My first impressions of West Berlin were of a city which looked very much like any other major city in Western Europe: modern, cosmopolitan, chic, with no hint (at least none downtown) that you were on a political island surrounded by a Communist state. The only dilapidated building I saw in West Berlin was the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church: bombed during World War II, its blackened ruins had been preserved. The Western military presence in West Berlin — and I knew that presence was substantial, and substantially armed — was largely out of sight, almost invisible. Still, my U.S. Army Reserve identification card got me free rides on the Berlin subway, no questions asked.

I visited the Victory Column, a 19th century monument topped by a golden female warrior with spreading wings. The Column had somehow survived Berlin’s 20th history. From there I walked towards the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag parliament building, walking on Straße des 17. Juni. During the final days of the Nazi regime, small airplanes had used that street as a makeshift runway, couriering messages to and from Hitler. The street’s name is more recent, for it honors an uprising in June 1953 by East Berliner workers who, contrary to the teachings of Karl Marx, didn’t like Communism. The uprising was suppressed by Soviet tanks.

The Brandenburg Gate was located just inside East Berlin. Atop the Gate was a cluster of Romanesque statues who once faced westward. After the Communists erected the Wall in 1961, the Communists had the statues turned eastward. With the Wall’s recent fall, I saw workmen preparing to turn them westward again. Nice.

The Reichstag building, located in West Berlin, had not hosted a sitting parliament in decades. In World War II, the war’s last major battle in Europe was fought in Berlin. The Soviet Red Army first bombarded the city and then fought tenaciously, block by city block, to reach and capture — the Reichstag. The building was repaired after the war, but its outer surface remained discolored by gloomy shades of gray and black. When I visited the Reichstag, its interior held a fascinating museum — a very anti-Nazi museum, displaying exhibits about the Holocaust, the destruction and division of Berlin, the Berlin Airlift, etc. Berliners, at least in the West, were not hiding from their history. I also saw a part of the Reichstag being renovated: the parliamentary chamber. West Germany’s capital was still Bonn, a small city otherwise forgettable. West and East Germany had not agreed to reunite — not yet — but obviously the West Germans were getting ready. Today, the Reichstag is the Bundestag, the Federal Parliament of a reunited Germany.

Certainly the Reichstag was full of emotional reminders of a horrifying past, but I found yet more emotional reminders just behind the building: large crosses, tall enough to tower over you, planted at irregular intervals along the (crumbling) Berlin Wall, marking every spot where Communist guards had shot dead somebody trying to escape to West Berlin. Numerous crosses.

To this day, I’m struck by the fact that the United States, the United Kingdom and France were willing to risk so much, even the risk of nuclear war, just to defend West Berlin from Communist absorption. President John Kennedy even expected a nuclear showdown over Berlin — and to his surprise, faced one over Cuba instead. Consider that, technically, West Berlin was not even a city; it was half a city. Is half a city worth staking your national credibility upon? Risking nuclear war? The Western Powers said yes and stood firm, from the Berlin Airlift to the Berlin Wall. Ironically, on balance, the Wall probably helped the West more than it helped the East because it removed Berlin as a constant crisis spot of the Cold War — while self-imposing upon the Communists a constant embarrassment, in concrete, one whose shame and history their propaganda could never really conceal.

— John G. Heidenrich