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.


sunshine said...

Wow! What an awesome account of what you remember from that time Beach.
I love how you told it.
My parents lived in Germany for 2 years but my Mother doesn't talk very much about it. I don't suppose she took much of it in though as she had a baby to look after at that time.

My Dad used to talk a lot about his time in the army. Of course I was young and would just roll my eyes and huff and puff as only a teenage girl can. :P

I really enjoy reading about your experiences. Somehow I can imagine my Dad thinking similar thoughts and bits and pieces of what you are saying strike me as familiar..

I cannot believe that it has been 20 years since the wall came down.

Great post Beach. I truly enjoyed reading it. You are very gifted in your ability to describe events clearly. I felt I was there beside you.


Beach Bum said...

Sunshine: What I didn't add is that I searched through a bunch of boxes for my army pictures and could not find them. I had a couple of snapshots of Bergen-Belsen and of the visit to the border. The pamphlet I scanned was given to us by the West German border police and one time while in the 90's a friend of my in-laws offered me twenty bucks for it.

As for the other stores I alluded to about my REFORGER trip I will add them as time goes on.

MRMacrum said...

Very nice accounting of a trip to a very interesting place. I can understand how the picture taking commie would be disconcerting. My brother was stationed in Germany in the late 1960s. He said anytime he was near the wall for army business or otherwiase, the tension seemed to grow incremetally as he got closer.

I wonder though if the World did not become a more dangerous place once the Wall and ultimately Communism in that part of the World fell.

sunshine said...

Just popping back in to re-read. Mass and Gabby were screaming the first time.. :)
Too bad you can't find more pictures from that time. Oh well, if you ever come across them.. post away!

Looking forward to hearing more about it all in the future. :)
Good thing you weren't so hard up you had to sell the pamphlet. :P


Vigilante said...

A very well-narrated tale, Beach. The younger generation can barely grasp the emotional peak we oldsters were at this pinnacle when history took a turn.

It's not your focus in this excellent column to do more than hint at it. (Which you do.) But as much as the collapse of the wall and the loosening of the CCCP's grasp of Russia was a great & global relief, so was our disappointment that the promise of a New World Order was betrayed by the so-called Pax Americana. Which meant no order at all. But that's another story.

Beach Bum said...

MRMacrum: Yes sir, I believe that myself. The world has grown exponentially more dangerous. As for getting close to the border I definitely left out how strongly the border police warned us not to make any scene with the East Germans.

Sunshine: I am particularly ticked that I can't find those pictures. Back then I didn't own a real camera and even more didn't really care much at all about recording any events. What pictures I did take were strictly from cheap disposable cameras.

Especially sad is that I wanted to show my son a picture of blowup doll owned my a friend. This blowup doll is written about on a post on this blog.

Beach Bum said...

Vigil: I must admit that the "promise" of a post-Cold War world with all the associated warm fuzzies was something I bought hook, line, and sinker.

Hell, maybe in another reality/alternate timeline those lucky people did make the best of it and even now explore the solar system with multinational crews while here on Earth earnest people in both private industry and government work to address pollution, injustice, and poverty.

Instead we got with the new religion of uber-capitalism where nothing matters except desk bound business assholes and self-centered investors for whom nothing matters except the bottom line. All morality, ethics, and simple commonsense is suspended so another few percent of profit can be squeezed out.

Just yesterday watching "Morning Joe" they had one of the CNBC busniess babes on the show and I was struck by what she said about someone.

"He's a good capitalist", she said with all the conviction and earnestness that someone might describe a good Christian, Jew, or Muslim. Now I have no problem with capitalism as long as the unbridled worship of profit at the expense of everything else does not happen. Capitalism is a proven machine of innovation and progress but like another person said: "Capitalism without humanity is just as evil as the worse murderous tyranny on record".

I have heard that quote several times, several different ways but I have no idea who first said it.

Randal Graves said...

Are you trying to tell me that the folks on the dismal side of the Iron Curtain are to receive the accolades for getting that sucker torn down, and not Saint Ronnie, Pontiff Of Profit?

Capitalism, like all ideas, eventually gets corrupted by our tribal greed and stupidity.

Vigilante said...

Putin blames Gorbachev. So, I think he should get a lion's share. Also Thatcher and Geo HW Bush for keeping our triumphalist neo-cons quiet and in check - long enough for the deed to be done, at least.

Beach Bum said...

Randal: Yeah capitalism has been corrupted but like I mentioned hearing the business "experts" talk on television its become more of a religion.

But yeah, I do believe that it was the peoples of Eastern Europe that truly ended the Iron Curtain.

Vigil: You know I'm getting a little tired of Gorbachev. He was speaking the other day and blamed the United States for the state of the world saying we did nothing after the fall of the Soviet Union to help the Russians.

Tom Brokaw came on right after that and called Gorby "disingenuous" saying the United States sunk billions into Russia to keep it from melting down.

Chef Cthulhu said...

Since I've been away a while, I'll take a little time in typing my thoughts...

I don't think the world became more dangerous. I think it has always been this dangerous.

The "nation state" (and competition between them) is still a relatively new concept in human history. For most of history, the ethno-, social- and religous-centric slaughter was the defining aspect of "war" or competition between societies/cultures.

It was there all along during the ascendancy of statehood as well - nations just dealt with it internally under fancy policy names.

I think what makes it "seem" more dangerous to us is that:

1. The other big kid on the block went away, so all the problems in "his gang" were left to fester.

2. Globalization - particularly with respect to access to information - makes threats more dangerous, makes us more aware of the danger, and can push things (markets, populations, policy decisions) into unstable states more easily. Everyone deserves access to information. But it has its risks.

3. We have not had a coherent "grand strategy" since the wall came down. Grand strategy was easy when you had an opponent to counter it. The last time we had any was when that wall came down. World History is interesting because it's the study of bad strategy and its consequences. In this case we're trying to recover from the consequences of no strategy - particularly from 2000-2006.

Bottom line: it's always been, fugly. We just see it more clearly now.

I'm convinced, more than ever, that conflict is mankind's natural state.

I'm a "glass is half full" kind of guy.

Beach Bum said...

Chef Cthulhu: Those are so great points I hadn't thought of, in one aspect I'm still concerned with the proliferation of loose nukes and the technology that makes them though.

For most of history, the ethno-, social- and religous-centric slaughter was the defining aspect of "war" or competition between societies/cultures.

Right now, in as small a package as I can write, the tribal instinct of many of those you wrote about in the segment above was largely fine before the nasty genie was let out of the bottle. It really didn't matter before the was loose on a global scale whether Shia and Sunni or any number of low boil conflicts continued. But now not so much

You'll have to excuse me on my darker moods, especially since I feel a real, but slight, chance was lost after the Cold War to make a better world.

Anyway, great to have you back.

Vigilante said...

I think the Chef nails it with:

We have not had a coherent "grand strategy" since the wall came down. Grand strategy was easy when you had an opponent to counter it. The last time we had any was when that wall came down. World History is interesting because it's the study of bad strategy and its consequences. In this case we're trying to recover from the consequences of no strategy - particularly from 2000-2006.

Pax-Americana didn't have to turn into the offensive direction in which it took. The absence of strategic thinking sucked neo-cons and petro-cons into the theoretical vacuum. History will show that Gore -vs- Bush was the turning point. Mediocre minds with major agendas ascended into the corridors of power. Recovery of our way is dubious.

Distributorcap said...

i was in Berlin in early 1989 - a few months before the wall came tumbling down - i remember going into East Berlin, being forced to change money to DDR marks (worthless outside the DDR) - there was NOTHING to buy, nothing on the menu and it being drab drab drab. i had to deposit my left over money in an East German bank - i wonder if i got interest

i have also been to Dachau. enough said on that

MadMike said...

I am with the Chief on this one, and Distributor, I have also been to Dachau, twice. You are right. Enough said.

Actually, I lived in Germany for two years in the late sixties and as a CI Agent I was not permitted in Berlin without special permission. As a result I never got the opportunity to see the infamous wall. I will always regret that....

Marja said...

Very intersting BB I went to Terezin this year a concentration camp near Prague and it does a lot to you.
We went with school to Berlin at around 1977 and went past checkpoint charlie to east germany and talked to a student. The oppression was great You were not allowed to study if you weren't part of the communistic party and you were watched al the time.
But indeed, on the countrary every body had work and a live while now lots of people are extremely poor and on the streets In Russia they even sell their children, that's how bad it is. I guess there is no perfect world

Beach Bum said...

Vigil: The "grand strategy", or lack of one, Chef wrote about is the allusive chance I wrote about pissing away.

But you are right, with nothing to counter it the neo-cons just had to wait to get their chance.

DCap: i had to deposit my left over money in an East German bank - i wonder if i got interest...

LOL! I knew a bunch of old farts that felt the same way about their Confederate money.

Madmike: I would have loved the chance to see Berlin, although on the way out we got a free afternoon in Amsterdam. As for the Berlin Wall seeing the border and all teh barriers was enough.

Marja: That's the rub of the human condition I guess. Fabulous wealth and splendor for some while others struggle to get enough just to eat. I guess I'm still naive/stupid enough to think an intelligent people believing in the valves of their faith should be able to correct it.

Then again like I wrote the new religion is the pursuit of excessive profits.

Hill said...

Great story, BB.

Took me back a few years. Hubby No. 1 could type and with a draft no. of 67, typing skills sent him to Germany instead of Vietnam. Lived in Germany 2 years. Slacker base. Used my booze & cig ration card to buy American whiskey and Marlboro's and sell them at considerable profit to my German neighbors. This, in turn, translated into "sightseeing" income. Beautiful country. Tragic history.

Many years later, watched the fall of the Berlin Wall on TV, live as it happened. Gripping and emotional.

And fuck Raygun.

That is all.

Beach Bum said...

Hill: Actually I was surprised how much I liked Germany. It was fun and the people turned out really nice. Except one old fart who in the mid-80's when I was there looked about the right age to have been a WW2 vet for the other side.

Vigilante said...

Und was der frauleins und Biers? Sprechenze Beach?

Beach Bum said...

Vigil: If I understand correctly the beer was beyond great,and as far as the women, I struck out every time.

lime said...

wow, i can't imagine the effect of visiting bergen-belsen. it must have been a pwerful thing that defies words.