In 1984, after I graduated high school, I traveled to Europe and spent a year as an exchange student in West Germany. West Germany, you say? Yes, young readers. At the time, Germany was still a country divided between East and West. The West was a free country, but the East was the province of the Soviets, and was technically behind the Iron Curtain.
I belonged to a horrible exchange program, which provided no travel possibilities. Thankfully, my German teacher was a member of the Rotary club, and when his students traveled he was kind enough to invite me to attend free of charge.
My first experience with the great divide, where freedom ended and Communism began, was at Lübeck, famous for its marzipan. In an experience I found completely surreal, I traveled there with the first group of exchange students to Germany from Israel. The Israelis and I quickly became friends, and I bonded especially with one guy my age, named Erez. That’s him in the picture above, standing next to the sign.
There was no wall dividing East and West. Just a wide swath of land, kept trimmed and bare of shrubbery and trees by God only knows who. And fences. And, periodically, a sign like that above. “Auch drüben ist Deutschland.” There, too, is Germany. A reminder that East and West Germany weren’t two countries in the minds of the German people, but one, divided by Soviet oppression after allies quartered the country as a result of World War II.
And, on the far side of that strip of no man’s land, towers.
It was a bizarre feeling, standing there knowing all of us with cameras taking pictures of the watchtower were, ourselves, being watched. By “the enemy,” who was likely more afraid of us than we were of them. On the other hand, we had cameras. They had Kalashnikovs.
Some months later, my host family took me on a tour of the country. We went to Aachen, to Köln, to Bonn (then the capital of the Bundesrepublik) and Berlin.
Like Germany itself, Berlin had been divided into fourths, each section controlled by one of the Allied conquerors. And, also like Germany, that part of Berlin controlled by the Soviets had been sectioned off, separated from the rest, by the infamous Berlin Wall, which was erected without notice in the early 1960’s.
The problem? Berlin itself lay deep in Soviet occupied East Germany. To drive to the free city of West Berlin, one had to cross the border and drive through East Germany.
I have very few pictures of the East. Truth is, there wasn’t much to see. The highway leading to Berlin wound its way through sparse countryside. Low cut, brown grasslands, un-punctuated by any other foliage.
The border crossing itself was the most interesting part. However, as it was heavily guarded by many, many soldiers carrying machine guns, it wasn’t the type of place I felt comfortable taking pictures.
There was no special, pre-arranged visa required for an American citizen to enter the DDR (Deutsches Demokratiches Republik. Why do the most tyrannical forms of government claim to be Democratic in nature?) However, as an American, I was pulled aside and forced to walk, accompanied by two East German soldiers, to a small out building, where I was briefly interviewed, and my passport stamped.
Our drive to Berlin was marked only by two events. The first was a stop at a diner, situated next to the highway to catch the tourist trade. There were separate sections for citizens and for Westerners. No co-mingling was allowed. It was there I tried steak tartar for the first time. Brave, or foolish? I don’t know. It was passable. The restaurant accepted payment in Deutschmarks. The East was always eager for Western currency.
The second event occurred when we came across a truck, broken down on the side of the road. The driver was Polish, and was bringing a shipment of goods to West Germany. Otherwise, he would have been using an entirely separate highway. We stopped and offered our services. He spoke passable German. He refused our help and asked us to leave quickly. The highway was frequently patrolled by helicopter and unmarked vehicles. All contact between Eastern Bloc citizens and free citizens of the West was highly … discouraged.
We arrived in Berlin, and passed through the wall, which surrounded West Berlin, to protect the Soviet occupied East from “fascists.”
Most of the pictures of my trip are lost to time. Either through being misplaced, or having been ruined. However, you can see some excellent images of the Berlin Wall, and read about its history, here.
West Berlin was a city of life! It’s citizens, completely cut off from the Western world, except via air and the few passengers who arrived via automobile, embraced their freedom in a way I’ve rarely experienced. The Berliners were industrious, and they played as hard as they worked. The nightlife was amazing: theaters, night clubs, bars. It was a constant people’s revolution against their Communist-controlled surroundings.
We spent a week there, and I could easily have spent a lifetime. It was the most American city I’d visited to date, and in many ways, was more American in its zest for independence and self-expression than many actual American cities.
Of course, traffic between the two Berlins existed. After all, the wall had gone up almost in a day. Families had been torn apart. People who worked in one part of the city were cut off from their homes in another. There were several border checkpoints by which one could cross over.
And so, on a cold January morning, we decided to visit the jewel of the Soviet empire; its most accessible city, and one which served as the shining example of Communist superiority.
We crossed at the Friederichstraße Station. Again, no pictures, sorry. If I knew how history would have turned out, I would have been a more attentive student.
Crossing by foot, the border was inside a building. One went inside the building in West Berlin, and came out the other side, in the East.
There were various lines, some that took only German citizens, some that took only Eastern Bloc citizens, and some that took others. The lines weren’t very long, but I was nervous being separated from my host family as I stood in my appointed queue.
The actual crossing was a long booth. One entered through a plain wooden door. There was an East German officer of some sort behind thick plastic shielding in a booth. He requested my passport and asked me a few innocuous questions.
Part of crossing the border was a monetary exchange. The East, outside a few examples like the restaurant I mentioned above, didn’t accept Western currency. As such, it was required to exchange 25 West German marks for 25 East German marks. The East German mark was so devalued, there wasn’t even a conversion rate for it on Western markets. It was as if it didn’t exist. This was a way for East Germany to make money without begging the West for it openly. We all knew this, but what choice did we have?
The paper money was similar to Western money, but the coins were like play money, made from the cheapest metal alloy possible. I swear I could see the rough points on the edge where the coins had been punched out from their plastic molds. Anyone who has ever put together a model will know what I’m talking about.
I passed through, exiting the booth through a similarly plain, wooden door. And there I was, behind the Iron Curtain. Images from John LeCarré novels sprang to mind, and I imagined spies behind every corner. Men in trench coats meeting secretly, carrying dossiers and putting their lives on the line for a pair of Levi’s, or leaked secrets on a country’s nuclear arsenal.
Fortunately, it was just my host family who greeted me. We left the building and headed out into the blustery day.
In contrast to the hustle and bustle of the West, East Berlin was sparse and dreary. The buildings that greeted us were large, squat monstrosities, built in a style I would describe as Federal. However, unlike the bright, white buildings of DC, these were gray and oppressive. They took up entire blocks. Everything screamed “We are the Party!”
Even on a cold day, with a city dampened in color by the snow, I expected crowds. But the large, wide, well-paved streets were barren. Within a block or two from Friedrichstraße, the people crossing over from the West disappeared in clusters of twos and threes.
While we had talked in loud, laughing voices on the other side, here we almost whispered. Everyone felt like we were being watched. The only pictures I have with me of the East I had to scan in from negatives. Over the 25 years since the pictures were taken, the film has become discolored and scratchy. It’s fitting though. The pictures look like they were taken in a different time. And that’s what East Berlin felt like; a place out of time.
Unlike the West, where there existed only one building ruined by the bombings of World War II, there were several in the East. They made the reality of the Communist state more oppressive. One is pictured above, along with cheaply made Russian cars.
We wandered the streets aimlessly for a while, wondering what sites to take in. We entered a large department store. I believe it was off Alexanderplatz. I can’t remember its name. Inside the store, soldiers patrolled with rifles. There were signs indicating that shoplifters would be shot. On a Saturday, there were no customers and only a few employees.
The goods were sparse. A stack of boxed light bulbs. Several racks of drab, colorless clothing, all very severe and lacking in style or diversity.
Most everything in the city seemed closed down. We wondered about a place to eat, but the few restaurants we came across were unlit and the doors were locked.
Finally, we came across a museum that was open. We went inside. Greek statuary and artifacts were on display. There was even the facade of a temple, entirely reconstructed in the lobby. These were treasures of war, seized from Greece and on display courtesy of the Soviet government.
The museum was clearly geared toward Westerners. Not only was it the only thing open, but there was an actual crowd here, and most of them were speaking English. While I saw no official sign, I was willing to be citizens of the East weren’t allowed.
The museum had a restaurant. It was located in the basement, and one got to it by way of a small staircase. It seemed dubious, but we were hungry, so we decided to check it out.
To our surprise, when we opened the door off the stairway, we were greeted by a brightly lit, formal dining room. The tables were elegantly set, and the waitstaff was dressed in tuxedos. I don’t remember there being any women working, though there may have been some in the back.
Unlike the prices in American museums, the five course meal we enjoyed cost less than seven East German marks per person. If I remember the exchange rate correctly, at the time 25 Deutschmarks was worth about 10 dollars, and 25 East German marks, while technically worthless, were estimated at about 1/10 of that. We ate filet mignon, a salad, dessert, bread, soup and enjoyed a bottle of champagne for about 75 cents a head.
I wondered why the staff was so happy, then quickly reminded myself that they probably weren’t. Who could be, in such an environment? Feeding rich Westerners who are only passing through, then going home to stand in line for three hours to buy a sack of potatoes. Of course, they were supposed to act happy. I imagined “party members” secreting themselves at neighboring tables to ensure they remained so.
There was clearly a part of town we weren’t intended to see. I wondered what it was like.
I chipped in my fair share for the meal, which left me most of my 25 useless marks. I wondered how I would spend it, since it was no good anywhere else.
After the meal, we wandered the barren city again. Gray federal building after building. Where did people live? Probably not within walking distance. I saw no signs of public transportation, and I was sure only upper echelon Communists were allowed vehicles.
That’s when it struck me: no churches.
I’m not sure I would have noticed, had I not just toured West Germany, where it seemed even the smallest village was built around a beautiful monument to God. Complex in design, gigantic in proportions, and rife with detail. In East Berlin? Nothing. They may have existed, somewhere, but I remembered there was no freedom of religion behind the Iron Curtain. Christianity was outlawed.
Finally, we came across something photograph worthy: a monument built to the fight against fascism, with an eternal flame guarded by … more soldiers with machine guns.
I stopped to take a picture, and the soldiers marched on me. I was freaked! I thought maybe I’d broken some sort of rule. While they surrounded me, I realized they weren’t actually coming for me; they were following a formation. It was the changing of the guard. I managed to extricate myself from the dreary, hopeless looking young men and rejoin my host family, the picture completely forgotten.
After what seemed like eternity, but was in reality not much longer than six hours, I and my host family had had enough of Communist run society, or the lack thereof, and decided to head back to freedom. I still had all this money in my pocket. What to do with it?
That question was answered on the way back to the crossing. Tucked away, almost out of sight, a bookstore was open. There was a sign outside that read “you must carry a basket to enter the store.” There were three baskets, the kind one might find at a supermarket. The store only allowed three customers at a time, to prevent crime. I wondered if this decision was up to the proprietor or mandated by law. Then I corrected myself. In a Communist country, nothing is really privately owned.
I took my basket and went inside, where a grumpy looking woman eyed me suspiciously from behind a counter. I cruised the bookshelves. Almost everything was government propaganda. The books were printed on newsprint quality paper and cheaply bound. I was sure they would fall apart on the first or second reading, but I bought a couple anyways: a copy of Lenin’s “Was Tun?” (What to Do?) and a book containing the Civil Laws of the German Democratic Republic.
I’m sure both titles put me on a list. Probably on several lists. It’s not that I was interested in Communism; I’d seen enough of that to last me a lifetime, just in one day. I was interested in how the purveyors and founders of such explained themselves. However, weeks later when I opened the books to read them, I found them both unintelligible and dry.
After my purchases, I was still left with around 10 marks. I still have them somewhere, in a jar packed away in storage, along with some coins from other countries I’ve collected over the years.
Finally, happily, we crossed back through the border and into the West. We were greeted by the happy chatter of freely living people, unafraid of their government, and unafraid of their neighbor. Once again, there was color in dress and joy in expression. Once again, I felt like I could breathe.
I was raised to believe Communism was bad. But, like many young, thoughtless teenagers of the 80’s, I ran to the Army Surplus store to buy t-shirts with CCCP written across the front, thinking more about fashion than function.
That’s all it took for me, though. One day. One day without even interacting with the government of a Communist country at all. Its influences were everywhere. In the lack of freedom and prosperity. The obvious failure of the economy. The non-interaction of the people, who have no right to peaceably assemble, or practice a religion of their choice.
And yet people endured it for decades. For lifetimes.
You want to know what I see in this country? I see a slow erosion of freedoms. I see separation of church and state carried out to such a startling degree that the open recognition of faith is almost gone from our society. I see a government that is beginning to intrude into our educational system in a way they haven’t done before. I see a takeover of our free press starting to happen.
It starts slowly, incrementally. Then it gains speed and momentum. After a while, the balance of power between individuals and government reaches a tipping point and the scale is weighed heavily on the side of “the people,” which means it’s the people who suffer.
Once that point is reached, things happen quickly. The Berlin Wall or, as the Communists called it, the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall (Anti-fascist Wall of Protection), went up in a day.
Oh, sure, it took a while to complete. But the wall wasn’t there one day, and was total, inescapable reality the next. For millions of people and for tens of years.
This is what happens when people give their freedoms to the government in exchange for so-called equality and protection. The government takes them happily.
I don’t ever want to see my country reach that horrible, inexorable tipping point. Ever. And yet, our government is now heavily invested in socialist principles fueled and funded by unionists, special interests and outright Marxists who do.
You know what it will take to change that? To get our country back?
November 2, 2010.
That’s when we can begin to turn our country back in the right direction.
But, if you don’t vote, that day might as well never come. Exercise your right to vote, lest the government take that from you, too.
Never again the Berlin Wall.