by Kung Fu Zu 8/28/15
In the summer of 1973, West Berlin was tiny island of democracy in an ocean of communism. The communist regimes of the DDR and Soviet Union did not have warm feelings for the enclave.
As it had no hinterland, virtually everything consumed in West Berlin was brought in over or through unfriendly territory. The degree of difficulty this presented to the West Berliners, at any given time, would vary but I do not believe the DDR ever made it easy. To maintain a constant flow of goods to the city was costly, thus it was not a cheap place to live. To counter this, the Federal Republic of Germany gave out subsidies to those living in West Berlin as, for political reasons, they wanted to attract West Germans to the city.
I was there that July with a group of American college juniors who had come to Europe to study the German language. The weekend trip was a chance to practice our German and learn something about the culture.
Over forty years later, my clearest memory of West Berlin is of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church. This was an edifice with a message. It consisted of the bombed out spire of the original church, built in the nineteenth century, next to which were a modern chapel and belfry. The belfry stood out at night when the blue glass window tiles were beautifully illuminated by the lights inside.
During our stay the weather was fine, so we took the opportunity to visit an open-air Biergarten. It was there that I first experienced two things; the first a Berlinerweisse, and the second a Berliner. A Berlinerweisser is a type of beer, popular in Berlin, which is flavored with raspberry syrup. A Berliner is a jelly filled donut. Both were good, but I like my fellow students, took particular pleasure in the donuts as we knew that when President Kennedy had said “Ich bin ein Berliner” he had called himself a jelly donut. Such are the jokes of language students.
In those days, the idea of visiting a communist country was somewhat intriguing and this was doubly so in the case of East Berlin if one had seen the film, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.” Even the immigration crossing point, Checkpoint Charlie, had a certain romantic air about it. Not surprisingly, several of us decided to go over to the East and see what a commie country actually looked like.
Leaving West Berlin was a breeze. But there was a somewhat sinister atmosphere at the East German immigration area. The border guards were in heavily starched and pressed uniforms with nary a smile on their faces. I suppose we were actually lucky that things went as well as they did. By chance, the “World Festival of Youth and Students” happened to be taking place in East Berlin that very weekend. This was a communist festival held every few years in order to bring young leftists together. The theme of this particular fest was, “For Anti-Imperialist Solidarity, Peace and Friendship”. Maybe the East German immigration officials thought we were young socialists, but I got the feeling that the American passports were looked on with suspicion.
After escaping the border, the first place we visited was the Pergamon Museum, which housed some spectacular displays from antiquity. I well recall the Ishtar Gate from Babylon built during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II. It was spectacular. The sight of this treasure, alone, was worth the visit.
Once we left the museum, we walked around the streets with no particular destination in mind. When we wandered off main roads, we quickly ran into areas which had been bombed during WWII but had yet to be rebuilt. This was surprising to an American of twenty.
Back on the main roads we strolled past thousands of young people. The East German kids were wearing shirts of Royal Blue. Huge pictures of Marx and Engels were on display. Someone told us that Angela Davis was there to give a big anti-American speech.
I can no longer recollect how, but toward the end of the day we got into a discussion with a German gentleman. He must have been in his seventies. As visitors to his country, we were trying to be polite and find positive things to say about it. Frankly, other than the Museum, there wasn’t a lot to praise in East Berlin. So we started talking about the Youth Festival and how energetic everyone seemed. To keep the conversation going, I noted how the thousands of young Germans looked good in their neat blue shirts. We he heard this, the old man turned his head and spit. He then looked at me and said, “Forty years ago they were brown.”
I was shocked, as one didn’t expect to hear such forthrightness in a communist country. The man was clearly not impressed with the festival or those attending it. His comparison of the young communists to brown-shirted Nazis was stark. At its core, was a rebuke of the pronounced character flaw in many Germans to fanatically follow power, wherever it may reside. Teutonic “group-think”. Coming from a man who had lived through the Nazi period, his words were very powerful.
After that exchange, there was little left to say. We politely parted company with the old gentleman and returned to the West.
On that warm July day, I experienced the truth of the saying, “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” To my great joy, this still holds true.• (957 views)