WITH MOST OF BERLIN asleep, it was the round-the-clock workers, the professional night owls, who first realised that the East-West border was being closed: transport workers, police officers, journalists.
Robert H. Lochner was probably the first American to know.
Born in New York in 1918, at five years old Lochner moved with his family to Berlin, where his journalist father was for many years correspondent for Associated Press. Lochner was educated there, and spoke German like a native by the time the family returned to the US in 1936. After wartime military service (which included interrogating Nazi war criminals), he went into radio. Having worked for many years in Washington for Voice of America, by March 1961 he was back in Berlin as newly appointed director of the US-sponsored German-language station, Radio in the American Sector (RIAS), a post that lay in the State Department’s gift.
At one minute past midnight on Sunday 13 August 1961, Lochner was woken by a call from his station’s monitoring section. East Berlin had announced that traffic from East to West Berlin would be halted until further notice.
This was ‘the big one’. Lochner and the senior members of his broadcasting team gathered quickly at RIAS headquarters on the Hans-Rosenthal-Platz in West Berlin, not far from Schöneberg Town Hall. They turned the station over to solemn music and a fifteen-minute cycle of news bulletins. RIAS possessed the most powerful transmitter in Europe; everyone was aware that whatever it announced could be heard in almost every corner of the GDR. All the more reason to ensure that their information was accurate and first-hand.
Twice during the small hours Lochner drove alone over to East Berlin. The Vopos might have blocked the border for East Germans, and West Berliners also had been forbidden access (allegedly temporarily), but as an American citizen with a diplomatic passport the RIAS director could travel without hindrance. He wore a coat to conceal the portable tape recorder he carried on his lap. As he drove, he murmured his thoughts into its microphone. In consequence, the first direct, on-the-spot radio reports of barbed wire being laid across Berlin’s streets came from Robert Lochner.
A third trip, after dawn, took him to the Friedrichstrasse station, normally the last stop on both the main railway and S-Bahn lines before they trundled over the river Spree and into the West. A few hours earlier, the East German transport police had suddenly closed the ticket halls and barred all access to trains scheduled for the West.
In the tunnels and halls below the embarkation area, Lochner found hundreds of East Germans milling around in bewilderment and growing desperation. As yet unaware of the border closure, they still hoped to catch trains for the West. Most would-be refugees carried suitcases or, in a pathetic attempt to disguise their intentions, parcels and boxes tied up with string. Access to the trains was blocked by lines of black-clad transport police (Trapos), who stood shoulder-to-shoulder blocking the ‘up’ steps to the platforms, semi-automatic weapons slung ready for use. Lochner found himself irresistibly reminded, by their uniforms and their arrogance, of Hitler’s SS, whose unattractive qualities he knew well from pre-war days.
As Lochner stood by, watching the miserable scene, he saw an elderly lady gather up her courage and slowly climb the steps until she reached the line of Trapos.
‘When,’ she asked nervously, ‘is the next train to West Berlin?’
The sneer with which the young representative of the regime greeted her request would stay burned in Lochner’s memory.
‘None of that any more, grandma,’ he told her. ‘You’re all sat in a mousetrap now.’1
By the time dawn broke at around five o’clock on the morning of 13 August 1961, the East German construction brigades and their armed escorts were already at work.
They had achieved complete surprise, and consequently a trouble-free start to their task. Comrade Erich Honecker’s triumph in ‘Operation Rose’ was clear for all to see. To those who were awake, that is. Götz Bergander was then thirty-three years old, a political journalist with another West Berlin broadcasting station, Radio Free Berlin (Sender Freies Berlin = SFB). Between two and three a.m., he was wrenched from his slumber by the ringing of his bedside phone. He picked it up, recognised the voice of his night news editor.
‘Götz,’ the man growled, ‘they’re sealing the border. Get yourself over here.’2
Bergander eased his lanky frame out of bed and hastily dressed. Within minutes he was at the wheel of his pale-blue Volkswagen Beetle, nosing through the streets of suburban Zehlendorf. He arrived at the Avus highway, and from there sped north-eastwards towards the heart of Berlin. At this early hour, it was all but empty. The almost dead-straight high-speed route had been built in the early 1920s, to connect the suburbs directly with the city. It was also used for car races. Bergander made it to the SFB building in Charlottenburg in fifteen minutes, an all-time record. Other bleary-eyed colleagues were gathering in the boss’s office. No one could say for certain what was really going on. They decided there was only one thing to do: each reporter would choose an area to scout, and so they would build up a picture.
Bergander hurried back to his car and drove over to the Invalidenstrasse, a frequently used East-West crossing point on the northern edge of the British sector. He arrived there as the sun rose, expecting to find a scene of drama. He was disappointed.
‘It was a glorious Sunday morning, the birds were singing. So, anything but an atmosphere of crisis in the air. No cars around, no one about.’
By the time he had parked, he could see a few journalists hanging around, and some West Berlin policemen. He asked what was going on. A cop shrugged. ‘They’re not letting anyone over the border.’
On the far side, besides the familiar green uniforms of the Vopos, there were also members of the Factory Fighting Groups, dressed in their drab khaki paramilitary fatigues and distinctive peaked baseball-type caps.
Bergander waited there for a while, but nothing much seemed to be happening. He got back in his car and headed for the famous Brandenburg Gate, a few blocks distant in the British sector. There he found a lot more to see. More Factory Fighting Group members on the Eastern side, this time drawn up in large numbers and in military formation, automatic weapons slung across their bellies. A human barrier. Behind them were no armoured vehicles but a handful of water cannon. One thing, however, was the same. The eerie silence.
‘Nothing was actually happening yet, at that early hour. It was like the quiet before the artillery barrage. You know, when you feel, “Any moment now it’ll start”.’
Bergander again found a cop and asked what was happening. All the policemen knew was that the border was closed. No one going in, no one coming out.
Such things had happened before. Temporary closures of parts of the border, usually for spot checks on border-crossers and possible refugees. But this was bigger. Bergander asked the cop where the British army was. The man didn’t know. By contrast with the heavily armed East Germans, the scattering of Western policemen carried only service pistols. They were outnumbered and outgunned.
A half-hour passed. An hour. After a while, trucks arrived on the Eastern side. Slowly, barbed wire was rolled out across the area in front of the Brandenburg Gate.
‘I must say,’ Bergander recalled, ‘that I have seldom felt so abandoned as at that moment. I thought, the Western Allies have to show themselves here. If only as a presence. A psychological measure.’
He rang his girlfriend (later wife), Regine, who lived with her parents in Steglitz, in the American sector. She quickly dressed and joined him. Of Western forces there was still no sign. They watched the East Germans’ purposeful, disciplined activity for a while. A silent, gloomy crowd of local civilians gathered.
Two hours after Bergander’s arrival, the representatives of British military might finally showed themselves. A jeep appeared. From it clambered two uniformed men wearing the distinctive red caps of the British Military Police. The Brits stood at a safe distance from the sector border, gazing impassively at the activity on the Soviet-East German side. After a while they turned smartly on their heels, got back into their vehicle and drove off again.
That was the last Bergander saw of the British that morning. He had not expected a fully armed battle group, but the minimal nature of the response shocked him.
‘If only they had stayed there, you know? Maybe a jeep with four men. For everyone to see. That would show they cared. As it stood, the message was absolutely clear right from the outset: “Not our business”,’ Bergander recalled with a rueful laugh, repeating the last three words in English. ‘Not our business.’
Bergander drove back to the radio station and compared notes with the other journalists. They filed their reports, trying not to sound as pessimistic as they felt.
To a man, they all believed that the Americans especially would have been in a position, with their powerful tanks and their armoured bulldozers, to simply roll forward and sweep the temporary barriers out of the way. Would the Vopos and lightly armed worker-militia members have been able to resist the power of an American armoured unit? Perhaps once Washington understood what was going on, the necessary orders would be given.
Another Berlin journalist, Lothar Löwe, had been posted to Washington as correspondent of the West German Public Broadcasting Service (ARD). The young high-flyer had settled eagerly into the glamorous social life of Kennedy-era Washington, but naturally kept closely in touch with colleagues, friends and family back in West Berlin. He had been attending a starry dinner party in Georgetown that Saturday evening. Those present included a number of young women who were reputedly, shall we say, on friendly terms with the President.
Towards midnight Eastern Standard Time (six a.m. in Berlin), the famous columnist Joseph Alsop dropped by. The young German reporter was introduced to the great man.
‘Where are you from?’ Alsop asked.
‘My God! What are you doing in Washington? Berlin is exactly where you should be.’
‘They’ve just sealed off the Brandenburg Gate. They’ve got guards there. Looks like the East Germans are closing the border.’3
Löwe got home to his apartment in Arlington in time to catch an NBC radio news bulletin. The first live transatlantic television pictures would not be beamed across the Atlantic for another year, after AT&T’s ‘Telstar’ communications satellite was launched on 10 July 1962. In the meantime cinefilm or magnetic tape still had to be couriered by air to the US in order to be shown on American TV. The nature of the events in Berlin was thus not entirely clear, but Löwe knew better than most what all this meant. He was genuinely surprised. He had always thought that, if the East took action, it would be to close the border between East Berlin and the GDR rather than between East and West Berlin. The Russians, he believed, had too much to lose from such a drastic step as dividing a city.
Anyway, knowing that it was early morning in Germany, Löwe made some transatlantic calls. First he called his mother in Berlin and assured her that he was certain the Allies would not let the Communists take over. Then to business. He dialled the number of Al Hemsing, press officer for the American military government in West Berlin, whom he knew well from his days as a newspaper reporter. Hemsing was already in his office. He had just received a summary of overnight reports from the German police, and he willingly gave Löwe a thorough ‘rundown of the border situation’, from Spandau in the north to Rüdow in the south.
Löwe took notes as the American spoke. The German reporter had lived in Berlin almost all his life, and had the local’s advantage of being able to picture what was happening where it was happening, and what this meant. This operation, he knew immediately, was a huge event, not just a temporary border closure but something of world importance. After speaking with Hemsing, he double-checked everything with an old friend from West Berlin police headquarters, who confirmed Hemsing’s impressions.
Finally Löwe called the State Department analyst Martha Mautner. She was a respected expert on Central and Eastern Europe, and her husband, Austrian-born Karl Mautner, advised the Berlin Task Force. Surely the Mautners would know something. To his surprise, he found that his call woke Martha up. Literally and metaphorically, Washington was still half asleep.
She reacted with genuine astonishment to the news. Martha too had expected action from the East, but the kind of action that did not threaten the Allied position in Berlin and thus risk war. In any case, how could one divide a modern city and all its complex, delicate systems without destroying the basis of civilised life? She told Löwe that she and Karl were going into the office, and he should join her there.
Half an hour later, Löwe drove through the gates of the State Department. In 1961 a simple press pass was enough to enter the inner sanctum of American foreign policy. He made his way up to the Berlin Crisis Desk on the fifteenth floor and found himself alone with the night security man. A short while later, Mautner appeared. Soon other members of the Task Force began to trickle in. Löwe quickly realised that he knew more about what was happening in Berlin than did the highest representatives of the most powerful nation on earth.
This was not a good sign.
Even Mayor Willy Brandt was caught away from his post.
On the evening of Saturday 12 August, Brandt gave an election campaign speech in Nuremberg. In it he changed his usual script and specifically mentioned the ever-growing East German refugee problem. That day, aides told him the flood of emigrants from the East was reaching a new intensity. For the first time the number arriving in West Berlin in the past twenty-four hours had exceeded 2,500. If this rate continued, the population of Ulbricht’s proletarian paradise could be expected to diminish at the rate of about a million a year. It was clear something had to give—and even clearer, for those knowledgeable about who held power in the GDR, that the ‘something’ was unlikely to be Walter Ulbricht. But what would the East German dictator do next?
Brandt was running as candidate for the West German chancellorship against the veteran Konrad Adenauer, almost forty years his senior. The theme of the Berlin Mayor’s campaign was in many ways that of energetic, Kennedyesque youth (he was forty-eight) against tired age. But that night the challenger decided it was time to move his campaign on to a larger stage, literally and metaphorically. These refugees, he told his audience, were fleeing East Germany for a good reason.
They are afraid that the mesh of the iron curtain will be cemented closed. Because they fear being shut into an enormous prison. Because they have a burning anxiety that they could be forgotten, written off, sacrificed on the altar of indifference and missed opportunities…4
The West Berlin Mayor all but accused both the West German government and the Western Allies of dragging their feet on the questions of German unity and the status of Berlin, thus encouraging Khrushchev and Ulbricht’s aggression. It was a spine-tingling speech, thick with emotion and somehow lent extra weight by the hoarseness of his delivery. A heavy smoker, Brandt was half-way through a demanding campaign, and it was starting to show. But the effect that night was to enhance rather than diminish the effect of his oration.
It was as if he had foreknowledge of the catastrophe to come. Late that night, Brandt boarded a sleeper train for Kiel, far up by the Danish border, where he was due to speak the next night. Time to snatch some sleep. But at five a.m., as the train rolled northward, the candidate was woken by determined knocking on the door of his wagon-lit compartment. It was the conductor. He bore an urgent message from Brandt’s chief of staff, Heinrich Albertz, in Berlin. The East was closing the border. The governing Mayor must disembark as soon as possible and return to his city.
Brandt got out at Hanover. A car whisked him to the airport. From there his aircraft made the short hop to Berlin, around 170 miles to the east.
Angry crowds of West Berliners were already on the streets, demanding action, but still there was no word from the Western commandants. Brandt arrived in his office at breakfast time. He toyed with the wild idea of putting himself at the head of his people and calling for the East to rise up, then thought better of it.5 He had to exercise his powers of persuasion, to substitute the strength of his own conviction for the firmness he suspected the Allies could not or would not supply. These native emotional and intellectual weapons were all he had, and therefore all the true defence that West Berliners possessed.
Willy Brandt’s great testing-time had begun.
In fact, one of the Americans’ lingering expectations had been precisely that the East would rise up. For a while, some in the administration even half-welcomed the idea.
Now, it was not a hope but a nightmare scenario for the West. The developing situation on 13 August had the potential to turn very dangerous. The East had now gone on the offensive within Berlin, challenging four-power rule. If the blowback consequences of this brought about unrest in the GDR, the Allies would be faced with a new 17 June 1953, this time in the middle of a huge diplomatic and military crisis where anything could happen, up to and including nuclear confrontation. Moreover, what if the hotheads among the West Berliners, especially the young men in their jeans and DA haircuts who were already assembling at the main potential flashpoints along the East-West sector border, including the Brandenburg Gate, were to ‘rush’ the half-built East German border barriers? America’s priority was not to stir anything at all. Calm things down, rather.
Alan Lightner’s initial telegrams to Washington were cool and objective. Relying on reports from an officer of the US Military Mission, who had crossed over into the East during the night, Lightner was able to assure the State Department that the situation there was fairly calm. This was in large measure due to massive numbers of police and soldiers being shipped into the border area by the Communists.
Between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m., security control activity throughout East Berlin was rapidly accelerated. Security units appearing on streets at this time included customs police performing normal police duty, Vopos, Bereitschaft Polizei, Kampfgruppen units and East German Army Units. Kampfgruppen units entered almost all buildings on streets adjacent to East/West Berlin sector lines and inspected stairwells, upper floors, and roofs. Vopos took up assigned beats of streets, assisted by customs police. Security alert police opened schools, other public buildings and factories to house large numbers of police arriving in motorized columns. Major unit consisting of approximately 80 truckloads police, accompanied by armoured cars, machine gun carriers and other vehicles, arrived at large industrial site near Rummelsburg S-Bahn station.6
In the same cable, Lightner noted that the Soviets, though holding back their military hardware from the city itself, were monitoring events closely. Many Soviet military-licensed cars, he said, had been noticed making observation tours of East Berlin, These indications of Soviet restraint were a positive sign. Lightner judged that the East Germans’ coup d’état against their own people had been carried out cleverly and might well avoid the kind of extreme reactions feared in Washington:
Most noteworthy feature is that almost all security control measures were completed before most East Berliners were awake from Sunday sleep, Although crowds began to gather at approximately 8:30 a.m. on streets leading to crossing points, most people kept considerable distance from police and appeared to be resigned to passive observation of events…7
No one wanted to risk war. The question was, how to stop things from boiling over without seeming to condone the East German actions? How to continue to oppose the East German regime without destabilising it—with unforeseeable consequences? And finally, how to make a credible protest without driving the Communists into even more extreme measures?
The Allied military commanders finally met at the Kommandatura building on the leafy Kaiserswerther Strasse in Dahlem, in the American sector. They had still not decided how to deal with the situation on the border when Brandt arrived.
This was the first time the West Berlin mayor had ever entered the Kommandatura building, He routinely met the Allied sector commanders at his offices in Schöneberg Town Hall or at official receptions and social events. Brandt was kept waiting for half an hour, and on being admitted to the mahogany-panelled conference room, was shocked to see that a portrait still hung there of General Kotikov, Soviet commandant at the time of the Berlin Blockade and the last Russian representative to attend theKommandatura. An empty chair at the table indicated that the Soviets could rejoin the body at any time, should they so choose, Berlin was, after all, still technically under the same four-power occupation established at the Potsdam Conference in 1945, and the Western Allies wanted everyone to know it.
This was a pointed indication that the Allied commanders, while sympathetic to the Berliners’ plight, did not necessarily share their perspectives and loyalities. Brandt had been perturbed to see no increased Allied military presence on the streets on his drive from the airport. Once he had their attention, he addressed the commanders and their civilian advisers not in his usual quiet, wry manner, but with a naked passion born of desperation.
Brandt was quite frank. The East German National People’s Army had marched into East Berlin like a conquering power, he said. He compared this annexation of the other half of his city to Hitler’s occupation of the Rhineland in 1936. If, he argued, they accepted this fait accompli, then they would be guilty of appeasement, as Britain and France had been a quarter of a century earlier. Moreover, at the same time as he had closed the border, the GDR’s Minister of the Interior, Karl Maron, had also confined Allied military and government personnel visiting East Berlin to three crossing points. Were the Allies going to tolerate this?
Under the 1945 Potsdam Agreement, Allied access to the East was supposedly an untrammelled right. For the past sixteen years, servicemen and officials from Britain, France, and America had simply walked the streets anywhere in Berlin, crossing from sector to sector, West to East and back, as and when they wished. Now, Brandt reminded them, they were to be forced to obey orders from a puppet East German administration whose legitimacy they did not recognise. Like foreign tourists and German civilians, their troops would face border checks by East German officials. The West would risk humiliation before the watching world.
When Brandt emerged grim-faced from his encounter with the Allied representatives, his aides asked him nervously how the meeting had gone.
‘At least those shits are now going to send some patrols to the border,’ their boss growled. ‘So the Berliners won’t think they’re all alone.’8
The Politburo’s decision to mount the operation during Saturday night/ Sunday morning, at the height of the summer vacation period, had been triumphantly vindicated. The East German people woke up, for the most part, to a fait accompli.
However, by mid-morning the West Berlin side of the sector border had filled up with angry crowds, especially at the Brandenburg Gate. The deceptive peace of dawn, when Götz Bergander had first arrived, was a thing of the past. At the front of the throng were young Westerners. Many of them had ridden into the centre on their light motorbikes.
‘There were ten or fifteen of us, all friends from the same neighbourhood in Charlottenburg,’ recalled Wolfgang Baldin, then a nineteen-year-old bakery worker. ‘With our Mambo portable radios and our motorbikes. We’d heard about it on the radio news. We got together and just headed straight for the Brandenburg Gate.’
When Wolfgang and his friends arrived, the limited space on the Western side of the gate was packed. There were many West Berlin police, keeping their own people back from the actual border, on the other side of which the Factory Fighting Groups and theVopos were guarding the construction work. East German armoured cars had arrived. They were visible behind the troops and the workers, blocking the way into the Pariser Platz and the boulevard of Unter den Linden beyond.
Frustrated at their inability to get close to the action, the boys ducked around the corner, where the Ebertstrasse ran south along the sector border several hundred metres down to the Potsdamer Platz. Barbed wire had already been laid here, several densely spiralled layers thick. It looked formidable, but there were spots where it could be pulled aside by groups of determined Westerners, and where East Berliners waiting on the other side could dart through the gaps. Several escaped. The boys gave a hand. But then more Eastern armoured cars appeared, and more labour teams laid more barbed wire.
The boys moved southwards, with the open spaces of the Tiergarten—the West—on their right, and the barbed wire of the newly imprisoned East to their left. Towards the Potsdamer Platz, instead of wire there stood lines of East German troops with fixed bayonets. Some shouting and abuse went on, but faced with armed guards there was little the Westerners could do. Their own police tried to move them back from the border, but initially had little success.
Soon the protesters had spotted new quarry over on the other side.
We saw some types over the on the Eastern side, inspecting things. They must have been from the SED. You know, they had their party badges on. Well, we started to chuck stones at them. Quite a hail of them9
To the resentment and disappointment of the demonstrators, reinforcements of West Berlin police appeared and forced them further back into the Tiergarten, away from the sector border. The message was: no provocations.
Over in East Berlin, as Lightner noted in a later cable to Washington, ‘crowds of curious and sullen onlookers’ had gathered. A few risked rushing the nascent barrier, like the escapers in the Ebertstrasse, but the vast majority held back from the border. The now-trapped East Berliners were, however, often close enough to gesture towards the West, or to gaze over at the scenes on the Western side and harbour whatever thoughts they might behind their practised mask of impassivity.
It was not just soldiers, police and construction workers who were busy behind the new border. The East German government sent groups of professional party agitators among the crowds, and to East Berlin’s S-Bahn and U-Bahn stations. Their job was to ‘work’ gatherings of civilians, promoting the official view of the ‘protective barrier’. As early as 5.30 a.m., individual teams were busy at nearly thirty locations, with reinforcements planned for large S-Bahn stations such as Alexanderplatz, Ostbahnhof and, of course, Friedrichstrasse.10
In a bizarrely human touch, the internal SED report was also forced to note that even in a well-ordered, disciplined Communist state there were, in fact, drawbacks to staging such a major operation under conditions of high secrecy and on a Saturday night:
Most leading functionaries of the Berlin Transport Company (BVG) were attending a parry, which meant that the necessary measures were delayed. The Director of the BVG, Comrade Paschau, declared, ‘Well, you have picked a very unfavourable time.’ Despite repeated demands, the active service units of the Transport Police did not arrive until close co six a.m.
Nor were all the East Berliners as reticent as Lightner reported from his vantage point on the Western side. The regime’s agents were everywhere, keeping an eye on the situation at street level and observing large groups of East German citizens that might be accumulating at potential flashpoints. The agents’ reports to party headquarters were not entirely encouraging.
Just as Western youths like Wolfgang Baldin and his friends reacted passionately to the outrage, in the East it was also the young who threatened trouble. As the day wore on, gatherings of young people caused real concern to the Communist authorities. Some confined themselves to complaining about how the closing of the border would affect their shopping and movie-going habits. Others presented a greater challenge. A hundred-strong crowd assembled in front of SED district headquarters for Berlin-Mitte, close to the Brandenburg Gate. The party’s agents reported ‘provocative speeches’. Members of the district leadership appeared and engaged the young people in discussion. After a while the crowd dispersed.
However, the trouble had merely moved on. At the corner of Friedrichstrasse and Unter den Linden, a couple of blocks away, larger crowds soon assembled. The participants’ statements, reported to the party that same day, ran along the lines of ‘Over there in West Berlin they do things right. Why do we have tanks on the streets?’ and ‘Arm yourselves! The West Berliners are freer than we are. At least now you can see who’s responsible for the tension in this city!’
Worryingly from the point of view of the authorities, there was also talk of a mass attempt at a breakthrough into the West, maybe the next day.11
There was constant, hour-by-hour feedback to the Central Committee on the public mood in the Ease The party’s spies throughout East Berlin reported that the banning of ‘border-crossers’ was on the whole popular—they were perceived as gaining an unfair advantage by working in the West for hard currency and then buying cheap in the soft-currency East, where they continued to live. All the same, the average citizen was well aware what the closing of the border meant for their own personal freedom, and didn’t like it.’12 The chief problem, the same report added, was that young people especially were inclined to listen to, and trust, Western radio and television broadcasts.
The influence of ‘West-TV’ was to be a constant problem. As the saying went, many Easterners ‘spent their days in the East and their nights in the West’. With the exception of the area around Dresden, where the topography of the Elbe valley made it impossible to receive Western broadcasts (for which reason Dresden was known mockingly in the rest of the GDR as Tal der Ahnunglosen or ‘Valley of the Clueless’), any East German could tune his TV or radio to the West.
Listening to Western radio was certainly the order of the day. Even in the country cottage of a certain ultra-loyal East German comrade, on the rural far-eastern edge of Berlin, nestled within a remote arm of the Müggelsee lake.
This person, an actor of leftist convictions, had moved from West to East in I949 in order to ‘help, as a cultural worker, with the construction of Socialism in the GDR’. Since then, he had laboured with success in the East Berlin theatre, as well as in the state-owned DEFA film studios in Potsdam-Babelsberg that had once been the famous UFA dream factory. In its I920S heyday, classics such as The Blue Angel, Nosferatu and Metropolis had been filmed at Babelsberg, and in the I93Os, under the rutelage of Propaganda Minister Goebbels, such notorious films as Jew Süss and the pro-euthanasia Ich Klage An (‘I Accuse’).
The actor’s problem was that this weekend, he had invited his teenage nephew, Till Meyer, to stay. Till’s war-widowed mother, with whom the boy lived the rest of the time, was still resident in West Berlin.13
Breakfast time found Till’s Communist uncle more subdued than usual. ‘Is there going to be a war?’ Till asked. The older man had no clear answer. Both of them were wondering how young Till was going to get back to his mother.
The uncle switched frantically between RIAS and East German radio, trying to make sense of what had happened at the sector border during the night. The Politburo and its servants rarely, in their public pronouncements, referred to a ‘wall’ or anything similar. The preferred euphemism was the bland phrase ‘Measures for carrying out the decision of the council of ministers of 12.8.1961’. It made interpreting what was actually going on a little hard.
‘Yes, it’s certainly a serious situation,’ he announced, finally hitting on an appropriately grave tone. ‘Obviously, our state is no longer prepared to allow the West to keep plundering the GDR.’
He had now figured our the political aspect to his own satisfaction. But what to do? He told his nephew to pack his things. In the meantime, he would call his party friends in Berlin to see how things really stood.
To ring Berlin entailed an hour’s trek to the nearest phone and back. While his uncle was away, Till packed his red-checked duffle bag, then sat down and listened to the radio. There were crowds assembling on the Potsdamer Platz and in front of the Brandenburg Gate, tanks in the back streets, and barriers being erected on the rail tracks in the north of Berlin. Waiting anxiously for his uncle’s return, Till stepped outside into the lakeside greenery, but heard only the distant quack of ducks, the wind in the trees, the twitter of the birds. The dramatic scenario outlined on the radio seemed to belong in another world.
Around one that afternoon his uncle reappeared, looking far from happy. He had no idea, he said, what was going to happen next. The best thing would be if Till got going as soon as possible and just went back home as he had come—by a combination of ferry, bus and S-Bahn. And no dilly-dallying.
So the teenager began his journey back (he hoped) to the West. The route was quite lengthy. Over on the ferry to the far shore, then a fifteen-minute walk, carrying his stuff, to the bus station in Ransdorf; followed by twenty minutes on a bus to the S-Bahn station. Already, on the platform of this usually quiet suburban stop, Till noticed a lot of people waiting apprehensively for the westbound train. Many, like him, were Westerners, caught here while on weekend visits to families or friends.
Once the train arrived, it was eighteen stops on the east-west line to the Ostkreuz junction. Here Till changed on to a line that usually took him straight over the border into West Berlin. There were many worried, bad-tempered people on this train; a grumpy old man, a blonde woman with children who kept bursting into tears and wondering if the kids would ever see their grandparents again.
At Treptower Park, last stop before West Berlin, instead of a loudspeaker warning the passengers: ‘Achtung! You are now leaving the Democratic Sector of Berlin!’, the train stopped with a peculiarly final clunk. Then came an announcement that no one had heard before: ‘End of the Line! End of the Line! The train ends here!’
The passengers emerged warily on to the platform. Black-uniformed Trapos bawled at the Easterners to go about their business, the Westerners to proceed to the crossing point at Harzer Strasse, where if their papers were in order they would be permitted to enter West Berlin. Everyone stumbled in that direction with their luggage, as instructed. The old man from the train, obviously a Westerner, was among those who made their way, sweating in the August heat, several blocks to the designated crossing point. As they came within sight of the new barbedwire barrier, the old man extracted from his bag a couple of East German sausages, which he tossed furtively into the front garden of a nearby apartment block.
‘Don’t want to give them an excuse to arrest me for smuggling,’ he muttered.
Crowds of East Berliners milled at a safe distance from the armed border guards and the barbed wire, discussing the situation. The Westerners kept their heads down. They could see people leaning out of the windows of apartment blocks in the East, some out on their balconies, many calling over to the Western side—just a couple of hundred yards away—or waving handkerchiefs.
Approaching the crossing point, Till spotted tanks of the East German People’s Army parked discreetly to the left and right of the border approaches, their turret guns pointed westwards. In the actual area of the border stood heavily armed men in steel helmets, who looked as if they meant business. Construction workers were already busy at the sector border, drilling holes for concrete posts to be inserted into the cobbled street.
On arrival at the barbed wire, the Westerners showed their identity cards to the armed border police. It was a tense moment. The young guards were just as nervous as they were. However, once their ID was accepted the crude barrier was eased apart and they were let through into West Berlin.
It still felt somewhat primitive, the whole new control arrangement. A clumsy, uncertain beginning to something that would one day be far more malevolently sophisticated and permanent. What they were creating here would become a symbol for the world of division and cruelty, but not yet.
On the Western side, in the Harzer Strasse, groups of youths had gathered. They worked off their frustration by bawling insults at the Eastern guards, and chanting slogans: ‘Down with the pointy beard! Ulbricht, Murderer! Budapest! Budapest! Budapest!’
Eastern guards and Western demonstrators were roughly the same age.
Till did not turn around. He kept walking until he got to the next S-Bahn station in the West Berlin borough of Kreuzberg. From there he took a train to Friedenau, where his mother was waiting anxiously for him.
Also on the green edge of East Berlin, a young man a couple of years Till’s senior was likewise holed up in a country cottage. Unlike Till, he was an East Berliner, though one of a rather complicated sort. And also unlike Till, he was in the full glorious flower of his first grown-up love affair.
Klaus Schulz-Ladegast was nineteen years old and thinking about his future: that is, his planned studies, which he hoped to commence this coming winter, and besides that the life he had in mind with his new girlfriend, with whom he was spending the weekendÀ deux. They too had listened to the radio and realised something big was happening. But, being in love and feeling that nothing could hurt them, they joked about it. Oh no, he said. I won’t be able to get the Roth-Händle (strong West German cigarettes) that I like to smoke. Even worse, she countered, this is the end of my supply of decent stockings from West Berlin.
Klaus’s background was unusual. His father, a former army officer, was also a leading lay official in the Lutheran Church in East Germany—just about to take up an important post as vice-chair of the Church Community in Brandenburg. Klaus himself, though brought up in East Berlin, had attended high school in West Berlin until he passed his leaving examination a few months previously. Then he had come back. It had been tempting to stay in the West, but at this point he didn’t want to. West Berlin to him was bourgeois. The East was the old heart of Berlin. The best theatres and pubs were there. Klaus liked the Bohemian life, and East Berlin at the turn of the 1960s seemed much more interesting, full of rebels and writers, actors and artists, exotic foreign students from the Third World studying in the city with the help of generous scholarships provided by the Communist authorities. Many of his East German friends were privileged children of the GDR’s élite, including, for instance, Brigitte, the writer daughter of Interior Minister Karl Maron.
And after all, the way to the West was just a matter of crossing the street! One could live in the East and enjoy the best of both worlds. This young man was looking forward to studying and living a full, exciting metropolitan life.
Klaus didn’t know three things. First, that from now on, in the new closed-off East Germany, anyone who had chosen to study in the West would be suspect and thereby severely disadvantaged. Second, that the Stasi was already fully aware of the man whom Klaus had introduced to his father a few months before; the man from West German intelligence who was interested in having occasional talks with Herr Schulz-Ladegast senior about relations between the Lutheran Church and the Communist state.
Within a few days, Klaus Schulz-Ladegast would realise both these things.
The third realisation would take much, much longer to sink in: it was that thirty long years would pass before he set eyes again on the woman with whom he had spent that last, idyllic August weekend before the Wall went up.14