First Impressions of Berlin and the Cold War

I was born in 1957, the year the Soviets launched Sputnik and the race to the moon began, a signal event in the Cold War. There are still a lot of us around for whom the defining geopolitical position of our early years was the Cold War. Truman’s speech in early 1947 set out the conflict in simple “us vs. them” terms, reflecting a reality that had been in existence since the end of World War II in Europe. Subsequent events such as the successful test of an atomic bomb by the Soviets and the communist takeover in China increased the rigidity of the east/west conflict. By the time I was born, both sides had the hydrogen bomb, Armageddon was a distinct possibility, and the Cold War was a cold, hard fact of American life.

The Back of A 1975 Map of Berlin
The back side of a 1975 map of Berlin from my 1st trip to the City

Other than what I learned in school and what I saw on television and in the movies, my contact with the realities of the Cold War was non-existent. I grew up in a small, rural town, spent summers swimming, playing baseball, and fishing, and the closest I ever came to a “cold war” was some brutal snowball fights each winter. Some of the local tough guys would pour water on snowballs and freeze them, so we had a summit meeting at one point and specifically banned both the production and use of such weapons of dental destruction. A local arms limitation treaty.

The abstract nature of the Cold War came to an end for me when my father took me out of high school for two weeks in 1975 during the spring semester of my senior year for a tour of some major European cities including Berlin. At one point, our trip took us from Hamburg to Flughafen Tempelhof in Berlin via Pan Am.

My father was a pilot for United Airlines and somehow that information got to the captain of our flight. He was based out of Berlin, and he offered to take us to our hotel. Before we could get underway, he had to pick up some paperwork at the Pan Am offices at Tempelhof, so right off the bat I got a good look at one of the most famous airports in Europe, the site of the Berlin Airlift less than 30 years earlier. He took us on a circuitous route to our hotel so that he could show us a few of the local sights. In what seemed to me to be a quintessentially European moment, we got into the mass of traffic circling the Victory Tower, and somehow managed to escape with our lives. It was all thrilling to a 17-year-old who’d never been out of the United States.

Two days later, after a day touring in the west, we headed for East Berlin. I don’t recall where our point of entry was, but I do recall the interior of the building and the process. The building was drab, even a bit dilapidated. We had to surrender our passports before being allowed entry. I assume they checked our identities while we sat for about 20 minutes. Our names were called, our passports were returned to us with the requisite bureaucratic sneer, and we were on our way.

My overall first impression of East Berlin is one that sticks with me to this day and is hard to reconcile with the obvious vibrancy of the reunified city. We’d spent the previous day wandering around West Berlin. The heart of West Berlin at the time was the Ku’damm, with brightly colored metropolitan icons like Kranzler’s gathering in tourists like us by the bucket load. I still have the map of the city that we picked up while we were wandering around. If West Berlin was in technicolor, East Berlin was stuck in black and white. The lack of consumer capitalism meant a lack of the splashy storefronts and advertising I’d come to associate with any city. At the age of 17, the lack of color struck me as a weird shortcoming.

And of course, from both the east and the west, we took a long look at the wall. It was chilling. Here was a totalitarian scar in the heart of this famous city, and it mesmerized me. It removed the abstraction from the idea of the Cold War, and brought it instantly into sharp, dreadful focus.

I have several other memories of that first visit to Berlin. It made enough of an impression on me that when I joined the Army a few years later it was with the specific goal of getting back to Berlin in mind. Fortunately, I managed to achieve that goal, and the three years I spent living and working in Berlin from 1983 through 1986 are as important as any in my life. I hope someday to return.