Berlin ‘62

 

 

Berlin imposed some indelible memories on me.  Visits to that troubled city forced me to come to terms with the fact there is a whole other world outside your own, a world with substantial differences.  I was troubled by way in which individuals were being oppressed at the time.

 

In 1961 I became the Young Conservative Organiser for London.  One day I received a visit in my office from a group of young Germans.  They were members of the Junge Union of the Rheingau - Young Christian Democrats - who were visiting Britain under a programme known as the Young Königswinter Conference, established in 1960.

 

This programme enabled young people from Britain and Germany to meet and exchange ideas.  The JU members from the Rhineland came to Britain to gain knowledge, and whilst in London, they wanted to meet with Young Conservatives.  We organised several events for them and during the visit friendships were established, some having lasted until today.

 

In 1962 this same group invited me to take a delegation of Young Conservatives to the Rheingau.  We stayed in Rüdesheim close to the Rhine.  They took us on a visit to Berlin, flying from Frankfurt to Berlin Tempelhof with Air France, a few months after The Wall had gone up.

 

A coach took us from the airport straight to Bernauer Strasse.  This was a typical street which separated two of Berlin's districts: Mitte in the East and Wedding in the West.

 

On 5 June 1945 the Allied Control Council (ACC) had established the Allied Occupation Zones of Berlin, dividing the city into four sectors.  Mitte became part of the Soviet sector and Wedding part of the French sector.  Signs marked the sector border, but for many years no one recognised these signs.

 

The total division of the city of Berlin, and its streets, began in the early hours of the morning of August 13, 1961.  The East German army and police (the Grenztruppen) blocked the streets and the houses in the streets, and began to build a wall.  From that moment nobody could cross any street, and The Berlin Wall was established.

 

In the Bernauer Strasse, the houses in the East - district Mitte - were the border to the West and a number of people jumped out of their flats into the West.  But very soon the residents were forcibly removed from their homes and the windows and doors were bricked up.

 

Until the mid-60s these bricked up houses formed part of the structure of The Berlin Wall, but they were later demolished in order to create a border area which would prevent any form of escape.

 

When our coach stopped, the leader of the JU group, Gottfried Hozak, asked me to help him take a large wreath from the luggage sector of the coach.  He and I carried this wreath across the road to Bernauer Strasse to a cross on the pavement on the bricked up side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At No.44 Bernauer Strasse a member of the Junge Union had jumped to freedom from the roof and had died on the pavement.

 

Bernd Lünser was only 22 when he died on 4 October 1961.  He lived in the East, but attended university in the West.  He decided to escape in order to continue his studies, and had reached number 44 Bernauer Strasse, but, following a struggle with East German border guards he jumped from the rope down which he was trying to descend.

 

It is quite hard to explain the true impact of coming face to face with The Wall, and with Bernd's memorial.  Back home we knew of course that a wall had been constructed, and we had all seen the occasional picture of it, but the true horror of the divisive nature of 'The Wall' could only be appreciated by being there, and coming face to face with the reality.  It also hit me hard in another way  -  I was 22 when helping to lay the wreath  -  Bernd was 22 when he died for freedom!

 

The leader of this group Gottfried Hozak, he is on the left of the wreath in the picture above, was a refugee from the East.  He had escaped the Communist régime in Leipzig, when he had discovered he was under investigation.

 

Laying that wreath was therefore a particularly poignant moment for Gottfried, and gave him the opportunity to remember Bernd Lünser in this way.  We placed the wreath against the cross, and stood in silent homage.  As we did so, people came out from the houses on the Western side to stand with us.

 

One elderly man approached me, shook me by the hand, and gave me a long hug.  With the help of our interpreter he said, “Ever since your planes bombed Berlin so much, I have hated the British.  Today you make me ashamed of that hatred, and I want you to forgive me for all the hatred in me.”

 

At that moment Gottfried pointed out we were being photographed by the Volks Politzei through a hole in one of the bricked up windows.  We left, shaking hands as we did, with those residents of Bernauer Strasse who had witnessed that act of homage, and continued our tour of The Wall.

 

As we toured the side streets of West Berlin we saw several instances of East German soldiers still working on The Wall, guarded by their own comrades!

 

We visited Checkpoint Charlie, not to cross over - we were warned things were still so unclear at this time the advice was not to venture over.  So, we simply observed.

 

We climbed up onto the specially erected observation platforms to take a look into the East.  In those days the Western side was just a small shop with a sign over it - US Army Checkpoint Charlie - with a jeep parked in an alleyway and two US soldiers chatting to a West German policeman.

 

Looking over The Wall we could see a number of soldiers patrolling and a lot of steel girders concreted into the ground, presumably to restrict traffic movements.

 

The following day I experienced the real impact The Wall had on ordinary citizens of Berlin.  One of those helping to guide us around The Wall was a member of the Reinickendorf City Council.  He took two of us onto the roof of a police post.

Our hosts had requested the inclusion of a British MP in our group and so, Fergus Montgomery, a Conservative MP from Newcastle, and a former National Chairman of the Young Conservatives was with us.

 

He and I are to be seen in the photograph above.

 

This was a complete shock!  This area shows a major junction in a normal suburban part of Berlin.  The junction had been divided, and tram tracks lead up to it on the West, and continue beyond in the East.  The steel girders in the road and the screen beyond show just how much this was to be a permanent structure.

 

Our councillor friend pointed to a block of apartments.  He gave us some binoculars and asked us to look at the fourth window on the corner of the block.  There we could see an elderly lady sitting by the window.  He said, ‘That is my mother.  At this moment in time I do not expect we will ever meet again.  She sits most of the day by the window in the hope I will be able to see her’.

 

Fergus and I agreed this scene was surreal.  On the one hand it looked like a concentration camp scene.  On the other it looked so normal, with people on the streets appearing to be going about with their daily tasks, and the trams were still running!  What was clear to us both was the East German régime had sought to stop their citizens crossing into the West!

 

This, my first visit to Berlin left me with some unforgettable memories.  What we saw during those days introduced me to something which shocked me.  Seeing at first hand the unfeeling cruelty of a Communist régime, and the lengths to which they would go to supress their citizens, in order to maintain complete control over everything in their lives, was more than a simple shock.  It has stayed with me as a vivid memory ever since.

 

 

 (Note:  The five photographs of the wreath laying and the observations from the police post

were taken by (C) Gert Mollin, a West Berlin photographer at the time.  I tried to

contact Gert to seek his  permission, but alas, the photos were taken fifty years ago!)

 

 

(C) Gert Mollin

(C) Gert Mollin

 

My second visit to the Berlin Wall  click here