Nothing in the world signified the evil of Communism and Socialism more than the Berlin Wall. Those of us who still remember the black and white images of American tanks facing off Soviet tanks across Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, also remember our angst that WW III might have also been just around the corner. That was 1961. A few months later without much fanfare, barbed wire was quickly unraveled dividing a city, a country, and eventually a continent. Germany, and Berlin in particular was hastily divided into prosperity and misery depending where you stood on that morning in 1961. Streets, buildings, and families were caught on either side of a wall that epitomized the Cold War and Soviet aggression toward the West.
Berlin became the proverbial thorn in the side for every Soviet leader in the good ole’ USSR. It was the epicenter of contrasts. However, it was the East German puppet government that fared the worst. Not recognized as legitimate by the rest of Western Europe or the free world; the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) became Russia’s bitch. Berlin was a city stuck between cosmopolitan capitalism and stagnant communism. It must have irked the shit out of Moscow having to endure western culture literally on their doorstep.
The difference between East and West Berlin was best seen at night. Lights and life on one side, darkness and silence on the other. Divided into allied sectors, West “Berliners” were the isolated privileged stuck in a city that constantly reminded them that their war was far from over. It was also a lesson in “allies” incongruity. The US, France, and Russia were the three allied countries controlling the city. Russia of course controlled East Berlin, and for all purposes they were still our allies. Members of the US Armed Forces were authorized to drive through East Germany carrying travel orders. They also carried signs printed in Russian in case they were stopped by East German authorities. Because East Germany was never recognized as a legitimate government, being stopped by East German authorities was considered illegal by the allies. Americans were instructed to demand to speak with a Russian official.
The convoluted Allied agreement allowed US service members in uniform unhindered passage through Checkpoint Charlie into the East. This also meant that Russian counterparts had the same privilege. A situation that Hollywood has attempted to capture on film many times but always missed the mark. Reality was more dangerous. It was easy for one of us to lose track of our surroundings and inadvertently find ourselves in East Berlin without authorization. Happened a few times when riding a U-Bahn (subway) and missing the last stop in the West a few yards from Checkpoint Charlie. Although spouses and dependents of US Service members were authorized unhindered passage into the East through Checkpoint Charlie, they still required US authorization. Being captured as a spy was truism not a Hollywood script.
Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, US military presence in Germany numbered to approximately 500,000. Combined NATO exercises like REFORGER (Return Forces Europe) visibly and intentionally demonstrated allied might that would intimidate any Soviet watching across the East/West German border. Our family became part of the 500,000 when in 1985 we were sent to our next military station in Bremerhaven, North Germany. In the following four years we took advantage of the US Military Duty Train from Bremerhaven to Berlin, and visited the city often. Duty trains transported personnel and supplies to the US Sector in West Berlin and vice-versa.
Duty Trains traveled all across Germany between garrisons and occupied allied sectors and locations. The Duty Train to Berlin was more interesting than most because it crossed from West Germany through East Germany to its final destination in West Berlin. With limited space and capacity, those of us eager to travel to Berlin signed up days in advance. We were issued travel orders written in English, French, and Russian. We were briefed in detail on security and safety protocols that would eliminate any possibility of a Cold War “incident”. As the train approached the East German border, it stopped at the last station in the West (Helmsted) long enough to swap the engine for an East German one (diesel), and for a Russian interpreter to come aboard. With window shades down, and strict security protocols in place, we were on our way to Berlin. On arrival to Berlin, we still had to stop at the first East Berlin control point where East German & Russian guards scanned the undercarriage with mirrors and led K9’s around the train for possible stowaways.
I have walked through the Checkpoint Charlie border many times in those four years. Carrying 15 West German marks, I remember ringing a bell to enter a very small border control room. Stuck between two worlds. Always unnerving. I handed my passport to an expressionless East German official who stamped it, took my West German marks and gave me the equivalent in East German marks (NOTE: in 1989, a US dollar was worth 4 West German marks and 23 East German marks). In that instance one realizes the hypocrisy of socialism as the Deutsche Demokratic Republik (DDR) made profit off outrageous mark conversions; one for one. But I digress.
My status was precarious because at that time I was still a non-US citizen but a US Military dependent. It was not a good idea to carry my US Military ID Card or SOFA stamp (Status of Forces Agreement) that identified me with the US Military for fear of being accused of espionage. Meanwhile, my husband in USAF uniform walked through and carried my documentations. Because everybody watched everybody else, we did not link up for several blocks. We had to repeat the process coming back into West Berlin; going through the East German control room again and show what I had bought for 15 East German marks. The short walk from that room to Checkpoint Charlie always seemed to take forever. Always aware that I might be stopped for one reason or other.
Walking along side “the wall” at the Brandenburg Gate was both exhilarating and chilling. Graffiti, some political, some obscene, but always defiant, adorned an otherwise grey cement wall that separated a city and a people. High viewing platforms were placed at intervals on the West side of the wall where we could observe “the other side”, and often taunt the East German guards watching through their binoculars. But the Berlin Wall was not just a symbol of division it was also a place where heroes gave their all. 140 individuals were murdered in cold blood attempting freedom. One of them shot in the back and left to bleed to death. His name was Peter Fechter.
The 30th anniversary of the fall of communism and socialism in Europe brings back memories that confound me in today’s euphoric socialist rhetoric. It is not only regretful, but incredulous that 70-year old pseudo socialist politicians like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and others of their ilk embrace their misguided socialist mantra. They more than anyone else should remember the pain socialism caused in Europe, Cuba, and South America. Maybe we should add dementia to stupid. Unfortunately, mainstream media which in the past few years has morphed into a Castro-like bullhorn for socialist agenda also seemed to have conveniently forgotten history. Socialism born out of disingenuous narrative of equality divided a country and a continent into “haves” and “have not”. Romanticizing socialism is an affront to those who gave their lives running from it. People like Peter Fechter. I would love to remind Messer’s Sanders and Warren that the Berlin Wall was built to keep people in not out.
Early 1989, standing in line at the only department store in Alexanderplatz in East Berlin, I foolishly asked the grumpy socialist comrade cashier if a child’s item came in any other color or size. I could only find one size and one color. In a dismissive chilling voice that would crack a pretzel, I was waved aside with a curt “nein”. I attempted to break the ice between comrade and capitalist by asking when she expects other sizes or colors to arrive. One would have thought that I asked if she would be growing a third eye because between the unsympathetic grunt and the cold stare I was informed that availability was already on the shelves. The socialist chill was temporarily warmed up by an elderly lady who sympathetically explained that availability is by chance. Get whatever while it’s on the shelf. In true capitalist fashion I foolishly asked; “Suppose they don’t fit?” A shrug of the shoulder in defeat told me all I needed to know. Isn’t Socialism just precious?
Our Garrison Chaplain was born in Communist Poland and his sense of humor was equally born out of the absurdity he had to endure as a child in a communist country. He recalls walking down the street and watching people standing in line. When asked what they were standing in line for, most of them were clueless, but resigned to the fact that it was obviously something they did not have the day before, is available now, so worth standing in line for today. He also recalls his mother sending him to the baker who only sold one kind of bread. “Is this today’s fresh bread?” “No, this is yesterday’s, today’s fresh bread will be here tomorrow!” Comical as it may sound, socialism is humor wrapped in false good intentions propagated by politicians who would never have to stand in line or want for anything in their lives. They only want equality and distribution for me and you and not them.
The current millennial misguided love affair and romance with socialism is not only disturbing it is frightening. Communism and socialism promises equality but takes away freedom. Those who boast of idyllic distribution of wealth for everyone will eventually get tired of mundane and want more. There was zero unemployment in the Soviet Union. But there was also zero incentive to produce any significant work either. When a doctor earned the same as a street sweeper why bother?
To own a private vehicle in East Germany, one had to place an order in often 15 years in advance and delivery depended on proximity to Berlin or how loyal a party member you were. An East German Trabi cost approximately 8,000 marks, often a year’s salary. Poorly made from recycled materials they rotted within a few years. A Trabi’s 23 HP two-stroke engine spewed black smoke and became the brunt of most jokes in both the east and the west. But socialist mayhem did not stop at substandard cars, it crossed lateral lines into daily living we take for granted. The joke goes: a comrade goes to order a Trabi. He is told that it would take 13 years, and was given a delivery date. Comrade asks if it would be delivered in the morning or the afternoon. He was asked why that was important. Comrade answers: “I have an appointment with the plumber in the afternoon.”
After the wall came down, the first thing that was thrown in the trash was the Trabi. East German guards took off and sold uniforms on the spot to tourists eager to buy a piece of history. We still own plenty of “Wall” remnants we chiseled with the rest of the thousands that flocked in the hope of taking home a fragment of an “era”. We also managed to acquire several Soviet and East German “medals” that DDR soldiers were eager to part with for a few precious West German marks and a taste of freedom. I have since visited Checkpoint Charlie and the Brandenburg Gate in the past few years. The first time I took the trip to Berlin since 1989 was in 2015. I was totally disoriented because the silent and deserted streets I had walked on so many years prior were now bustling with people and brand names like Gucci, Armani, and others of their ilk. But I was also disappointed that many young people I spoke with were clueless of their surroundings.
We have been in Germany for 34+ years. But the one singular event that shaped us and Germany was the end of Communism and Unification. Unfortunately, Unification did not bring the two Germanys together as it was supposed to. The former East German states are still lagging behind in employment and economic growth. With the influx of over a million immigrants in the past few years, resentment toward the Berlin government has risen. The far right AfD (Alternativ fur Deutschland) has rapidly risen in power in the former East German states, giving the party seats in the Bundestag and a voice that smacks of Fuhrer like racism and anti-Semitism. Germany has experienced a large rise in anti-Semitism, with most incidents reported in Berlin.
The euphoria of a united Germany died many years ago. An initial 3% Unification tax was implemented to allegedly augment the reconstruction of depilated East German infrastructure and economy. The plan was big on aspirations and good intentions but short on reality. The Unification tax has since morphed into a 7% social tax which to most Germans it has become meaningless. In the meantime, former East German states still lag in employment, infrastructure, and contentment. Watching Merkel’s government giving away free handouts to over a million immigrants gave rise to entities like the AfD who claim that Merkel cares more about foreign immigrants than Germans.
30 years ago, in our military housing living room in Bremerhaven, we stood in awe and excitement as we watched the wall slowly crumble and thousands of Germans ripping it apart from opposite sides. We smiled, we cried, and we had hope. We realized that we were watching history unfold before our very eyes. We feel privileged to have been part of the force that protected Germany and stood by it throughout the Cold War. That realization is no truer than now, as we live 30 kilometers from the Czech border where Russian tanks would have come through to the West. We are also glad that our presence lends some reality and historic significance to this anniversary. We thank Germany and our wonderful German friends and neighbors who have become our home and our family respectively. Wir wunchen Deutschland in den nachsten 30 jahren alles gute.
Greetings from Berlin and thank you for sharing your stories. One caveat: the facsimile of your travel orders seems to bear your husband’s Social Security number. I suggest you might want to cross that out.
Thank you Lawrence. Yes I noticed that last year when I wrote the blog.