Three Years Behind the Iron Curtain

A picture of the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate from 1985
The Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate

My second trip to a divided Berlin was in August of 1983. I’d been to the city in 1975 on a brief visit with my father. The details of that visit were already a blur eight years later, but some enduring impressions accompanied me on my return trip. My second visit was to last for nearly three years, plenty of time to test those earlier impressions, form new ones, and store a myriad of details into my long-term memory.

The first impression that was reinforced on my 1983 return was that West Berlin was a robust, vibrant, and unique city. My flight from Frankfurt landed at the relatively new terminal at Tegel Airport. When we flew into Berlin in 1975, we landed at Tempelhof, a fascinating relic from Berlin’s notorious past. But by 1983 Tempelhof was occupied primarily by the U.S. Air Force and its main terminal building was no longer a hub for commercial flight activity. The U.S. Army cab ride from Tegel to Andrews Barracks was a fascinating, nearly over-stimulating, glimpse of my home for the next three years. I strained to see everything I could. By the time I arrived at Field Station Berlin I couldn’t wait to get back out into the city, to explore some of what I’d seen eight years earlier and on the ride in from Tegel.

On one of my first evenings in the city I wandered down to the Ku-damm with a small group of fellow Russian linguists, friends of mine from our time together at the Defense Language Institute. We spent most of the evening and night at the Irish Harp, a British pub in Charlottenburg. That experience began to define half of life in Berlin for me, the half that was typical of any major European city. It was remarkable how normal life could be so far behind the Iron Curtain. It was easy to forget Berlin’s geography and geopolitical position.

The other half of life in Berlin was the one familiar to most Americans who’d never actually visited the city. That half was characterized by the Berlin Wall and the menacing influence of the Soviet Union. The fact is that you couldn’t travel by bus, subway, car, or even on foot for long without running into some reminder of Berlin’s unique status. The reminders were never far away. Some were more apparent than others: the wall and its guard towers; the Reichstag, patiently awaiting German reunification; the Soviet Union’s War Memorial in the Tiergarten; and the iconic Checkpoint Charlie. Others were less apparent but just as real: buildings still pockmarked from the Battle of Berlin; the presence of  uniformed soldiers from France, the U.K., and the U.S.; and bureaucratic restrictions on travel methods and routes to and from the city. The most prominent reminder in my daily life of Berlin’s unique status was where I worked – Teufelsberg.

By 1983, Teufelsberg was a physical and metaphoric connection between Berlin’s World War II past and its Cold War present. It was the highest point in the city at nearly 400 feet in elevation, and it was built of rubble from the Second World War. During the early 1960s, Teufelsberg became the site of a permanent listening station, ideally situated in the heart of East Germany, well behind the Iron Curtain. My days and nights of living the good life in Berlin were always balanced by my job as a constant reminder of the deadly serious business of the Cold War and the daily contest for global supremacy at its heart. The city I lived in for three years profoundly shaped my life, and it continues to exert its outsized influence on me. I’ll never stop being grateful for my three years behind the Iron Curtain.