- 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
Even before Tegel was built, America could hardly back down from the airlift; Berliners themselves were behaving too courageously. The Russian army offered food to anyone who supported the Soviets, but almost everybody preferred the risk of starvation. So the Soviets put pressure on the city assembly and other non-Communist organizations. This provoked a defiant demonstration by a quarter-million Berliners in front of the ruins of the Reichstag. Still, most American and British air commanders regarded the logistical situation as hopeless. More than two million Berliners needed both food and enough fuel to survive a Central European winter, and an airlift simply couldn’t do the job. Nonetheless, Curtis LeMay, famous for grimmer achievements overseeing the air war in the Pacific, turned his administrative genius to the task of using airpower to keep millions of people alive. His planes flew around the clock. At the height of the effort a C-47 or C-54 landed in Berlin every three minutes.
President Truman, whose air forces had bombed the city to rubble, is nowadays remembered by older Berliners as the man whose planes fed them. The Air Force code-named the effort Operation Vittles, and when a lieutenant took up a collection to buy candy to parachute down to Berlin’s children, the pilots who delivered the payload called that venture Little Vittles. Little Vittles has survived vividly in Berliners’ memory, and the transport aircraft that fed the city are still affectionately called the Rosinenbomber —raisin bombers. One of them sits on a plinth in Truman Plaza, on Clayalle. If you don’t know what you’re looking at, you might think it marks the decaying corporate headquarters of a down-at-the-heels defense contractor, rather than a sword beaten into a plowshare.
The principal monument to the second Berlin crisis is even humbler: a stretch of crumbling brick and a small museum. For 15 years walking across a Berlin street was by far the simplest and safest way out of the Communist world, and more than three million East Germans, a fifth of the population, took that walk. East Germany was on the verge of collapse in 1961, when the Berlin Wall went up, dividing houses, public squares, even rivers. Only a short stretch of the Wall remains. It’s the Berlin Wall Memorial, at the corner of Bernauerstrasse and Ackerstrasse. Across the street is a little museum called the Wall Documentation Center.
The Wall rose very suddenly, over the course of a few August days, but like World War I’s quickly dug trench lines, it grew in sophistication and difficulty over the years. As on the Western Front, fence posts and barbed wire were the first improvement to a crude barrier; next came a high cement-block wall, behind which a second wall later rose, fronted by a deep ditch and dog runs. Eventually watchtowers with searchlights and machine guns commanded the dead ground between the walls. For the next 28 years thousands would risk death, and hundreds found it, seeking a way over, under, or through the Berlin Wall.
When the wall was erected, both East and West saw it as a Communist victory. In the light of history, that view seems bizarre. For from the moment the Wall rose, the nature of the Communist world no longer had to be debated; it had been vividly dramatized, and you had to be an extremely sophisticated observer to miss the point. Anyone who had ever seen a prison movie knew what sort of situation required watchtowers, searchlights, guard dogs, and machine guns. The Communist world was not the radiant future; it was a jail. Albert Norden, the East German propaganda chief, provided some of the Cold War’s most bleakly funny rhetoric trying to conceal this fact: “Our barbed wire, our walls are encircling the warmongers. They are a bulwark of freedom.” And to the guards who patrolled it: “You, comrades, are standing on the border between war and peace, between imperialism and socialism.… Whoever sticks his swinish snout in our socialist garden will pull it out bloodied.”
Building the Wall hardly began the Cold War, but its destruction in November 1989 did begin the end of it. The bulwark was first assaulted by ordinary Berliners using hammers and wire cutters, and the regime it had helped defend collapsed almost immediately. Before long the Wall was almost entirely gone, though supposed fragments of it were being manufactured and sold to tourists for years. Its last surviving stretch runs, dilapidated and drab, near the old Third Reich Air Ministry. If you don’t know it’s there, you won’t see it, for it’s like the grassy patch of field across the bridge at Antietam Creek, a place that means nothing at all unless you know what happened there.
Berlin was probably the most extensively bombed city in the war, and the results remain its most striking war monuments, although in the last decade much of the damage disappeared amid the fantastic building boom that followed reunification. There are still many traces of the bombs, though, especially in the old eastern sector. Often they’re simply gaps in urban open blocks that are used as beer gardens, but the most eloquent lies a short walk from the Air Ministry. It is the Gestapo’s headquarters. By war’s end all that was left of that place was a hole in the ground. The hole now houses what seems a cross between a shrine and a museum. The curators have named the exhibit “The Topography of Terror,” for the surviving cellars were once torture chambers where opponents of the regime were questioned and sometimes committed suicide.