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May 16, 2008

Berlin Remains Still Berlin: Marlene Sang

Roy Meachum

The trickle of Berlin Airlift stories this week did nothing to persuade that I am not old: 60 years ago on June 24 the first Gooney birds rambled down the runway at Rhine-Main Air Force base. I was living in a nearby castle.


The C-47s landed successfully at Templehof Airport a little over one hour later and disgorged food and fuel for the beleaguered former capital of imperial – and even more imperious – Germany.


This week's commemoration marks May 12, 1949, the first day the trains ran again between Communist and West Germanys. The highways were reopened but as blind tunnels: official cars and trucks were not permitted to stop en route. Private trips to Berlin were rarely allowed, and at the travelers' own high risks.


Through the streets of downtown Frederick tramping along behind Pushkin, I occasionally wear a khaki cotton shooting-jacket: on one shoulder the patch of the American Forces Network. On the other Ike's old European crusade sword logo is topped by a single word: Berlin. I lived and broadcast on Podbielski Allee during the Airlift winter.


AFN-Berlin's signal operating around the clock proved necessary because the Russians tried all sorts of tricks to abort the missions from France's Tegel, Britain's Gatow and the U.S.'s Tempelhof airports.


Where we lived and worked, Dahlem, and all other neighborhoods in the Western sectors lay swathed nightly in deep shadows, cunningly reproduced in "The Third Man," an Orson Welles movie set in Vienna during those first years after World War II. Traveling on leave to Brussels and Paris were visually benumbing; the stores had neon and even the meanest places featured things that glowed in the night, if only lanterns. Turning on Berlin's traffic and outdoor lights would have demanded huge gobs of energy, especially coal. There was little to be had. That invokes a vision:


Three sparse, unrecognizable figures lurked in the morning mists and November fog, searching for twigs and branches. On the day of low visibility the frequent roar of planes' engines bestirred the Tiergarten, the city's version of Central Park. Even conversation seemed to ring hollow in the hovering air. The normally very green scene possessed no trees or bushes, as the trio bobbed up and down searching for wood to burn into heat. They looked like the last human beings in a totally brutalized world.


By contrast, the clubs and cafes that clustered around Kefuerstendamm gathered frantic people. Whatever said or felt, they knew in their hearts they were only a single move away from Soviet imprisonment. There may have been drugs, but out-of-sight.


Booze was available everywhere: Russian 150-proof vodka, German potato schnapps, black market Scotch and Bourbon. And girls: free and easily bought.


The overall ambiance came very close to the impression created by writer-poet Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill, together with Mrs. Weill, actress-singer Lotte Lenya. The trio lampooned the Weimar years, when Germany was governed from the ancient university city, not far from Berlin.


Sex and drunkenness were preferable to making ready for righteous lives, which no one guaranteed would ever come. The mood and tempo were much darker than "eat, drink and be merry;" many considered, in their souls, they could die any moment, so why not enjoy lasciviousness and numbness.


Both were times of no hope and high suicide rates. The world as Germans knew it disappeared, smashed during World War I, together with all the meaningful institutions, especially the Kaiser. When everything important seemed to flounder, and the Reds threatened to take over the entire country, Adolph Hitler appeared. His cocksureness, more than his phony fascism, drew legions of supporters.


A little more than 10 years later, Occupied Germany was relatively in the same position. Aided by the world-wide Great Depression, the Nazis had rushed into the vacuum; on their defeat there was nothing, absolutely nothing. Primarily in response to Soviet aggressive dominance of Eastern Europe, the Allies switched policy. Instead of reducing former Nazi minions to mere farmers, as the Morgenthau plan mandated, Washington, London and Paris set out to build a redoubt against Moscow. This is why Stalin ordered Berlin's blockade.


The West creation of a new currency, without Russian approval, triggered the paranoia natural within the Kremlin walls. The Soviets shut down tight all transportation systems into Berlin. Fortunately, air routes had been separately negotiated. So as not to appear total outlaws before the world, the Russians went along with the signed conventions.


The blockade left West Berlin feeling totally alone, isolated within a Red sea that might destroy them as individuals and all they held dear. Still. Even Hitler failed to extinguish the feisty cynicism that has always set Berliners apart from their fellow Germans.


They were allowed each day only four hours of electricity to wash and cook and to read. The intensive Nazi propaganda, reinforced by Communist barrages, conditioned many to believe the West, especially the United States, lacked the power of convictions. On night prowlings through the Ku'dam district, I was asked, more than once, how long my country would stick around. Many doubted – until May 12, 1949, when the barriers came down.


By the time the Soviet Union decided to declare "uncle," Josef Stalin understood the truth: air power was here to stay. Railroads, canals, rivers and oceans had historically dominated transportation and commercial hauling; they were marked second-rate by the Airlift. The two-engine C-47s had been supplanted early over Berlin skies by four-propeller C-54s as the workhorses of what Germans called "Luftbruecke" (Air-bridge).


There is little to romanticize about the Berlin Airlift; nervous tension permeated everyone. Moments of pleasure came at high cost. It should, however, be celebrated as the time when, led by Harry S Truman, America quietly burnished its best tradition of protecting the weak against tyranny. Mr. Truman's intervention in the Korean War a year later endowed the nation with more of the same.


In June, 1950, still on active duty, I volunteered for the Far East; the military in its infinite wisdom ordered me back to Germany where I witnessed the beginnings of the "Economic Miracle," as they called it. By 1952, a country, once despised and denigrated for its record toward its neighbors, was well on its way to international moral leadership.


Various surveys now show Berlin leads the world's most respected nation, a possibility totally unimaginable 60 years ago when the Airlift-Luftbruecke started.

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