Tony Penultimate

Some Berlin Memories

While we were clearing out our basement recently, I came across this document (it fell out of a book!) that my Dad wrote for my Spanish nephew and niece, when they first visited Berlin in 2006.  He had worked there as a translator just after the war, and I thought I would post it here. My Berlin friends will know all this, but for me, what he describes is utterley alien to the Berlin and Germany that I know today: a fantastically vibrant, cultural city. Thank goodness, that the only uniform I've had to wear in my career is a tuxedo and the only weapon I've had to carry is a harmless ukulele - my compatriots would do well to heed this as the Brits crash out of the EU.

These are his words.....

I spent my twenty-first birthday - 4 January 1947 - on a troopship from Hull to Cuxhaven, a German port near Hamburg, on the first stage of my journey to begin a new job in Berlin.  I was a newly promoted Pilot Officer - a “sprog P.O” in the mocking jargon of the time - and was to be a Russian interpreter in a four-power organisation called the Berlin Air Safety Centre.  Its purpose was to regulate air traffic in Berlin and in the three “air corridors” which connected Berlin with the Western zones of occupation of Germany - from Berlin to Hamburg, to Hannover and to Frankfurt. 

In 1947, that meant the military aircraft of the four powers occupying defeated Germany - the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union (now Russia) the United States of America and France.  There were at that time no civilian aircraft flying to Germany; civil aircraft flights only started in earnest, anywhere in Europe in the 1950’s.  As things turned out, the Berlin Air Safety Centre was the last four-power organisation to close in the 1990’s. after the end of the “occupation regime”, the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of West Germany and the (formerly Communist) East Germany to form once again a united Germany.

Prussia, of which Berlin was the capital, was one of a number of German states in the eighteenth century. Its ruler, Frederick the Great, was an important military leader and his ruthlessly efficient armies were a significant element of the politics of the time.  His court was known as a place where literary talent and scholarship were greatly esteemed; the palace and court at Potsdam, near Berlin to the south-west, was home to some of the leading figures of the European cultural scene.

Both Prussia and Berlin rose to prominence in Europe when, in 1870, Prince Bismarck of Prussia brought about the unification of the many small states of Germany to form a single large and powerful country under the leadership of Prussia.  Its ruler, the Kaiser, was the husband of Queen Victoria’s first daughter and for much of the nineteenth century relations between Britain and Germany were very close.  (Granny’s grandfather went to Heidelberg, an ancient German university, as the best place in Europe to study engineering).

You will already know a lot about German history - Germany’s defeat of France in 1870, the growth of German military and naval power in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth, the outbreak of the Great War, the defeat and humiliation of Germany and the rise of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party leading to the Second World War in 1939.  After Russia had been invaded by Germany in July 1941 and had thus come into the war with the United Kingdom and its Dominions and, from December 1941, the United States of America, the first concern of all was to stem the tide of aggression and to begin to roll back the enemy.  

Already by 1943, after the crippling defeat inflicted on the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad early in that year by the Russians and after the British victory over the German Africa Korps at El Alamein in late 1942, swiftly followed by the ejection of all German forces from Africa and the assault on Sicily and then mainland Italy, “summit meetings” between the wartime leaders (Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin) began to consider what should be the policy of the victors towards Germany after Germany had been defeated and occupied.  

It was fairly easy to agree that Germany should be disarmed and denazified, that war criminals should be tried and punished and that all these processes should go ahead on the basis of agreement between the belligerents.  Working out the details was another matter; the Russians, the victims of unprovoked aggression and the sufferers of the greatest casualties among the allies, were neurotically apprehensive of a plot against their interests by the two Western leaders, one of whom (Churchill) had before the war been a bitter opponent of Communism.

To work out the details of the occupation regime, the European Advisory Commission was set up in 1943, formed from the staffs of the three (later four) powers waging war on Germany.  It recommended that there should be four zones of occupation of Germany - the Russian zone on the eastern side, the British zone on the western side and the American zone in the southern part of Germany.  (When later, at Winston Churchill’s proposal, France was included among the occupying powers, a fourth zone was carved out of southern Germany for her).  Berlin was treated differently.  The capital of the defeated nation and the last redoubt of the defeated Nazi regime, Berlin had enormous symbolic importance for the Russians and all the allies.  

The final battle in which the Russian armies stormed and captured the city, street by street was very costly in Russian lives; but Berlin also claimed the lives of many of the British and American aircrews who had for years been relentlessly attacking the city and laying it waste. So it was decided that for symbolic reasons each occupying power should have its own sector of occupation of Greater Berlin, where the four-power Allied Control Authority was to have its seat. 

The Russians took the eastern side and the British, Americans and French had sectors carved out of the rest of the city in such a way that, in the centre of the city, the Russian and British sectors met at the Brandenburg Gate (the classical arch with a chariot on its top which marks the end of the Tiergarten and the beginning of Unter den Linden (“Under the Lime Trees”) the great avenue on which the historic buildings of Germany’s capital had stood until war shattered many of them.  The American sector was on the south-western side of the city, having a common frontier with the Russian sector in the area of Potsdam and the Havel lake, while the French sector was on the western side.  Of importance in the Berlin blockade which was to come in 1948, the British sector included an airfield at Gatow, the American sector included Templehof, the original city-centre airport of Berlin, and the French sector had a small field, later developed to become for many years Berlin’s main civil airport.

He writes "Hallisches Tor, in the city, between Templehof airport and city centre (now in US sector)"

I used to work in the Allied Control Authority building, a vast building lying on the border of the British and Russian sectors.  It had been well restored and made one forget the devastation all around.  While I got on with the job of ensuring that the flights in and out of Berlin’s airports were collision-free, more difficult decisions were going on upstairs.  From the early meetings of the Allied Control Authority in 1945, it soon became clear that there were serious differences between the Russians on the one hand and the Western allies on the other. 

The Russians wanted to remove much of the industrial equipment from such German factories as had not suffered severe damage in the war, while the Western allies wanted to concentrate on getting the German economy going again.  The former currency, the Reichsmark, was totally discredited and the normal medium of exchange was barter - cigarettes, coffee, nylon stockings, anything which was unobtainable from German sources but available from the West, principally America, which had hardly suffered any of the shortages of goods which were universal in Europe.

Violin, bought with cigarettes in Berlin 1947

Even in 1947, when I arrived in Berlin, there was still a pervasive sense of hopelessness; at least the shooting had stopped but that was about all.  The streets were lined with heaps of rubble, many buildings had been appallingly damaged by RAF bombing or prolonged Russian shelling and people were living in cellars or in buildings where emergency repairs had been made.  The winter of 1947/48 was bitterly cold and many people suffered severely.  There wasn’t much to eat and there wasn’t much to make a fire in order to get warm.  All the trees in the Tiergarten, the great park around the Reichstag, were quickly cut down for fuel.

Finding that the Russians were intent on going their own way, the Western powers decided to unify their three zones of occupation for economic and political purposes into a single unit (“Trizonia”) in which they immediately introduced a currency reform, bringing in the Deutschmark.  This new money was worth something; the black market rapidly withered away and the Germans, with that energy, persistence and skill for which they are famous, started working hard, creating the strongest currency and for several decades the most dynamic economy in Europe.

The last thing the Russians wanted, or would tolerate, was a capitalist Germany.  Their aim had been that Germany should have a form of government like the systems which they had brought in in Poland, Hungary and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, or failing that a neutral Germany.  So in mid-1948 Stalin decided to cut off the Western sectors of Berlin by simply denying access to those sectors of the city by waterway (river and canal traffic, much used for coal and building materials). trains and motor traffic (on the motorways leading to the west).  

I myself left Berlin by the last bus to get through from Berlin to Hannover; the trains had already been cut off.  In the summer of 1948, the West faced the humiliation of being forced out of their occupation sectors in Berlin because they could not feed or supply the people there.  To their great credit (and particularly to the credit of Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Secretary, who took the lead in persuading the Americans that with determination and with US and British air transport resources, this challenge could be met) the Western Allies decided that they would supply the Berliners of the Western sectors by air.  

Berlin drivers license

This was a heroic decision; there were no huge jumbo jets then, and all supplies, including coal, had to be flown in by many hundred British, American and French propeller-driven transport aircraft, touching down every two minutes at one of Berlin’s three airports.  It was touch and go for a time, especially during the severe winter, but the defiant spirit of the Berliners and their readiness to work long hours to unload the aircraft very quickly and send them off again for their next load meant that by the spring of 1949 Stalin realised that the West could keep the game up for as long as it took.  He therefore reopened the roads, rail and canal links.  Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, especially the Berliners.  There would be no World War 3 over Berlin.

He writes "All gardens here are a shambles - except outside the Alllied Control Building where we now have fine tulips and lawns"

Berlin now rapidly came to share in the rising prosperity of West Germany.  The rubble in the streets was swept together into a huge mound near the Olympic Stadium (scene of the 1936 Olympics) and Berlin rapidly became, for the unhappy population of East Berlin and East Germany, on whom a Communist regime had been imposed, a beacon of freedom and an example of how German industry and hard work could, in the right political and economic framework, give people prosperity and dignity.

By 1953 Stalin was dead.  His successors became increasingly concerned at the growing contrast between the situations in East Berlin and the Western Sectors.  Berlin was also an ideal place for all sorts of espionage operations which were a feature of the now intensifying Cold War.  So on 13 August 1961, the inhabitants of Berlin woke to find that, suddenly and with great speed. a wall was being built along the line dividing the Russian sector of Berlin from the Western sectors.  

The wall was too high to scale or vault and was covered by machine guns, patrolled by East German series and protected by barbed wire.  Many brave and desperate men and women tried to get over, under, or past it to reach the West and many lost their lives in the attempt.  The museum at Checkpoint Charlie shows many of the ingenious means used to get from East to West Berlin and records the many victims of the East German guards whose job was to stop people getting through, even if it meant shooting to kill: - as Allied troops in Berlin, in uniform, still had the right, under occupation agreements, to go anywhere in Greater Berlin, including the Russian sector, there were checkpoints along the inter-sector frontier, where the documents of people with the right to passes could be checked; Checkpoint C for Charlie was simply the best known.

Foreign statesmen (famously Presidents John F, Kennedy and Ronald Reagan went to Berlin to proclaim their support for the freedom of West Berlin, and successive Governing Mayors of Berlin became significant figures in the political life of Germany.  The arrival of Gorbachev on the scene in Moscow, and his evident failure to give wholehearted support to Honecker, the elderly and uninspiring leader of the German Democratic Republic (the name given by the Russians and the East German communists to the state which was created out of the Russian zone of occupation and the Russian zone of Berlin) spelled the end for the East German regime.  Its new leaders who succeeded Erich Honecker lacked the authority, the skill or the ruthlessness to prevent the inevitable collapse of the Communist regime they led.
There was an element of farce about the end, and I hope someone in Berlin will tell you the story more accurately than I can.  But I seem to remember that word got around in East Berlin that the checkpoints would be opened on a particular evening so that people could pass through to visit relations in West Berlin and return.  The authorisation for this order remains, I think, obscure and probably was the result of a muddle.  But the consequence was immediate and inevitable.  

Thousands of cheerful people surged from the East through Checkpoint Charlie and wandered about West Berlin being greeted and offered drinks by the West Berliners.  The situation got out of control, but in an entirely peaceful way, and the East German leaders knew that would no longer have the backing of the Russians in trying to regain control by violent repression, as they had done in the fifties and sixties.  It wasn’t long before the people of West Berlin started work on demolishing the hated Wall, giving press photographers the opportunity to produce some of the most dramatic and evocative pictures of the downfall of a regime and the destruction of the twentieth century’s most visible symbol of the denial of political liberty.  

Germany’s reunification, the aim for which West German leaders had striven since the formation of the (West German) Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, followed in the early 1990’s. giving Germany, Europe and the world the sense that finally, the unfinished business of 1939-1945 (or perhaps 1870-1945) had been brought to a conclusion that everybody could accept with satisfaction.  Surveying the history of his/her country, a German might at last reflect that since the early 1990’s, Germany had for the first time in living memory been enjoying the unusual experience of living in a Europe in which it enjoyed good relations with all its neighbours.

2 April 2006



Be the first to respond!

Leave a comment: