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Post East Germany (John Heelan, UK)
Created by John Eipper on 07/17/09 6:07 PM - east-germany-john-heelan-uk

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East Germany (John Heelan, UK) (John Eipper, USA, 07/17/09 6:07 pm)

JE asked on 17 July: Did any WAISers actually spend time in the DDR, pre-1989? I'd like to hear their memories. John Heelan responds: Nearly forty years ago, during the Cold War and while employed by a well-known US research consultancy, I travelled behind the Iron Curtain to give a series of lectures on computing. It was a memorable experience! Although based in Frankfurt, we had to fly into Berlin's old airport as all road transport between the then DDR border and the city was tightly controlled by the East German military and Border guards. Landing at Templehof itself was an experience. The final approach was between apartment blocks that seemed to be only a wing-tip away. (Look at some old films of the Berlin airlift. The only other time I have had a similar experience is flying into the old Hong-Kong airports, so close to apartment blocks that you could steal washing from the lines--if you were not concentrating that the pilot made a rapid right-angle turn at the "chequerboard" and plomp the plane down immediately on the runway!) A "Mr. Fixit" Berliner met us at the airport. His role was to shepherd us through Checkpoint Charlie with as little hassle as possible. He was true to his task. Waved through from the American sector by a languid gesture from a bored Black American soldier, we negotiated the chicanes of massive stone blocks to be confronted with an interminable queue of people waiting to cross the border. "Mr. Fixit" led us to the front of the queue waving a large piece of paper (possibly blank!) and saying in a loud voice "Important and official business delegation!" It worked! We were then confronted by the Border Guards who searched everything and demanded we change all our West German currency into East German currency on a one-for-one basis (the actual going rate in West Germany was one DDR DM was worth four DDR DMs.) Once through Checkpoint Charlie, Mr Fixit rushed us to an anonymous grey building where our passports and visas were examined again and authority given for us to travel some 80 miles east of Berlin. At that time we were still in Mr. Fixit's arranged transport. Leaving the grey building, he drove us through the wasteland that surrounded the East German side of the wall for at least half a mile. It was eery! A misty night, few dim street lights, armed guards at intersections. A very "Harry Lime" scene! Suddenly, Mr. Fixit pulled into a deserted road where awaiting us with its back doors open was a windowless panel van. We and our equipment were hurried into the van, being greeted in English by a rather charming woman before the van (and us) disappeared into the night leaving behind Mr. Fixit, our link with civilisation as we knew it. James Bond--eat your heart out! We were en route to Eisenhüttenstadt on the Polish border--a charmless, newly built steel town composed of the interminable faceless concrete apartments the DDR favoured. After two hours and being stopped several times by military road blocks, we finally arrived at the less-than-luxurious hotel. We had been hired to lecture on computing to a group of bright young East Germans apparently belonging the (so-called) "DDR Import/Export Agency." Although we used simultaneous English/German translators (by professors of Liepzig University), we discovered that the students spoke good English. Not by actually talking to them--we were not allowed to mix with them in breaks--but by noting they laughed at mild sex jokes well before they had been translated! The group was tightly controlled by two equally young political commissars who seemed to spend most of their time on the telephone. They (and the professors) would join us for breaks and meals and were very interesting to talk to, well travelled--the commissars had been in South America--but severely limited in their views of world In subsequent years, I often wondered about that trip. What was the true purpose of the "DDR Import/Export Agency"? How did my US employer (run in Germany by a very Walter Mitty character whose subsequent memoirs hinted at intelligence activities) get involved? One of my travelling companions--a stereotypical Texan--was deported two days later for insisting on going jogging every morning, despite military manoeuvres by the Warsaw Pact countries taking place locally. He had also narrowly avoided (I hope!) a blatant "honey trap" by one of the students. This was more than a little worrying as we were stranded in the DDR on the Polish border, out of contact with our support team and loved ones and had had to surrender our passports to the local police: of course, it was local police who were escaping the DDR using stolen and forged passports. However, in general, we were well treated and ate some of the best Blue Trout I have ever tasted. The hotel was a stopping point for parties of Russian workers on company-sponsored trips to the DDR as a reward for good work. It was noticeable that the East German staff despised them. The course ended successfully, we retrieved our passports and were ferried back to the same deserted road in East Berlin in the same windowless panel van. Mr. Fixit was waiting for us. We piled into his car to traverse Checkpoint Charlie again, this time from the East German side. Despite Mr. Fixit, we were searched and had to account for all the East German DM.s we had spent. (Things were remarkably cheap--I bought a working zither as a souvenir of about £5--and there was little else one would want to buy as the quality of stuff in shops was shoddy.) After searching inside and under the car (including wheel arches) for DDR escapees, the Border Guards finally released us to traverse the stone chicanes and be greeted once again by a languid wave from the US sentry. One memory stands out. I still recall the shock of emerging from the grey of the DDR into the ebullient light and joie-de-vivre of West Berlin! That still remains a metaphor for my whole DDR experience and perhaps the difference between the regimes. JE comments: A fascinating memory of different times. Yesterday we crossed the (East) German-Polish border at Frankfurt (Oder), and much to my surprise, our car wasn't even stopped. By comparison, the US-Canada border is a fortress. -- For information about the World Association of International Studies (WAIS), and its online publication, the World Affairs Report, read its homepage by simply double-clicking on: http://wais.stanford.edu/ John Eipper, Editor-in-Chief, Adrian College, MI 49221 USA

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