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World: Wall of Shame

22 minute read

BERLIN (See Cover)

In flat, open country within the city’s northern boundary, the land to the west is checkered with brown wheatfields and lush, green, potato gardens. Eastward stretches a no-man’s land where once fertile fields lie desolate and deathly still. They could be in two different worlds—and, in a sense, they are. Even the countryside outside Berlin is divided into East and West by a vicious, impenetrable hedge of rusty barbed wire and concrete. As itsnakes southward toward the partitioned city, it becomes the Wall.

Seldom in history have blocks and mortar been so malevolently employed or sorichly hated in return. One year old this month, the Wall of Shame, as it is often called, cleaves Berlin’s war-scarred face like an unhealed wound; its hideousness offends the eye as its inhumanity hurts the heart. For 27 miles it coils through the city, amputating proud squares and busy thoroughfares, marching insolently across graveyards and gardens, dividing families and friends, transforming whole street-fronts into bricked-up blankness. “The Wall,” muses a Berlin policeman, “is not just sad. It is not just ridiculous. It is schizophrenic.”

Curses for Friends. Last week a touch of mass schizophrenia rubbed off on West Berliners. Normally they are a cynical, cocksure breed who thumb their noses at trouble. “Mir kann keener,” they brag in the local dialect. “No one can push me around.” In 17 years as a cockpit of the cold war, West Berlin has usually reacted more coolly to its recurring alarums than Washington or Whitehall. Even the Wall seemed barely to have dented the city’s composure.

Then, in an abrupt fit of rage at friend and foe alike, thousands of West Berliners went on a violent, four-day emotional bender that complicated the tense situation along the East-West barrier. What brought them to the boil was the death of 18-year-old Peter Fechter, shot while trying to cross the Wall. Many an East Berliner had died in similar efforts, but Fechter bled slowly to death in full view of a helpless, outraged crowd. Suddenly, all the pent-up frustrations exploded in an orgy of riots. After venting their anger on the detested East German border guards, rock-hurling, catcalling West Berliners battled their own police, stoned Russian soldiers, and shouted insults at harassed U.S.troops.

The mob’s voice echoed in every major capital of the world, forcing Russia and the West into another of those nightmarish Berlin confrontations. It emphasized once again that so long as the Wall is allowed to stand, a perpetual threat to world peace exists in the heart of Europe.

Sounds of Death. West Berliners watch fretfully as the barricade grows more formidable and its servants’ marksmanship improves. The Wall has become an all-pervasive part of life in Berlin. At their backs, West Berliners feel the cold-eyed scrutiny of the Communist cops, whose duty is to guard their frontier not from those outside, but against their own people. Hardly a night passes without the rattle of gunfire and the sounds of death from the other side. To West Berliners, the Wall is a calendar: they will recall a date by saying, “It happened the month before the Wall.” It is a direction finder: strangers in search of a Gartenstrasse bordello are told to follow the Wall until they see the wooden screens that the Communist border guards put up to end East-West flirtation.

Bernauerstrasse, where the windows and doorways of a row of houses have been bricked up for several blocks to become part of the Wall, is now a standard West Berlin tourist attraction. So are the partsof the Wall that stretch through the working-class districts of Wedding and Neukölln, whose fiercely independent inhabitants can sometimes be seen lobbing rocks at the Reds for summer evening sport.

Marxist Maginot. At the Potsdamer Platz, which was Berlin’s Times Square before the Wall truncated it, visiting sightseers mount wooden stands to gawk at the bare, dead city beyond. “In one quick look,” they nod, “you can see what Communism is like.” Berliners proudly point out each place where the Wall has been breached: eight celebrated holes in the ground where East-West tunnelers surfaced; the spot on the River Spree where 14 East Berliners turned pirate and steered an excursion boat to freedom. On the Wall’s grey blocks of compressed rubble they scrawl elaborate imprecations against East Germany’s Red Boss Walter Ulbricht and his commissars; one of the politest avers, “They think like Eichmann.” And wherever Germans from the other side have died trying to escape Ulbricht’s prison camp, West Berliners mark the spot with crosses that seldom lack for flowers.

Though the Wall itself ends in the U.S. sector, at East Germany’s Schonefeld airport, watchtowers and barbed-wire barriers also seal the city’s 65-mile western border with the Soviet zone. And that does not count the 830-mile Marxist Maginot line that seals East Germany’s western frontier from the Baltic to Czechoslovakia. This is what Walter Ulbricht cynically calls the Democratic Anti-Fascist Protection Wall; already it boasts 500 watchtowers, 1,000 fortified bunkers, 93 miles of minefields, and throughout its length, the wide, plowed strips of earth where a footprint can be seen from a distance, alerting guards with savage dogs to another escape attempt.

Fatal Pause. In fact, Ulbricht’s prison wall is a cynical denial of the human rights that are recognized by every civilized society, and even fraudulently guaranteed by the East German constitution, which pledges: “Every citizen has the right to emigrate.” To Germans, the Wall’s greatest mischief is its aim of permanently dismembering a divided nation whose people yearn to be reunified. West Berliners themselves must also think of their city’s welfare. Said West Berlin’s Mayor Willy Brandt last week: “The Wall must go, but until it goes, the city must live.”

Brandt’s words were prompted by Peter Fechter’s ignominious death and the events that followed it. Fechter was an East Berlin bricklayer who had waited a year for an opportunity to join his sister in West Berlin. Because of his trade, he was allowed to work near the crumbling wall, and, with another 18-year-old, discovered a deserted lumberyard that was separated from a low stretch of Wall by a vacant lot and the “death strip.” a border of sand within easy range of a dozen Communist tommy guns.

When the pair made their dash early one afternoon last week, Fechter’s friend managed to climb the six-foot-high barrier and leap over the barbed wire on top. But Fechter paused for a few fatal seconds, long enough for the Grenzpolizei (border police) to raise their weapons and fire. Shot in the back by crossfire. Fechter fell back onto the death strip only 300 yds. from Checkpoint Charlie, the U.S. command post at the busy Friedrichstrasse border crossing.

“Go Get Him.” There he lay. moaning “Hilfe, Hilfe,” while a growing throng of horrified West Berliners stood gaping on the other side of the barrier. As the minutes ticked past, photographers, cops, even a couple of U.S. military policemen, edged gingerly up to the Wall’s western side to have a look at the hideous sight. One conscience-stricken U.S. second lieutenant could stand it no longer, picked up the “hot line” telephone to Major General Albert Watson II. the U.S. commandant in West Berlin. Back came the order: “Lieutenant, you have your orders. Stand fast. Do nothing.” Not knowing the reason for the Americans’ inaction, an agonized crowd swirled around the command post crying: “For God’s sake, go get him.” When a German reporter asked why the American troops did not rescue Fechter. one G.I. replied, “This is not our problem.”

Fifty-five minutes after he had fallen to the ground, Peter Fechter’s lifeless body was carted away by Communist cops. He was the 50th East German known to have been killed while attempting to breach the Wall.

Checking with Washington. It was not the first time that Western soldiers have been powerless to help a wounded victim of the Grepos. Last December another youth died within a few yards of the British sector line. At the time, freewheeling General Lucius D. Clay snorted: “If that ever happened at the American sector, we would have had that boy out of there in ten minutes.”

General Clay enjoyed a unique freedom of action—and comment—for he was sent to Berlin as President Kennedy’s special representative. General Watson, in a complex chain of command from the Pentagon and the State Department, can hardly make a move without clearing it in advance with Washington. Like the men under him. he lives with the somber instructions that a single rash decision could trigger World War III.

On purely humanitarian grounds, there was wide feeling that his U.S. detachment at Checkpoint Charlie had a moral duty to minister to Peter Fechter as he lay dying. Reasoned a Berlin cab driver: “Even in war, both sides respect the right to collect the wounded.” But in the explosive context of the cold war, there are few clear-cut rules. One solution would have been to call an army doctor, but in the excitement of the moment no one thought of calling a medic or even a priest. (The only bystander who made any effort to help Fechter was a West German policeman who dropped two first aid packages over the Wall.) But any attempt by U.S. troops to remove him would have invited political repercussions and, just possibly, shooting. If they had whisked Fechter through Checkpoint Charlie to a West Berlin hospital, the Russians would have had a readymade excuse for manhunting forays in the U.S. sector, the perfect pretext for kidnaping defectors.

Ambulance Call. General Watson, 53, a cool, meticulous professional, has only one standing order on which he can take major action: if the Russians move into West Berlin, start fighting. Thus, responsibility for caution lies with policymakers in Washington, London and Paris. After the Fechter incident, Watson suggested stationing an ambulance at Checkpoint Charlie, finally got permission after the proposal had gone all the way to the Pentagon and the White House. Even that token gesture was of limited value, surrounded as it was by Washington’s careful insistence that any wounded fugitive it might pick up would have to be taken to a hospital in the Soviet zone. “It would be kinder,” shrugged one officer, “to give the poor devil a loaded revolver.”

But West Berliners were too upset to be concerned with such niceties. They saw only that the mighty U.S., while pledged to preserve the life of the city, had not lifted a finger to help one desperate lad. As news of the tragedy spread, thousands of solid Berlin citizens and hordes of the city’s rowdy Halbstarke (Teddy boys) flocked to the Friedrichstrasse border point to gape and grumble. They jeered and elbowed their own West Berlin cops, booed shamefaced U.S. troops. For the first time in West Berlin’s long love affair with the G.I., they chorused: “Ami [Americans], Go Home!” The West Berliners vented their rage on Ulbricht by raining curses and rocks on his Grepos and Vopos, and turned the barrage against their own police when the latter tried to reason with them.

Guarding the Guard. Berliners’ most satisfying target for three straight evenings was the bus that shuttles the 25-man Soviet guard from Checkpoint Charlie to the Russian war memorial in the British sector near the Brandenburg Gate.

On the third and wildest night, the mob broke 18 windows in the Soviet bus while its occupants cowered with heads in hands; later they made a bonfire of two old cars in an attempt to block its return After beating back the Bereitschaftspoli-zei, Berlin’s crack riot squads, the mob surged out of control around a three-jeep U.S. patrol, and stood catcalling and shaking their fists until MPs came after them brandishing M-14 rifles with fixed (but sheathed) bayonets.

Chanting “The Wall must go,” some 5,000 demonstrators swarmed across the square in front of Berlin’s city hall and used police loudspeakers to ask Mayor Willy Brandt what he planned to do about it. Brandt, who later blamed the outbursts on “a small minority of rowdies” and known Communist agents, warned them that they were playing into the hands of the Communists, and said that he had ordered his police to halt the demonstrations. Ignoring his advice, several mobs of more than 1,000 youths each headed for the Wall, where they cruised up and down hurling rocks at Vopos almost all night. Next evening another Soviet bus was twice waylaid by rock-hurling youths; later on, a wedge of car-borne demonstrators forced a Soviet staff car to seek temporary refuge in the U.S Army’s McNair barracks.

The Escort Question. The rioting finally petered out after heavily reinforced police had put a moat of barbed wire around Checkpoint Charlie and arrested 128 troublemakers. The Soviet guard faced trouble of a different sort when its commander announced that it was going to drive to the war memorial in three armored personnel carriers, which by tacit agreement between U.S. and Soviet commandants enter each other’s sector only if they do not display arms. When the Soviet guard showed up with submachine-gun-toting soldiers standing on the sides of the vehicles, General Watson insisted that they climb inside. After a 43-minute argument, the Russians agreed and were escorted to the memorial by MPs. After another three-hour sitdown in which they objected to the escort, the Russians retaliated by dispatching a “quasi-escort” to shepherd a U.S. convoy on the Helm-stedt Autobahn.

At the top level, away from the streets, U.S. and Soviet commandants went through an Alphonse and Gaston exchange calculated to observe the diplomatic niceties without meeting face to face. U.S. commandant Watson, who had earlier sent the Russians a note protesting “acts of terror” (it was ignored), sent the deputy .Soviet commandant, Colonel C.V. Tarasov, an invitation to attend a four-power meeting to discuss the disturbances (it was rejected). Tarasov then tried twice to see Watson to protest the stoning of Soviet troop buses. He was predictably rebuffed in both attempts. This merely widened the smile on his chubby face; Moscow was soon crowing that the Americans were not only unable to prevent hooliganism, but refused even to discuss their failures.

Concerned that the killings at the Wall might unleash uncontrollable violence in Berlin, Secretary of State Dean Rusk summoned Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to his office, urgently requested Russian authorities in Berlin to join four-power discussions aimed at reducing tensions in the troubled city.

Another Dictum. The Allies fired off stiffly worded protests to Moscow against the East German regime’s “coldblooded killings.” Before the Western notes could be delivered, East German policemen standing at the West Berlin border pumped 30 machine gun bullets into a fleeing 19-year-old East Berliner who was already inside the French sector. He died.

While the Soviet propaganda mill churned out charges that West Berlin had become a “NATO base,” Moscow officials formally protested the stoning of its buses in the western sector, which it blamed on “fascistic elements with the obvious connivance” of the U.S.

Moscow did not stop at that. Abruptly, the Russians announced that they were abolishing the office of Soviet commandant in Berlin; from now on, they suggested, their affairs in East Berlin would be taken care of by General Ivan Yaku-bovsky, Russian commandant in East Ger many itself. This, declared the Soviet Defense Ministry, was part of its “policy of eliminating in Europe the vestiges of the Second World War.” Again, Berlin was in the banner headlines of the world press, for by this maneuver Russia was raising once again its thesis that four-power control of Berlin* is ended, and with it the rights of the U.S., Britain and France to station troops in West Berlin and maintain free access to the city.

Only as Agent. The West, of course, flatly rejects this idea, and the U.S. has made it clear that it would go to war rather than surrender the “three essentials” : right of free access to West Berlin, the presence of U.S. troops in the city, and survival of West Berlin’s free economy and political system.

As a practical matter, four-power control in Berlin ended in June 1948, when Soviet General Alexander Kotikov walked out of the ruling Kommandatura early in the 13-month Berlin blockade. In a gleaming Berlin conference room, a seat is carefully saved for the Russians, but the U.S., British and French commandants have for years conducted their business on a tripartite basis. Fact is, the West can maintain its dealings with the Russians about as easily through General Yakubovsky, whose headquarters is in nearby Wiins-dorf, as it can with a Russian “Berlin commandant.” The contacts have not been very intimate or frequent in any case.

In fact, the U.S. may not object to dealing with Major General Helmut Poppe, the East German who was “named” last week to replace the Russian Berlin commander, provided it is understood that he is acting only as “agent” for the Russians, and provided, above all, that the East German does not in any way attempt to undermine the West’s position in West Berlin.

In a statement issued within a few hours of the Soviet change in commandants—a near-record feat for the State Department—the U.S. replied bluntly: “Regardless of how they organize themselves administratively, we continue to hold the Soviet Union responsible for carrying out its obligations in Berlin under existing agreements.” It added: “This move appears to be an attempt by the Soviet Union to absolve itself from responsibility for the Communist actions in Berlin which have increased tensions so dangerously in that city.”

Light Bulbs & Cigarettes. By contrast with the numbing depression that gripped their city when the Wall went up, Berliners were good and mad last week; there was no talk of an exodus. Said one: “We’ve pretty well separated the men from the boys by now.” Pan American, British European Airways and Air France, the airlines serving West Berlin, were flying dozens of flights daily, with big loads coming as well as going.

West Berliners today seem confident that they can sit out any Soviet squeeze. The population (2,200,000) is stable. Bank deposits and industrial production are climbing. The people boast that, despite the Wall, they live in West Germany’s “biggest industrial city,” produce one of every three dresses and cigarettes used in West Germany—and, they add solemnly, “every other light bulb.”

The city’s remoteness from West Germany does not disturb them; Berliners have always called themselves “island dwellers.” But it deeply worries Allied commanders.

Militarily, West Berlin’s position deep inside Communist territory is hideously vulnerable. The western sector is 140 miles from the nearest Allied bases in West Germany; hence the U.S. preoccupation with access rights, both on land and in the air. In a test of strength with East Germany alone, the three Western powers’ 11,000 man Berlin garrison would be outnumbered by Ulbricht’s 24,500 armed forces and paramilitary police. They would also have to reckon immediately with the three Soviet divisions that are in and around the city. But, as General Maxwell Taylor, soon to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has pointed out, the likelihood of direct Soviet attack on West Berlin is extremely remote. What the West does face, he predicted, is a continuous barrage of “ambiguous challenges about which we might be uncertain.”

Salami Slicing. Many statesmen also are less worried at the prospect of outright conflict than by the systematic program to freeze the Allies out of the city by peaceful means. West German officials, in particular, argue that the U.S. too readily accedes to Moscow’s systematic slicing away at its rights—”salami tactics,” as diplomats call it. In fact, when Washington determinedly resists Russian pressure to revise or eliminate its rights, as it did last February in riding out Soviet harassment in the Berlin air corridors, Moscow usually backs down.

Few Berliners think that the Wall will fall in their lifetime. Many realists feel that it is possible at least to allay the tensions it breeds. One way of easing misery would be to establish an international commission to repatriate divided families; as it becomes more and more hazardous to escape from East Germany, Ulbricht’s regime might welcome the measure of respectability to be derived from reuniting hardship cases—even though the traffic would be overwhelmingly one way.

As an ever present reminder of their country’s partition, the Wall does, after all, subtly keep alive Germans’ hopes of reunification. That, admittedly, is a remote prospect—but. say optimists, “What goes up must come down.” There are, of course, the fatalists who suggest that Ulbricht’s Wall will probably last as long as Hadrian’s (1,835 years and going strong)—if only because, as one old Bonn hand put it last week, ”No democratic government could ever ask its people to try and tear that thing down.”

October Rites. The testing time for Western nerves will probably come this fall. Nikita Khrushchev is half expected to make an appearance at the U.N. to plead Moscow’s specious case for Allied withdrawal from Berlin. Iron Curtain capitals were buzzing last week with a more intriguing notion. In October, it was said, Khrushchev plans to convene a spectacular peace conference in Moscow, attended by other Communist nations and the usual array of neutrals and non-aligned nations, at which Russia will finally go through the ritual of signing a peace treaty with East Germany.

Since the U.S., Britain and France are unlikely to be lured to the party, such a treaty would be without legal force, but not without peril. It will almost certainly be followed by East Germany’s assumption of responsibility for Allied rights in Berlin, which East Berlin’s Mayor Friedrich Ebert last week contemptuously called “a fig leaf punched full of holes.” Other East German officials bayed in unison that the Berlin question will not be solved until the Allies pull out and allow the Communists to turn it into a “neutral, demilitarized, free city.”

The threats have all been made before. But almost no one in the West thinks that the Communists will really make any serious effort to grab the whole salami. For this, as President Kennedy bluntly warned Khrushchev during 1961’s Berlin crisis, will bring a nuclear war.

The Communists’ ace in the hole is that any real improvement in the situation is entirely up to them—the West can do nothing—and that therefore they also have the power to harass, provoke, tantalize and annoy. And mostly with impunity, or at least without any genuine Western retaliation.

Says a West German official who is a firm friend of the U.S.: “The threat of nuclear war has paralyzed the West. The question is whether we are not on the road to ruin this way. The Wall is wrong —everybody knows it’s wrong. The East Germans want to be free—everybody knows they do. And yet Adenauer and Brandt have to tell their own people constantly to keep calm, don’t start anything. The outside world says whatever happens don’t start a war. and to move an ambulance to Checkpoint Charlie you have to have a meeting of the ambassadorial working group in Washington. We assure the East we won’t do anything and as a result they play see-saw on our nerves. We hope for a change in Soviet policy—that’s the formula we use to legitimatize our inaction.”

Will there ever be a change in Soviet policy? There are those who think that Khrushchev would be delighted to be rid of the whole East German mess; it is costing him dearly in prestige and occupation bills, and bringing him less and less in industrial production. But if Russian troops were removed and East Germany were really turned free, would Ulbricht survive? And would the other satellites stay quiescent?

So Khrushchev must hang on, and the Wall must stay—for the time being. But some time—within a year? within a decade? within a generation?—it must come down. For it is an unnatural, inhuman barrier that, if it is not brought down by reason, will some day provoke men to demolish it by force.

* The U.S., Russia and Britain agreed in 1944 that since Berlin in all likelihood would again be Germany’s capital, it should be jointly administered as a “special area.” A year later, France was granted occupation rights and a sector that came from U.S. and British territory. In early 1945 the Red army had sole control of Berlin, only admitted the other powers in exchange for a vast area (almost half) of present-day East Germany that was then occupied by Allied troops. Stalin, who earlier had promised that Russia did “not intend to dismember or destroy Germany,” also promised in return to take “all necessary measures” to assure Allied access to Berlin.

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