Berlin Awakening: Recovering from an 80-Year Bad Dream

Joyce and I first (and last) visited Berlin in 1991, while the Berlin Wall was still in the process of being torn down. While the Western section was relatively modern and lively, the recently opened Eastern section of the city was seemed to be in something of a haze; like it had just woken from a fifty-year sleep, from 1939 outbreak of World War II through the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

Actually, however, as we somewhat knew, but was more fully driven home in two very good walking tours with Berlin Walks (the Discover Berlin and Infamous Third Reich Sites Tours), the city’s trauma had lasted far longer than fifty years. It actually began more than 30 years earlier, with the 1914 outbreak—and especially the 1918 end of World War I.

The Terrors of the Third Reich

It is impossible to spend much time in Berlin, or for that fact, most of Eastern Europe, without learning about the Third Reich and the reign of cruelty and destruction that it engendered, and the subsequent repression of the Cold War era.

We, as discussed below, began this trip with visits to, and did walking tours of Krakow and Warsaw (not to speak of Auschwitz and Birkenhau). Hitler’s horrors, followed by tales of post-War Soviet oppression, were everywhere. But while the stories were everywhere, Berlin was effectively Ground Zero for both.

Although we have read about it all before, seeing the sites and hearing about episodes such as the Night of Breaking Glass and the Book Burning–not to speak of standing atop former (and currently unmarked) sites of Gestapo prisons and torture chambers and Hitler’s own bunker–drives home the horror of these events in an indelibly poignant way. Then, hearing stories and seeing pictures of the devastation caused by the Allied bombing that destroyed about 40 percent of the city (and 90 percent of the downtown area) and significantly damaged much of the rest, left no question as to what the people of Berlin had endured during Nazi rule.

Then, as if tis weren’t enough, it was immediately followed by another 40 years of Soviet occupation and rule (of the eastern half of the city) and intimidation and harassment (of the western half).

Berlin as Ground Zero of the "Nazi Experience"

Berlin was a world-class city, not to speak of one of the centers of European culture and nightlife, until World War I. This was especially true during the 1920s, the Golden Years during which it was one of the most vibrant, creative and liberal cities in the world.

These Golden Years ended during the privations of World War I and especially with the incredibly harsh terms of surrender imposed by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles.

From then on, things went downhill quickly. The country was forced to pay huge war reparations (the equivalent of €500 billion in today’s terms), the semi-democratic Weimar government was dysfunctional and years of hyperinflation (roughly one billion times reduction in value of the Mark between the beginning of 1922 and 1924). This combination took a huge toll on the German people. Their deprivation and desperation prompted them to look to populist alternatives, particularly in the forms of Communism and Nazism.

Hitler, in his messianic way, brought voice to these social and economic ills. The people freely voted the German Workers Party into power and Hitler was named chancellor. He steadily gained power by mobilizing support for his objectives, and by attributing blame—and promising retribution–for Germany’s conditions on all types of convenient scapegoats–initially Communists, foreign governments and Jews, and increasingly academics, homosexuals, Roma, Slavs and other "sub-human" species.

Then when his party passed the Enabling Act, he gained the authority to pass laws on his own–even laws that were contrary to the Constitution. When he pronounced himself Fuhrer, he finished the jobs that he had begun years before–those of intimidating, imprisoning and killing his political enemies. Although he did not appear to explicitly blame the rich, he did tax them heavily to fund highly visible improvements to the country and to peoples’ lives. He then used extensive and innovate use of propaganda to ensure that everyone was aware of these improvements, and others that were promised for the future.

Once Hitler gained total authority over Germany, he turned his attention to neighboring countries. He continually reinforced his messages of blame, retribution and intolerance over the six years between the time he gained power (1933) and the time he invaded Poland (1939). He used this time to build a military machine that was unrivaled on a continent that was still trying to forget the last war.

When he did enter Poland, he sold it to Germans as a defensive war, to protect Germans from fictitious killings and atrocities that Poles were supposedly inflicting on Germans near the border. He and his Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, employed posters, books, some of the first public radio addresses, movies and other sophisticated propaganda tools to use disinformation to great effect throughout the entire war. They even used propaganda to gain international acceptance of (if not necessarily approval for) the concentration camps by building a model camp through which they took Red Cross inspectors.

While the tour focused extensively on Hitler, our guide also discussed the backgrounds, the roles and the fates of Hitler’s key lieutenants, including Hermann Goering, Heinrich Himler, Joseph Goebbels, Rudolph Hess and Albert Speer. Once we got the outline of this history, the tour ended at Berlin’s Topography of Terror Museum, which is symbolically located at the former headquarters site of the Secret State Police, the SS and the Reich Security Main Office. Its voluminous displays gave us plenty of opportunity to delve into all the gruesome details.


The Soviet Occupation

While the end of World War II marked the end of Berlin’s six-years of Nazi horror, it was just the beginning of another, much longer one—more than 40 years of division, during which the eastern portion of the city was occupied and effectively governed by, and the Western portion continually threatened and harassed by the Soviets.

By the time World War II ended, nether Germany nor any other East Bloc countries were capable of, nor the Western powers in any position to, contest Soviet occupation.  In Warsaw, for example, the Russians effectively waited outside the city, until the Nazi’s crushed the resistance, before moving in to expel the Germans and take over the city themselves. The takeover of East Berlin was even more extreme.

The Russians coveted Berlin as one of big prizes of the war. It won the "Race to Berlin" by arriving in the city before the Western forces. It immediately planted the Russian flag atop the Reichstag while its soldiers scavenged whatever they could find of value. While Russia reluctantly agreed to share the city with it’s allies, it gained almost half the landmass and almost all of the central city and large squares. (The rest of the city was split among the British, the French and the Americans.) In one huge error, which infuriated Stalin and reportedly cost some of his aides their jobs (and possibly much more), the Russians mistakenly allowed the prized Reichstag to fall into the British zone.

What Stalin couldn’t gain by treaty, he tried to gain by intimidation; imposing a blockade that kept trucks from the West from restocking Berlin. The result–the Berlin Airlift, in which planes landed in and took off from Berlin every ninety seconds. The airlift not only kept West Berliners in food,clothes and supplies, but it delivered so much that excess goods were finding their way into the Russian block.

While the Russians finally blinked, this became the first of many East-West standoffs that transformed Berlin from Ground Zero of WWII, into Ground Zero of the Cold War.

As explained by our Berlin Walks’ Discover Berlin tour guide, this was only the beginning of the conflicts. Over the next decade, 2.7 million East Germans (including, but not limited to East Berliners) fled the East for the West. The East was literally bleeding talent; many of the best and the brightest, the most educated and the most ambitious.

By 1961, the Soviets had enough. They constructed the first, rudimentary (primarily barbed wire and armed guards) Berlin Wall virtually overnight in an attempt to stem the migration. This barrier was then replaced by tall brick and concrete walls, replete with guard towers, kilometer-wide, empty no-man zone (more commonly called the “Death Zone”) in which people would be shot on-sight, after which they were often left to bleed to death, before their bodies were retrieved. Then there was the last like of defense, consisting of barbed wire, car and truck traps, trip wires and all manner of other deterrents (a recreation of which we recently saw in , of all places, a park in Rapid City South Dakota).

RC - Mem Park - Belin

The Wall, especially at the infamous Checkpoint Charlie, was the scene of many tense standoffs and many escape attempts. These attempts, some of which are portrayed in the Checkpoint Charlie Museum (one which we vividly remember from our 1991 trip, but did not have time to revisit on this trip. These ranged from the:

  • Mundane, attempts at tunneling of scaling the Wall; to the
  • Ingenuous, including cutting spaces out of car seats into which people could be fit and to using a tiny Austin-Healy to run at such high speeds under a closing barrier that the guards did not have a chance to react–a trick that was used twice, in rapid succession; to the
  • Capitalistic, as by buying one’s way out by paying a diplomat to take people out in the trunks of their cars.

Checkpoint C signCheckpoint C-gate

There are no accurate numbers of exactly how many people succeeded of failed in these escape attempts. The Soviets had no interest in publicizing either and the West has no reliable numbers. Moreover, most of those who did successfully escape avoided publicity so as not to further endanger relatives still behind the Wall.

By 1989, Gorbachev came to power and began to transform the state of East-West relations through initiatives such as Glasnost and Perestroika. By then, more and more people in other Eastern Block countries had begun to ease emigration requirements. Hungary had even begun to open its border with Austria, allowing people to cross the border with relative ease.

This imposed great pressure on the still hard-line East German government. As per the story told by our guide, government officials had developed a very carefully worded plan to allow selective crossing of the Wall for one evening, The party official who was selected to release the statement, however, had apparently not been well briefed or prepared. At a late night press conference that drew journalists from all around the world, he erroneously stated that the Wall would be opened that night and, in clarifying questions, that it would remain open.

After the public decree, there was no turning back. At midnight of November 9, 1989, thousands of people descended on the Wall. Checkpoint guards, who hadn’t a clue as to what was happening, first allowed people to cross, and then joined the party. By the end of a three-day, non-stop celebration, thousands of people were freely moving in both directions. The next year, East and West Germany reunited. The authorities, with the help of millions of "Wallpeckers" (including Joyce and I on our 1991 trip to Berlin) who plucked pieces of the Wall for souvenirs, pulled down almost the entire wall, leaving only a few short spans for posterity.

Berlin Wall (2)Berlin Wall (4)

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