This being the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I thought I might tell the story when I was there myself. I was hitchhiking in Europe in 1973 and as we were at the East German border already, thought we (me and my girlfriend) might head off to Berlin by hitching along the highway from the West German border into Berlin. A longish way, but if you picked up a ride at all, there was only one destination the driver would have been heading for. And we ended up being picked up by a man in a Mercedes, so that an hour and a half or so later, we were in Berlin. And the moment we exited the car, in the dead centre of West Berlin, right on the Kurfürstendamm, we were approached by three members of the American military who took out a joint which we smoked right there and then. Welcome to Berlin.
West Berlin was quite an adventure in so many ways, but I will stick to the main event which was to go to the Wall, and then afterwards to travel into East Berlin. Now I must confess that at the time, I was a very long-haired person, which in those days was something of a novelty, specially in Europe. So we went to the Wall, got up on the observation deck, looked through binoculars into this no-mans-land space between the two walls (both built by the East Germans so that they could trap anyone caught in the middle – barbed wire everywhere). I then looked over at the watchtower about 100 metres off in the distance in which there were two East German guards with their own binoculars looking back at me.
The next day – and how surprisingly vivid these memories are – we crossed over at the one checkpoint where crossings were permitted. To leave the Allied section for the Soviet Zone was nothing at all. You just went over the line and no one would stop you. But then there was the East German border where we each first had to change ten marks (which was actually real money back then) into the worthless East German currency. And then we got to the border guard who checked our passports who, when he looked at my passport photo and then at me, reached out and swept the hair from my face to make sure it was really me and that was really my passport. And with the passport stamped and the money exchanged – and this might have taken an hour or so – we went towards the gate into East Berlin.
And before we exited, there to greet us was a very upbeat official greeter from East Germany who spoke with a French Canadian accent. Incredible, I said, how did you end up speaking English with a French Canadian accent? Because, he said, he had been a prisoner of war in Quebec.
Then into East Berlin where we went first to the dreariest coffee shop I have ever seen. Near the wall, but the first place you could go to. If you wanted to demonstrate how awful communism is, that was the way to do it, and it did it very well.
Then past all of the buildings that were along the border wall, that were relics of the old German Reich. Every building still had bullet holes and chipped stone from the rifle fire that were relics from a war that had ended 28 years before. Nothing of the kind remained in the western half of the city.
Then went to the museum of course which I remember little of. But what is indelible was the War Memorial for which the changing of the guard was the highlight. I stuck around to watch it at least twice, and maybe even one more time after that. Was it at the museum, I don’t know. But what got me was that even with only two guards going and two guards plus their commander coming out and then returning, the goose-stepping of just five soldiers made the entire square shake. Have just found a video someome must have taken back then, but the sound quality gives you no sense of any of it. What an entire army must have sounded like would have been incredible.
Then as night fell, back through the gate which you had to get through by 6:00 pm or something. But along the way there were all kinds of men dressed in black who wanted to change money and would speak to you out of the side of their mouths and in very subdued tones. But with the unimaginable creepiness of it, there was no way I would have ever talked to any of them, never mind attempted to change money.
Whether this was an important part of my education in turning my back on the left, it was no doubt part of it. Communism is gone, but there are always enough crazies around who want to put it back. Dark, dark times, now gone, but you never know your future. There are always people stupid enough to give others genuine power who promise paradise on earth, or at least free stuff, but will only put you in chains. This is a bit of a reminder of what it’s like, but you know what, there are still socialists everywhere who think, this time it will be different.