When I was very little my dad joined the ARMY. We lived in a few different places, but the one that sticks most in my memory (both because I was older and we lived there for 3 years) was Germany.
We did not live on base because my mother spoke German fluently and wanted to be part of the country, not part of the little slice of America in Germany. Our apartment was in a town called Neckerhausen and from the windows we could see the Necker River. Our landlady also ran the little grocery across the street. It was a quiet little town. My mom even felt comfortable allowing my sister and I (ages 11 and 8) to take the ferry across the river to the pool!
My memories from living in Germany are vivid. One thing you should also know; I lived there when the country was divided. While I never entered East Germany, both my parents did. My mother went when she was on an exchange program to Germany as a teenager. My father went when we were stationed in Germany. I asked them both to recount their impressions of East Germany, specifically East Berlin. Their responses were eye opening for me and I hope for you as well.
This is my mother’s experience. I have edited personal notes that in no way ruin the narrative.
“I went to East Berlin with three friends traveling by bus across East Germany to get there. It was very militarized and we were not allowed to take photographs, although I did snap a few. There was a definite change in scenery going across the border from West to East Germany. I did that trip in 1966 just 5 years after the wall went up. So it was a new experience for all the citizens. We were carefully questioned when we entered East Germany by a young soldier who sported a rifle and I did get yelled at when they saw I was taking pictures, but there were no threats and I never felt in danger. The landscape was definitely bleak. West Germany had already begun a very active rebuilding after WWII, but East Germany lagged far behind. Most of the territory we crossed was open farmland. I don’t even (remember) making any stops once we finished our border inspection.
I was in West Berlin for three days and decided to go over to East Berlin one afternoon. We went through a regular border station (not Checkpoint Charlie). Getting into EB was no problem, but leaving was another story. My impressions of EB were the same as of EG. Everything looked tired and run-down without much effort to rejuvenate the areas although you could tell it was once a beautiful, graceful city with lots of historical structures. We had to exchange our money for EG money and we weren’t allowed to bring any of the money back into WB. However, I put a few coins in my shoe for collectibles. When we went through the border security we had to fill out a detailed form answering several questions and then get in a line to go through the checkpoint. I spoke German fluently so I wasn’t too worried about the process. In front of me in line was a couple from Australia who spoke no German. The woman was very attractive and I overheard the guards joking that they would find a reason to detain her so they could spend more time with her. So I warned them (the couple) and made sure that they had all their paperwork in order. The guards knew I helped them so they weren’t happy. When I got up to the checkpoint I got a shock. On my forms asking me my date of birth I had written September 8, 1966 oops!! So they hauled me into a room while all my friends stood just feet away from me safe in WB. I was there for two or more hours and of course they found the coins in my shoe so I was in even more trouble. After hassling me all that time including leaving me alone for long periods of time without me knowing what was going on, they finally stamped my exit visa and I was on my way.
I was definitely shaken up, although I only had myself to blame for not taking the situation seriously enough. The arrogance of youth. I remember that trip fondly despite those scary moments because I got to see the significant contrasts between a capitalist nation and a communist nation so starkly and so immediately. It was literally apparent in just a few dozen yards that we had moved from one nation to another and that communist nation was so isolated so that those citizens never knew how striking the difference was between their lives and the lives of people just a few feet away. I think the wall wasn’t just a way to keep people from “escaping” but really to block out any sense of what they could have beyond freedom and being with their relatives. The wall really obscured what was going on in WB in terms of lifestyle and economy. They jammed the TV signals so no one in EB could get any of the programming from WB. The isolation was not only obvious but sad.”
My father went in the early 1980’s. His tale is quite different from my mother’s. Do keep in mind he went as a US soldier and my mother went as a civilian.
“Yes, I went across East Germany on a train to West Berlin and spent a day in East Berlin. It was for a medical conference and I had to go by myself because the only mode of transportation was a duty train. It was a great experience so thanks for letting me talk about it. To prepare for the trip, I had to get a really official haircut and wear my Class A uniform. I think this was to appear a certain way to the soldiers from the other side. I never felt in danger or even close, but along the train tracks there were armed soldiers every few hundred feet all the way through East Germany. When I got to West Berlin, it just appeared to me to be a normal city. I went with another physician through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin and indeed there was a sharp contrast in the appearance. East Berlin was rather drab but not run down. The colors of the buildings were muted but many of them were modern. We somehow got in the middle of East German Television filming a public event and saw that the people were normal and happy just like West Berlin. We went into a restaurant and the inside was just like anywhere else. The place that gave me the most concern was the checkpoint and not the East German side. There was never any danger but I could have been refused entrance by American soldiers. Coming back through there was absolutely no problem at all. Sorry I do not have any pictures. I got a few souvenirs but I am sure I could not find them now if I tried. I’m glad I did it because it is not going to happen again.”
My parent’s experiences are amazing. How incredible to see firsthand the differences and similarities of what a free economy and socialist economy look like. I only wish I had been old enough to see it myself.
What I take away from this and from other accounts/pictures is this: A free market society will always thrive. Individuals may fail in their endeavors, but the society grows and improves. A socialist or communist society stagnates. As time goes on, and generations are raised with the teachings, society can appear normal and happy (as evidenced in my father’s experience) and yet it is a facade. Those “normal and happy” people had most likely only known, or mostly known, the society they lived in. Thus, they were appearing normal and happy.
It begs the question; if they had seen West Germany, would they still be as happy with their own circumstances? Freedom is very alluring. I thank God everyday for having been born in the USA and having the freedoms I have! Reading about a divided country both physically and ideologically makes me see with even more clarity how much we need to treasure our own freedom. You never know when it could be taken away.