Sunday, April 22, 2007

On tyranny, oppression and brutality

Being an Army brat, I have a different perspective on the world and on history than probably most Americans my age. The longest I have ever lived in one place consecutively is about 8½ years. Still, I have probably lived more years in one town in Germany (over 3 of my dad’s overseas assignments) than any one place anywhere else in the world. I wonder how many more years of my life will go by before that changes.

Having lived in Germany so much, I was able to see and do many things I would otherwise not have had the opportunity to do. I can understand true oppression and brutality without having experienced it personally.

Some time between 3rd and 6th grade, we went to Dachau. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this town, it was the home of one of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps, and it is only about 10 miles away from Munich. Something I didn’t realize until starting this post is that Dachau was the first regular concentration camp created by the Third Reich. I remember seeing the enlarged photos in the museum of the emaciated bodies of the survivors, and the bodies of the dead stacked in piles like cordwood. I remember going into the gas chambers and still being able to smell the gas that had seeped into the walls that had been used to exterminate at least 28,000 people, not all of whom were Jews. Don't forget: Nazi doctors performed medical experiments on prisoners; Nazis believed in eugenics and advocated abortion and sterilization for those deemed unworthy (by the government) to reproduce.

I have also been to Berlin three times: twice in the early 80s, long before the Fall of the Berlin Wall, something I never imagined I would see in my lifetime, and again in May 1990, roughly six months after The Wall came down.

For those of you unfamiliar with how things worked in a divided Germany, getting to Berlin was not a simple task, especially if you were in Germany with a SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) stamp on your passport. If your geography is a little weak, Berlin lies within the borders of the former Deutsches Demokratische Republik (DDR), the “German Democratic Republic”, more commonly known as “East Germany”.

The first time I went to Berlin, I went with my Girl Scout troop the winter of ‘79/’80 (likely Spring Break 1980). We took the train. We had to have “papers”, above and beyond our U.S. passports, to make the trip. We took the “duty train”, which only traveled through East Germany at night. We were instructed to keep the curtains closed in our sleeping compartments on the train during the trip. The train did make stops along the way, and we were told not to peek out the windows whenever we did. For a 9-year-old American child, this was a little disconcerting – I was used to being able to travel freely and look at whatever it was I wanted to look at. During this trip, we only went to sites in West Berlin.

At The Berlin Wall, in the early 1980s, as seen from an observation deck built in the West looking over The Wall into the “no-man’s land”, where only East German border guards were allowed to go. If you didn’t belong, you would be shot, no questions asked.

The second time I went to Berlin, in 1982, my whole family went: my parents, my older brother and my baby sister, who was about 13 months old at the time. We did not take the train. We made the long drive from Bavaria, up to Checkpoint Alpha in Helmstedt, then the 2+ hour drive through the DDR to Checkpoint Bravo to get into West Berlin. Checkpoint Charlie was the official crossing point between the two Berlins. This time, we did go into East Berlin. One thing I do remember about this trip to Berlin was being in the PX (Post Exchange – the department store on base) and having to evacuate because of a bomb threat: an announcement came over the store's PA system to leave your shopping cart and purchases where you are, exit the building, and get away from the building; there was no panic, although I was scared, and everyone followed those orders. Bomb threats were not uncommon during my years living in Germany, and sometimes those bomb threats were against the schools I attended.

Checkpoint Charlie, April 1982

Next to Checkpoint Charlie in West Berlin was a museum. It documented the history of The Wall and those who only attempted to escape and were shot for their trouble - and those who successfully reach The West. Some of the stories I’ve heard about those that took the risk for freedom make me marvel at their bravery. They understood the nature of tyranny, oppression and brutality. They knew the penalty, if caught, would be death. They made the attempt anyway. We camped when we traveled and the campground where we stayed was close to The Wall. Made one wonder about any strange noises heard overnight.

Fast forward to my junior sophomore year of college: November 9, 1989. I was glued to the television, hardly able to believe what I was seeing. The Berlin Wall was coming down, and the East Germans couldn’t stop it. I was in Texas, but my dad was still (or again, since we last visited Berlin) stationed in Germany. I never, in my wildest dreams, believed I would live to see the day The Wall would be no more. The following May, I would head home for the summer: my last summer spent in Germany. The day after I got home, we packed up the car for a trip to Berlin.

I remember more details from this trip, since I was pretty much an adult at this point. I didn’t have to sleep behind the steering wheel in the front seat on the way there like I had done when I was in elementary school. I remember sitting in on the briefing at Checkpoint Alpha. I remember the notebook we had to take with us with important information printed in English, German, French and Russian. We were only authorized to drive on the main Autobahn from Checkpoint Alpha to Checkpoint Bravo. We could make rest stops along the way, but again, we had to stick to the main highway. We were also to speak to no one along the way. That's what the notebook was for. If we checked into Checkpoint Bravo in less than 2 hours, my father would have received a speeding ticket, but if we hadn’t checked in within 5 hours, they would come looking for us. Not the highway on which you want to have mechanical difficulties.

In order to make this trip through the DDR, you had to have Flag Orders – your “papers”, essentially. You had to present your “papers” on the East German side, then again when you reached Checkpoint Bravo. This time, we didn’t camp out. Someone my father knew from a previous duty station was assigned to Berlin, and they were putting us up during our stay. I liked this much better, since I was no longer 11 years old, and I would want to have facilities to comfortably primp before going out and playing tourist.

We took the ferry ride on the Wannsee, and passed under the Glienicker Bruecke, which linked East and West, and was used for spy-swaps during The Cold War. I remember a church on the lake that was only accessible from the West, via the lake – the east/west border transected the church property.

The church sat in “no-man’s land”, and the East Germans destroyed the church’s interior prior to the building of The Wall to stop people from being able to attend services in the church. From Christmas Eve 1961 to Christmas Eve 1989, the church remained used unused and in a state of decay. The DDR wasn’t big on wanting people to practice their religion, after all.

Another thing we did was go to The Wall around Checkpoint Charlie. We all took turns with hammer and chisel to help “tear down this Wall”.

The plan was to walk over into East Berlin. Only when we got there did we learn that only my father (in his Class A uniform) and our hosts who were stationed in Berlin were allowed to walk across. My mother, my sisters and I would have to stay in West Berlin, although we did drive into East Berlin later during our stay. We made arrangements to meet up again over by the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag which, as the crow flies is about half a mile, but the path of The Wall wasn’t a straight line. Unfortunately, I can’t find any maps to help with distances for the route of The Wall to know exactly how far we walked. We were able to walk through the former “no-man’s land” and the old border guard paths. Just a year before, if I had been in the same exact location, I would have been shot on sight, and I could have been left there to bleed to death.

“No-man’s Land” on the East Berlin side of The Wall. The buildings seen to the right stood unoccupied for decades, lest someone living there try to escape. Another thing I noticed is that many of these buildings near The Wall were still pockmarked from the fighting that occurred in Berlin in World War II. The communists never bothered to make the repairs.

We stayed in Berlin about a week. In addition to going to Checkpoint Charlie and walking from there to the Reichstag, we also went to a part of Berlin near where we took the boat ride on Wannsee. The “no-man’s land” here, unlike the “no-man’s land” between Checkpoint Charlie and the Reichstag, is a large field full of sand, and several large ditches. My father explained to me (not quite 20 at the time, and not well-versed on such matters) that the sand was graded smooth, so that when the East German border guards would shine the searchlights across “no-man’s land”, any footprints from someone attempting to escape to the West would be easily visible; the ditches were to prevent someone from attempting to drive a vehicle across the “no-man’s land”.

On the trip home, my father once again offered for me to handle the Flag Orders. This would be my last chance. I took him up on it. So, at Checkpoint Bravo, heading west, we pull up to an East German border guard. I get out of the vehicle with everyone’s Flag Orders (me, my parents and my little sisters). I walk up to the border guard, salute and hand him our “papers”. By the way, the guard has a loaded rifle over his shoulder. The guard (who was probably about my age at the time, and according to my dad, seemed to smile a bit as I got out of the car) looks over the Flag Orders then hands them back. I then walk up to a very plain building. Upon entering, I am in a small room with no windows, only a small opening. I place our “papers” in the opening, and they disappear. I stand there waiting while whoever is on the other side of the wall, someone I never lay eyes on, does whatever it is they do with the Flag Orders to make sure we are okay to proceed. I can not help but feel as if I am being watched as I wait. Our “papers” are eventually returned through the opening. I exit the building and return to the border guard. Again, I am to salute him and hand him the Flag Orders. He looks them over, verifying that all is in order, and he hands them back to me. I get back into the car, and on we go. During this entire process, I speak to no one, and see only the border guard with the rifle. This same process is repeated when we reach Checkpoint Alpha. The rest of the trip home is a story of its own (maybe that will be my next post, when I get the time).

So, although my brush with tyranny, oppression and brutality is only cursory and fleeting, I have some concrete idea about what it is like.

Having these experiences, it blows my mind that people say that America is becoming a police state, that we are the cause of all bad things that happen in the world, that we are responsible for the 9/11 attacks, we are responsible for homocide bombers slaughtering innocent Iraqis. In the United States, one is free to criticize the government; one is free to protest. Of all the vocal critics of the Bush Administration, I have not heard of a single one who has been carted off in the middle of the night, never to be seen or heard from again, as often happens when one protests the government in a dictatorship (Saddam’s Iraq) or oligarchy (former Eastern Bloc countries, or Iran).

We still have a “free press”, even though many press outlets abuse the right by selectively reporting the news to fit their own agenda. The government cannot cart you off to jail for publishing pieces critical of the Administration. Even when we see news outlets publishing classified information harmful to our efforts to defeat the Islamic terrorists, no one goes to jail.

In America, we don’t have to have “papers” to travel. We can go anywhere we choose, and if you want to leave the country, all the government would have you do is get a passport. There will be no American border guard checking your “papers” to make sure you are allowed to go.

In America, unlike countries such as China and Iran, you do not have to be a “member of the Party” in order to succeed or hold political office. All it takes is determination to educate oneself and the will to see things through to completion. America is the land of opportunity. What that opportunity gets you is entirely up to you.

It blows my mind that people would compare building a fence along sections of our southern border, something many Americans support, to The Berlin Wall. Do these people not understand what The Berlin Wall was meant to do? Its sole purpose was to keep people desperate for freedom in, to keep them from escaping tyranny and oppression. A wall on our southern border is meant to keep people from sneaking into our country, like home invaders, without our permission, breaking our laws by their mere presence. Some may truly be here “just to work”, but in this post-9/11 world we cannot afford to ignore violent gangs, drug smugglers and persons with terrorist ties who are invading our country.

In America, you can worship as you see fit, or not. The government will not coerce you into following the accepted religion, and no “religious police” will throw you in jail for apostasy, or keep little girls from escaping a burning building because they are not “properly covered”. No one will execute you for listening to popular secular music, watching movies or doing anything else against governmental morality codes.

It blows my mind that, when discussing Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly everything our Armed Forces does is highly scrutinized, and only those things that might make the military look bad seem to get reported in the mainstream media. Ignored are the atrocities committed by our enemies: Iraqi policemen being kidnapped and murdered, terrorists using children as a decoy to get a car bomb through a security checkpoint, leaving the children in the back seat as they ran away and detonated the bomb. I’m sure if I took the time, I could compile quite a list of the barbaric acts committed by Islamic terrorists, but we never hear about those in the MSM news reports.

The United States of America, for all her faults, is still the only nation on this earth I wish to call home. I've had the privilege of traveling to other countries, and although I can admire the history and culture of each place I've visited, they are still imperfect places with worse problems than we have here. We are all still entitled to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. We still have our right to say what we want, go where we want, associate with whomever we choose. We are that shining city upon a hill - the best example of Liberty and Justice for All.


Snooper said...

Very good post and the analogies are perfect!!

The Leftinistra would have the world to believe that America is the bad guy.

Why then, do people swarm here in droves and if possible, kill to get here?

Chuck said...

Beautiful story, with an excellent summation. And I especially like the pictures.


Lew Waters said...

Thank you, Miss Ladybug, for a trip down memory lane. After Viet Nam, I was sent to Germany, serving with Air Cav Troop, 2nd ACR in Nurnberg, March '71 to Mar '74.

I too visited Dachau and it left an impression on me.

We were billeted in Merril Barracks (before my wife came over), which was actually the old WW2 SS Kaserne. it still had pock marks from the fighting there during the war.

Over all, though, what made the biggest impression on me was when we flew our side of the border between East and West Germany as well as Czechoslovakia. Yes, there really was a tall fence all the way around the country, smoothly raked sand on their side and multiple guard towers. All designed, not to keep us out, but to keep their people in.

Those that feel our country isn't so grand should have lived on the other side for a few years.

I recall when they built the Berlin Wall a famous photo that appeared in Look Magazine (or maybe Life or Time) of an East German Soldier leaping over the barbed wire to freedom as they were laying the wire before the concrete was poured.

Conrad Schuman, leaps over a barbed wire barricade into West Berlin on August 15, 1961.

When the Berlin Wall fell, did you notice that West Germans did not flock to the East, but it was other way around?

Miss Ladybug said...


You are exactly right ~ emigration went one way: OUT of East Germany.

Miss Ladybug said...

And a belated "Thanks, Chuck". And all those pictures are "mine", nothing from any source outside of personal and family photos.

The Vegas Art Guy said...

My grandmother told me stories about when she visited Estonia in the early 80's. It was an interesting visit to say the least since she had family there that did not escape to the US. When I visit her this summer I'm going to ask her about that trip again in detail.

Lew, that is a heck of a photo, thanks for sharing.

Snooper said...

AH yes! I remember reading this one!

I bet the troll had heart failure!