Saturday, November 14, 2009
Divided Germany in Autumn
Climbing into the way-back machine for me I remember some of the trip Uncle Sammy sponsored for a huge number of my fellow American soldiers and myself in August of 1987. I hadn't been at Fort Carson for more than two months playing full-time soldier when I was approached by a couple of non-commissioned officers of another unit in my battalion about joining them on the Return of Forces to Europe (REFORGER) exercise they had been tasked with.
If there is one avenue of posts and stories that I have not tapped it is that three month period where I learned the full meaning of the phrase about travel broadening the mind.
If I remember correctly we flew directly into Rotterdam, drew equipment at a preposition site then drove like bats out of Hell into Northern Germany. So much that bathroom breaks seemed to have been forgotten until one goofy kid from South Carolina couldn't take it anymore and pulled over and let it fly in front of scores of good Deutshlanders, fellow troops, and a television crew filming our convoy.
Many other sad and fun adventures followed during my three months in Europe. Including a night a platoon of Britsh troops, captured, stripped naked, and tied an American officer to a tree. Almost resulting in an American three-star general declaring war on them in the middle of war between the evil "Orange forces" out to conquer Germany from the east and the heroic "Blue forces" out to stop the Slavic hordes.
But the most revealing part of the trip was my visit to a concentration camp and the Inner German border. Not the Berlin Wall mind you, I didn't get that far by no means but the segment I saw was no less menacing.
It was late September and all the training and after action reports and reviews were over for the most part for the lower enlisted like myself. Our days were spent doing maintenance on the equipment we we would be turning in, hanging out in the various circus-sized tents watching movies or eating, or doing our level best to make time with female troops who being generally out numbered had developed a very cynical and choosy side to what male troops they would have sitting next to them "holding hands".
Still though, our great benefactor Uncle Sammy saw fit to cough up funds for visits to relatively near-by places. I got to see Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. Nothing of the camp itself survives because liberating British forces had to burn the buildings down due to disease. All we saw in 1987 were mounds with brick memorials in front noting how many bodies were underneath. All supernatural jokes aside, walking those paths and seeing those mounds covering literally thousands of bodies you had to be soulless not feel the presence of those victims of a twisted madness not beside you. And no, somehow I missed seeing the tombstone-like memorial to Ann Frank.
The other trip I took during those days was to the Inner German border. When we got off the bus for that visit we were immediately greeted by West German border police who gave us ignorant Americans a brief history on the "wall" and what their mission was overseeing their side. We were also strictly told that when we saw the East Germans that we were to say absolutely nothing and make no gestures to them what so ever. After that we were shown the actual border and at first I was severely underwhelmed. What we at first saw was a simple rope barrier about a foot off the ground where the West German police talked so more about how many barriers there was from that point eastward. We couldn't see anything really at that point because of a grove of trees blocking our view.
As we had been briefed though five or ten minutes later two armed East German soldiers came out for the trees and to my surprise took several pictures of my entire group. I have to admit, that sort of freaked me out at the time and even now I wonder about what paranoia purpose those pictures served. Even now I can picture some Karl Rove looking character in a near-by depressing gray DDR office smoking a bad cigarette looking over those pictures trying to find the face of some super-spy among the collection of stupid and young American faces.
After the East German soldiers pulled back from where they came we were escorted to a raised platform that if I remember correctly actually sat beside a ravine offering a panoramic view of East Germany. All the barriers and obstacles on the pamphlet above could be clearly seen, thrown in for good measure was some sort of commie jeep headed for one of the watch towers.
Given the times, and remember this was two years before the Wall fell, I had a very surreal feeling knowing that the place I was standing at that moment could at the drop of a hat become the front-line for the Third World War. While all sort of warm fuzzies were building even then for the ultimate ending of the Cold War it would not have taken much, a stupid military commander and/or politician somewhere in the world, to have the tanks rolling and the luftballons going up.
Especially strange for me was to see a seemingly empty village on the east side leaving me to wonder if people even leaved there and if they did what sort of people lived there so close but yet so far from the West.
Our visit to the border ended fairly quickly and I'd like to say that my fellow soldiers were as equally taken back with both the view of a oppressed land and the realization of how damn lucky we were to live in a place that despite its numerous faults was lightyears better when compared to the lands we saw stretching eastward. However, all the talk on the bus consisted of the normal stuff twenty-somethings guys talk about when forced into a sparse female environment. In the end I guess that is what freedom to a large extent is all about.
On a closing note this post was "inspired" by the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Watching the television pictures two years later of Germans climbing on top of the wall that only weeks before would have gotten shot was beyond amazing. I don't think many realize or at least remember now that conventional wisdom from all the highly educated diplomatic, geo-political, and military types said that the only way that wall would come down would be under the force of tanks with mushroom clouds spouting all around.
Since then I have heard more times than I want to count conspiracy theories about "New World Orders". Hell, an important part of the History Channel's programming are shows about various conspiracies involving shadowy figures controlling things. But maybe, once all the self-aggrandizing crap by the political ideologues and conspiracy theorists are boiled away, a large segment of people realized how stupid and oppressive the system they were living under was and decided they would not take it anymore.
Nah, such an event would be giving credit for commonsense to the masses and would be a bad example since in my opinion the menace of Communism has been replaced by the religion of voracious hyper-capitalism, and the billionaires doing "God's work" wouldn't want their special status upset.