Iain MacGregor, the author of the new book Checkpoint Charlie and upcoming speaker at the Oxford Literary Festival discusses the impact the Berlin Wall had on the people of Germany and the Cold War as a whole
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In your extensive interviews with residents of West and East Berlin – soldiers, officials and others – were there any recurring themes of their recollections of this period?
There was, naturally, a heavy dose of nostalgia. From those serving, or living, in West Berlin through the Cold War years they loved the city, the unique atmosphere it had as an ‘international oasis’ where young West Germans could flee to in order to escape conscription. I suppose the fact that it was surrounded by the imminent threat of invasion by the forces of the Warsaw Pact held an element of thrill-seeking to many, too. Every military personnel serviceman and woman (from Britain, France and the USA) I interviewed told me it was the best posting they ever had. Similarly, the Soviet personnel I spoke with loved their time in East Germany, providing them a standard of living undreamed of back home.
Allied to this, one must remember how brutal the regime of the GDR was; its rule reinforced by the state’s secret police the Stasi. Over the life of the Berlin Wall, ten thousand East Germans attempted to escape, with nearly 200 dying in their attempts. The majority of the interviews touched upon this, with some Germans who had escaped to the West becoming emotional when recounting their experiences. Equally, some members of the Allied garrisons still harboured a deep-seated hatred of what the Wall represented, and the toll it took on the Berliners themselves.
Were there any insights into life in Berlin from 1961 to 1989 that particularly surprised you?
The camaraderie of the military was something that surprised me, and just how much they loved their work and the city itself. Meeting various units at reunions reminded me of the hit television series Band Of Brothers. Also, how normal a ‘highly abnormal’ situation became for the people who resided there. In August 1961, over one hundred streets were dissected by the Berlin Wall, railway stations closed down, canals blocked off, windows of houses on the border blocked up and larger public buildings cleared. Yet on both sides family life continued and the city settled down within a few years into a pattern of coexistence. A harmony periodically disrupted by East German border guards shooting to kill would-be escapers, as well as the daily sound of Soviet artillery exercises taking place just outside the city. The everyday routine and the absurdity of life resided cheek by jowl.
What would you say were the primary unintended consequences of the Wall being built?
That it would cement the Allied desire to defend their right to be in West Berlin, even if that meant armed conflict, and that the Wall itself would become a symbol of failure for the Communist cause worldwide. Walter Ulbricht had wanted to construct a barrier to stop his country haemorrhaging a skilled workforce, whereas Nikita Khrushchev desired to drive the Allies out of Berlin altogether. The former drew a line in the sand for President Kennedy’s administration that one could argue paved the way for their hardline stance during the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later. The latter may have succeeded but would ultimately prove to be a finger in the dam as by 1989 the regime collapsed via ‘people power’.
You spend a chapter looking at the story of Holocaust survivor Estrongo Nachama. What drew you to his story?
As a student of modern European history, as well as a publisher of books in this genre, I was intrigued as to how he had not only survived the Holocaust, but then chose to set up a new home in a devastated Berlin in order to establish his faith in a city where it had once thrived. Almost 80,000 Berlin Jews had been murdered by the Nazis. To then witness such seismic changes over the following years and wish to help his fellow Jews in the Soviet sector who numbered only in the hundreds was an act of unique courage and compassion. His life followed the arc of Berlin and Germany itself as it rose from the ashes of World War II and the stalemate of the Cold War. t
The fall of the Wall is remembered as a moment of relief and joy in the Western world. Is that true also in the former East Germany and East Berlin?
‘Ostalgie’ is a term I heard repeatedly whilst interviewing Berliners in the city. Yes, it was a glorious moment when the Wall was opened and subsequently destroyed, piece by piece. Over the past three decades, however, arguments rage as to whether the old East Germany has benefited economically from reunification. Equally, the older generation who remember life in their communist state see the loss of free health care, a university education and a ‘job for life’. I would argue nothing is more precious than freedom of political thought, act and expression and ultimately to enjoy freedom of travel. None of this was possible in the German Democratic Republic. Yet with today’s Germany seeing the rise of far-right political groups in the eastern half of the country there must be concern that more work is needed to deliver more benefits the West has enjoyed since the end of the 1950s. Berlin itself, however, has changed for the better since 1989. Money poured in after reunification, the eastern half has been reconstructed and renovated, the population has increased and it is now one of Europe’s ‘must see’ cities to visit.