Monday, 11 November 2019

Berlin 2019, Part One, Thirtieth Anniversary of the Collapse of the Berlin Wall

The Russian inscription reads 'God! help me to survive amidst this deadly love'

The weekend before last, Carolyn and I enjoyed a long-weekend trip to Berlin to visit Will who has moved to the city to begin his year long masters degree in Advanced European and International Studies, that sees him progressing later in the year to universities in Nice and Rome.

Our trip happily coincided with the city's preparations for the celebration of its thirty years of freedom following the collapse of Soviet Communism and the breaking down of the Berlin Wall; a structure that had come to symbolise all that was wrong with the totalitarian system, forced to imprison its population to stop them from voting with their feet, to enjoy the liberties that could be found only a few yards on the other side.

The Fraternal Kiss - GDR Leader, Erich Honecker a prime mover in the development of the Berlin Wall and who gave orders to guards to shoot attempted escapees, meets Soviet Leader, Leonid Brezhnev in 1979 to celebrate 30 years of the GDR 

The poster art above captures the moment, only ten years before on October 7th 1979 when Leonid Brezhnev, head of the Presidium of the Soviet and General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party met with Erich Honecker, Chairman of the State Council of the German Democratic Republic and General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Socialist Union Party, on the occasion of the the thirtieth anniversary of the creation of the GDR.

The 'fraternal kiss' as it was known, seems to capture perfectly the anachronism of the Soviet system and its leadership, with all the hypocrisy of a kiss, the eternal representation of love and affection being used between individuals that would quite happily see the other disappear without trial into some God-forsaken detention centre, never to be heard of or seen again and with any pictures of them, from the past, conveniently airbrushed from history.

A section of the wall maintained as it would have looked back in 1989, along with its watch tower, that really gives a sense of the monstrosity this structure was, complete with its 'death zone', in between the two concrete barriers. Of course you certainly would not have been this close back in the day and probably not with a camera in hand.

Having grown up during the Cold War and living with the tension produced by the stand-off between two heavily armed nuclear capable military factions, it is easy today, to forget the atmosphere those times created and the terrible threat to commonly accepted norms of freedom that we in the West have enjoyed since the end of World War II.

Sadly the threat to those freedoms is on the rise yet again and seemingly with the West not so united and determined to defend them as before, and Berlin's celebration this weekend, with its collective memory of what it is like to live under totalitarianism, is a timely reminder that for evil to prosper in the world it simply requires good men and women to do nothing.

I have never been to Berlin, and indeed my visits to Germany have been too few, so as well as looking forward to spending quality time with Carolyn and Will, I was really looking forward to seeing the history of this most famous European capital in its buildings, monuments and museums, together with an impression of what modern Berlin feels like today in a united democratic Germany.

The early days of Check Point Charlie at the height of the tensions in the early sixties

Will has been in the city for several weeks before we joined him and so he acted as an impromptu guide to some of the key sites we were keen to see and thus after getting a tube train from our apartment in Charlottenberg we headed to perhaps one of the most famous places in recent Berlin history and a feature of just about any Cold War spy thriller based in it, Check Point Charlie.

As you might expect, such an iconic monument to the Cold War has attracted a level of 'Dysneyfication' that sees vendors along the adjoining Strassen willing to sell to visitors anything from a mock East German border guard hat to a piece of reinforced concrete suitably adorned in graffiti purporting to be a sample of  the wall.

One could argue that some of the wares are a little distasteful when one considers the cost in human lives this market place is trading off of but I guess that is the price of freedom, although I perhaps am a little old fashioned in thinking rights demand responsibilities.

The checkpoint seen in the eighties, looking more like a customs border post, but equipped with x-ray checking equipment and facilities to monitor a growing number of people looking to cross.

The look of the checkpoint changed throughout the intervening years between 1961 and 1989 as techniques in controlling access became more sophisticated and the need to make closer inspections of those moving across the zones of control.

Close by the crossing point is the Berlin Wall Museum which was our next place to visit and which holds some unique artifacts, many contributed by people very much involved in the history of the city and the wall.

As we made our way to the entrance to the museum, Will pointed our what would become a familiar site during our visit, namely the marker stones placed across roads and pavements marking the former position of the wall where sections have been removed

The Berlin Wall Museum charts the history of the wall to its downfall with a remarkable collection of items that illustrate the lengths Berliners went to to escape from the east as well as other aspects of the Communist occupation such as the Berlin airlift.

The plan that lead to the zoning off of Berlin and the separation of Germany among the victorious Allies, as outlined here on a facsimile map of the one in the London War Rooms used by Winston Churchill at the Potsdam Conference in 1945

West Berliner, Kurt Wordel smuggled fifty-five people out of the GDR between 1964-66 in the VW 1200, pictured below, with the bonnet to the boot lifted to show the secret compartment.

The uniform coat and cap of Captain Jack O Bennet together with the Liberty Bell presented to him by the Mayor of Berlin in recognition of the 1,000 transport flights he made to the city during the 462 days of the airlift that successfully undermined the Communist blockade.

The Soviet government used the currency reforms in West Germany as an excuse to initiate a total blockade of the city on the 24th June 1948, cutting off land and water access routes to the Western Powers in a bid to drive them out.

The move itself constituted an act of war, but the commander of the US Zone, General Lucas D. Clay, opted for a more practical approach to defeat this passive aggression by organising an airlift that ensured all West Berliners received aerial care packages with items included necessary for their survival, completely unhinging the Soviet tactic and causing the blockade to be ended on the 12th May 1949.

With the Western Powers clearly demonstrating their determination to stay in Berlin, the city became the front-line in the war of minds as both sides of the political struggle attempted to paint the other in the blackest terms to convince the civil populations which system was preferable.

This news manipulation saw the Soviets blame a potato famine in the early fifties on the Americans, claiming that they had overflown the countryside, dropping infective agents on the fields to cause the blight. 

In the end, the war of words was overcome by the actuality of the situation as the civil population began to ignore the claims and just focus on the outcomes and deeds which accelerated the disillusion with Soviet claims and forced the authorities in the east to consider other means to counter the results of their defeated policy of misinformation and lies, namely the defection of 3.5 million East Germans to the west.

The Berlin Wall as it would come to be, controlling access across the city and from East Germany

Tensions between the Soviets and Western powers were at there height in the early sixties and the willy Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, emboldened by what he saw as a young inexperienced President John F. Kennedy, looked to press a threat made at the Vienna Summit in 1961, when the President stated that he wouldn't actively oppose the Soviets building of a barrier.

East German troops close the border on the 13th August 1961

The 13th August 1961 would become known to West Berliners as 'Barbed Wire Sunday' as masses of East German police, troops and workers closed the border around the city, laying barbed wire and tearing up streets at crossing points preparatory to the construction of a more permanent barrier.

In time the wall would take the form, through two developments, from its building in 1965 to replace the wire barrier, into a twelve foot reinforced concrete barrier built in 1975, with a so called 'Death Strip' or no-mans land, in between either two sections of wall or wall in front of a river.

The wall was topped off with a smooth pipe to make scaling more problematic and in its latter incarnation liberally reinforced with mesh fencing, anti-vehicle ditches, barbed wire, dogs on long lines, bunkers, watch towers, beds of nails in planks under windows of buildings overlooking the death strip and anti-personal fragmentation launchers attached to trip wires at different heights along its length.

The SM 70 automatic firing fragmentation mine, atop the wire mesh applied to later model of wall

The tiny square shaped metal fragments contained within a blast from an SM 70.

The results of being hit by the SM 70, with two fragments from its deadly load seen lying close to this escapees heart in the x-ray picture.

With the sophistication in the design of the wall came an increase in sophistication of the escape attempts with examples in the museum of tunnel designs, hidden compartments in cars, boats, submersibles and microlight aircraft.

The Mini used in 1988 as seen below in the article covering a visit by Sylvester Stallone. Obviously Erich Honecker was not a fan of Rocky or Rambo.

I have flown a microlight, very similar to the one seen below, and it is not something I would be keen to repeat and certainly not near anyone capable of shooting at me.

This aircraft was made from car parts, and with other parts such as the propeller being hand made, and was used in an escape on August 4th 1984, flying some 100 kilometres into the west.

The microlight seen below at least has some basic flying instruments and the escapees painted up the wing to fool observers on the ground that it was a Soviet aircraft.

The coastline of East Germany was heavily patrolled with a similar shoot to kill policy for anyone determined enough to try their luck crossing the Baltic.

The ingenuity to come up with a diesel powered 'U-boat' for one, that towed the pilot through sixteen miles of cold waters to allow 28 year old Bernd Bottger to escape to Denmark is absolutely amazing, and a tribute to the determination to be free.

A bubble car has got be the most unlikely escape vehicle ever, to be used, and probably that was the key factor that allowed the hidden occupant to make it across successfully.

With the replica checkpoint outside the museum, key parts of the original, including the road marking, sector sign and control barrier are safely preserved in the museum close by.

Of course, after visiting the museum and following a warming lunch of Wurst broth, otherwise known as gout in a bowl, but unsurprisingly great with a cold wind blowing in from Siberia, we headed off across the city to see some of the monuments along the route of the wall recording the heroism of the escapes made in those areas.

View of the check point from the museum nearby

As part of the celebrations and commemoration of the thirtieth anniversary of the wall coming down, the BBC has been running a radio drama documenting the digging of Tunnel 29 in the summer of 1962, through which twenty-nine people escaped through mud and leaking water to escape into West Berlin, whilst being filmed by the American TV station NBC.

It was more fortuitous than planned that we found ourselves stood on the very same road under which Tunnel 29 along with ten other similar such escape routes were dug between 1962 and 1971 and the radio drama suddenly became more real as we viewed the place today, suitably adorned with information boards and mini-video screens showing clips of the various escapes made along Bernauer Strasse.

All the old tenement blocks and boarded up shop fronts are long gone, and new developments are starting to cover what was the death strip, but some of the open ground is still visible allowing a before and after glimpse when compared with the black and white pictures above.

The old patrol path used by used by border guards and their dogs is now simply an access to the new modern apartment blocks that mark the transition of Berlin into a modern western city.

Despite the changes for the better, the price for the freedom to simply wander around and appreciate  them is marked along pavements and nearby walls to remind the passer by of darker days and that cost.

Between 1961 and 1989, 100,000 people attempted to escape, with over 5,000 escaping over the wall and some 136 to 200 being killed in the attempt in and around Berlin.

However I felt this post should end with the most perfect of before and after pictures with no less a monument than the Brandenburg Gate, which caught the attention of photographers in 1989 as happy Berliners clambered up on the redundant section of wall to celebrate their new found freedom; and the same place today with the area once occupied by the wall, fenced off to allow preparation of the entertainments arranged for the weekend of celebrations.

My next post on Berlin will take a look at other aspects of its history that recall the rise of Prussia and Frederick the Great, the 19th century, Bismarck and German unification, and of course WWII and the rise and fall of Hitler and the Nazis.