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The Berlin Wall: Don Marsh's Cold War Confrontation

Robert Koenig

On the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we are sharing an excerpt from Don Marsh's book, "Flash Frames," about Marsh's experience in Berlin during the early days of the Wall and the height of the Cold War.

In 1965 this remarkable city was a magnificent study in contrasts. By day, the energy and personality of Berlin’s Western Sectors could rival any major city in the world. There were still signs of its destruction in World War II, but what one observed in the mid-1960s was not what had been, but what was, and what would be. The Western Sectors were thriving despite the wall. A city had risen from the rubble created by Allied bombers more than 20 years earlier. Skyscrapers, shops, restaurants, pedestrian and automobile traffic gave the city a heartbeat.

Berlin is located more than 100 miles inside what was then the Soviet Zone of East Germany. Following the war, the country had been divided by the four powers into four zones, each administered by one of the four victorious powers: the British, French, Americans, and Soviets. Berlin, having been the former capital, was under four-power control. It was divided into sectors controlled by each of the four powers. The wall was built to separate the Soviet sector and zone from the three Western sectors. The city, therefore, was a four-power island in a figurative Red Sea surrounded by territory under the control of the Soviet Union. ...

The wall and barbed wire barrier followed the borders of the three Western Sectors for almost 100 miles, effectively isolating West Berlin from the rest of Germany. ... With Germanic precision, the line took it along the Sector borders, just inside Soviet territory, rendering useless the Allied protests. ... A carefully pruned strip on the communist side of the barrier gave guards a clear field of fire at those attempting to flee. More than a thousand would-be refugees died trying to escape to the West.

There was limited and carefully controlled two-way traffic through crossing points into each of the three Western Sectors. ... For Allied personnel and for non-Germans who had reason to travel into the Eastern Sector, passage was basically restricted to one checkpoint. That was Checkpoint Charlie at Friedrichstraße, which was made famous for what it was, and by any number of books and movies that portrayed it with dramatic effect in cold war spy dramas. Use of this route was subject to Four-Power agreements stipulating that American military and government personnel could pass through on official business, or even on sightseeing trips, without the need to show passports, as would be required at a normal state frontier. Military identification sufficed for passage to the east. ...

Nonetheless, for many Americans, it was something of an adventure to travel to East Berlin. It gave them a chance to ... visit the bleak landscape that stood in such marked contrast to the Berlin they were temporarily leaving. It was a chance to have a beer in a vacant beer garden and gather material for a cocktail party’s conversation. It was to live an illusion of danger in the comfort of relative safety. ...

I was just such a tourist traveling with my brother and our wives. It was an excursion, a brief sightseeing trip. ... We did what visitors do, marveled at the lack of imagination in the Soviet-inspired architecture that dominated the area. Even in the middle of the day, the drab neighborhood apartment and office buildings looked as if they were standing in the shadows. There was little in the way of foot or vehicular traffic. What little there was added nothing to the ambiance.

Credit Flickr user Roger Wollstadt
Checkpoint Charlie in 1963.

The people exhibited non-committal “jailhouse stares” devoid of any curiosity about the strangers among them. Such curiosity had long since been stifled in favor of avoiding risk and suspicion. It was this fear that caused them to pass by quickly to avoid any contact. Delay came only from the limited vehicular traffic that might cause them to stop and wait before crossing the wide boulevards. Most of the automobiles were small and had strange names. ...

An hour or two of drinking in the local color, or lack of it, and after a beer that seemed watered down compared to the more robust brew on the other side of the wall, we decided we’d had enough. We concluded that East Berlin was just as it appeared in the newsreels and was described by those colleagues or friends who had been there before.

The return to West Berlin required retracing our steps, since Checkpoint Charlie was the only way back. As we approached the wall, we were aware that civilian traffic was far lighter than in the neighborhood we had just left, and that the closer we got to the wall, the few people we did see were likely to be in uniform. These were the infamous Volkspolizei (People’s Police). They were called VoPo’s and were the thugs who policed East Germany. In the eyes of the free world they had become the villainous face of East Germany because of their brutality along the wall. It was they who “protected” the integrity of the wall by stopping those who would attempt to breach it.  ...

Traveling back to West Berlin involved passing through a checkpoint on the East Berlin side. It was here that we, as civilian employees of a Four-Power government, were to show our government identification card to the East German officers manning the post. The officer who stood between us and the walkway to West Berlin asked for our passports. Passports? The rules were clear: no passports! We knew the rules and had no intention of becoming the source of East German propaganda. We were certain that showing our passports would be photographed and that we would be cited in the East German press as Westerners who had accepted East Germany’s contention that it was a legitimate state.

This was not a minor issue in the ongoing bickering between East and West. If East Germany could assert and establish nationhood, it could then move to absorb all of Berlin located within its “national” borders. The ramifications of such a claim would be enormous and bring a new dimension to the tension between Washington, Paris, London, and Moscow.

This is not to suggest that we four would have triggered such a confrontation, but we did think that showing passports, acceding to the VoPo demand and violating a State Department directive was something we could not and should not do. So, we refused, explaining the official position.

Credit Wikipedia
A memorial to victims of the Wall, 1982.

In turn, we were told we could not cross the border without doing so. The officer was armed with a nasty looking weapon that I would identify as a machine pistol or grease gun. It was an automatic weapon that looked to have considerable short range firepower. He held it menacingly. We demanded to see a Russian officer to set the record straight and insist on our right to travel unimpeded on the basis of existing Four-Power agreements.

“There are no Russians here,” he said. I’m sure our thoughts ran along the line of “there are no coals in Newcastle” either. We suggested that he, or one of his colleagues go and find a Soviet officer and bring him to us so we could clear things up because we had no intention of producing passports. He walked a few paces away and started a conversation with one of his colleagues. ...

Fifteen minutes later, he was still chatting with his comrade and we were still standing at the entrance to the crossing point. Finally, one of us told the VoPo officer that we were not showing passports and were going to cross.

The conversation between the two uniformed men ended abruptly. They turned toward us and moved slowly our way. While doing so, they each racked a round into the chamber of their respective machine pistols. They shifted them to the “ready” position, which means they were more or less pointed at the four of us. The officer we had been negotiating with moved one step closer to us than the other. “You can stay here for as long as you like," he said. Then he added, “But if you take one stop in that direction,” he said pointing to the west, “I will shoot you while you are still in East German territory.” His hard eyes met ours, one by one. Was he bluffing? Would he shoot us if we moved to the west? These are questions we were asking ourselves.

None of us thought he was bluffing. He was convincing enough that we stayed right where we were and for the next 30 minutes or so we talked about it, hoping something would happen to change the status quo. It didn’t. We had two choices: stay in place until the Cold War was over, or violate the State Department order. Funny how logic can be influenced by the business end of a loaded automatic weapon pointed at you.

Moments later, after showing our passports and watching as they were duly stamped by our smiling VoPo captor, we crossed through to the small shack that housed the Americans manning Checkpoint Charlie. Our rationale was that we had shown our passports under duress. It was, we thought, our obligation to report “the incident.” We were throwing ourselves on the mercy of the court. A young lieutenant was in charge of the checkpoint detail. He listened politely, though he seemed slightly preoccupied with some paperwork he was shuffling. We explained the conditions under which we had produced our passports and failed our country.

The verdict was immediate. After listening to details of our ordeal, he said, “Don’t worry about it. Everybody does it. No big deal.” Eyes downward, papers adjusted, a not so subtle sign for us to scram. Which we did.

So, there you have it. We were not the object of an international incident. I have no idea whether pictures were taken as we acknowledged “East German sovereignty” at Checkpoint Charlie, but we all came away from the incident with the clear impression that there is as wide a divide between the people in Washington making the rules and those on the front line who have to live with them.

Don Marsh served as host of St. Louis Public Radio’s “St. Louis on the Air" from 2005 to 2019, bringing discussions of significant topics to listeners' ears at noon Monday through Friday. Don has been an active journalist for 58 years in print, radio and television. He has won 12 Regional Emmy Awards for writing, reporting, and producing. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, was inducted into the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame in 2013, and named “Media Person of the Year” by the St. Louis Press Club in 2015. He has published three books: his most recent, “Coming of Age, Liver Spots and All: A Humorous Look at the Wonders of Getting Old,” “Flash Frames: Journey of a Journeyman Journalist” and “How to be Rude (Politely).” He holds an honorary Doctor of Arts and Letters degree from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.