First Visit to East Berlin

Three of my undergraduate student years were spent at Colby College in Maine, where in my sophomore year I decided to major in German. During that year I applied for admission to the Junior Year in Freiburg, an academic program in Germany sponsored by Wayne State University. Fortunately I was admitted, even though I was not a strong student at that time, and in September 1962 I sailed from New York to Rotterdam with around 105 other students from various US colleges and universities. About 70 of these students would be spending the academic year as participants in Wayne State’s Junior Year in Munich program, which was affiliated with the University of Munich; the other 35 students would be studying at the University of Freiburg, in a famous old university town located on the edge of the Black Forest in southwest Germany. At age nineteen, I was understandably very excited about the prospect of spending a year in Germany!

The year in Freiburg exceeded my expectations in every area and way. My German improved by leaps and bounds, as a result of the instruction that was conducted entirely in German in every course I took and also through my social contacts.  Making connections to German students at the university was difficult at first, but eventually I was able to do so by participating in events and weekend excursions that the International Office (Akademisches Auslandsamt) offered, such as an overnight ski trip to the Black Forest resort, Titisee. These events were designed to bring the foreign students together with German students who were interested in meeting them. I got to know a number of Germans in this way and enjoyed socializing with them at what one could call “mixer” gatherings. By the spring semester, I had made friends with a female German student majoring in psychology who eventually became my girlfriend. This development made my life in Freiburg even more enjoyable and certainly helped improve my German.

Among the many special events in which I participated, the highlight of the year was without doubt a trip we took to Berlin, which was sponsored by both of the Junior Year programs and financed by the German government. The trip took place during Pentecost, a religious holiday celebrated in Germany and throughout Europe. The stamps in my passport from way back then indicate that it was a five-day excursion, from June 4 to June 9, 1963. I recall that our group made the journey on three large buses, each pulling a trailer filled with luggage. We drove north from Munich and crossed the border from West Germany into the GDR at Juchhöh (in Upper Franconia, Bavaria) and from there made the 194-mile journey on the GDR transit highway to Drewitz, the border crossing point from the GDR into West Berlin. The trip to West Berlin took all day, as would our return via the same route to Munich. The East German border guards kept us sitting in the buses for several hours as they checked some of our luggage in a leisurely manner. They obviously intended to delay and inconvenience us, to make our long journey even longer and as unpleasant as possible—and their hostile behavior did just that!

In West Berlin at last, we settled into a modest but comfortable hotel that was centrally located, just a block away from Kurfürstendamm, Berlin’s most famous shopping boulevard. We were tired, but nothing could keep us from having our first taste of Berlin’s free-swinging night life. Berlin was really alive!—especially at night, and it didn’t shut down at midnight like other German cities. There were no fixed closing hours, so Berlin was known as the city that never sleeps. Night life like that was not to be found in Waterville, Maine, where I went to college, nor was there anything comparable in Munich or Freiburg. We twenty-year-olds, old enough to drink in Germany where the legal age for consumption of alcoholic beverages was sixteen, took full advantage of what Berlin had to offer. Of the clubs some of us visited, I can remember three: the Resi Bar, featuring private telephones fixed to tables with easily seen numbers so customers could contact patrons at other tables, the Eden Saloon, and the Eierschale (Egg Shell), which was situated on a converted river barge.

During the four days we were in Berlin, we had considerable free time and therefore could explore the city as we liked. A guided bus tour of West Berlin and a few other group events had been scheduled, two of which left a lasting impression on me. The first was a bus trip to East Berlin, separated from West Berlin by a wall that had been constructed by the GDR, starting on August 13, 1961. This was a barrier that surrounded West Berlin and prevented access to it from East Berlin and adjacent areas of East Germany. Its purpose was to keep disaffected East Germans from fleeing to the West. Seeing and being inside the fortified and heavily guarded crossing point from West to East Berlin was a shock to us. We all stayed on the bus, taking everything in with fascination and fear. This was the front line of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, and it was scary. Less scary but very sobering was our two-hour bus tour of East Berlin, as we saw for ourselves how the other Berliners were living under socialist rule.

My recollection of our bus tour is hazy, as one might expect, but what I saw interested me enough to want to take a closer look on foot. So, together with a few other JY students, I made my way to border crossing point Checkpoint Charlie the next day and from there entered East Berlin. We strolled along the famous boulevard, Unter den Linden, attracting stares from the passersby. I still can remember a few things that made an impression on me. I recall the dreariness and colorlessness of East Berlin, especially in comparison to West Berlin. Also, how few automobiles there were on the main avenues and boulevards. Large propaganda signs and banners were everywhere, extolling the merits of socialism and the ruling SED Party. The showcases in front of stores presented few items one would want to purchase. A shop selling glassware and china had a few pieces of old Meissen on display, but a sign indicated that they were not for sale. We went into a bookstore and found editions of Marx and Lenin alongside the literary works of Goethe and Schiller—communist Germany and classical Germany, side by side.

Another event that I have not forgotten, mainly because it has gained in significance over the years, was a special luncheon for our group in the cafeteria of the Technical University of Berlin. This took place on the fourth and last day of our visit. The guest speaker was the Mayor of Berlin, Willy Brandt, who in 1964 would become leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (1964 to 1967) and then serve as Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1969 to 1974. In 1971 Brandt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his effort to achieve reconciliation between West Germany and the countries of the Soviet bloc. After welcoming us and giving a short speech before lunch, Brandt walked from table to table and greeted us personally in small groups while we were dining. We, and perhaps he, had no idea that his political star was about to rise as high as it did.

The incident that made the biggest impression on me occurred on our first full day in Berlin. Our group had a bus tour of West Berlin in the morning, right after breakfast, then we were given the rest of the day off to explore the city on our own. It was lunchtime, so a couple of JY students and I decided to get a bite to eat in a pub right next door to our hotel. When we entered we saw immediately that no other Americans from our group were there. While we were eating the owner approached us from behind the bar and asked if we were Americans. We answered in the affirmative. In those days the Germans, and the Berliners in particular, loved Americans. They remembered the Berlin airlift (June 1948 to May 1949), carried out by the Allies when the Soviet Union blocked their railway, road, and canal access to the sectors of Berlin under Western control. The Berlin Blockade was one of the first major crises of the post-World War II Cold War. The Western Allies organized the Berlin airlift to carry supplies of every sort to the people of West Berlin, so they could survive the chokehold. It was an incredible operation with cargo planes flying in and out of Berlin all day long—and thank goodness it was successful. The blockade of Berlin was finally lifted by the Soviet Union on May 12, 1949. The airlift demonstrated the ability and resolve of the US to stand up to the Soviet Union without being forced into a direct conflict. The West Berliners were immensely grateful for our intervention and assistance in this time of crisis; it was a different world back then!

When the pub owner learned that the three of us had not yet viewed the Berlin Wall or the Brandenburg Gate from close up, he called for a taxi and prepaid our ride to an elevated viewing platform that had been erected directly in front of the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s most famous landmark. The gate is the monumental entry to Unter den Linden, the renowned boulevard in the central Mitte district of Berlin. Until the Berlin Wall was built in August 1961, pedestrians and vehicles could pass freely through the gate, which is located in East Berlin. From the tower-like platform, one could look over the wall and through the gate and have a clear view of Unter den Linden. We did that and saw, among other things, the East German soldiers who were assigned to guarding the gate from the East Berlin side. They, together with a mini-wall, made certain that no East Germans attempted to approach the gate, which as a result was situated in no man’s land on the eastern side of Berlin. It was an eerie sight, one I will never forget.

Our group departed from Berlin on June 9, well aware of the long delays we would encounter at the border crossing points, the one from West Berlin into East Germany and then the one from East Germany into West Germany. Our mood on the trip back to Munich was somber and subdued, as we reflected on this first direct experience of the Cold War. In October 1962, just one month after arriving in Germany, we had experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis, but from thousands of miles away so it had less of an impact on us. In Berlin, however, one could see and almost feel the Cold War—and it was frightening! I am sure that reaction is just what the pub owner was hoping for, so that we Americans would be motivated to continue protecting Berlin against the ever-present Soviet threat.

On June 26, 1963, about two and a half weeks after we had left Berlin, US President John F. Kennedy gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” (“I am a Berliner”) speech in West Berlin. It is generally regarded as the best-known speech of the Cold War era and also the most famous anti-communist speech. Twenty-two months after Soviet-occupied East Germany erected the Berlin Wall to prevent mass emigration into the West, Kennedy wanted to underline US support for West Germany. The message was aimed as much at the Soviets as it was at Berliners and was a clear statement of US policy in the wake of the construction of the Berlin Wall.