For nearly six years—from January 1960 until October 1965—I lived and worked in West Berlin as a U. S. Foreign Service officer. The other day a newspaper story about modern Berlin reminded me of the numerous times I traveled between my home in the American Sector of Berlin and the “Free World” beyond the Iron Curtain during those years. And it struck me how rapidly the world changes, how quickly we forget what things were like once upon a time, and how important it is to record our memories of them while we still can.
Between 1948 and 1989 the once and future German capital—or at least its Western districts under American, British, and French occupation—was an island of Western-style life and liberty, surrounded by a totalitarian Communist sea. For much of that time—during the years from 1961 to 1989, when the infamous Berlin Wall cut a twenty-eight-mile-long swath across the entire city, the three Western Sectors were a beleaguered enclave fenced in by barbed wire fences, walls, and water. Proud of its status as a “Western showcase” 110 miles behind the Iron Curtain, West Berlin called itself “Frontstadt Berlin”—Front-Line City Berlin. Its access to the outside world was tightly controlled by the Soviets and the German Communist regime ruling the five German provinces then occupied by the Red Army and known collectively as the “German Democratic Republic” (and since their reunion with the Federal Republic of Germany known as the “Neue Bundesländer”—“New Federal States”).
It seems important to remember all this today, when the thriving, throbbing metropolis of Berlin has become freely accessible from any number of traffic-clogged highways connected to a ring-road: the “Berliner Ring,” comparable to the Washington Beltway, to Rome’s Annulari, to the London Circumferential (the M-25), the Paris Péripherique (its euphonious exit names recalling the gates of the ancient walls of Paris). Before 1989 road access to Berlin was limited to three highways, one leading northwest toward Hamburg, one southwest to Hof in Bavaria, and one—the only one permitted to Allied officials without East German visas—leading due west across East Germany to the town of Helmstedt, near Kassel.Today numerous air lines—the German national air line Lufthansa above all—maintain numerous daily flights to and from Tegel International Airport—originally built by the French to support the Air Lift during the Berlin Blockade of 1948-49 (and now too small to accommodate today’s volume of air traffic). During the forty years of Germany’s division, the Soviets grudgingly granted the Allies the use of three “air corridors”—air spaces ten kilometers wide, radiating out from Berlin in the above-mentioned three directions, and strictly limited to use by aircraft—commercial and military—of the three Western Powers alone. Even after the advent of jet travel, with the introduction (about 1963) of the Boeing-727 into old Tempelhof Airport, the Soviets continued to insist that Allied aircraft observe an inefficient ceiling of 10,000 feet: Upon crossing the Iron Curtain, an airliner approaching Berlin from, say, Frankfurt, had to descend from its normal cruising altitude of about 25,000 or 30,000 feet to the artificial 10,000-foot limit. It was especially absurd that in their own country German aircraft were not allowed to fly from and to their own former capital.
Until Tegel was converted from a French military air base to a commercial airport, Berlin’s civilian airport was Tempelhof, an airfield located unusually close to the heart of the city. Long before the advent of the air age, Tempelhof had been a drilling field and parade ground for the Prussian Army; therefore this huge open area could accommodate fairly long runways. Nevertheless, flying into Tempelhof was always an adventure for me because it looked far more dangerous than it really was. The plane, usually a four-engine propeller-driven DC-6, would make a rapid, steep descent into the airport area and swoop down sharply over the rooftops of the surrounding apartment buildings, seemingly grazing the chimney tops before touching down on the runway. Or that’s how it looked to an amazed passenger.Most exciting, even magical, was a flight into Berlin on a clear night. From the relatively low altitude of 10,000 feet one could see the lights of the city from a long way off. But then, as we flew toward Tempelhof over the city itself, the dividing line between West and East Berlin became startlingly clear—like a black line on a map—because of the glaring contrast between the bright, colorful lights of the Western sectors and bleak, sparsely lit East Berlin, with no neon lights, with hardly a moving vehicle in sight.Of course there was also travel by train and waterway, equally rigidly controlled. Aside from civilian, commercial rail traffic administered by the Reichsbahn, each of the three Western Allies had its own “military train.” These trains ran daily to and from Berlin, and “official” Americans were allowed to ride them free of charge. Of course we had to be properly documented; during long stops for engine changes Soviet officers came on board to check our passports. The American train operated between a small suburban station in Berlin-Zehlendorf and the Frankfurt RTO (Rail Transport Office) in the cavernous Frankfurt Bahnhof. At one time the British train went as far as Hoek van Holland on the Channel Coast, and the French train—needless to say, the most luxurious and comfortable of the three—operated between Berlin and Strasbourg. That city being a couple of kilometers inside France, it was necessary to pay a charge of 10 centimes to cover the cost of five minutes’ travel from the Franco-German border so as not to compete with Les Chemins de Fer Nationaux, the French national railway.
The cars of the French military train, I believe, had once been part of the famous old “Orient Express,” rendered immortal by Agatha Christie. All the brass signs mounted in the compartments were in French, German, English, and Turkish. The bunks were wide and exceptionally comfortable for a sleeping car. On the compartment wall next to each bunk was mounted a brown velvet-covered oval plate with a brass hook, clearly intended for a gentleman to hang up his pocket watch upon retiring. The train left Berlin at the civilized hour of 5: pm. Upon boarding, the passengers were handed an elegant boxed dinner consisting of half a roast chicken, half a bottle of vin rouge, a packet of “crisps,” a baguette, some dessert, and a piece of fruit. By contrast, on the Puritanical American train it was strictly forbidden to possess or consume a drop of alcohol. The French military train rolled into the Strasbourg gare around ten the next morning, leaving its happy passengers free to sight-see and gorge themselves on paté de foie gras and other delicacies until it came time to return to Berlin and fight the Cold War another day.
The main subject of my remembrance, however, is travel by car and the various adventures which this entailed. The stretch of East German Autobahn between Berlin and Helmstedt included elaborate check-points, one at Babelsberg near Berlin, the other at Marienborn near the Iron Curtain, where all German and Allied traffic was subjected to rigorous control, with cars and trucks sometimes backed up for hours. Official Allied travelers were not subject to East German inspection. Until the mid-1970s we refused to recognize the East German state, calling it the Soviet Zone (it had started life as the Soviet zone of occupation) or, with the appropriate sneer, referred to it as “the so-called GDR” (German Democratic Republic). Sometimes it was simply called “the So-called” (“Die Sogenannte”), being “neither German nor democratic nor a republic,” as we liked to say.
To control Allied traffic, the Soviets maintained their own small check-points on the edge of the extensive East German control installations. Before embarking on a voyage to West Germany, it was necessary to obtain a special travel document, designed by the Soviets. This elaborate, rather handsome paper bore the flags of the four wartime allies, was printed in Russian, English and French, and was known as “flag orders.” The document had to list names and passport numbers of the travelers, dates of travel, make and license number of the vehicle used, the signatures of the issuing officials and the requisite official stamps. No typographical errors or corrections were permitted.
Armed with such a “propusk” and our passports, we first had to stop at the Allied check point where our papers were examined and we were provided with all manner of instructions and helpful documents for use in case of trouble along the way. Then we gingerly approached the Soviet check-point, carefully avoiding contact with people dressed in East German police uniforms. Once at our destination, a Soviet soldier waved down our car, checked our papers and escorted us to a little shack. Inside we were directed to a small window with a wooden shutter. The shutter came up, a hand reached for the proffered papers, the shutter came clattering down. Then we sat in silence in the plain little waiting room and stared up at the large framed pictures of Marx and Lenin decorating the walls. The minutes ticked by slowly, while behind the shutter our passports were photographed (presumably). After a while the shutter was raised, the hand shoved our documents across to us, the shutter rattled back down, the soldier walked us back to our car, and we were free to continue our journey. At the other end of the Autobahn the procedure was repeated.
It was never a comfortable feeling driving the 110 miles of East German highway. For one thing, the road was poorly maintained and full of pot-holes, compared to the superhighways in West Germany, and there was little traffic, except for all the West Berliners coming and going. Further, there was always the question of what might happen if we failed to pay proper attention to the signs to and from the Berliner Ring and got off the right road by mistake. Not to mention the risk of a break-down.
The latter once happened to me and my family, during our last summer in Berlin, when we were marooned in “enemy territory”—“nowhere,” as the children came to call it. We had set out on a vacation trip to Denmark, and our car overheated and broke down on the Autobahn between Berlin and the West German border, pretty much mid-way. As mentioned before, the American MP’s had given us a big manila envelope full of instructions and helpful stuff to use in case of a breakdown or accident. This included little slips of paper which we were to give to other travelers (German or Allied) on the Autobahn, asking that they be handed to the American military police manning the checkpoints at either end of the road so that they would come and rescue us. This we did, and then we settled down near the shoulder of the Autobahn to wait for the U.S. military police and the wrecker to tow us back to Berlin or on to Helmstedt, whichever was closer. We spent about four hours in “nowhere,” worrying that the East German police would harass us before help arrived, but finally the U.S. cavalry came to the rescue and took us back to Berlin. A friend then lent us his car to resume our journey, but of course this required the issuance of new travel orders containing the description and number of his car. It took days.
Two more experiences from these car trips stand out in my mind—one pleasant, the other more frightening but also rather satisfying. We were on our way home to Berlin one night, returning from vacations in West Germany. It was very late; our four children were more or less asleep in the back seat. Youngest daughter (about three months old) was asleep in her car bed, her sister—then about three—partly stretched out under the car bed, the two older children huddled next to the two little ones. I drove up to the Soviet check-point and showed my travel documents to the young Russian soldier. He looked at the number of travelers listed on the orders and then, unbelieving, at the car: How could there be four children in the back seat of this little 1953 Plymouth? I opened the door and showed him the scene. He smiled a wide, happy grin. Then he removed a small tin medallion from his uniform lapel—an enameled picture of Lenin framed by a red Soviet star—and gave it to my son—a souvenir from the Red Army. Peter had it for years—perhaps he still does.
The other incident was more serious. Once again on my way home to Berlin one night I tried to drive past the East German control point on my way to the Soviet shack. The East German police stopped me to ask for my papers. Pointing to the Allied license plate on my car, I indicated that I was under no obligation to identify myself. He insisted. Following standard instructions, I demanded to see a Soviet officer. He said that, yes, sure I would get to see a Soviet officer, but first he would have to establish why I was entitled to see a Soviet officer, and that entailed seeing my documents. Impasse ensued. He told me to move my car off the road and on to the shoulder. Traffic was piling up behind me. I realized that if I complied, I might sit there the rest of the night. Hence I refused, repeating my demand to see a Soviet officer. Finally, the Grepo (Grenzpolizist—border police) gave up, angrily ordering me to move on. “Ach Mensch, fahr’n Se weiter!” (Oh Man, just go on!), he yelled at me in his best Berlin patois. I was quite pleased with myself. I had held the line: The United States had not extended diplomatic recognition to the despised German Democratic Republic.
This account would not be complete without a few words about access between the Western Sectors of Berlin and the Soviet Sector—East Berlin—before the Wall cut it off completely. Berlin was a divided city long before the Wall. The division began with the first major crisis, the Berlin Blockade of 1948, and the split of the German city administration into an Eastern half, continuing to govern from the traditional “Red Rathaus (so called because of the red brick façade of the building, not its political orientation) in the Soviet Sector, and a Western administration which took over the large borough hall of the District of Schöneberg in the West. Phone lines were cut between the two parts of the city. But some eighty-eight streets still crossed the Sector boundary, all crossing points marked, to be sure, with the famous signs warning motorists and pedestrians that they were about to enter the Soviet Sector. And the public rail transportation system —the subway (“U-Bahn”—for “Untergrundbahn” or underground railway) and the elevated trains (“S-Bahn”—for “Schnellbahn” or rapid transit) continued to serve both parts.
One of Berlin’s innumerable peculiarities was that the U-Bahn continued to operate under Western administration in both parts of the city, while the S-Bahn and all its terrain and installations as part of the old German national railroad system, the Reichsbahn was administered by the East Germans throughout Berlin.*(The U-Bahn continued to run under East Berlin even after the Wall was built, but its stations in the Soviet Sector were all closed and dark. The S-Bahn retained one open station in the East at Friedrichstrasse, but passengers had to go through full-fledged border controls to enter or exit there.)
When we first lived in Berlin, before the Wall went up, we regularly visited the Eastern Sector, driving right through the Brandenburg Gate. We took advantage of the enormously advantageous exchange rates between the Western Deutschmark and its worthless Eastern equivalent to shop at the Czech and Polish Book Stores in East Berlin. Our first album of Bedrich Smetana’s Ma Vlast, on Czech “Supraphon” records, came from there, as did beautifully hand-painted Easter eggs, their contents carefully blown out. Such Easter eggs and delicate glass Christmas tree ornaments were (and presumably still are) a Bohemian specialty. We walked around the rather deserted East Berlin streets, still showing far more of the rubble and ravages of war than the West. We visited the enormous, pretentious Soviet war memorial at Treptow, with its giant statues of Mother Russia and Red Army soldiers. We attended a performance of Prince Igor at the old German Staatsoper and some plays by Bertold Brecht at the theater dedicated to him. But we never felt safe or comfortable in the East. No doubt it was our imagination, butthere was always something threatening, menacing about the place, somehow enhanced by the pervasive odor of brown coal smoke in the air—the cheap lignite used to heat most buildings in the Eastern Sector. Ever since that has been the odor of Communist totalitarianism for me…
Today, all that is gone. Unless you know exactly where the boundary ran, you no longer know whether you are in former West Berlin or former East Berlin. Once again, it is all one great city, bursting at the seams with vitality and growth.
February 2, 2004
The author retired as a minister-counselor in the American Foreign Service in 1986 after a career spanning thirty-two years. Other than Berlin, he was posted in Washington, Yaounde, Kinshasa, Rome, Bern, Brussels (NATO), and An-kara.