Three Eyewitness Scenes From Berlin: 1950, 1973, 2013

Reflections on a city where my grandfather served and my mother visited.
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Flickr/Tinou Bao

Each time I'm in Europe I wonder how cityscapes influence the way that humans relate to history. As a Californian, I never see anything dating farther back than the Spanish missions. The city where I grew up officially incorporated in 1953. So in September, as I explored Rome with my wife, I wondered if walking past the Colosseum or beneath the House of Medici crest or across Siena's Piazza Del Campo causes the Italians who do it on a daily basis to conceive of history and their place within it in a fundamentally different way than I do. Traversing the ruins of ancient Rome heightened my awareness of history's sweep. But I experienced it as a tourist, not as someone glimpsing centuries of people who lived where I live and shaped aspects of what daily life is like for me. 

In Berlin, the most striking historical echoes in the cityscape are of more recent vintage: the bits of the wall left standing, Checkpoint Charlie, the architectural differences still discernible when crossing from the former east to the former west. Yet history seems more real to me here than in Rome or Paris or London, is more easily conceivable as something that actually happened, due to personal connections. Three successive generations in my family have come to this city. I didn't need to hear their stories to know, on an intellectual level, how dramatically Berlin changed over the course of the postwar decades. But reflecting on how my grandfather, my mother and I experienced this city has helped me to appreciate how dizzying and miraculous the transformation has been.  

My grandfather was just young enough to have missed World War II. He spent the years after the Allied victory in Los Angeles getting his start in construction. He'd already met and fallen in love with my grandmother when he  was surprised by draft papers. Everyone thought that he would be sent to fight in Korea. He got what was perhaps the luckiest break of his life when Uncle Sam decided he'd spend two years stationed in West Berlin instead. The airlift had recently ended, and unlike in the immediate postwar years, American forces were regarded as a saving grace as much as an occupying power. On the other hand, if the Cold War went hot he'd effectively be miles behind Soviet lines. 

"The funny part about it, when we got on the train for Berlin, we left from a little village near the Bavarian alps, and when we left they gave us strict instructions, don't lift the shades," he told me just a few weeks ago. "When we went through the Russian zones we'd go into these train stations and you weren't supposed to look out of your compartment. Of course, we would pull the shades up. And we'd see the Russian soldiers. They'd look in at us, smile, wave. Friendly waves, you know. You'd stop to think about it. I'd say to myself, you know, the United States and the USSR can't get together, but the people, they can be friendly. We're not a hell of a lot different than them. They're smiling at us, we're smiling at them. We're friends, they're friends. But to listen to the propaganda, they would poison your mind and make you believe that they were all monsters."

Templehof Airport was built in the 1920s. It was decommissioned in 2008 and is now a public park. In my grandfather's time it was an American air force base, though knowing he was stationed there won't help you to guess at his duties. "We were show troops. We were there to impress the Germans," he said.  "We had dress uniforms on all the time. Our training was very minimal. I played basketball, football and baseball. And when I did that, nothing else. We'd play exhibitions against other military outfits -- other soldiers would watch and so would Germans. Divisional games. We'd play a game almost every day. Actually, our mess hall, the mess officer used to bet on us. They'd feed us like kings. We ate at a different time than the rest of the guys. I was even on a bowling team."

As service in wartime goes it couldn't be beat. He played sports, had an occasional opportunity to travel on leave, and was there for the heyday of Die Badewanne, one of the most famous jazz clubs in Europe at the time. He nevertheless did paratrooper training and learned that if the Soviets attacked the plan was for the Americans to fight their way back to West Germany as best they could. "Day one you'd be a prisoner," he said. " We didn't know if it would actually happen."

He spent his two years constantly yearning to go home. 

The homesickness spurred him to interact with the locals more than he might have. "Around the corner from the base there was a restaurant. And every month on pay day a guy by the name of Don Smith and I would go out to dinner. It was all Germans. We were the only two GIs you would see in there. It was a family restaurant," he said. "We would sit there, and I used to appreciate the atmosphere, because I never wanted to feel I was truly away from home. It was always in my mind. I never wanted to do anything but think of being back. So I would go in the restaurant and look at the people. Whole families would be out eating together, dining would be like two hours, three hours, and it didn't feel like the base."

He mostly liked the Germans he met. "Nobody we met fought Americans. They all fought Russians. That's what they'd tell you. Ha! The Germans were very proud. Very militaristic," he said. "They could be working on a trash truck, they want a uniform. They're smart people, very intelligent, very industrious. You wouldn't think they lost the war with their attitude. They had their chest out, and they never looked back at the bad things that happened. It was quite interesting. I liked the people. I never met people I didn't like at the beginning. I always look at people as good people right off the bat, and then find out later that some of them weren't."

The Berlin Wall began to be built in 1961, long after my grandfather left, but he saw the communists become increasingly restrictive about passing from East to West, even if he knew guys who would sneak to the Eastern sector to buy $20 tailored suits. 

He went to East Berlin just once. 

We went on a bus tour, and the military took you to all the places they wanted to take you. They said, "look at the way they live." It's like watching a technicolor movie and watching black and white. You saw despair. You could tell they were poor. They said, look for fruit. Look for vegetables. They had vegetables, but there was something that was missing. The people looked like -- they weren't happy. They looked sad. They had raggedy clothes. The bombed out buildings were not being repaired or rebuilt. The only thing left was the outside perimeter walls. 

It would be all bricks.

With the Marshall Plan we were giving Germany money to rebuild. There were so many bricks they didn't know what to do with them. They'd go out in the park and they'd make rolling hills of all the extra bricks. You know the railcars that they have in a mine? Women and men working, and they'd be paid by the government. So they were making money to live. And they were also rebuilding. You could see what they were doing. You'd go in the eastern sector, nothing was happening. The buildings that were bombed were still bombed. They were just standing there and nothing was happening. If you went into this neighborhood, nobody cut their lawn, the grass was dying.

There was nothing. You could see the difference.

After two years in Berlin my grandfather got his discharge papers, went back to California, and started a family. A couple decades later, my mother graduated high school and got to go along with a cousin who was traveling around Europe. They spent one day and night in East Berlin during the summer of 1973, traveling there by overnight train and leaving the Communist zone through Checkpoint Charlie. Given the timing and her description, I am fairly certain that her visit coincided with the 10th annual World Festival of Youth and Students.

The thing I remember the most is that we had to take a certain amount of money in. It wasn't very much. But there was nothing to buy. You couldn't find anything. They had no goods. They had nothing to sell. I'd never experienced anything like it. The other thing that was really surprising is that a lot of windows had posters of Angela Davis. She was a professor at Berkeley, a radical.

There were posters of her, celebrating her. 

I remember thinking it was weird how different the people in East Berlin seemed. Subdued. It wasn't so much sad as, this is the way it is and there's nothing I can do about it

Resigned. 

The other thing I remember, everyone in the west was talking about how they were a Communist country and the Communists all hated Americans. But there happened to be a youth fair when we went. There were young people from all over the Communist world. They'd been given these scarves. And they were getting them signed. They desperately wanted the autographs of Americans. Whatever propaganda they'd heard about us didn't matter. We were treated like movie stars. The kids were all really nice, and so excited just to meet us, making over us when they found out that we were Americans. 

It's been so long.

But I remember that there was a parade, and there were American Indians marching in it. I thought, wow, that's so bizarre, how did they end up here? I guess they were saying, well, America didn't do anything for us. I was in East Berlin for one day. We came in on the train and we left through Checkpoint Charlie. 

I never felt unsafe.

Here I am one generation later in a city where it's often hard to tell when you're crossing into what was East Berlin, where an entertainment venue of note is called The White Trash Fast Food Restaurant, and where Germans on the street a few blocks from Checkpoint Charlie express disappointment at U.S. surveillance state excesses. I'd love to walk around this city with my mother and grandfather. My marveling would almost certainly pale in comparison to theirs.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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