Checkpoint Charlie

Kunk Fu Zoby Kung Fu Zu8/28/15
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.

Kaiser Wilhelm Church

Kaiser Wilhelm Church

Berlin-checkpoint-charlie

Check Point Charlie

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16 Responses to Checkpoint Charlie

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    Once, a couple of decades, a friend and I explained to a co-worker the point about “Ich bin ein Berliner.” He quickly grasped that this was equivalent to saying, “I am a Danish.” Another friend was visiting Berlin enough later to give me a little packet with a piece of the Berlin Wall, which he knew I would appreciate (and still have). My German history professor once mentioned attending an East Berlin march over Angela Davis. He told one of the marchers what she was charged with, and the guy wondered what the march was all about.

    Checkpoint Charlie shows up in the James Cagney comedy One, Two, Three as well as (more briefly) the Algis Budrys novel Who? (which was later made into a movie).

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I just wanted to say that I think the Kaiser Wilhelm Church is an interesting mix of styles. Or is that blue thing a modern Tower of Babel?

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      The juxtaposition of the new and old is jarring.

      But then so was was the old man’s observation about the blue and brown shirts.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    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.

    I would not have supposed that jelly-filled donuts were big in Berlin. I would have figured that if the Germans had a take on donuts, it would be filling them with some kind of fatty meat. 😀

    The theme of this particular fest was, “For Anti-Imperialist Solidarity, Peace and Friendship”.

    Do you remember happening upon a young, Hawaiian-born, half-white man who had been tutored by an Uncle Frank? This is the kind of student rally that Obama and Hillary would feel quite at home at.

    That Ishtar Gate reconstruction is interesting indeed. Looks like it was made out of Legos.

    Speaking of brown shirts, it is remarkable how yutes can be so easily drawn to a faceless, mindless crowd if you promise them some kind of grand purpose. And yet, there is great power in that, which is surely why those in government go after the “youth vote.” For the left, everything yute-oriented jibes with their eternally-juvenile conception of society.

    Yutes in our own society now wear green shirts. Same shit. Different day.

    Anyway, it must have been quite an experience to actually visit a Communist country. Hell, I don’t want to even cross over the border into Mexico.

  4. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I would have figured that if the Germans had a take on donuts, it would be filling them with some kind of fatty meat.

    Surprisingly, the Chinese are much bigger on meat stuffed dumplings and the like.

    Anyway, it must have been quite an experience to actually visit a Communist country.

    I thought you lived near Seattle?

    Some time I will get around to my visits to Moscow, post-war Vietnam as well as China. I also visited Hungary and have a very funny story from the second visit.

    That Ishtar Gate reconstruction is interesting indeed. Looks like it was made out of Legos.

    You would be very impressed if you could go up and touch it. The difference between a photo and the real thing is stark.

    An amazing example of this is the Pieta. I visited the Vatican in the summer of 1971, before that insane Bulgarian (I think) took a hammer to it. Since then it is behind a protective barrier. But when I was there I could touch it and run my hand over it. Michelangelo’s work was fantastic. It was so true to life that I could feel Christ’s blood vessels as I touched his arms.

    I am very glad that I saw so much of the world and it’s wonders before the mob moved in.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I thought you lived near Seattle?

      Unfortunately, there’s too much truth to that.

      But when I was there I could touch it and run my hand over it. Michelangelo’s work was fantastic. It was so true to life that I could feel the Christ’s blood vessels as I touched his arms.

      How sad when you think about it that the whole motif of Christianity is moving from the redemption of suffering to the imposition of it in the name of “the poor.” Jesus wept, as they say. To see Marxism take over that faith is a crying shame.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I had a similar reaction seeing the Robert E. Lee tomb at Washington and Lee — a desire to touch the folds of the clothing to make sure they really were sculpture, not the real thing. Some sculptors can be extremely impressive. Of course, Michelangelo Buonarroti is most famous for painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which I assume you also saw. (We probably did during our visit to Rome on the way to Greece in 1961, but I have no memory of it.)

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Of course, Michelangelo Buonarroti is most famous for painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

        That’s a good question. I would have figured the Chapel, the Pieta, or the statue of the buck-naked David. Either way, there’s probably good reason these guys felt that in some way their work was inspired by God.

        I have the feeling that most modern art (such as that famous one in Germany of the woman cop squatting and pissing) is inspired by other forces, perhaps darker forces.

        Bible versus don’t tend to touch me. They’re just “blah blah blah” as far as I’m concerned. But I think one can surely catch a glimpse of the divine in such extraordinary works of art as the Pieta.

        And what you might catch from Leftist-inspired art likely would require penicillin.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          Bible versus don’t tend to touch me. They’re just “blah blah blah” as far as I’m concerned.

          Some are beautiful. 1 Corinthians 13.

          One of the main concerns of the translators of the King James Version was to transmit the Bible’s message in beautiful language. That didn’t always lead to the best translation, but the King James Bible and Shakespeare are responsible for a huge part of our English linguistic heritage. Through them, we have inherited a common culture. We used to quote much from both in order to communicate to one another in terms which were immediately understood by all religious and literate people.

          I regret we are losing this.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing . . .

            8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.

            A tough standard.

            Yes, that is a beautiful section. And love is a tough standard. That passage is a cautionary note about intellectualism, hucksterism, and elitism. I couldn’t begin to parse all that. Nor could I measure up to it. Nor necessarily do I want to “always trust.” But it’s something to think about.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        As I recall, the Sistine Chapel was being repaired thus we could not get much of a view.

        I also saw the statues of David and Moses. I believe David was in a museum in Florence and Moses was in a smaller church, I don’t recall where. The thing which struck me about Moses was he had little horns. I forget the reason for this, but believe the guide said this was typical for the period.

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