Accessibility links

I Was There When They Built The Wall

  • Uwe Siemon-Netto

A boy sitting on the shoulders of another child peers over the wall on Liesen Street in West Berlinon August 23, 1961.

A boy sitting on the shoulders of another child peers over the wall on Liesen Street in West Berlinon August 23, 1961.

Early Sunday morning the telephone rang in my Frankfurt apartment. "Off to the airport," my managing editor instructed me. Drowsily I asked, "To Leopoldville?" For weeks I had been waiting for my marching orders to the former Belgian Congo to cover its civil war for The Associated Press. "No," said "Schmitti," my boss. "You are going to Berlin. Ulbricht is building a wall."

That was on August 13, 1961. My longest working day ever lay ahead of me: 36 hours. I took a Pan Am DC-6 to Tempelhof Airport in West Berlin and then drove in a rented car to Bernauer Strasse, a street dividing the French and Soviet sectors. On the eastern side, people roped themselves down from windows, while communist cops stormed their apartment buildings from the backyard. Some refugees jumped into safety nets spread out for them by Western firemen. Nine days later, Ida Siekmann missed a net and dropped on the sidewalk, becoming the first casualty of the Berlin Wall.

For the next three months Bernauer Strasse became my most important place of work. I was there when East German workmen unrolled bales of barbed wire and later replaced it with a wall; when they rendered the Protestant Church of Reconciliation inaccessible; when workers' militiamen opened fire on a fugitive family of nine, prompting a French lieutenant to blast off warning shots into the air from a machine gun mounted on his Jeep.

"Stop shooting or I'll aim my gun at you," he warned. To my knowledge these were the only shots fired by an allied soldier in the 1961 Berlin crisis. The refugees made it safely across the border. I took them into an "Eckkneipe," as Berlin street-corner pubs are called. I bought the adults a round of stiff drinks, and raspberry sodas for the kids; then I accompanied all of them to the Marienfelde processing center for escapees.

East German workers assemble a wall of concrete blocks in the French sector of East Berlin on August 15, 1961.

Kennedy's Hesitation

The emergency camp in the Berlin district of Marienfelde was at that time the central stage of this drama in the heart of Germany. Of 2.6 million refugees thus far, 1.5 million had been housed here before being flown to West Germany. By the time the East German leader, Walter Ulbricht, ordered West Berlin sealed off, up to 2,500 left his country every day.

These were university professors, professionals of every field, engineers, scientists, farmers, technicians, craftsmen, and hundreds of thousands of skilled laborers. The collapse of East Germany's economy seemed imminent. Entire branches of its industry could no longer manufacture anything because most of the working elite had "voted with their feet," as the saying went; they had run to freedom.

Things did not look good for the West either, though. With the support of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Ulbricht demanded an instant end to this drain of manpower. He was determined to gain control of the access routes from West Germany to West Berlin, a city still under the sovereignty of the victorious four powers of World War II. Fortunately, this would never happen.

In June, The Associated Press had sent me to Vienna to reinforce its local staff during the summit meeting between Khrushchev and U.S. President John F. Kennedy. We found out that Khrushchev regarded Kennedy as immature, calling him a "boy in short pants" whom he could intimidate, which he accomplished masterfully.

In those days the president had "no sympathy for the Germans," retired diplomat R.W. Smyser wrote in his book, "Kennedy and the Berlin Wall." His indecision and indifference were fueled by the counsel of the liberal "eggheads" in his immediate entourage. These were academics such as Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, and speechwriter Ted Sorenson, whom Kennedy called his "intellectual blood bank."

John McCloy, the former U.S. high commissioner in Germany, quipped about these men to West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer that in their entire professional lives they never had to make a decision "except which of their fellow professors should get tenure," according to Smyser, who added that Adenauer perceived Kennedy as a weak president and therefore clung to France's Charles de Gaulle as an alternative.

Dying Peter Fechter is carried away by East German border guards who shot him down when he tried to flee to West Berlin on August 17, 1962.

So, in 1961, Kennedy did not interfere with the communists as they walled in their own people. His stance would toughen significantly later under the influence of General Lucius D. Clay, the "father of the Berlin Airlift," whom Kennedy sent to Berlin as his personal representative. In 1963, Clay accompanied Kennedy on his trip to Berlin where JFK made his celebrated "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech. In this speech, which worried his "egghead advisers," JFK went on to say: "I am proud...to come here in the company of my fellow American, General Clay, who has been in this city during its great moments of crisis and will come again if ever needed." To this day, Clay is more beloved in Berlin than any other statesman of any nationality before and after him.

...But Determination In Berlin

But Kennedy's vacillation during the summer of 1961 laid the seeds of the insidious anti-American qualms that would so bewilder my friends in the United States in the years to come. Egon Bahr, the closest associate and spokesman of Willy Brandt, Berlin's governing mayor, explained to me that his distrust of the United States began with this episode. Brandt numbed his sorrows in a manner causing Adenauer to nickname him Willy Weinbrandt (Billy Brandy); 1961 was an election year in West Germany, and Brandt ran against Adenauer as the Social Democrat candidate. Adenauer won.

Egon Bahr, who is still alive, never overcame his misgivings.

Kennedy's irresolution was shared by British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, Smyser writes, but contrasted markedly with the hard-line stance of French President de Gaulle and the feistiness of West and East Berliners alike. While Kennedy dithered, de Gaulle positioned himself as "Adenauer's protector, not only against Khrushchev but also against pressures coming from London," according to Smyser.

As for the Berliners, irresolution was definitely not their prevalent mood that summer. Only 16 years after the collapse of the Nazi tyranny they were in no frame of mind to give in to yet another oppressor, even if their stubbornness carried the prospect of enduring another armed conflict just when they had rebuilt their town from its devastation in the war.

We journalists, diplomats, and spooks congregating nightly at Berlin's premier intelligence exchange of the day, the piano bar Inge und Ich just off Kurfuerstendamm, never ceased to marvel at these plucky people; they were a far cry from the irksome characters who gave their town a bad name seven years later. I am talking about those fetid draft dodgers who would soon nestle on the Western side of the wall; those whining and sometimes violent wannabe revolutionaries demonstrating against the shah of Persia and the war in Vietnam, and chanting "Ho-Ho-Ho-Chi-minh"; those eternal students who would stay enrolled at Berlin's Free University for 50 semesters because cafeteria meals and public transportation were cheap for their kind. Let it be stated here: Real Berliners they were not!

WATCH: Archival footage provided by Reuters shows the early days of the Berlin Wall's construction, along with some of the historic moments centering on the Berlin Wall up until its fall on November 9, 1989.



Running Off 'Smirching Eddie'

Back to the summer of 1961: We brash young journalists covering the erection of Ulbricht's wall even managed to mine some wacky fun from this distressing assignment. We established observation posts near the border crossings, especially Checkpoint Charlie on Friedrichstrasse, which was reserved for non-Germans and communist bigwigs. Mine was a bedroom above Cafe Koelln, a sleazy beer bar in the building where now the Mauer-Museum (Wall Museum) is located. This room had a wonderful bay window affording me a perfect view of the East German control center.

Early one evening I spotted a white Mercedes 220 with East Berlin license plates heading west. The man at the wheel turned out to be "Sudel-Ede" (Smirching Eddie), the most despised communist television personality. His real name was Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler. He had a propaganda program titled "Der schwarze Kanal" (The Black Channel), where he regularly ran clips from Western TV shows as "evidence" for his vile agitation against the alleged "neofascism," "militarism," and "war-mongering" of our side.

"Smirching Eddie" was married to Marta Rafael, a striking Hungarian actress who must have been on tour that day for he clearly entered West Berlin intent on poaching among our lonely hearts, of which there were plenty. So soon after the war, the city was still replete with unattached women in their late 30s whose male contemporaries had died in combat or Soviet prisoner-of-war camps.

And where did they find solace? In ball houses such as the Resi in the Hasenheide district, an establishment with dancing fountains, a full orchestra, 200 telephones, and pneumatic tubes connecting all tables. That's where "Smirching Eddie," endowed with an East German exit permit and plenty of West German currency, directed his Mercedes while his fellow countrymen were locked up behind the Iron Curtain. I alerted my colleagues, and so a howling horde of international reporters chased after him.

Directed to a table, von Schnitzler began scanning beauties in the room but never managed to make contact with any of the scores of available females. For we had positioned ourselves strategically at neighboring tables and now bombarded him with telephone calls and pneumatically posted invitations to waltz and to tango. Puce in the face, the frustrated Smirching Eddie stormed out of the ballroom and returned east. We followed him to Checkpoint Charlie and then piled into Cafe Koelln to celebrate our personal triumph in the Cold War.

Cut Off From Home

It so happened that earlier that year I had befriended a comely East German government official at the Leipzig Trade Fair. She hated the communist regime. Now as the wall was being built, she found witty ways to tip me off. One item of information she sent turned out to be a present for my 25th birthday. In the middle of the night I received a secret message urging me to rush to the former palace of Prussia's crown princes in the Eastern Sector. There I discovered, probably as the first Western reporter, that more than 30 Soviet tanks had moved into the city. Two days later, they confronted U.S. armor at Checkpoint Charlie, which turned out to be the most dramatic point of the 1961 Berlin crisis.

On the following evening I had a date with my friend but was stopped at the border and grilled, "Who was your informer?" I did not tell the investigators but soon discovered that as a result of this incident I was not to see my family in East Germany again for years to come. My grandmother lived in Leipzig. Her neighbor was a well-meaning prosecutor. She warned her that if ever I attempted to enter the country again I would be tried for espionage. Granny slipped this information into an aluminum tube and mailed it to me in a home-baked poppy seed cake.

I was banished from my native region "forever." But this "eternity" lasted a little more a dozen years. In 1975, the Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe ended many travel restrictions in Germany. Only a few weeks later I was issued a six-month visa allowing me multiple entries into my homeland. I raced to the parsonage of my favorite uncle, Horst Persing, a Lutheran parish pastor near Leipzig, who told me about a stunning development -- the Christian awakening among young East Germany, which eventually produced the umbrella for the huge resistance movement that would bring down the Berlin Wall in 1989, resulting in Germany's reunification a year later.

A huge demonstration in Berlin calls for free elections and the end of the Communist Party political monopoly on November 20, 1989.

Not The Same Berlin

I was in San Francisco when the wall tumbled. I flew home to rejoice with my fellow countrymen and remember fondly the plucky Berliners I loved so much in 1961. Returning to reunified Berlin now once every year or two is a bittersweet experience, though. Yes, this is arguably Europe's most exciting city, a throbbing metropolis with stunning new buildings and an abundant cultural life.

But with memories like mine, I find it hard to stomach that a coalition of mainly left-of-center Social Democrats and communists now governs this marvelous place. I know why the latter are still so numerous. The East German regime had moved all its top functionaries, its military and secret police officers, from the entire country to its capital. Now they still reside in the heart of the city, and they vote for a party called Die Linke (The Left), which is the successor of the Socialist Unity Party whose leaders had built the wall.

Most Berliners seem to have accommodated themselves to the shameless misalliance between the Social Democrats -- once Willy Brandt's very honorable party -- and their "dark red" minority partners. But I can't. I can't forget what they have done to their people and my country. I can't forget that they shot refugees like rabbits. I can't forget that they chopped Berlin into two. And I can't forgive the Social Democrat-communist city government its refusal to name a street after Ronald Reagan, who in April 1987 stood at the Brandenburg Gate appealing to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev saying, "Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

This is so disgraceful that I could not bring myself to accede to my British wife Gillian's wish to move to Berlin. That said, I take consolation in the fact that history is always open to the future and always good for surprises. This is the comforting news I have learned in the 50 years since covering the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious-affairs editor of United Press International, is conducting a lecture tour related to the 50th anniversary of the erection of the Berlin Wall. For information, contact: uwesiemon@mac.com. He has been an international journalist for 55 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East, and Europe for German publications. The views expressed in this commentary, which originally appeared on the author's blog, are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

Show comments

XS
SM
MD
LG