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 GDR 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.