Remembering the Wall

In 1985, as a young 1st lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, I went on a "familiarization tour" of Berlin with my commanding officer and several of the members of our unit, an intelligence detachment assigned to a NATO wartime bunker in the Hunsrück region of what was then West Germany. Since Berlin was located in the center of Soviet-occupied East Germany, we took the duty train from Frankfurt to Berlin. The train traveled only at night, and stopped periodically at designated checkpoints so the Soviet troops who controlled the route could verify our papers. We were instructed to sleep during that time, and we were not to engage the Soviet troops or make eye contact with them, although I confess that some of us peeked under the closed blinds to gawk at them.

West Berlin was a sight to behold, and to this day, I don't think I've seen anything like it. If a single phrase could capture this vibrant, brightly lit and sleepless city, it would be "wretched excess." Everywhere you went, it seemed like there was an overabundance of everything. The butcher shops were overflowing with meat, and the clothing stores had every style you could imagine. I was a music aficionado at the time and loved listening to those newfangled compact discs, but the selection and quantity were limited where we were stationed. I walked into a record store in West Berlin that had walls of CDs, and I thought I was in audio heaven.

The trip wasn't just about touring and shopping, of course. We visited the local military and intelligence facilities, and I recall standing at the top of a hill at one of those facilities which overlooked East Germany. Our newly arrived commander, a quintessential Cold Warrior, posed on a low wall and looked out over the landscape, and lectured us about the nature of the enemy and how critical it was for us to be disciplined and vigilant in our intelligence operations support to U.S. and NATO combat forces in their defense against the Warsaw Pact, whose only purpose was to destroy the West and our way of life. Some of us listened in stunned silence; our previous commander, who departed not long after I first arrived at our duty station, had a professorial demeanor and almost never spoke of our mission in those terms. This was our first prolonged exposure to our new commander, and it was clear he was going to be a bird of a different feather.

During our tour of West Berlin, we stopped outside the Reichstag, the old German parliament building which had not been used since 1933. Our tour guide briefed us on the history of the building and, at one point, she said that, one day, the first legislative session of a unified Germany would be held there. I remember a feeling of sadness for this tour guide, because she seemed so hopeful of that possibility, and I was convinced, as were most of my colleagues at the time, that the only way the two Germanies would ever reunite was by force and, if it came to that, it would mean our Cold War had turned hot, and had become World War III.

We also took a day trip into East Berlin, and it was very structured and scripted from beginning to end, which is unsurprising given who we were and who our "hosts" were. We wore our uniforms so we were obvious to everyone in East Berlin, and we couldn't bring our families, some of whom had come along on the trip with us. Once we got past the checkpoints and into the city, our itinerary was specifically mapped out for us, and we were transported from one place to another by bus – there was no wandering off on our own or using local public transportation.

One amusing scene took place while we were in a restaurant eating lunch. The local residents walking by the plate glass windows seemed to be rubbernecking at us, and at my table in particular. A colleague explained that, because of the frequency of these tours, the locals were quite familiar with the U.S. military rank structure, and they thought it was novel to see a black man as an officer, since their propaganda taught them that blacks in America were systematically oppressed, and it puzzled them to see one in a position of authority. I suppose if they had been allowed to speak with me, they would have asked me how I could betray my race and allow myself to be used for propaganda purposes!

Another episode which stood out in my mind was the changing of the guard at the "Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism", an East German war memorial which was at one time believed to be the tomb of an unknown German soldier. The East German soldiers guarding the memorial were impeccably dressed and their goose-stepping march was precise and imposing. At the end of the ceremony, a female airman in our party exclaimed, "That was wonderful! Should we clap?" Our commander, glowering at the soldiers standing guard, replied, "I'd just as soon shoot the {expletives}," using a curse word that describes an illegitimate child. The look on the airman's face was priceless. As I indicated before, this was not going to be a kinder, gentler commander. I must say, however, that I enjoyed serving under him, and he helped to mold me into an exemplary officer and a man, and our unit into a true warfighting organization.

We went to a local department store, mostly to browse, and it was supposed to be one of the finest in the city. It seemed nice enough, but there was a pallor over the place, as if all the life had been drained out of it. I recall with amusement watching one young lady behind a merchandise counter, and her sole job was to take an item that someone wished to purchase, package it and bring the package to the cashier for it to be rung up. The Warsaw Pact nations often boasted of having "full employment" as a direct benefit of their system of government, but what they left out is that many of these jobs were menial, mundane and often made up. This young lady behind the counter wasn't essential to the process of purchasing an item; the customer could just as easily have carried the item directly to the cashier, and the cashier could just as easily have packaged the item for the customer. The illusion of full employment had to be preserved, however, and so this person was relegated to a soul-deadening job which may have paid her a small wage, but I'm sure extracted a greater personal price from her. I was reminded of Henry David Thoreau's quote, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." I thought to myself, that's what quiet desperation looks like.

My overall recollection of East Berlin, supposedly the crown jewel of the Warsaw Pact, was that it was gray and lifeless, a stark contrast to the bright lights, abundance and exuberance of its sister city on the other side of the Wall. We drove by a large modern apartment complex which was notable for the fact it had a visible crack running from the top to the bottom of the edifice, a "tribute" to their shoddy engineering. The Soviet War Memorial was an imposing place, very Russian in character – grand, immense and somber, as I guess any monument to the loss of tens of thousands of soldiers would be. In my mind, it was hard for me to separate the sacrifice these soldiers made in the Battle of Berlin, helping us to defeat the Nazis, from the nation that launched them into battle and, had they lived, would have deployed them against eastern Europe, subjugating them under the allegedly fraternal alliance called the Warsaw Pact.

The notion that the people of East Berlin, East Germany and any of the other Warsaw Pact nations lived willingly under Communist rule was impossible to reconcile with the presence of the Berlin Wall. We toured the Wall, of course, and it brought home to us why were in Germany in the first place. We visited Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous crossing point between the two cities, and we saw the memorials to the victims who died attempting to escape from the East to the West. The photographs of those who bled to death after being shot by the East German guards, out of the reach of those who wanted to help them but couldn't for fear of becoming targets themselves, were especially jarring. Some estimates suggest that about 200 people died trying to cross the Wall, which wasn't just a wall, but a series of guard towers and a "death strip", a sort of no-man's land that contained a variety of defenses against potential escapees. The East Germans and Soviets claimed the Wall was built to keep out the "fascists", but the 3.5 million who defected from East Germany to West Germany, many of them from East Berlin to West Berlin, prior to the construction of the Wall, and the 5,000 people who defected to West Berlin after the Wall was erected, tell the true story.

When we left Germany to return to the United States in the summer of 1989, there was a lot of stirring about the possibility of limited freedom for the Warsaw Pact nations due to the tentative steps toward reform taken by Mikhail Gorbachev, then the secretary-general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and the bold prediction of the time was that Hungary would become a neutral nation. Little did we know that Hungary would open its borders with Austria that September, and tens of thousands of East German tourists would stream across the border, setting off a chain reaction of events that would lead to mass protests by the East German people, the resignation of East Germany's leader and, 25 years ago this day, the fall of the Berlin Wall. In fact, it took several years after that to demolish the barrier, but it lost its power to hold people back on that day, and I remember watching the scenes on television, and how my heart soared for people I had witnessed only a few short years ago living lives of quiet desperation.

On October 3, 1990, the official ceremony reunifying East and West Germany was held at the Reichstag and, the following day, a symbolic session of the German parliament, the Bundestag, was held in the building, the first legislative session of a unified Germany.

I hope our tour guide was there to see it.

Berlin was officially designated as the capital of the reunified nation in 1991, and on April 19, 1999, the Bundestag officially convened at the Reichstag for the first time, and it is their meeting place to this day.

I am privileged to have seen Berlin and the Wall before The Fall, and to have lived long enough to see how the human desire for liberty was, in the end, too powerful for the Wall to stand.