IT WAS A WEEKEND in August 1961. I had passed through a happy childhood and reached the age of thirteen, the threshold of adolescence, without too much untoward incident. Now, though, there was a cloud on our family horizon. My father was not well, really not well. Smoking, his only vice as far as I knew, had already cost him one of his lungs. He had seemed to recover after the operation eighteen months previously, but that summer he seemed weak and tired again, and often took to his bed. I used to go up and talk to him, keep him company. This is why I recall it was a weekend, because we had discussed an article in the Sunday newspaper. Important, somewhat ominous things were going on in the world.
Dad had a serious heart attack that same evening. The doctor came. To keep us occupied, someone switched on the television. Flickering black-and-white pictures of a cityscape, with angry people and people with guns, and barbed wire. Maybe a scout car or two. The memory, like the pictures, is a little fuzzy. It’s a long time ago.
He suffered another coronary infarction after they got him to hospital, and this one killed him. The date was 14 August 1961. On the previous day, Sunday 13 August, the rough version of what would later be known as the ‘Berlin Wall’ had been constructed, dividing a great city and cutting off human from human, friend from friend, parent from child, brother and sister from brother and sister. It was also the day, of course, that I was cut off from Dad. The barrier that separated him from us was dark, mysterious, and above all permanent. The Berlin one was brutal, material, and not at all mysterious. It turned out, moreover, not to be permanent, though we could not know it at the time.
I first arrived in Berlin itself almost exactly four years later, in August 1965, when the Wall certainly felt as if it would be there for my lifetime. I was now seventeen, and a year away from taking my final school exams, my A levels. I had started learning German the year before Dad’s death, and now here I was, on a school trip to the city I had watched being torn apart as he died. I remembered the pictures from that night in 1961, though when I actually got there the cityscape was all in colour, and instead of having an overlit, looming quality, like a silent horror film – which was how I had somehow imagined it – it was not that different to London. London with a lot more shell and bomb-inflicted holes where buildings should have been, and with what still looked like an improvised, ramshackle cement and barbed-wire barrier running through it.
When we finally did troop across the border one morning, the first shock was the attitude, and the look, of the uniformed East Germans at the checkpoint. Stony-faced, curt, staring repeatedly down at the passport photograph, then back at me, and so on, apparently ad infinitum. Orders were barked in a German I couldn’t understand – I now realise they had probably been brought in from Saxony, like so many of the border guards, and the dialect takes some getting used to. Even when we tried unconvincingly to tailor our body language to a saunter as we walked past the last guards and entered the bare, billboard-free zone of East Berlin, I had to stop myself from turning round to see if they were still staring at us.
And the uniforms. Everywhere. And, actually, strongly reminiscent of what the Nazi bad guys in the war films wore. A little later, when we stopped to observe the neo-classical Neue Wache (New Guard House) on Unter den Linden, the East German soldiers on duty there were goose-stepping! Wearing jackboots! And strapped on their heads were weird hybrids of the Wehrmacht coal-scuttle headgear and the classic Red Army model-40 helmet.
East Germany, I realised, might pretend to be the workers’ paradise, but when you came down to it, and put to one side the free nursery-school places and the cheap flats and the jobs for life, the place was about power. Unrestrained, unmitigated power. The kind of power that could build a wall to keep seventeen million people captive, seventeen million people in a place where [their masters] could tell them exactly what to do and they had to just stand there and take it. After 13 August 1961, there was nowhere those people could go, nothing they could do to stop them.
By Frederick Taylor
Extracted from the 30th anniversary edition of THE BERLIN WALL by Frederick Taylor, published by Bloomsbury on 31 October at £12.99. Copyright © Frederick Taylor 2006.
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Frederick Taylor studied history and modern languages in Oxford and Sussex. A Volkswagen Studentship award enabled him to research and travel widely in both parts of divided Germany at the height of the Cold War. He has published and lectured widely on German history.