Have you ever had something stuck in the back of your mind? Maybe a song, a story or movie and you’re just not able to shake it?
A couple of months ago that happened to me, after having read a post from a fellow blogger who was traveling in Berlin it left me with that feeling. She had gone to see the Checkpoint Charlie Museum and was disappointed by what she had seen. It was evident she did not walk away with an understanding of what it stood for. Shortly after on a visit to Germany I took a friend, their son and his friend on a trip to an old Stasi (East German Police) bunker outside of Leipzig, Germany. Listening to the younger generation say they never knew stuff like that existed made me think even more.
Having traveled through Checkpoint Charlie and visiting East Berlin when the wall was still up, and in the spirit of “Lest We Forget,” I felt it was important to pass on that experience, and see a little history behind how the wall came to be in the first place.
Why is Checkpoint Charlie (C) famous? It’s because it was the only checkpoint that allowed the Western diplomats, military personnel, and foreign tourists to go from West Berlin to East Berlin that was under the Soviet’s sector.
After the end of WWII what remained of pre-war Germany was divided into occupation zones (per the Potsdam Agreement). Each zone controlled by one of the four occupying Allied Powers. Within two years, political divisions increased between the Soviet Union and the other occupying powers. In 1948, following disagreements about reconstruction and a new German currency, Stalin instituted the Berlin Blockade. Which meant the Soviet Union refused to take part any longer in the quadripartite administration of Germany.
Between 1948 and the beginning of construction of the Berlin wall in 1961 freedoms of the citizens living in the Soviet Sector slowly became more and more restricted. As things became more restrictive a steady stream of professionals, engineers and younger well educated working-age citizens migrated west, this migration soon became known as the “Brain Drain.”(1) The brain drain of professionals had become so damaging to the political credibility and economic viability of East Germany that the re-securing of the Soviet imperial frontier was imperative. Between 1949 and 1961, more than 20% of the entire East German population; most of which were working age East Germans fled to the West. During the three years before the Berlin Wall was erected the numbers increased dramatically.
Construction on The Berlin Wall started in August 1961. It was an extension of the border fence between West and East Germany that had been constructed in the late 50’s. It was completely cut off by land West Berlin from surrounding East Germany and from East Berlin. The wall included guard towers placed along large concrete walls, and circumscribed a wide area containing anti-vehicle trenches, guard dogs, a no man’s land of raked sand to detect movement through it, and areas believed to contain mines. This area later became known as the “Death Strip.”
Crossing through Checkpoint Charlie was like passing through a time warp; leaving the free, modern and cultured West Berlin and entering a stark and controlled environment. It was like a vision of vibrant colors turning to shades of gray.
I still vividly remember the sharp contrast of the Berlin then and the Berlin of today. Berlin today is more representative of how West Berlin was, modern with upper-class restaurants and hip clubs.
On one trip I did with my sister; one thing that struck us both was the number of uniformed soldiers and cameras that could be seen on nearly every corner. As a westerner, we felt like we stuck out in the crowd. It was obvious many people would have liked to visit with us, but they were reserved, guarded and left the conversation short. Each half of Berlin was like another world.
During our visit I had a mission, I wanted to shop. As an American service member however, I was subject to some tight controls on how we traveled. However, I was not controlled on how much or where we exchanged our currency. Europeans who elected to visit the eastern sector entered through the eastern German military border points. They were required to buy a certain amount currency each day of their visit at a 1 for 1 exchange rate. As an American and part of the Potsdam Agreement, we did not recognize the Eastern Germany military and we passed through the Soviet checkpoint which did not regulate our currency exchange. I had stocked up on East German marks at a bank in the west before crossing, which allowed me to enjoy a 13 to 1 exchange rate.
So my thoughts were “oh boy”; it wasn’t until I entered the first large department store that reality set in. By the size of the building, you would have thought you were entering any modern western Macy’s or any other major department store. Once inside however, the stark realities were clear. Whole departments of the store were empty or only a small part was utilized with a narrow selection of colors or styles being available and the quality was horrible.
After crossing back to West Berlin, I visited the wall again. This experience put the wall in a whole new perspective. Seeing the white cross memorials were incredible. They had been erected by westerners to memorialize each East German who died trying to cross that point. Just trying to get from the East to freedom in the West.
While standing there, I used my new binoculars to gaze across the wall into the guard tower on the other side. I could see the East German guard staring back at me through his binoculars. It was at that point that I knew “why” I was an American soldier. I was helping to guard the freedoms of Western Europe.
I would have more experiences with the Soviet and East German guards at various places along the East German wall. None stuck with me and radiated within me as strong as that moment and that time in Berlin.
If you travel to Berlin, I ask that you visit the wall still standing as a memorial. Please place your hand on it. Take a moment to think about the true meaning. Think about those who died trying to reach that point you are standing upon.
Sorry for the picture quality, in those days I only had a little Kodak Instamatic Camera.