Letter From Europe: Passage to Berlin

Traveling from the West to West Berlin to attend a 1 conference, you are advised to go by air, to avoid the irksome border formalities of the East German Volkspolizei. You can fly to the former German capital from any of three West German airports, on Pan-Am, British Airways, or Air France. You will pass through one of the agreed air-corridors over East Germany, disembark­ing right in the middle of that strange island of freedom and luxury called West Berlin. The short flight over East Ger­many can be quite bumpy, especially if you happen to fly on an official aircraft; the Eastern air-traffic controllers have a habit of ordering those flights to change altitudes several times.

If you ignore the advice to travel by air — as I did recently — you must drive through some 110 miles of East German territory, from the Elbe to West Berlin. That was a useful but shocking experience — even more so for the three young Dutch students who rode along with me. For them, brought up in an era of East-West detente and relative calm in Europe, the first shock came at Helmstedt, the checkpoint east of Hannover, where we entered East Germany. Before you reach the actual control posts (there are several you must go through), you catch a first glimpse of the border that runs through the heart of Germany and Europe. As far as the eye can see, there is a stretch of empty, razed no-man’s land, bordered on both sides by impenetrable electrified fences.

To be admitted to the East German road leading to West Berlin, you need patience and money; the controls can take an hour or more, and a transit visa must be paid for in hard currency. Once on East German territory you also need unusual discipline; speed limits are strictly and immediately enforced; and if you exit from the road, or stop for more than a few minutes at a parking place, you are likely to meet the Polizei. When you reach West Berlin, the same amount of patience is needed to be checked out of East Germany, just in case you might have picked up a hitchhiker.

The confrontation with the Berlin Wall is an even more shocking experience. From the West Berlin City Hall — built on the ruins of the burned-out Reichstag — the Wall is right beneath you. On the Western side the wall is filled with graffiti, expressing many an angry thought. On the Eastern side, there is only emptiness and silence: an empty stretch of some ten yards with manned towers some hundred yards apart, an electrified fence, another empty stretch, and fur­ther East another wall.

Western and West German citizens may proceed to East Berlin via separate checkpoints. East German citizens are not allowed even to approach the area without a special permit. Unlike historical city walls, the Berlin Wall has not been erected to protect the citizens of East Berlin, but to pre­vent them from leaving the socialist paradise — as they had done by the thousands each week before the Wall was built in August 1961. This hideous prison wall extends all the way around West Berlin, cutting through roads, forests, bridges, waterways and houses.

Today, almost 25 years after the Wall first appeared, efforts to “strengthen” it still continue. Last spring this “strengthening” took an interesting and symbolic victim: the tower of the nineteenth-century Reconciliation Church was blown up, to clear the line of fire for the Volkspolizei marksmen on duty to shoot any East German citizen who might still try to flee. Just as the Wall was built during the era of that “great reformer” Nikita Khrushchev, so did the destruction of the Reconciliation Church tower almost coin­cide with the ascent to power of another supposed reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev. The Reconciliation Church: it seems a useful reminder to those who blame the West for being in­sufficiently flexible in promoting East-West reconciliation.

For any American or West European citizen, a visit to Berlin is a useful experience. It reminds one of the very strange, if not absurd, situation we Europeans find ourselves in today. Before World War II had come to an end, ar­rangements had been concluded for the temporary occupa­tion of Germany. Occupation zones were established for the American, Soviet, British, and French armies, and a special four-power regime was agreed upon for “Greater Berlin,” located in the middle of the Soviet occupation zone. In 1947 the four-power negotiations on a peace treaty broke down; a year later Stalin imposed a blockade on the three Western zones of Berlin in an effort to force out the other occupying powers. The Western powers reacted with a massive airlift to supply West Berlin and the blockade failed. Since then West Berlin has become a showpiece of Western freedom and a symbol of the American policy to contain further Soviet expansion in Europe.

As the Soviets began to seal off the border between their occupation zone and the rest of Germany, Berlin re­mained as the single escape route for East Germans seeking entry to the West. Every week thousands took that route, keeping alive the issue of a Germany divided between free democracy and totalitarian repression. In 1958 Khrushchev made another effort to end the special regime in Berlin, but his ultimatum was rejected. Then in August, 1961 the de­cision to build the Wall practically stopped the flow of refugees. The political effect was that Berlin was removed from the list of critical issues in East-West relations. The situation quieted down, and in 1971 a new four-power agreement over Berlin in fact settled the matter. The absurdity has become normalcy; one is expected to live with it.

On our return to the West, we passed through the same procedures. This time we left the road on the Western side after Helmstedt, to observe the long border between the Federal Republic and East Germany — the German Democratic Republic, as we have now accepted its name. Along that border everything is quiet. We were told by West Germans living close to the border that it was com­pletely sealed by 1957. The double line of barbed-wire fences, some ten yards apart, had been completed all the way from the Baltic Sea to the Czech border. Today the barbed-wire fences have been replaced by a new system, built much further away from the actual border line: elec­trified fences separated by two to three miles of no-man’s land. If a potential refugee touches the inland fence, he ac­tivates alarms, and must run 2-3 miles just to reach the sec­ond fence. The Volkspolizei can deal with him long before he reaches that second fence — long before any West Ger­man guard could hear the shots.

So, all along the border, the situation is now quiet. That absurdity has become a normal state of affairs. We live with it.


  • Frans Alting von Geusau

    Frans Alting von Geusau (born in 1933 in Bilthoven) is a Dutch legal scholar and diplomat. When he wrote this article he was affiliated with the John F. Kennedy Institute in Tilburg, the Netherlands, and was also professor of international and European organizations at the Catholic University of Tilburg.

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