by Pete Farmer
Pete is living in Rome, Italy this year and has been sending occaional dispatches to allow the Post to share his adventure.
In 1970-71, I was stationed with the 3rd Armored Division in what was then West Germany or the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). We were defending the “Frontiers of Freedom” during the Cold War against Soviet Bloc troops. I believe our job was to slow possible invaders as they overran us. My artillery battery of 155mm self-propelled howitzers actually had nuclear rounds in nearby secure storage; small but deadly. Scary, huh?
Because of my interest in WWII history, I took a week’s leave to West Berlin. Since I had a Top Secret clearance, I had to obtain permission to take a commercial flight over East Germany. A railroad or highway (only 1 route) trip required additional permission and delay.
West Berlin was an island of freedom surrounded by a border secured by East German (DDR) forces with guard towers, concertina and a no-mans land.
In 1961, the Berlin Wall was erected overnight to divide the city and keep East Germans from fleeing to the West. Many of the WWII historical sites were on the East Berlin side of The Wall. I recall approaching The Wall at various vantage points to peer over and try to see these sights. The Brandenburg Gate, famous for Soviet troops raising their flag after defeating the Nazis in April 1945, was clearly visible but inaccessible. I could approach Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing point between West and East, but no farther.
I just completed a visit to a reunified Berlin. The Wall came down November 9, 1989, though street pavers outline its location throughout the city. East Berlin had been pretty shabby but has been rebuilt since the German capital relocated from Bonn to Berlin. Our hotel and many of the museums and sights were in the former East Berlin. Checkpoint Charlie was torn down, but a replica has been erected a block away with actors portraying border guards. In the photo, it is hard to miss McDonalds.
The former Gestapo SS headquarters was razed and replaced by a gravel field and a museum chronicling SS atrocities 1933-45. Adjacent is a section of The Wall and the former Luftwaffe headquarters (built of concrete, it survived the war). Germany does not hide from its Nazi past. There are additional memorials and museums in the city that document all the persecuted groups of WWII. Particularly if combined with a visit to the nearby Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, a visitor will be quite saddened by this chapter of history.
Of course the good news is the failure of Communism. A quirky museum dedicated to life in the former East Germany helps explain why and provides some comic relief to sadder times.