West Berlin Stories – Part 5

Two last bits for now.

While I was living in Stuttgart in 1979, working on my dissertation on the  poet Friedrich Hölderlin, I returned to Berlin with friends to poke around, look at art, see sights, etc. Not far from Checkpoint Charlie and just a few blocks from Potsdamer Platz on the other side, the Wall ran along Niederkirchnerstraße opposite the ruin of the Martin-Gropius Bau, a gorgeous 19th century exhibition hall built originally to house Berlin’s Kunsthandwerkmuseum – Museum of Applied Arts. Berlin 10071Behind where I was standing here was an elevated platform, high enough to look over the Wall, which was itself about 12 feet high. The platform dated back to the early days of the Wall, when there was not yet an extensive no-man’s land behind it and it was possible for people to talk to friends and family across it and toss gifts and provisions over it. Across from the platform was a watchtower.

Berlin 10100There’s a story that goes with this picture. I was on the platform for the better part of 10 minutes. The guard, clearly bored, did not move a muscle the entire time. He looked at me. I looked at him. I looked at him. He looked at me. Behind him, however, in the darkness to his right, is an officer. He has a pair of binoculars. When I raise my camera, he retreats into the darkness. When I put my camera down he comes out and looks at me through his binoculars. We played this game for at least five minutes, long enough for something so clearly pointless, as became quickly apparent. Camera up, retreat. Camera down, out with binoculars.

I have always found in that episode another classic illustration of the absurdity prevailing once the Cold War reached the acme of its perfection. Mostly boredom, except in the rare instances when someone on either side would do something provocative – and occasionally fatal – to stir things up. Whether it was strategic bombers or nuclear submarines chasing each other around the world and checking each other out, eventually it came down to pretty much the same sort of standoff. You look at me. I look at you. One of us continues on our way. No change in the game.

(There was of course a continuing and exceedingly ugly side of the confrontation, manifest in the horrors inflicted on surrogates in what was then called the Third World: Afghanistan, Iran, Nicaragua, Angola, among numerous others, bloodiest of all of which was Viet Nam. Historically speaking, arguably the legacy of the confrontation continues apace in the Middle East, Central Asia, and perhaps again soon in Eastern Europe. It’s a fair question whether 9-11 for instance would have happened had the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan not triggered a western response that involved arming the mujaheddin. But that’s a topic for another day.)

To end on a cheerier note. Shortly after I took the picture of the ruin above, restoration work started. I have not seen it, but I understand it has become a major attraction in a Berlin where people no longer know exactly where the Wall ran and where Checkpoint Charlie was. This is what it looks like now:

800px-Berlin_Martin_Gropiusbau_Front I can just barely imagine.

West Berlin Stories – Part 4

Look at a map of Berlin and you’ll see that Kladow, one of the many neighboring villages that were incorporated into greater Berlin in the course of the twentieth century, lies in fact a whole lot closer to Potsdam than to Potsdamer Platz – Berlin’s Times Square or Trafalgar. And whereas there’s a road leading directly to Potsdam, to get from Kladow to Potsdamer Platz you have two options – a ferry across the Havel to Wannsee, or a bus that takes the better part of an hour going up north through Spandau where you could get on the U-Bahn or stay on the bus as it hooked a right turn east into the city center. Quick runs down the road to Potsdam were not happening, though if I recall correctly there was a crossing reserved for the use of occupying Allied forces.

My job with the British Army took me down to a base that sat right up against the border. East German watchtowers overlooked our comings and goings. It seemed like just part of the general weirdness – a wannabe radical intellectual, on the lam from American imperialism, harboring with an Allied military force, right up against the Iron Curtain literally, under the surveillance of troops from the Warsaw Pact.

Lifestyle had its quirks as well. No central heating in the illicit cellar apartment I occupied on a suburban side street called Kindlebenstraße. It took about a month before I mastered the art of fueling the little coal stove that provided the heat and the hot water heater that supplied the bath. The trick was getting them fired up and then shutting them down so the coals held through the night. Neither Boy Scouts nor an Ivy League education had provided me with the requisite training so as not to freeze through the month of November until I got the drill down.

The brown coal briquettes I hauled in a wheelbarrow from a supplier in the village, a little over half a mile away. With as big a load as I could manage, and careful management of the resource, I might last for 10 days before having to make another run. To add to the weirdness – the briquettes came from the GDR. The 1974 OPEC Oil Boycott occurred while I was camping out at Kindlebenstraße. Good that at that point in time West and East were working on rapprochement. It would have been an interesting time for the East Germans to decide they didn’t want to be in the business of keeping thousands of West Berliners warm.

The Wannsee ferry was close to where I lived and had the advantage of connecting on the other side of the Havel with an (East German – run) elevated S-Train that in turn connected with Bahnhof Zoo, the heart of the action in West Berlin. (It would take you to Bahnhof Friedrichstraße too, if you were in a mood to go to the Capital of the GDR.) Because of scheduling however, the ferry was often not the best option. Taking the bus to Spandau offered the added benefit of a chance to ride by the gates of the Spandau Prison, a large red-brick edifice dating back to the days of Bismarck. The prison held exactly one prisoner at that time, Rudolf Hess, once Hitler’s Deputy, who likely would have ended his life on the gallows as most of his peers did after the Nürnberg Trials, except for the fact he had recognized already in 1941 that the path Hitler had embarked on would not have a good end. He had flown solo to Britain on a quixotic mission to try to negotiate a cease-fire. The Brits locked him up and held onto him until the war ended, and then sent him to Nürnberg along with the other leading Nazis. For his efforts he was rewarded with a life sentence instead of death by hanging – a sentence he got to serve in solitary until he committed suicide at the age of 93 in 1987. The Four Powers rotated guarding responsibilities at the prison monthly. I never quite stopped being surprised riding by when it was the Soviets who were on rotation, though it was simply another reminder of the geopolitical and historical realities Berlin was sitting in the middle of.

West Berlin Stories – Part 3

Looking back it’s clear (to the extent that anything ever is) when I returned to Berlin in the fall of 1973, I was transiting from college to… whatever the future might be. I didn’t want to be in Richard Nixon’s America, though I was fortunate he had stopped drafting young men to fight in a deeply unpopular war precisely five months before. Given my very low lottery number, once my college deferment ended with graduation, had the draft continued I would have had to embark on the uncertain path of seeing whether the application for Conscientious Objector status I had filed would be approved and if so where I would have to offer Alternative Service. Altogether, having by then spent time in Britain, Denmark, and Germany and traveled widely elsewhere, I found Europe generally more appealing. In the case of Berlin, I was viscerally attracted by the fact that precisely there was the great epochal showdown between East and West, between capitalism and anti-capitalism (I won’t dignify the Stalinist trip with the label “socialism,” for reasons that should be historically obvious by now), between the two dominant claimants to planetary imperial hegemony, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and the United States of America – in Berlin that showdown was visible, tangible, and literally concrete.

As Berlin had been at least since the time of Prussian King Fredrick the Great and as it is again now, West Berlin was probably the edgiest place in Germany, a place where the counter-culture thrived more than anywhere else. The fact that, because it was still an occupied city and not part of the west German Bundesrepublik, resident young men could not be conscripted into the Bundeswehr,  numerous young anti-establishment West Germans finagled their ways there. Frequently they managed this by matriculating at either the Freie Universität or the Technische Universität, which  added to the counter-cultural energy and buzz. There were alternative publishing houses, quasi-Marxist bookstores and coffee shops, and no end of Wohngemeinschaften, housing cooperatives, where people went together not only on the rent and upkeep, but shared cooking and social lives and sometimes each other, as well.

Friends in one of these co-ops turned me on to the fact that the British occupation force frequently hired civilians to do odd jobs for them and, unlike the Americans, were not so picky about taking on counter-culturally inclined strays like me. It took one visit to the Royal Army hiring office and I had a job working as a gardener on the southwestern outskirts of the city at a former Luftwaffe base. The base lay right up against the East German border on the (closed) road to Potsdam, in a village called Kladow. My co-workers were mostly Gastarbeiter from Turkey, along with a middle-aged former German soldier who’d never quite recovered from the war. We were supervised by another older German guy we called “Meister,” who was seldom sober, and who advised us when he was out of sorts that “under Adolf things were better.” I learned a lot. Obviously, I learned about gardening as, it being winter, I repaired greenhouse windows and shoveled fresh horse manure into flower beds, readying them for summer, among other not overly strenuous tasks. I also learned that some histories have long reaches, much longer even than the histories of central Europe and Scandinavia I was acquainted with.

Of the half dozen of us, I noticed one big guy, Mehmet, generally kept to himself, but frequently managed to get himself assigned to whatever tasks I was engaged with. I assumed he was simply intrigued by the fact I was American. He asked once “where is America anyway?” When I tried to explain it was on the other side of the Atlantic ocean I got a blank stare. When I tried to sketch a map showing Europe with a little tag to the southeast representing Turkey, and the Atlantic with North America on the other side, and fared no better, I discovered for the first time what illiteracy was about.

He had a Turkish passport, so, in my ignorance of the ethnic intricacies of the former Ottoman empire, I took him for a Turk. I noticed however, that the other Turks, who were friendly to me and even more so when Mehmet was lurking around, preferred socializing with the one young Greek on the team and wanted nothing to do with him. Uninformed as I was, I was nevertheless aware that Turks and Greeks generally despise each other, and found this odd. When I finally asked Mehmet what the deal was, he simply said “I’m a Kurd. They don’t like me.”A light bulb went off. Kurds. Pay attention. Who are they? What’s their story? That they were (and are still) the largest ethnic group in the world without their own country, disliked by Turks in Turkey, Sunnis in Iraq, and Shiites in Iran – whatever their differences among them – my awareness of this goes back to Mehmet telling me why the Turks on the team despised him as we shoveled manure side by side.

Scroll forward through the decades that followed, and when George Bush the First unleashed in 1991 the attack on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq called Operation Desert Storm and his son George Bush the Second followed up in 2003 with Operation Iraqi Freedom; along with all the other reasons there were to question the wisdom of these undertakings, I kept flashing back to Mehmet, muttering to myself “You don’t know what you’re getting into. These people have been tangling with each other for two or three thousand years. They’ll still be tangling when we decide we’ve had enough and leave.” Scroll forward to now, and when I try to make sense of what’s going on in Syria and why Russia and Turkey and Iran care so much and who’s on who’s side,  and what’s ISIS all about anyway, I find myself right back in Kladow, shoveling manure with Mehmet..