One Day in East Berlin, 1984
by Robert Thomas
March 15, 2023
In 1984 I was alone in East Berlin, in a stare down with three busloads of East German soldiers.
My white tennis shoes and Levi’s blue jeans clearly gave me away as an American. I was a young adult, a solo backpacking tourist in East Berlin. While there I decided to explore the Fernsehturm Berlin Tower, the tallest landmark inside East Berlin.
Although I was successful in finding the tower, I approached the tower from its back alley. That alley was narrow and dark as no sunlight could enter it. Nobody was in the alley – except me and the 150 German soldiers I discovered there.
In silence, I slowly walked up the alley toward the back entrance of the tower. I was walking in the same direction as the three bus loads of East German soldiers. The soldiers did not notice me until I entered their peripheral vision on their left hand side. The soldiers seated in the back row of the last bus spotted me first. Then the soldiers seated in the row in front of them saw me. Row after row of soldiers turned towards me, like falling dominoes. Seemingly all the soldiers eventually met my gaze, glaring at me over their left shoulders. We were no more than 10 feet apart. Our jaws tightened. Nobody blinked.
These soldiers clearly seemed to despise me, and at that moment, even outnumbered, I despised them. Fittingly, the year was 1984. George Orwell had somehow set the stage for mortal enemies to come face to face that day, only to realize they were not actually enemies.
Forty years earlier, in World War II, and not too far from that alley, my father was in Germany. As a 19 year old US Army officer, my father fought to the death against the uncles and fathers of these German soldiers. In fact, even on that summer day in 1984, all of East Berlin was still pockmarked by 40 year old bullet holes. It was not lost on my father in WWII, nor on me at that moment, that my family is of German (and Scottish) ancestry. What a thought – a civil war of sorts with brother killing brother. One brother fighting for the freedom of others while the other brother fought for fascism, communism’s first cousin.
In that alley, I do not recall if it was me or one of the 150 German soldiers who first smiled.
But someone smiled.
In a moment, we went from being hostile adversaries to young men with no grievances among us. The man-made political wall that existed to divide us immediately vanished. Silently, we all smiled and enthusiastically waved to each other. The soldiers were too disciplined to speak, and I was too relieved to have spoken.
My spirits lifted by the encounter of fellowship, I made my way in to the tower. The only place open to visitors in the tower was a brightly lit, sparsely furnished basement bar. I befriended the sole patron of the bar, a Soviet officer standing at the linoleum counter. A lonely, and empty, shot glass sat in front of him.
The only Russian words I knew were “da” and “vodka.” So of course, I used some of my worthless 35 East German Marks to buy both of us an afternoon shot of vodka. We parted with a sincere salute and yet another smile. I then bought a couple communist propaganda souvenirs because vodka, inedible grey meat, and worthless trinkets were the only things for sale in East Berlin. If you wanted to paint a picture depicting despair, you would paint East Berlin on that summer day in 1984.
I eventually headed to Check Point Charlie and the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall that contained the repressed and prohibited freedom. Yet another artificial, man-made obstacle dividing us. If communism was so wonderful, I wondered to myself, why would it need a massive wall and armed guards to contain its citizens?
To my surprise and trepidation, my adventure in East Berlin was not then ending. I was immediately detained at Check Point Charlie. My clean shaven face did not match the college student beard I wore on my passport photo. At that age, I thought my scholarly looking beard looked quite handsome. But the discrepancy between my bearded face in the photograph and my clean-shaven face generated only alarm among the East German guards.
Those following minutes were perhaps the most lonely minutes I had known in my short life. I could see the freedom of West Berlin through the windows of the enclosed checkpoint, but the soldiers would not let me pass. As an American, the thought of the East German government deciding my fate was frighteningly real to me. The thought of anyone limiting my freedom of speech or movement was then completely unknown to me. You do not know the feeling of vulnerability until armed soldiers restrain your freedom in a foreign land.
After the guards made a few phone calls, the soldiers eventually let me pass back to West Berlin – and freedom. Although my 150 new soldier friends remained behind, they would soon taste freedom when the Berlin Wall fell several years later as their repressive system collapsed upon itself.
This story of my day in East Berlin reminds me of how many Americans feel when they interact with each other now. Today there is a different artificial, icy wall that separates us. On one side of the wall are those who feel as though they cannot exercise their freedoms for fear of being politically incorrect, a communist concept. On the other side of the modern ice wall are those that will not tolerate dissent or even humor that may offend.
Perhaps now is the time for the smile, the acknowledgment that we are all brothers and sisters, and not adversaries. As George Orwell prophesied, perhaps the differences among us are simply contrived for political purposes. Maybe now we can recognize that we have so much in common, including our love of freedom, that the artificial ice wall that separates us will also collapse of its own weight.
Perhaps then we can all enjoy a vodka together and warmly salute each other as reunited brothers and sisters.
Robert Thomas is a freelance author and amateur improviser.