Letter from Berlin
From the November 15, 2004 Newsletter
I am extremely pleased to include the following “Letter from Berlin” in this newsletter. Those of you who attended the reunion in Berlin in 2001 will remember the main speaker we had at the banquet. His name is Alexander Longolius and he is the former head of the Checkpoint Charlie Foundation in Berlin. A number of BIA members approached me after the banquet and commented on how much they enjoyed Alexander’s speech. I contacted Alexander and asked if he would be willing to send me something for this newsletter. I mentioned that if he had some notes from his 2001 speech that he could share, members of the BIA would enjoy the opportunity to read them. For those who may not be aware, our reunion in 2001 was shortly after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Here is Alexander’s “Letter from Berlin.” G.K.
BERLIN AND THE USA
(BIA Reunion, October 6, 2001)
Congratulations and respect for traveling abroad and coming to Berlin. You did the right thing. Terror tries to intimidate, terrorists have no concern for human lives, but we should not allow them to run our hopes and fears and all those plans we have for ourselves.
I am supposed to share a few thoughts on the relationship between your country and my city with you. This is not the right setting for a real paper or intellectual remarks of a historian, we want to have a good time together. But I have got homework to do, I promised Gene. So I decided to wander around in my very personal memories and tell you about them. They have to do with Berlin, and many of them have to do with the USA.
About 15 years ago the Berlin State Legislature hosted a group of state representatives from the USA. We were still in the small talk stage of our meeting and I asked them whether they had been to Berlin before. “Oh yes,” one of them said, “I was here more than 40 times, I know Berlin.” “How is that?”, we asked. His simple answer was “I bombed it.”
That reminded me of my first analysis of the general character of Americans. As a little kid in Berlin I had made up my mind that they had guts and that the Brits were chicken. The reason? Your people raided us during the day, and the British planes came at night.
In 1944, my brother, who served in the German Army with his Hitler Youth group at the age of 15, was killed by an American dive bomber and I swore at that time that I would also kill every American I could get my hands on. That was on October 6, many years ago today. About 50 years later, October 6 was named German-American Friendship Day by the President of the United States and our Federal Chancellor. Very symbolic, and very educational.
After WW II, GIs were synonyms for chewing gum and Hershey bars. There were non-fraternization rules to be observed by your young men, but such rules did not seem to interest them greatly, especially if the Germans they dealt with were long-legged, 19, blond and female.
The first major test for our good relations came when the Soviets tried to block West Berlin and cut the ties between us and West Germany. The success story of the Air Lift teaches us many things:
- You will win eventually if you stand your ground, even without violence.
- In the long run, oppression does not have a chance against the vast majority of the people.
- There are major mental differences between Americans and Germans. When we talk about that time, we talk about the “Blockade” and mention the problem. You talk about the “Air Lift” and the solution.
My afternoon activities in the late forties and early fifties took place in a Neighborhood Center run by the Quakers. In 1952, I was selected to go to the USA for a year as an exchange student. The program was called “Re-Education,” and I was supposed to become a good Democrat. Well, they sent me to a small and very affluent boarding school in Connecticut. A great school, but it was the worst place to learn about democracy.
Before the school year started, the AFSC sent me to a work camp on the Cherokee Indian Reservation near Asheville, NC. We worked hard for the tribe and had a good time with them. In the evenings, we played them at “Indian Stickball” or Lacrosse. They always won and I still think that was because all of them, especially the young men, sat around all day watching us paint their houses or build a big Community Center.
With all this affinity between your country and Berlin, it was only natural, therefore, that the first major reaction to the construction of the Wall in 1961 did not come from the West German government, but from yours. You sent troop reinforcements right away. Not much later, Vice President Johnson visited the city. In 1963 we had the historic visit by President Kennedy which no one, no one will ever forget who lived here during that time.
The Cold War, which was pretty hot in many spots in Europe, was not only a battle of arms and economy; it was a battle of minds. Which side could inspire people, build confidence, win their hopes? The Western victory in this field was the real and decisive one. The name for it is Helsinki and the Conference there is what started the Eastern collapse.
Had it not been for the Allied presence in Berlin and your political and military support, Germany’s and Europe’s history would have been different. Not many Germans, outside of Berlin, worried about us.
The price for West Berlin’s freedom was dependency. We were dependent on the Bonn government for about 50% of the cities budget. We were dependent on industry to stay in West Berlin or come here lured by gigantic tax benefits. We were dependent on the Berliners not to give up. We were dependent on East-West relations to improve because that meant day-to-day life becoming easier. But mainly, we were dependent on you. We were occupied, and even if we loved that, it was a fact. I was Speaker Pro Tem of the Berlin House of Representatives from 1981 to 1989. Every Tuesday before the House met I got together with the Allied Liaison Officers, civilians, to discuss the agenda of the upcoming meeting.
The meetings were friendly. We knew each other well and we met at all kinds of receptions. The social life of our Allied friends was quite active and, by the way, financed by the German tax payer. But there was no doubt; if the agenda of the House included an item which the Allies did not think was any of our business, like the construction of a British shooting range, and our opposition against it, or the nomination of a Police Chief, it was taken off. No discussion. And we certainly did not raise a fuss about that. We did not plan to give the observers in the East a good time.
When Eastern Europe began to stir in the late eighties, when East Germans entered our embassies (and yours in East Berlin), when Hungary opened their border to Austria, when millions of East Germans defied the authorities and demonstrated for more democracy, when Gorbachev realized that his system did not have a chance, it was your President, again, who supported the German cause all the way. Had it been left to our good friends in France or Great Britain, this would not be a unified country today.
German-American relations therefore have a very special place in Berlin. When your troops left in 1994, many of us were glad about the reason and sad about the fact. The Berlin House of Representatives decided in early summer of 1994 to take money out of the budget, put it into a bank and start a Foundation, the Checkpoint Charlie Foundation, so that the material base for all kinds of exchanges and encounters could be guaranteed even in times when new generations without our background live here.
The Foundation is a typical Berlin product. It could only exist here. Its philosophy is international and intercultural, a philosophy which you invested in heavily. So its great success is your success also.
When you were on duty and when I went to school in Connecticut, we were still able to talk about relations between two countries, Germany and the USA. Nationality told us apart. This kind of world has been in transition for quite some time.
Now, I probably have more in common with an American my age living in a big city than with a German in Bavaria who is 25 years old. When we talk about the good old days, when we complain about computers which never do what we want them to do, when we cannot remember our PINs and when we hate talking to answering machines, we understand. That young fellow would think we are people from Mars.
Societies consist of many different elements, and they all go international, including big business and labor, Catholic Bishops, fundamentalist terrorists and peaceniks. “Ich bin ein Berliner,” Kennedy’s famous statement, was an expression of solidarity with a foreign city in trouble.
The following was added at the bottom of Alexander’s letter: G.K.
I could repeat these remarks today. They are still true. German-American relations are solid as long as they are a two-way street. No nation, no people and no government should try to dictate to others what to do, how to feel and when to fight. That lesson is easy to understand when you look at German history. We share many values, and we differ about others. What is wrong with that? Is that not true even within our peoples? If you are not with us, let us talk about it.
Talk, not yell. The Checkpoint Charlie Foundation tries to further that cause. Its many projects get Germans and Americans together so that they exchange views and understand each other. That makes the world safer and will, in the long run, be the most devastating answer to terror and war.
© 2004, The Berlin Island Association