In a matter of a few days in August 1961, a barrier was erected through the middle of Berlin, Germany. First, there was just a fence and then in a few more days, to the horrified astonishment of the citizens, a wall was erected in its place. Before they even realized what had happened, the people on the east side of the City were divided from the people on the west side.
This inhumane act was perpetrated by the United Nations. As a result, families were divided and many people died in escape attempts. The City, and indeed, the entire nation would not be reunited until October of 1990. Until then, if you lived on the west side and wanted to visit your relatives on the east side, because they were not permitted to come to you, you had to cross The Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie.
The Germans say that this experience was similar to crossing our present-day American borders with agents using heavy handed, authoritarian, intrusive and abusive tactics. Visitors to the site today will see a replica of the original Checkpoint Charlie. Das Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, also referred to as The Checkpoint Charlie Museum, is situated nearby. I visited Berlin in 1997. This article contains excerpts from my journal.
Inside the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, there are displays showing how some people escaped the Iron Curtain. Many were smuggled through the checkpoint in various ways. Videos and photos show people jumping out of the windows of buildings in an attempt to escape. A particularly poignant photo shows eastern soldiers looking the other way as they allow children to pass through in the early days of The Wall’s erection.
Kennedy’s famed “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech is constantly running. It shows footage of American tanks challenging the Soviets in a public display, actually crossing Checkpoint Charlie at one point. I remember that as I stood watching the old black and white footage of those events and of Kennedy’s speeches, I realized that it was a truly farcical exhibition. Instinctively, I felt that the U.S., at that point, had no intention of helping Germany to remain free.
I felt so sorry for those innocent people, their faces desperate, their hopes pinned on the U.S. for liberation. Apparently, they did not realize that the very same administration under Roosevelt had virtually handed half of Germany over to the already communist Soviet Union, knowing the fate of those people at the hands of the Bolshevistic rule of the day. Multitudes, perhaps millions, were missing and dead as a result of Soviet atrocities.
Communism had seemed so distant to me before my visit to Berlin. It had been the horror of another people in another nation behind a wall that I had never seen. I wandered alone that day on the eastern side where the sky, the buildings and even some of the people still look grey, just as in the days of communist rule. I stumbled upon a larger-than-life statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. I was struck by the reality of Marx’s words in his terrifying book, “The Communist Manifesto,” prophetic, threatening and written in the previous century.
I passed a row of condemned buildings, which served as the illegal camps of communist squatters. I was amazed to find actual communists still living there. Graffiti and “art exhibits” that surrounded me on the walls seemed to indicate that they had a predisposition to violence. I entered a “museum” of more communist “art,” consisting mostly of welded rusty junk on display in a nearly gutted building marked for demolition. Graffiti was everywhere on the filthy walls. I gazed between the broken shards of glass on one of a fourth-floor windows and looked down upon a scene that might have come out of old film footage of hippies in San Francisco back in the 1960s. A big party was going on below in an empty lot. An old school bus, half buried in the dirt and garishly spray-painted, served as a centerpiece.
I left that area and wandered further to the east. A lot of people were selling old Soviet military trinkets in a park. I wandered a little farther and saw some old Jewish ghettos, the scarring of bullets on the outside walls still evident. It was all foreign to me in a way that the west side of the City was not.
I was relieved to return to the west. But, the sense of oppression that I had did not leave me until I finally left Berlin altogether and returned to the familiar little coal town in Nordrhein-Westfalen that had become my second home. There was still evidence of Germany’s devastation there, but it could be ignored. In Berlin, it forced itself upon your attention everywhere. The modern citizens of Berlin live with that memory every day and it has a palpable effect on the City.
Berlin is certainly worth a visit if you’re in Germany. Unter den Linden is not to be missed. These museums and other historic buildings were formerly part of East Berlin. It is one of the best collections I saw in Germany. Berlin doesn’t have the kindly personality of Hamburg or other northern towns. Seeing it will surely change your perspective of history. It’s amazing how little the average American knows about events that took place there not that long ago, and which haunt us all, still.