East to West and back to East again, allowing them to cohabit illicitly with the objects of their affections on the other side. Combining this possibility with another oddity of life in Berlin as a still jointly occupied city, led to a particular scenario that I encountered twice, once with very unhappy and once with very happy results.

Because the Four Powers continued to occupy the entire city jointly, it was not unusual to see Soviet troops driving around in West Berlin and American and British troops in East Berlin. As a rule, they were there on official business. Yet it also happened that members of the American military would spend free time fooling around in the East. Because they were affiliated with one of the occupying powers, they could not be stopped or challenged by the East German border guards who controlled the crossing points. Twice in my experience it occurred to couples separated by the Wall that if the western partner were to smuggle in an American uniform, wearing it the eastern partner might be able to escape through a crossing point like Checkpoint Charlie unchallenged.

In the first case, the couple unhappily made a mistake the second couple did not. They did not take into account that the East German guards would be keeping track of who came in, even if they could not stop them, and that a ranking  Soviet officer would always be kept on call who could indeed stop any allied soldier in uniform. As a result, in the first case when the eastern partner arrived in uniform at Checkpoint Charlie he was indeed stopped, obviously had no American papers to match the uniform and was promptly arrested and detained. In the next years, it became common for the West German government to pay a sort of ransom for the release of detainees. The GDR had no interest in keeping them because their loyalty was clearly suspect and keeping them unproductively locked up was costly. However, they shrewdly rationalized putting a price tag on releases by claiming compensation for the schooling and training they had invested in the detainees they were letting go. I imagine the unfortunate fellow in this case was eventually released to the West, but not before his ladylove had returned to California.

In the second case, which had a much happier outcome, the couple correctly assumed the border guards would have some protocol for tracking who came in and left in American uniforms. While she was in the process of illicitly procuring an American uniform in the right size to fit her lover, the American partner also made it her business to identify a soldier with the same build and general appearance. She deliberately did not openly involve him in the plot but through mutual friends found out when he was planning to make a visit to the East. On the day he went in, her partner changed in the men’s room at the Pergamon Museum not far from Checkpoint Charlie into the uniform she had provided and a few hours later made the long walk, unchallenged, through the checkpoint. Stunned to be out, he walked half a kilometer past the U-Bahn station in the West where the two had agreed to meet! When the American soldier returned to the checkpoint to leave, he was in fact challenged and held for several hours until the East Germans conceded that his papers were genuine and he really was the American he claimed to be. (Sadly, when the couple looked him up after the fact to thank him for his unwilling contribution to the success of their undertaking, he let them know he did not appreciate the pickle they had left him in and did not share their happiness. Oh well.)

Since the time I met the second couple in Madison, Wisconsin a year later, happily married by then, I have been amazed by their sheer guts in pulling it off. No place I have ever been was as intimidating as Checkpoint Charlie. Once one entered the terrain, one was completely exposed and there was absolutely no place to hide and second thoughts were not an option. It seems like it must have been 200 – 300 meters from one end to the other, though that perception may simply be a reflection of how intimidating it was. Picturing Wolfgang walking though in a foreign uniform to a place he’d never been with his head up as if he knew his business has left me in awe of him from the moment I first heard the story.


West Berlin Stories – part 1

I have not posted at all the last six months, not for lack of anything to say, but on account of having too much to say about too many  things. It is one of the many down sides of having opinions about everything. Life has always been replete with things to have opinions about. Now in the age of instantaneous global news coverage and social media, many more topics present themselves for opining than this one modest soul can reasonably respond to in any one 24 hour period. Those who follow me on Facebook know that I’m generally good for strong position-taking on the hot issues of the day – or the ones I am feeling hot about, anyway.

Yesterday, however, a Facebook friend posted a link to a video of film footage taken it appears by a crew connected with the US occupying military forces in Berlin in the summer of 1945, two months after the end of World War II in Europe. Having lived in Berlin during the Cold War, I was startled to realize that for all the still photos of Berlin at the end of the war I’d seen over the years, this was the first time I’d seen the kind of random film footage that might have shown up in a newsreel, though without narrative or commentary. I said as much in a comment back to her, noting that I had lived in Berlin (West) in 1973-74. She asked for stories… and well, so here we are.

What sticks are lots of little absurdities, things that could only have happened at that place at that time. Nowhere was the Cold War more tangibly and visibly explicit than at the Wall that surrounded the western three quarters of the city, cutting it off from the eastern quarter and from the surrounding countryside.

So first a historical digression. To get the context, start with the fact that the city of Berlin, the whole city, East and West, was jointly occupied by the four Allied powers that had defeated Hitler’s Third Reich – the Soviet Union, the United States, Great Britain (now known as the United Kingdom), and France. At the Potsdam Conference in August 1945, the whole of Germany was divided among the four powers, each with a separate zone of occupation  to administer. Berlin as the capital, although it fell within the Soviet zone, was itself however divided into four sections, each the domain of one of the occupying forces. When the Cold War took hold, without much ado the three western zones of occupied Germany morphed into what was popularly called West Germany, and eventually became the Federal Republic of Germany. The eastern Soviet occupied zone became known as East Germany, eventually the German Democratic Republic. In 1955 the occupation of Germany as a whole ended legally speaking, although American, British and French forces remained in the west and Soviet forces remained in the east. Berlin, however, was still legally occupied – by all four  powers, and remained so until the Cold War itself ended in 1989 with the fall of the Wall.

I’m no expert in post-war diplomatic history, however it appears this anomalous situation arose from the fact that West Berlin was effectively a foreign body planted in the middle of East Germany. To arrive at another solution, either the Soviets and their East German clients would have had to recognize the western zones of the city as a part of a sovereign Federal Republic of Germany, the western rival; or the western allies and the FRG would have had to allow West Berlin to be reintegrated with the eastern part of the city and the surrounding German Democratic Republic. With the Berlin Airlift, the building of the Wall, and JFK’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech still very much living history, that was not going to happen. So both options were non-starters and the status quo remained: Berlin a city occupied by the four powers jointly in its totality, despite the fact the GDR insisted on declaring it “Capital of the GDR”. It was a situation that historically and contextually made sense – just barely – and from a more distant perspective, not so much.

Now let the stories begin:

In January 1973 I arrived with a Dartmouth Foreign Study Program to begin an advanced German language course at the Goethe-Institut. I was carrying a passport issued in 1968 that clearly stated something along the lines of: “Valid for three years. Stamp required for two year extension.” When I had gone to the passport office to get the stamp for the two year extension, I was told the law had changed and the passport was automatically valid for five years, no stamp needed. And in fact this passport had not stopped me from transiting through East Germany on my way to Prague from Denmark the previous year nor from reaching West Berlin this time around.

A few weeks in, a group of us decide to make an excursion to East Berlin, an adventure for sure, but no big deal really. Get on the U-Bahn, ride through a string of dimly lit closed down stations under the pre-war heart of the city, checking out the guards with dogs and machine guns on the platforms as you cruise through, get off at Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse where there was a border crossing suitable for just such excursions. Much easier than the hassle at Checkpoint Charlie. The drill at Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse is well known. Hand in your passport, fill out a little visa application, pay a fee in western DM, sit around and cool your jets for 20 minutes or so until they call your name.

After 20 minutes or so, one by one the name of everyone in the group gets called excepting mine. Finally half an hour in I get called over to a different door than the others went to. A large, gruff, middle-aged, no nonsense East German border guard waves my passport in my face and says in German “your passport is not valid.” I begin patiently and earnestly in my still not very fluent conversational German to explain that it actually is valid. He then points to the telltale language “Valid for three years. Stamp required for two year extension.” I start to clarify: “Oh, that, well the law changed. The stamp is no longer needed.” He shakes his head, it says right here “Valid for three years… Your government does not talk to my government. I don’t know that.” At which point it dawns on me that I am in fact stuck and that he has no intention of letting me in, despite the fact the rest of my crew is already on the other side. And he was right. For reasons having precisely to do with the legal status of Berlin, which the German Democratic Republic insisted on calling its “capital” and which the US refused to recognize, there were no formal diplomatic relations between the GDR and the US in January 1973.

No sooner had he made his point than I had my first glimpse of the silliness that pervaded so much of Berlin life then. Once he saw from my facial expression and body language that I had got the point, his demeanor changed abruptly from that of a human embodiment of the Wall itself. In a sweetly avuncular way he explained to me in English that I just needed to get myself to the US Consulate at the headquarters of the US Army Berlin Brigade in the Dahlem section of West Berlin. “They know all about it. They’ll take care of you. They’ll give you the stamp.” He assured me with a big knowing smile. Which of course, is precisely what happened when I went to the Consulate and the very helpful woman there gave me the stamp with virtually the same knowing expression on her face my friend at Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse had shown. One might have guessed they were actually on the same team. In a weird way they were, collaborating in keeping the peace at the place in the world where the big planetary showdown was literally made out of concrete.