A 1969 STROLL INTO COMMUNIST EAST BERLIN
October 7, 1969. I had just finished a photo assignment in Austria and visited a friend near Frankfurt. Now I wanted to see what Berlin, isolated well behind the Iron Curtain, was like. So I flew Pan Am from Frankfurt to Berlin's Templehof Airport and got a room at the Hilton Hotel on Budapesterstrasse. Mind you, this is West Berlin, a relatively prosperous island in an otherwise bleak landscape. While there, I decided to also explore East Berlin, the capital of Communist East Germany, or DDR.
I took the West Berlin subway (U-Bahn) to Checkpoint Charlie at Kochstrasse and Friedrichstrasse, checked with the American MPs there, and proceeded through a small passage in the Berlin Wall. After a bit of interrogation I was allowed to enter the People's Republic for the remainder of the day.
I apparently chose the right day to do this.
The Stalinist Deutsche Demokratische Republik or DDR was founded exactly twenty years earlier, to the day. So this was their time to celebrate. Loudspeakers on streetlamps rounded the people up and directed them to Pariser Platz, near the Brandenburg Gate, for a mass march up Unter den Linden.
You had no choice. The only way to move was to join the parade. They gave me a flag to carry, which I waved as we passed Humboldt University, Bebelplatz, the Neue Wache, and the Zeughaus. Finally the crowds began to disperse and head for Alexanderplatz, that big open square on Karl Marx Allee, formerly known as Stalin Allee.
People from all the Communist nations, including China, were doing their thing there. Folk dancing, music, demonstrations of solidarity, and just plain admiring this brave new world of the workers. Several stands in the side streets sold sausages and beer, both of which were pretty good and quite cheap.
As the day wore on I got hungry, and waited in line at the Café Moscau, which featured Russian food. Being alone, I was paired up with what might have been a general in the Russian army, or a doorman, in any case a guy in uniform covered with gold braid and medals. I ordered Beef Stroganoff, which was delicious.
There was a changing-of-the-guard ceremony at the Neue Wache, an old Prussian guardhouse now rich in propaganda value with its eternal flame for the victims of fascism. The soldiers there did a great goosestep.
As it got darker, I wandered around through the crowds, stopping now and then for another wurst and beer.
My papers expired at midnight, so about 11:00 I started back towards the checkpoint. But I got lost and strolled just a bit too close to the Berlin Wall. Suddenly, I was pushed against a building with submachine guns aimed at me. "Ich bin Amerikaner" I screamed. "Pass, bitte!" they replied. Presenting my passport, I was released and shown the proper way to the checkpoint. After about 20 minutes I was processed out and proceeded back to the West, where I thanked the American GIs at Checkpoint Charlie. I was free.
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