The Berlin Wall 25 years BEFORE it fell

PUBLISHED: 11:50 03 November 2009 | UPDATED: 00:29 16 June 2010

Tony Simpson in Berlin.

Tony Simpson in Berlin.

A HONITON resident has good reason to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9 in 1989 – 20 years ago. In 1964, after the wall was built,

A HONITON resident has good reason to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9 in 1989 - 20 years ago.

In 1964, after the wall was built, TONY SIMPSON visited Berlin and travelled through the wall six times when most Germans could be shot for doing so. This is his story...

WE flew to Berlin in an ancient Dakota aircraft called Sir Walter Raleigh, which landed at Hitler's old airport, Templehof. It had been used for the Berlin airlift.

I was the sole British peace representative at a youth conference that visited west and east Berlin for two weeks. I must have been one of the first "peaceniks" allowed through the wall.

Special arrangements were made for us on both sides to travel through checkpoints each day to meet East Berliners to discuss peace and to witness what they called "reconstruction".

I was an undergraduate studying politics and history, so was shown around and taken to homes and churches with a Guardian newspaper correspondent called Benedict Nightingale (now The Times' theatre critic).

I still have a menu from the famous Opera House restaurant on Unter den Linden, where Soviet officers dined. They served very cheap East German food and beer, but Soviet wine! Part of the deal was that we were taken to the massive Red Army memorial in Treptower, where hundreds of Soviet veterans were visiting t 5,000 soldiers who died in the battle for Berlin.

I got to know the border guards on both sides of Checkpoint Charlie. I gave them chocolates and peace badges; the American 'white caps' were pretty gung-ho. The East German guards wanted cigarettes.

In West Berlin we saw Hitler's bunker and met the British military in their zone. We visited the famous Glenicker Bridge where spies were still being exchanged by officials straight out of Smiley's People.

We went to tea with Mayor Willy Brandt, who showed us where President John Kennedy gave his "Ich Bin Ein Berliner" speech. I still have my specially stamped card and recording of Kennedy's speech, which Brandt joked actually meant "I am a doughnut". It was exactly a year after Kennedy's assassination.

His brother, Robert, arrived in a motorcade through Berlin that day and stood on the same spot. I shall always remember that day - June 26, 1964. There were US soldiers in the cellar bars and cabaret clubs in the Kurfurstandamn.

Later, they filmed Cabaret there.

Our daily journeys to East Berlin and the GDR were at the height of the cold war. Soviet soldiers were being attacked in West Berlin. There was hardly any traffic in East Berlin.

After passing through the Friederickstrasse S Bahn crossing, people would approach us to carry packages for them to the west. We had to be very careful; people were still being shot crossing over.

On the anti-fascist side of the wall, I was shown where the Nazis burned books and possibly people, too.

Just like West Berlin, the wall had huge signs on it boasting of progress and the war-like intentions of "the other side".

A massive amount of showcase building was taking place on both sides, with huge illuminated propaganda signs on either side of a death strip. One night, after a day in East Germany, we just lingered on the strip between the two checkpoints and thought how mad it all seemed.

It is very likely we were followed during our visit to the East, but I'm pretty sure this happened when I got home, too. telephone had been tapped since I had once been a civil servant. I came back very frightened there would be a nuclear war, because neither side was trying to understand the other, and more and more missiles were being placed.

I was convinced the Berlin Wall was a tinder box ready to explode.

Fortunately, Berlin had an exceptionally clever mayor in Willy Brandt, who avoided confrontation. Then, later, the Soviets had Gorbachev, who enabled the wall to be opened before it was destroyed.

Recently, I re-visited a unified Berlin and the places I saw in the 1960s, which are all very different except for the Red Army memorial, which was deserted.

Checkpoint Charlie is now basically a film set for tourists, but I found a familiar café nearby.

I think Berlin is now Europe's most vibrant and free city, and is really good at sharing its history. It is my favourite city.

Tony Simpson can be contacted on (01404) 548228.


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