On the Wrong Side of the Berlin Wall

It was the time of Gorbachev and Détente; an uneasy and foolish Détente if you asked a certain Russian officer, which I did as we rode from the GKSS-GUSI deep diving facility in Geesthacht, Germany back into town. It was June 1990. The Russian did not know English, and I didn’t know Russian, but the German driver understood my English enough to translate for the Russian. Gorbachev must have been out of his mind, that officer said.

A short time later a Naval Officer scientist and two technicians on my team from Bethesda, Md left Lüneburg, where we were staying,  and headed to Berlin for the weekend. After an extended rainy period, the weather was finally gorgeous, and we soon found ourselves at the dividing line between East and West Berlin, surrounded by East Germany. That line, marked by the Berlin Wall, was a stark reminder of the red curtain that lay scant yards away from us.


It was an exciting time, because the Wall had already been breached the previous November, and visitors and townspeople alike were chipping away at the hard concrete, trying to eradicate the Wall and scavenge historical souvenirs.

We were no exception, although that is not what we had planned. This was simply an opportunity too good to pass.

Another opportunity appeared as a break in the line at the Brandenburg Gate.  Police were allowing people to cross over into East Germany, without restraint, apparently.

While others in my team were picking away at the stubbornly dense concrete of the Berlin Wall, the young Naval Officer in civilian clothes and I sized up the situation and decided that since Détente was running at fever pitch we might as well get a glimpse of the wrong side of the Iron Curtain before it changed forever. The Germans waiting in line to cross over were excited about their newfound freedom and encouraged us to join them. “No problem,” is what they said.

There is something about those two words that always seems ironic, in retrospect.


So, with no formality at all we found ourselves walking down almost deserted streets on the other side of the Brandenburg Gate, on the Soviet side of the Berlin Wall, walking past depressingly gray buildings, with the only color being a red Aeroflot sign on a travel agency. From the looks of it, no East Germans were traveling that day.

It did not take long for the novelty of our new geographical freedom to wear off, and so we returned to the casual opening through which we entered the forbidden zone.

The only problem was, the guards wouldn’t let us back through.

Well, that was unexpected.

I suppose our dismay was obvious to the guards who knew just enough English to be dismissive, and the young Naval Officer must have had visions of his career coming to a swift and inglorious end, probably in some East German prison. I, however, am an optimist, and when the security guard muttered something in German about Check Point Charlie (I had heard of it before from some spy movie or other), we set off to rescue ourselves from our accidental confinement.

Check Point Charlie was only about two kilometers away, but a very tense two kilometers. The East German gray buildings took on a somber hue as we passed — not like battleship gray, but more like prison gray; Soviet prison gray.

I’m not sure what my Naval Officer friend was thinking during that walk, but since I had led him into this tight situation his thoughts might have bordered on the murderous.

On arrival at the East Berlin side of Checkpoint Charlie, we could clearly see the American side, which beckoned just a short distance away. But, first, we had to negotiate our way past an East German border guard.

That guard, whose uniform bore alien-looking DDR patches, frowned deeply when examining our “papers.” We did not have a visa for entry to East Germany. We clearly did not belong in East Berlin.

So close to the freedom of the American Sector, and yet so far away.

“You will have to pay.”

Mind you, the word “pay” can have many meanings, most of them neither easy nor pleasant.

Hoping with my usual optimism that he meant paying with money, I next asked, “How much?”

Looking at the American Sector from the East German side of Checkpoint Charlie.

“Five Deutschmarks.”

We had Deutschmarks, but they were West German DMs. “Not a problem, I’ll take those,” he said with a broad smile.

Of course, we understood that West German DMs were worth much more than GDR (German Democratic Republic) currency.  But if that was the price for our freedom, it was a price we were more than willing to pay.

That night as I was speeding my friends back to the relative safety of West Germany, I kept encountering slow-moving, tiny little cars, called Trabants. In fact, I almost ran over one before its image in my rental car’s headlights made clear what it was.

The Trabant, Communist era East German car, also known as Trabis.

“That’s odd,” I remarked.

Trabants were a ubiquitous East German car, but I didn’t know that at the time.

If I had, the next sign, a sign for a Baltic Sea town just ahead, wouldn’t have been such a shock.

We had missed a turn and had been driving for over two hours North towards Rostock, still firmly in the depths of Communist East Germany. As I turned around and headed South I was hoping our auto, ostentatious by East German standards, was not advertising the fact that, once again, we did not belong in East Germany.

It was late when we returned to Lüneburg, tired and perhaps a bit wiser. But at least we had all collected a bit of the infamous Berlin Wall to remind us of the fragility of freedom in an uncertain world.

A piece of the Berlin Wall with a rebar impression near the bottom.

Photo of Brandenburg Gate by Florian Wehde on Unsplash.