East Germany, Berlin, and Communism
I never thought I would have to
put this into perspective, for few thought that Communism in
Eastern Europe would dissolve. Yet it has.
Now that Germany is reunified, the Berlin Wall has been removed, and Communism no longer a foreign threat, few people remember, and fewer still ever realized, just exactly what this situation looked like on a practical level.
I will often tell this story in present tense. I have my reasons for this - mostly to bring you into the story. To me, there was only the present in these areas.
Germany at that time was divided
into two countries: West Germany and East Germany. West Germany
was the Germany most people knew and visited. East Germany was
very large, and was the western border of the great Communist
block led by the Soviet Union.
Berlin was an island in the middle of East Germany. To understand why, you must go back to your history of World War II. The practical effect was that Berlin was an island deep in East Germany. You had to take a significant train ride to get in or out.
To further complicate matters, Berlin was divided into two parts: West and East. To understand why, you must again go back to your history of World War II. Essentially, America and the west took over and rebuilt West Berlin, while the Soviets decided to keep East Berlin for themselves. West Berlin became part of the Western culture, but East Berlin, and East Germany, became part of the Soviet Empire. The difference grew according to these cultures, and over the years you can see a very distinct difference between the two parts.
East Germany was very particular about letting people into or out of the borders of their country. We noted this from the very western border of East Germany through our entire trip. They further built the Berlin Wall to keep their people from exiting East Berlin into West Berlin, and then beyond. Look up the history of the Berlin Air Lift to get some further understanding of the problem.
This was the evolving situation from the end of World War Two, through the building of the Wall in the 1960s, and then up through when I visited in the 1980s. At this time, communism was very much real, very much alive, and very much a threat. That was the situation when I visited.
Visiting East Germany and Berlin
We took a train from the West Germany-East Germany border deep into East Germany. It was obvious right away that things were different.
The first sign of Communism: military on the train. We had taken trains to several countries in Europe over several weeks, and not once - not once - during this time were there any military soldiers on any trains. The military was present and very clear on the trains in East Germany.
They were serious. Oh, I had seen plenty of military guards in America. Serious about their job, yes, but at least usually pleasant. Not here. These were serious military people, and you not to mess with them. Don't even breathe wrong.
Furthermore, although even US military guards often have guns, they were nothing like the guns these soldiers had. I don't know my types of guns, but I can tell you they seemed much larger than was really necessary.
Note that in every country there are officials who check passports. This happens all the time and is very routine. The military who checked the passports scrutinized things a lot more.
Along with the soldiers on the train, there were military vehicles on the road.
Sure, all countries have military, and yes, I'd seen a truck now and then in every country. These guys need to travel from place to place, sure. But it was nothing like in East Germany. As we sat on the train, and I looked out the window, I could see a lot of military vehicles - tanks, trucks, everything. Even to this day, I've never seen as many military vehicles except for on the news or at a military base. It seemed we were traveling in a war.
The train ride to Berlin is a fairly long one. So, while you see the tanks go by out your window, and you see the serious soldiers with large guns on the train with you, you start to wonder if this is such a good idea. It seemed like we could have been held hostage, taken prisoners on the train instead of being passengers of our own choice. You are also afraid to talk, so the ride was long and silent. All you could do was look, and think.
West Berlin itself is not a bad city. It is western as any city, and a fine place to work, live or visit.
But, of course, we went to the Berlin Wall, and then into East Berlin itself.
As many Germans can tell you, the Berlin Wall is a serious thing. It is tall, very long, and secure. It is concrete, twice the size of any man, and has barbed wire on the top. It is very serious, and the East Germans (communists) are very serious about keeping their people from leaving.
On the Western side, people have painted lots of messages - mostly about peace and freedom.
Americans can go into East Berlin. There is a sign which reads "Leaving the American Sector." The western security checks you out, talks to you, and then lets you go through.
As soon as you walk through, you see an enormous difference between East Berlin and West Berlin.
West Berlin is a normal city - busy, active, thriving. East Berlin is dead. I mean, really dead.
I felt like I'd entered the Twilight Zone. It was as if something mysterious happened - an alien, or an atomic bomb - because it was just too silent.
We wandered all over that city. Like all the other walking we did, we walked through this city as well. Quiet. Empty. Silent.
You want to be alone in nature, not in a city. You want to have a park to yourself, or a historic site, not a major city. It was just too eerie.
Where are the people? I think they were to afraid to be outside, and so stayed inside at their work or home. That's the only reason I could find. It certainly wasn't a weekend, and it wasn't a holiday. Also contrast this with the thriving life on the other side of the wall - just a mile away is normal life - so it wasn't due to geography or weather or anything. Knowing all the military out and about, and the seriousness of the Berlin Wall, I'd be afraid to walk around too.
East Germany has a nice viewing tower. We went up and looked around. The city was large, and looked modern. It just quiet, and totally empty.
We went to a town square - city park type thing. One of the buildings had more East German soldiers. They were marching as they guarded the place - doing a full goose-step march. My partner took a few pictures, though I suggested not to.
There were also a few statues of Communist leaders there. Aside from that, just a few people, but mostly empty.
We went to a museum, and there were more people there. This museum has a pretty extensive collection of Egyptian items. Again, I love Egyptian items, so I really enjoyed it. It was the emptiest museum I'd ever been in. This was nice for looking closely at each item, but was another sign of the way things were in East Berlin.
We went through the check point of the Wall back to the West side. Of course we were looked over carefully. We spent the night in West Berlin, and took the train back out to West Germany. I was glad to be out.
1. Communism is a bad thing.
Communism is a bad thing. It doesn't take a genius to figure that out. I was just a Junior in High School, but I could see. I could see all the military, I could see the Wall, I could see the checks and double checks, and I could see the emptiness. I only needed a couple days to see Communism was a terrible idea.
It amazes me that we people support communism in this country. Even today, there are many people who push for Communist ideas (they call it Socialism or Liberalism - but it is all the same). I just don't know how they can see those dictatorships, the military, and dead cities, and not reject Communism with heart and soul. I certainly do.
2. The people must be allowed to own guns, to keep our freedom
Another lesson is about gun control. Years later, I am more educated and more active on many issues. I hear story after story about people in America trying to take away our rights to own guns. Oh, every time someone talks of it, I think of those days in East Germany and East Berlin.
If the government took away our right to own guns, then they would own guns and the people wouldn't. What would that look like? It would look like my train ride in East Berlin - military guards with large guns everywhere you look.
That's not what I want. That's not what you want. There is a reason for our right to own guns. The East Germany-East Berlin experience is a good example of what happens if that right is taken away.