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Where Berlin And America Meet

June 2024
12min read

Our common history isn’t all pleasant, but seeing it firsthand is deeply moving

berlin airlift
Berliners watch a C-54 land at Berlin Tempelhof Airport in 1948, the start of the Berlin Blockade. US Air Force

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.

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.

For most of the last 50 years the area lay in oblivion; the forgotten addresses included Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse 8, once the School of Industrial Arts and Crafts and later headquarters of the Secret State Police (Gestapo), and Wilhelmstrasse 102, formerly the Prinz Albrecht Palace and, beginning in 1933, the central offices of the Nazi Security Service (SD). After 1945 the site lay wrecked and undisturbed until the museum was designed in the 1990s. The architects designing their gallery of Nazi state terror built imaginatively on the fact that this is haunted ground. Here, they seem to be saying, is what you risk when you employ such means. The museum’s content—stark placards and photographs of the victims and apparatus of Nazi repression—illustrates the morality of what happened there; the structure itself declares that it all proved suicidal. The exhibits are chilling, but the space that contains them is oddly reassuring in an Old Testament way. Vengeance came from the skies.

Many Germans see Treptow as a celebration of the victory of one monster over another.

Another, even more horrific monument to the war was untouched by the bombing and remains perfectly preserved. The Wannsee Conference took place in a villa by a pretty lake, the Wannsee, in western Berlin. The set- ting is very handsome, with the longest stretch of inland beach in Europe and the Grunewald forest nearby. In 1941 Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring had ordered Himmler’s lieutenant Reinhard Heydrich to make “all necessary preparations with regard to organizational, practical, and material matters for a total solution of the Jewish question within the German sphere of influence in Europe.” And so in January 1942 Heydrich met at Wannsee with officials of numerous other branches of the Reich government.

A cool, bureaucratic preface to an enormity is hard to dramatize, but the Wannsee villa is both a muted site and an astonishingly effective one. After the war it housed Soviet and then American officers; when it became a memorial, its interior was recreated to make it look just as it had during the conference. The chief exhibits are simply large photographs of the participants, calm, well-dressed men about to begin their administrative labors, and blowups of documents recording what they achieved. You leave as you entered, walking down the streets of a wealthy, quiet suburban neighborhood more or less unchanged since the war. The experience provides no catharsis. Not the eye but the mind registers what the Wannsee villa has to say.

The mechanisms coordinated at Wannsee were shattered by a war in which the Red Army inflicted four out of every five casualties suffered by the Wehrmacht and the SS. The Soviets themselves suffered more than 20 million dead. There are two monuments to the Red Army in Berlin, both raised by the Soviet victors. The one most tourists see, if they see either, is a marble colonnade topped by a Red Army statue, but the other is more striking. Built between 1947 and 1949 in Treptow Park, a rather seedy working-class neighborhood in the old eastern zone, is a 54-acre graveyard dominated by a 35-foot-high bronze showing a Russian soldier breaking apart a swastika with a sword in his left hand while he holds a child in his right. Five thousand of the Red Army troops who took Berlin are buried in the cemetery, in an area flanked by a series of rectangular monuments bearing reliefs that depict first the suffering and then the triumphs of the Red Army and the Soviet people. Elsewhere two huge red-granite pylons representing lowered Soviet flags dominate a low hill, each guarded by a bronze of a larger-than-life kneeling Soviet soldier, and a nine-foot-high kneeling Mother Russia gazes down by it all.

This is an uncomfortable place. Many Germans see it as a celebration of the victory of one monster over another, one that raped and pillaged as it advanced. Yet the Mother Russia emphasizes sorrow, and many of the reliefs record atrocities inflicted by the German army. The memorial unwittingly reminds us that Stalin indeed was a monster—there are jarring quotations from him on the slabs with the reliefs —but it also reminds us of what the Red Army endured, avenged, and finally annihilated. One of the shortest and most moving of war poems was addressed to the fortifications dissolving under German bombardment during the siege of Leningrad: “O you stones / Be as firm as people.” If you are grateful for the disappearance of Soviet Communism but retain the suspicion that the world is a much better place because Berlin fell and Leningrad didn’t, you will find the Treptow memorial moving. Its stones remind us that our world survived be- cause no stones are as firm as were some peoples.

Still, much of Berlin reminds us that the city was not only Hitler’s capital and a Cold War hot spot but also the capital of Frederick the Great and Imperial Germany and the Weimar Republic. Frederick’s Prussia was abolished as a political entity by the Allies after World War II, but its physical remains are very much worth seeing. Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841), a neoclassical and neo-Gothic architect of genius, left buildings that are among the most wonderful in Berlin, including the Neue Wache, the Friedrichswerdersche Kirche, the Schauspielhaus, and the Altes Museum. The distance by which he is off our cultural map today shows how much Hitler’s shadow still obscures Berlin’s past.

If you are old enough for the name Prussia to have any resonance at all, it is probably an unpleasant one of militarism, a legacy of the First World War. Those few Americans who know that Frederick the Great sent George Washington a sword in honor of the victories at Trenton and Princeton are unlikely to be much moved by the fact. This indifference would have amazed earlier Americans, for whom Frederick was truly impressive. You can and should visit his summer palace at Sans Souci, in Potsdam, right next to Berlin. If you want to see splendid monuments to what thrilled, then alarmed, and finally disgusted your ancestors, walk down Unter den Linden, past the Brandenburg Gate, and see the handsome buildings of what were in the nineteenth century the greatest universities in the world. On Unter den Linden itself stands a very handsome equestrian statue of Frederick the Great, and nearby are bronze likenesses of various great Prussian field marshals—Blücher, Gneisenau, Wartenburg. Schinkel’s Neue Wache, a memorial to the War of Liberation, was a guardhouse for the Prussian Royal Guards. Nowadays it contains a sculpture by Käthe Kollwitz of a woman weeping for the World War I dead.

Many nineteenth-century Americans admired Prussia —and Germany as a whole—for their modernity, science, and military strength. But for us later history keeps intruding. In a plaza at the old Humboldt University a new, quiet, and brilliant memorial to the Nazi book burnings consists of a sheet of Plexiglas set into the pavement through which you see only empty shelves and a prophetic inscription from the poet Heinrich Heine: “Where they burn books, they will someday burn men.”

We can see through to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Berlin, but the most vivid Berlin for Americans inescapably remains that of the first half of the twentieth century. Some of that Berlin’s echoes are pleasurable and even thrilling: the architecture of the Bauhaus, the expressionist canvases of painters like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Otto Dix, and the newly restored Mitte district, where you can imagine you are in the 1920s Berlin of the Weimar refugees. You may not be able to look at the magnificent Olympic Stadium without recalling the Leni Riefenstahl films shot there and what they celebrated, but it is worth trying to do so. Most people manage to look at St. Petersburg without dwelling at every moment on the dreadful human cost of its construction, or at the Parthenon without focusing on the slaves in the silver mines of Athens.

Still, it all happened so recently in Berlin, and is all so much part of our own past too, that this can be harder there. Staying with friends in Prenzlauer Berg, a lively neighborhood in the old eastern zone, I asked about a structure that my German friends guessed was a water tower. I later discovered that it was indeed a water tower, but one that in the 1930s had served a “wild” concentration camp, where Nazi stormtroopers took kidnapped people when they wanted to avoid the already marginal supervision of the courts.

Such sudden surfacing can work in other ways too, though. A Berliner once pointed out to me, with some emotion, a stretch of undistinguished low-rise 1960s housing that was until the 1990s a U.S. Army barracks. This seemed only mildly interesting until my friend explained that many Berliners still haven’t forgotten that the young men who lived in that housing had come to defend their isolated city against what would otherwise have been hopeless odds—that the United States had resolved to risk a ghastly war to protect democracy in Berlin. When I heard that, I recognized that those unremarkable buildings were a part of American history most of us have already nearly forgotten. Wonderful and utterly beautiful things in Berlin that do not intersect American history—say, Cranach’s painting of the Passion in the King of Prussia’s hunting lodge in the Grunewald, or the great altar to Zeus in the Pergamon Museum—are fascinating, but not in the same way. Berlin, as the old saying goes, had the misfortune to produce more history than can be consumed locally. And a lot of that history is part of ours.


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