- Historic Sites
Where Berlin And America Meet
Our common history isn’t all pleasant, but seeing it firsthand is deeply moving
April/May 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 2
Berlin’s history intersects with America’s at many points, and tourists who seek these intersections will arrive at the first of them sooner than they expect. Americans who came of age soaking up reruns of Twelve O‘Clock High, The World at War, and Victory Through Air-power may find that flying into Berlin is a slightly disconcerting way to approach the place. The view from an airplane window is surprising because the city is built around large wooded parks and lakes that you rarely saw in those old movies and newsreels. But it all looks somehow familiar too, giving the dreamlike sense that you’re seeing for the first time a thing you’ve seen many times before. The first sight of the English countryside, much of which looks like watercolor illustrations in American children’s books, gives a more benign version of the same effect: home again to a place you’ve never been, even if your actual ancestral home was Minsk, Guadalajara, Naples, or Canton.
When you come into Berlin, the effect can make you a bit tense. Asked by his German hosts how his flight had been, an otherwise tactful friend of mine replied, “Fine. No flak, no Messerschmitts.” This struck me as funny, but perhaps the citizens of a city that was still bomb-ravaged when I first saw it in 1994 might feel differently. Later the same friend heard a joke about the 1943 Royal Air Force raid on Hamburg, which started the world’s first firestorm and killed 35,000 people; it involved a man driven mad by the bombing who leaped from his shelter and screamed through the burning air, “But I never voted for him.” This made my friend ashamed of his own joke. Then he became puzzled, for neither he nor his hosts had done these things. They had not even been alive at the time. Yet this past was somehow present between them.
Berlin, though, is 900 years old, and it has more than one past. If relatively few of them intersect American history, most of the ones that do are dramatic.
At the close of World War II, Berlin, like the rest of Germany, was divided into occupation zones by the four victorious powers. In 1949 the American, British, and French zones merged into the Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany, while the Russian zone became the German Democratic Republic, and the Russian sector of Berlin East Germany’s capital. The city came to seem the very center of the Cold War and occasionally the flash point where a shooting war might break out. In 1948 the Russians cut off land access, leaving West Berlin an island surrounded by Warsaw Pact territory. This was the earlier of two Berlin crises. For events that threatened to spark a nuclear war, they have left few memorials.
The airlift changed America in Berliners’ minds from their devastator to their great protector.
The 1948 crisis is marked by an occasional monument, a couple of resonant street names, and a pair of airports. They evoke a story almost forgotten in the United States, though not in Berlin, where Gen. Lucius Clay, at the time the military governor of Germany, remains the best-remembered hero of a desperate year, one when the United States changed in Berliners’ minds from a power that had devastated their city to its great protector.
By 1948 the United States and Britain had demobilized their armies. The West had 6,500 troops in Berlin, while the Soviet Union had 18,000 there and 300,000 elsewhere in Germany. It was not yet clear where the border between Communist and non-Communist Europe would be or what would become of occupied Germany. The Cold War was heating up, and Berlin, a hundred miles inside the Soviet zone, looked like a strategic disaster in the making. American military planners warned that the city could be neither defended if attacked nor relieved if besieged, and Gen. Omar Bradley urged that American troops be withdrawn before they were kicked out. But President Truman and Gen. George Marshall felt that Berlin could offer a brilliant contrast between the Communist and non-Communist worlds.
West Berlin, they decided, would be supplied by an airlift, an approach already initiated by General Clay. The obstacles were formidable, but so was Clay’s will—and that of the populace he was determined to rescue. The main airport in the American sector of Berlin was Tempelhof, and the Air Force officers who pointed out that it didn’t have the capacity to unload enough supplies to sustain the city were perfectly right. So Clay called for civilian volunteers to build another airport. They did. Twenty thousand men and women showed up and cleared and graded the land for Tegel, which is now Berlin’s main international hub.
Tegel is not interesting architecturally (and hardly needs to be, given the circumstances of its birth), but Tempelhof, which may soon be closed to the public, is. It was part of a grand plan for Berlin devised by Albert Speer, and it is a sleekly handsome building. But if the terminal origin with Hitler’s architect is unsettling, its role in the drama of the Berlin airlift, making it possible until Tegel was completed, is inspiring.