Berlin and the Cold War Remembered
© Frank Ellis 2009
Public announcements and presentations on television, radio, and in the newspapers were so ridiculously meaningless and empty, so obviously twisted and deceitful, so gross and primitive [...] that the country ought to burst out daily in a paroxysm of laughter or disgust. But nothing of the sort happened. One simply got used to the evil and the bad.
Hans Joachim-Maaz, Der Gefühlsstau: Ein Pyschogramm der DDR (1990)
Amid the justified and joyful celebrations that took place to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s coming down on 9th November 1989 we ought to pause and remind ourselves of the nature of the state known euphemistically as the German Democratic Republic (GDR). To begin with, the GDR was emphatically not a democracy. It was a one-party state ruled by a hard-line Stalinist party, the Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands). The sword and shield of the revolution – to use the language of the regime – was the Staatssicherheitsdienst, the state security organs known more widely as the Stasi. The Stasi’s mission was to know as much as possible about everything that happened in the GDR such that any incipient dissent or rebellion could be monitored and then eradicated at the appropriate time, and as discreetly as possible.
The GDR and all the other fraternal socialist states, Big Brother Soviet Union above all, confirm that socialism in all its forms means death: spiritual, economic, social and intellectual. Spiritual death ensues from the state’s policy of denying and attempting to crush any manifestation of individual freedom by imposing collectivism in all social and educational policy. In effect, there is no such thing as individual, private man. For the same reasons, and also because the state is based on the principle that the means of production shall be controlled by the state, the economy is doomed to stagnation so perpetuating squalor and penury because innovators and businessmen are regarded as parasites and speculators. Had Bill Gates been born in Leipzig and started to develop his personal computers in some high-rise workers’ block of flats, the Stasi would have arrested him as an anti-social element, an enemy of the people. Nor can full-blooded socialism exist without pervasive and ubiquitous censorship. Writers were obvious targets for the Stasi and so literature becomes chained to the state. Some writers fall silent; others discover that they rather like being vampire-informers on behalf of the Stasi. And for those citizens who tried to flee the workers’ paradise, the crime of Republikflucht, there was the risk of physical death since the border guards were under orders to kill anyone attempting to leave. Such was the GDR’s version of real-existing socialism.
Stationed in West Berlin during the early 1980s, and right through the emerging Solidarity crisis in Poland (December 1981), where I served as a Russian and German interpreter/analyst working under the auspices of the British Military Government, I had every opportunity to observe East Berlin and the German proletarian state. As the duty military interpreter you could be called out at any time of night and day to deal with all kinds of incidents: shootings of would-be escapees along the Wall; defectors (happened once); border violations; delivering official protests; and social functions. I learned to expect the unexpected. One night I was dragged out of bed and taken to checkpoint Bravo. Bravo was the Soviet checkpoint through which all road traffic leaving West Berlin had to pass en route for West Germany. The better known checkpoint Charlie is in the city. On arrival, the duty Soviet officer tells me that they have captured one of our soldiers. He takes me to the rear of the building where I am confronted with a half-naked soldier under armed guard. It is bitterly cold. The soldier is eighteen years old. Under the influence of strong German beer he has bet some mates that he can smash his way through the Soviet checkpoint in a Land Rover. He has no chance of course and is easily apprehended. In fact, he is lucky the Soviet guards did not open fire. While trying to keep a straight face, I tell this young lad that had it not been for the close professional relationship I enjoyed with the Soviet duty officer he would have been dragged off to the GULAG never to return.
Throughout the year the Soviet garrison would hold a number of parades at the Tiergarten war memorial which commemorates the Soviet troops who lost their lives taking Berlin in May 1945. The most important ceremonies were Den’ sovetskikh vooruzhennykh sil (Soviet Armed Forces Day, 23rd February), Den’ pobedy (Victory Day, 9th May), and one to mark the Velikaia Oktiabriaskaia Revoliutsia (Great October Revolution, 7th November). I enjoyed these parades, especially Victory Day since they gave me the opportunity to mix freely with Soviet officers and converse with them. Some were very reticent, whereas others were more than happy to talk about just about anything. I have no doubt that these parades with the opportunity to mix and even to socialise up to a point built trust and confidence and broke down barriers. One thing I can say is that all the Soviet officers with whom I spoke were mightily impressed by the performance of British Forces in the Falklands campaign. Some spouted the standard Soviet nonsense about colonialism but they recognised the grim determination of the Iron Lady and outstanding military effectiveness when they saw it.
Ever since Stalin tried to blockade West Berlin in 1948-1949, rights of access via air, road and rail remained crucial to West Berlin’s survival. These rights were jealously protected and vigorously asserted and exercised. To this end the British Military train would depart Charlottenburg Station and set off across the territory of the GDR towards West Germany every day of the year with the exception of Christmas day. The train always carried a duty interpreter. On arrival at Marienborn, a small station on the East German side of the inner-German border, the train would stop. Here, a Royal Corps of Transport warrant officer responsible for all the paperwork and carrying all the passports and train passes and accompanied by an interpreter would dismount the train. They would then march the length of the platform halt in front of the Soviet checkpoint officer (normally a lieutenant or captain) and exchange salutes. The duty Soviet officer would then invite them to enter his office where the Soviet clerk would process the paperwork. While the train was stationary East German border guards and dog handlers would search under the train to make sure that no hapless East German was attempting to flee to the West courtesy of the British Army. The train’s first stop the other side of the inner-German border would be Helmstedt and then on to Braunschweig. Some three hours later, having picked up another batch of passengers, crew and train would return to West Berlin via the same route.
Eventually my turn came for this duty and the moment of reckoning: the time to have my Russian tested for real. The Soviet officer and I exchange greetings and as the clerk deals with the travel documents (putevki) we start chatting. I cannot describe the sense of euphoria: Russians actually speak this language I have been studying for so long. The Soviet officer obviously knows something about British Army regiments, since he asks me how long I have been a desantnik (paratrooper): “Since I was sixteen years old”, I reply. “What”, he exclaims, “you joined the vozdushno-desantnye voiska (airborne forces) at sixteen”? “No, you can’t do your jumps and join the battalion until you’re eighteen, but I joined as a boy soldier and the brainwashing starts then”. “Really, how do they brainwash you?” He asks this with deadly seriousness, thinking that I going to give away some military secret: “Just like in the Red Army, love of country, hard training and lots of it”, I reply, touching my maroon beret to make my point. He smiles. The ice is broken.
Despite the regime’s attempts to make it something of a socialist showcase, East Berlin was grey and depressing. Orwell’s description of Oceania in 1984, with the run down buildings, cheap and shoddy goods and a general air of depression is a perfect match for East Berlin. By erotic and material contrast, West Berlin, with what Germans delicately refer to as Nachtleben (night life), had it all. Whenever we went there we wore uniform and the East Berliners would stare at us as if we were aliens. One day some kids chucked a load of stones at us accompanied by cries of “go home Soviet pigs”. I shouted back that we were British not Soviet and they came over and apologised. On another occasion I managed to have a lengthy discussion with some East German who bitterly complained about the regime and the shortages. The trouble with these sorts of conversations is that you have no way of knowing whether your interlocutors are genuine. One day in a large bookshop it turned to farce. I was browsing the Russian-literature section – Dostoevsky I recall – and some woman came up to me and asked me whether I liked Dostoevsky. She addressed me in Russian and eventually she suggested that we return to her flat and discuss Dostoevsky over some tea. She was a looker but it was so obviously an attempt to provoke some kind of incident that it was risible. It occurred to me later that perhaps in the very obvious and brazen nature of this encounter was where the cunning of the approach lay.
Twenty years later the Berlin Wall is a dreadful memory. Germany is reunited and powerful. Yet something seems to have gone very badly wrong among Western states, the states that demonstrated the manifest superiority of a political system based on the private ownership of the means of production and which found the will to resist the Soviet threat. The quintessential feature of a free-market system is individual freedom which includes, among other things, free speech, the right to associate with whomsoever one wishes, freedom from state oppression and the expectation that the state will protect our borders. Since 1989 Britain has not moved to consolidate individual freedoms under the rule of the law. On the contrary, we have moved inexorably towards a soft form of totalitarianism which would be instantly recognizable to the former citizens of the GDR. In the erosion of long-established freedoms, the influence of the virulently neo-Marxist Macpherson Report cannot be overstated.
In 2009, Britain is also divided by a wall. It is not a physical structure of bricks, mine fields, barbed wire and watch towers but it exists. This government-built wall is one of lies and censorship designed to prevent us from knowing the truth, not just, for example, about the Third-World savagery that blights so many of our cities but about the dire threat posed by the emerging United States of Europe. State agencies – universities are some of the worst and most despicable oppressors – collude with the BBC, the police and Church of England to mislead us. The worst thing about this wall is that it runs through our hearts, minds and souls. It marks the boundary between the politically correct views we are all expected to hold and what many of us privately know to be hideous lies but were we to voice our misgivings they would be condemned by politicians and equal-opportunity bullies as “inappropriate”, “offensive” or “unacceptable”. Publicly we accept that homosexuality is just another valid life-style choice (yet inwardly we shudder); we mouth the vile and mendacious slogan “diversity is our strength” (and avoid it all costs); we agree that race does not matter (yet we all know about white flight); when some serial liar in a university tells us that allegiance to our nation and past are bigotry we are hypnotised by the audacity of his ignorance (and privately some of us recall that between 1939-1945 fathers and mothers fought to save our land); and when the flat-screen tyrant hurls the freakish and perverted assertions of feminism at us we sit there like frightened rabbits. Today, I understand a little more of the monstrous, psychological torment inflicted on the thinking, rational, decent human beings that during the Cold War lived east of the old Berlin Wall - Leipzig, East Berlin, Moscow, Warsaw and Prague in the Lands of the Lie. Now I know how it feels to live under enemy occupation, to be surrounded and mocked by lying, strutting Quislings, to feel like a stranger in my own land.