This is for my nephew Frederick with whom I discuss 20th European history. Luckily, he wasn't around wanting to discuss history when I was a history major. I only developed a true interest when I started a project to read American history backward. I haven't gotten out of the 1930s yet, but I have expanded the geographical focus of my reading.
The memories I don't want to forget about my 1976 trip to Berlin might also be of interest to Frederick. Or not. Or you. Or not. But here they are.
I was traveling on a Eurail Pass around Europe in May 1976. Eurail would take me all over West Germany but as I recall it could not pass through East Germany to get to Berlin. I flew. Pan Am was my only choice but maybe because I flew Pan Am back and forth to Europe. At any rate, I was on a Pan Am jet - no idea what the models were in those days - when the pilot got on to say that he was sure we had noticed that we were flying very low (I think it might have been 10,000 feet) because the East German government would not allow flights at higher altitudes for fear of spying by the West.
We arrived at the Berlin airport without any issues. West Berlin did not feel much different than the West. I went to my Hilton (every so many days I gave up my attempt at my modified-backpacking lifestyle and moved into a first-class American hotel). The Berlin Hilton was on the Kurfurstendamm. I think it may be a Waldorf property now. It was close to the zoo. Mainly after spending nights either in cheap hotels or on the train, what I remember most is that it had room service and American Armed Forces TV. I consumed a lot of both although I do remember watching The Waltons in German. Probably the only time I ever watched The Waltons but I knew enough about the show to appreciate the closing when everyone said Gute Nacht.
In 1976, World War II had been over for thirty-one years. It ended before I was born. It seemed as if it was ancient history and yet, at the same time, as if it had happened yesterday. I couldn't help guessing the ages of the people I passed on the street to judge if they had lived through the war. Not just the war, the rise of Hitler, the end-of-the-war bombing, the occupation. I could not imagine having lived through such troubled times, yet I couldn't help wondering whose side they were on. I didn't experience these feelings as intently in other German cities as I did in Berlin. In Berlin, the war was still visible. Berliners were living in a divided city.
Absolutely random thought: I am shocked that I forget so much but recall a wall of Shirley MacClain posters. She was wearing something short and doing a high kick. Now ask me something important.
I did most of my sightseeing in West Berlin although I can't recall much of what I saw. The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church tower stands out as one of the visible artifacts of the war. I strolled the Ku'Damm as I learned to call it. I went to the zoo where I developed an affection for a gorilla who caught my eye and seemed to be saying to me: Do you believe this? I used to be the King of Jungle and now I am in this glass box so that people can come by and stare at me. What happened to me? I thought we had bonded although years later I learned that when a gorilla makes eye contact with you, it is a hostile gesture. Nonetheless, I developed a real fondness for all gorillas because of that one.
I spent a Sunday afternoon in the park with a lot of Berliners. I think it was the Tiergarten with a large fountain where fathers sailed boats with their kids. Never again did I walk through a park on a Sunday afternoon and not think about all the people doing exactly the same thing around the world. (Given time delays.)
What I remember most about West Berlin is my trip to the wall. I thought it was appropriate that the wall cut behind the Reichstag. I wished the Nazis could see what their activities led to for Germany.
I arrived at the wall very early. I was the only tourist on the path that ran beside it. It was a beautiful Sunday morning. I felt that I was being watched even before I saw a guard post on the East German side. Two soldiers kept their binoculars trained on me. I wasn't frightened. They were probably bored but they did have guns. Rifles that were clearly visible. I am not sure if I saw the monument to those who had died trying to cross, in 1976 or when I went back thirty years later. The guards who looked so harmless were there for a reason.
Back by the Reichstag, I sat on a bench and chatted with a young German man. I wanted to buy tissues from a vendor and he tried to teach me what to say. Handpapiertaschentuch. Hand paper table cloth. I think I might have been able to say Kleenex, but he seemed to enjoy watching me struggle with the compound German word. He finally gave up and bought me a pack of tissues.
But the most interesting part of the Berlin visit was a trip to East Berlin. (I would go back there in 2007 to eat at a restaurant where it would turn out I had a mutual friend with the people at the next table.)
I was enjoying traveling through Europe by myself, finding my own way, meeting new people. But when it came to East Berlin I harbored enough fear not to venture in alone. I signed up for a bus tour.
I remember nothing about the other tourists except that they were very nice and took my picture at Checkpoint Charlie and by the Brandenburg Gate. This was long before the age of the selfie stick.
Our guide for the tour looked as if she had been sent by Central Casting to play an East German government functionary. She was short, stumpy and wore a uniform with a military appearance. After she checked my ticket, she moved up the aisle. When I moved she spun around as if ready to subdue me. I was probably getting out my camera.
I found the way the tour guide talked about the German Democratic Republic sad. It was never just the government or the GDR. It was always the great German Democratic Republic. Example. She pointed out a burned-out building destroyed in World War II, but "the government of the great German Democratic Republic was going to rebuild it." It was 1976. The building had been destroyed at least thirty-one years before. This was not an example of governmental action at its finest, but she presented it as if were the greatest achievement of modern times. I wonder now if she believed what she had to say. She definitely had to stick to the script.
One thing that bothers me is that I cannot recall how they presented the book-burning site. My recollection is that we were shown it from the East Berlin tour bus. What could they have said? How in 1976 could they put a positive twist on it? I wish I knew.
One of the big stops on our tour was a museum I do not recall which one because we never got inside. Instead, they took our bus to an ice cream truck in a park. We did not complain. My theory is that westerners did not complain within the Soviet block.
Anyway, the reason for the change in the agenda was that the leaders of the Eastern Bloc countries were meeting in the museum. (I use Eastern Bloc but it is synonymous with Communist Bloc, Socialist Block and Soviet Block.) We saw them all arriving in a long line of black limos - at least Eastern equivalents of black limos. I can't claim these as sightings and wouldn't have known who most of them were anyway. The one exception might have been Ceausescu of Romania who I eventually came to know as the most evil of the evil, but I am not sure if I knew him then.
The motorcade buzzed by at high speed. There were no cars on the road. I found this event as distinctly Soviet. I had never seen anything like it. Until the Bush Administration (43) when driving on Route 202 outside Philadelphia. I realized there were no cars going in the opposite direction. Suddenly a long line of black SUVs buzzed by. Dick Cheney was in town to give a speech. I thought of that meeting in East Berlin.
Meanwhile, back in Berlin, we were treated to ice cream. At least I think we were treated. At any rate, the tour guide viewed our visit to ice cream truck as a treat. Ice cream seemed to be very big in the Eastern bloc. On a later trip to Russia, there wasn't much food outside our hotel but there was always ice cream.
I have no recollection of leaving Berlin except that I must have flown on Pan Am. To what city I have no idea but probably in Germany.
I went back in 2007. The wall was long gone but a red brick marker running through the city recalled where the wall had stood. It actually went through the restaurant in our hotel. On that trip, we wandered freely from east to west throughout Berlin. We ate dinner at a restaurant in what had been East Berlin. We knew someone in common with the Americans at the next table. Not a possibility in 1976.
I had another photo taken with the Brandenburg Gate and just as before, the top was cut off. Maybe someday I can return and get a picture that includes the horsemen on top of the monument.
One memory from the 2007 trip. The streets of Berlin were full of protestors on Sunday morning. Very quiet, very polite protestors. Yet they did get the right of way. Our driver said this was not unusual. When I asked if he minded because it made his job harder, he shrugged to indicate he didn't mind. "We are free."
NOTE: If I could claim to see all those leaders in this motorcade, I could claim to Yeltsin and Clinton in a flotilla of helicopters coming down the Hudson River after a summit in Hyde Park.