A few days ago, the world and the German people in particular, celebrated the 25th anniversary of the day in 1989 when a cheering crowd of Berliners climbed all over the grotesque wall that had divided their city for 28 years, and proceeded to demolish it.
Two years prior, that historic plea to the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, had been shouted into the microphones by President Ronald Reagan, as he faced the vast West German crowd beneath the Brandenburg Gate. His words not only reached the ears of the hated police guarding the Berlin Wall from their lofty perches on the other side, but they were trumpeted around the world by global media. After so many years of nuclear stand-off between east and west, Reagan was aware that a new policy of reform was shaping in Moscow; his intelligence network knew that political prisoners were being released and the systems that jammed foreign news broadcasts were being switched off.
Rumours were rife. It seemed to the whole world that the Cold War was perhaps coming to an end. And as we watched the TV footage of the wall’s destruction, we shared in the jubilation of those Berliners.
Part of the festivities on this recent anniversary included the creation of a 15 kilometre string of lighted balloons that followed the course of that formidable wall. And today there are many memorials to those sobering times, and to the 200 Berliners who lost their lives in their bid to escape from the east to the west of the city. Some people were successful, the lucky and ingenious ones, and their escapades were originally recorded in photographs displayed in a little museum a few metres from the British Checkpoint Charley portal to the city’s eastern population. Each of the Allies who administered a sector of West Berlin maintained a similar strongpoint, heavily guarded by their troops and watched with searchlights and binoculars 24/7 by the murderous East German border guards.
This little museum managed to acquire all sorts of clever gadgets used by the escapees to gain their freedom. There is for instance a tiny strap-on submarine, powered by a motor scooter engine which was capable of running for five hours and could cover
20 kilometres. It looks weird but it carried Bernd Boettger to freedom. Then there’s an earlier idea, a kind of primitive sky-lift, consisting of a line and pulley used by one clever man and his family to escape. They hid themselves overnight in a government building that overlooked the wall and after dark, made their way to the roof, from where a heavy hammer with the line attached was thrown by the father over to a lower building on the western side. It lodged tight, they hung on to the pulley and gravity did the rest.
Perhaps the most grisly exhibit is the bullet-riddled panel truck in which one family made their exit, shielded by layers of concrete they had poured around the engine and the along the sides of the vehicle. Thus protected from small arms fire from the East German guards, they crashed their way through the barriers to be welcomed by their waiting relatives. These and other stories have become the living folklore of how so many citizens of that great metropolis refused to be cowed by the soulless puppet government which their Russian masters had installed.
It reminds me of the great Berlin Airlift, launched by the western allies to save the population from starvation, when a few years earlier the Soviets tightened the noose around the city in an effort to prove they were the real overlords of Germany. But that’s another story, and well worth retelling to our grandchildren.
(Bill Greenwell prospered in the ad agency arena for 40 years in the U.K. and Canada. He retains a passion for medieval history, marine paintings and piscatorial pursuits. His wife Patricia indulges him in these interests, but being a seasoned writer from a similar background, she has always deplored his weakness for alliteration. This has sadly had no effect on his writing style, whatsoever.)