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Eine Grossstadt

ISSUE:  Winter 2001

The last time I’d looked at the Victory Column, I was under a netting of green-brown-grey camouflage put up to foil R.A.F. bombers using Berlin’s towering memorial as a direction finder.

This time, we were looking down on where I’d ridden a bus under that net, a city where I had been a student, a foreign correspondent, a Nazi internee, and special assistant to the U.S. Commandant, Berlin. Behind us was Lord Norman Foster’s big glass dome as we stood on the roof of the rebuilt Reichstag. The government was moving up from the sticks; Berlin was again a capital.

In my long-ago ride, the camouflage, like a huge, saggy tennis net, hung from the tops of lampposts on each side of the “East-West Axis.” Sitting in a front seat of the a double decker bus, I peered ahead through the shady Tiergarten, looking for the Column. It had been transformed into a hill. With rafts bearing camouflage netting Berlin defenders had also changed the shoreline of some of the city’s lakes. As gigantic mirrors, they reflected the moonlight, and British pilots could get an assist by remembering: “turn left at Tegern Lake, chaps” . . .but not if it didn’t look like Tegern Lake.

Today, new lamp posts are themselves hardly visible under great trees of the regrown Tiergarten. The Victory Column is visible to everyone despite the equally tall cranes endlessly lifting and lowering equipment and earth as the reborn capital digs deep and builds high. Is every bulldozer in Europe at work there? It looks like it.

From that Reichstag roof, with Sir Norman Foster’s glass dome sparkling behind me, I could see over the Brandenburg Gate to the empty site of the old American embassy. I thought back on another double-decker bus, the one I rode when the Germans collected diplomats and correspondents to take them off to five months internment after Pearl Harbor. Today, other structures around Pariser Platz, where that embassy stood, have been rebuilt. Our old spot is a blank hole. The State Department seems unwilling to rebuild the old embassy, the Bluecher Palace, because it cannot assure the proper security distance from possible sidewalk bomb throwers.

On one corner of the Platz, however, the Adlon Hotel is, as of old, hosting its top-level patrons. To me, the Adlon is a lounge where a top CBS foreign correspondent asked me if I wanted to leave the Associated Press and join Columbia Broadcasting. I knew that radio news would never last, and gave him my thanks. Today’s Adlon is a change from the day it housed a display window of the city’s leading jeweler. On silver holders, it showcased Herman Goering’s bejeweled Reichsmarshall’s baton of ebony, ivory, gold, and silver. Despite doing this as a sensational piece of jewelry for “Fat Herman” as he was called, the next time I walked past the window, in the right lower corner, painted in 12-inch-high white lettering, was the name of the shop and the owner. The Nazis required every Jewish business to mark itself this way; and the last time I saw that window, the proprietors were fruitlessly trying to lower a metal grating down over it—but too late. The Kristallnacht thugs were smashing the window to powder.

Certainly unexpectedly, I ran into those thugs. I’d just left the Lehrter railroad station. Today’s remodelled station, which I saw from the roof of the Reichstag, is one of the marvels of the reconstruction of Berlin. Five underground railroad lines, plus the subway, plus a city surface line, empty their passengers into today’s station. Nothing new shows on the surface, and the old concourse is becoming a huge mall. Nearby, a further part of an invisible underground labyrinth of transportation is a cross-town highway shooting traffic beneath the whole rebuilt area.

But this wonder station is not the Lehrter Bahnhof from which I rode my bike right into the middle of the smashing and shattering of Kristallnacht.

Traveling overnight, 3rd class, I’d returned from Munich. There I’d been to watch the emotion-packed ceremonies memorializing the death of 16 men in the abortive Nazi putsch of 1923. Biking from Lehrter, my goal was my university dorm to get breakfast, for I had only a Groschen, 10 pfennigs, left over from Munich. I wheeled into Unter den Linden and saw the smashed jewelry store window. I got off my bike, dumfounded, and watched what was happening. Farther down Linden, men were tossing things out of second story windows. A typewriter came flying out. A baby grand was shouldered out onto the sidewalk. Men with either an informal cloth band around one arm, or wearing the Nazi party’s SA (Sturm-Abteilung) uniform, were at the center of it all.

Policemen stood silently deliberately gazing off into the sky. Passers-by looked straight ahead or down at the pavement as they hurried along. No one stopped.

A fellow student and I spent the day going around the city: at the Charlottenburg synagogue, a lazy column of smoke rising above it, and no one near the building. One untouched shop bore a sign saying, “This store being Aryanized.” As the day went on, some citizens got into the swing of it. They began entering smashed shops and continuing the work, and clearly doing a bit of looting. At the close of the day, the sign we’d seen earlier now read, “This shop has been Aryanized.” It bore the ubiquitous cluster of seals and counter-signatures to prove it had a new “Aryan” owner.

Around one corner of today’s Adlon is the refurbished Wilhelmstrasse, ever in my mind from an unexpected encounter there. En route to the AP bureau, I’d often walk along Wilhelmstrasse just to go past Hitler’s Reichskanzlei. Passing the chancellery, I’d glance into the courtyard. Usually nothing was there. One day, as I was about to pass and peek, an arm blocked my way. It was the guard at the gate. Around his black sleeve was the silver legend, SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, the name of the Fuehrer’s elite “Life Guards” regiment. Turning my head to the street, I saw a large Horch limousine about to roll past me.

Alone in the back seat, over a set of four drive-wheels, was Adolf Hitler. Six feet away, through the car window, he looked directly at me, lifted his right arm and gave me a private, one-on-one “Heil!” I had no world-shaking reaction to being face to face with the dictator. The thing that struck me was that Hitler’s eyes were blue. I thought all Austrians had brown eyes. Years later, I read in a book written by the wife of Hitler’s favorite pianist, “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, that she had met “a charming young artist with the bluest eyes, Adolf Hitler. . .”

One front of the Adlon is on Unter den Linden. The famous boulevard just doesn’t seem to have bounced back to the elegance it once had. But one thing to remember is that it spent several generations under East German Communist party rule. Aside from what other sins it may have had, the East German government seemed to be a government focused on not painting anything. Once, on a drive through East Berlin during the Cold War, I realized that half of the city looked as if the government were specializing in being drab. It was not just plain drab, or High Drab, but Noble Drab. The reason, it seemed, was that there was no advertising. No gas station waved its red banners, no hamburger joint told about itself in three colors, no modest splendor revealed a (comparatively) elegant shop to the passer-by.

Along today’s Linden, as it has been in the post-World War II epoch, the Staatsoper continues in business. I feel tied to it in a number of ways. First of all, it owes me one Wagner opera. As one of those who say, “I am not a musician, I am a Wagnerian,” I join Mark Twain in his belief that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds. I was booked to hear Parsival, but the day before, the British bombed the opera house. Perhaps the R.A.F. owes me.

During the Nazi apogee, I had seen a Staatsoper performance that did not take place on its stage. Between acts, as our opera party slowly strolled ‘round the grand foyer, a door from one of the boxes opened and the occupants emerged. The first one was Fraeulein Nona Keitel, daughter of the commander in chief of the Wehrmacht, Colonel-General Wilhelm Keitel. Nona, a graduate of Dublin’s Trinity College, was a handsome young woman, six foot three inches tall. Following her out of the box were her escorts, three young officers, each of them six four or better. It revealed one of the advantages of being well-connected.

Compared with that off-stage performance, only a minor one was put on years later during my term as the American commanding general’s civilian special assistant when we went to the opera with Lt. Col. Marcus Coombs, a British officer from the Scots Greys cavalry regiment, then on Berlin duty. East Germans rarely saw a real live Western occupation officer up close, or even from a distance. The inch-wide yellow stripe down Coombs’ tight, blue, dress uniform trews, and his silver dress spurs seemed to draw as much interest as the opera itself.

The Staatsoper figured in my East German counter-intelligence record. They tailed me, I found out when I recently got my file, even when I went to look at the Staatsoper’s “coming events” poster. “”Palme”“—that was the code name they gave me—”entered the Deutsche Staatsoper at 15:49 hours, inspected the billboard . . .and at 15:54 returned to his private vehicle . . .” (one surveillance report said I’d driven down a “clearly marked one-way street in the wrong direction.” Did my tail follow my illegal route?)

Across from the Staatsoper is the “Humbolt” University. It looks like the old Kaiser Friederich-Wilhelm Universitaet where I attended the Deutsches Institut fuer Auslaender as a language student. The head of that institute was a Dr. Kartzke. As he greeted me on my entrance day in August 1938, I looked up to the wall behind him. There was a poster of a bulldog smoking a pipe. Nearby was the banner, “For God, For Country and For Yale.” Clearly an Eli penetration of the Third Reich.

Those enrolled in his institute were “eine bunte Mischung,” a colorful mixture of harmless-appearing foreign learners. Not quite. One of them, a onetime naughty-limerick expert, Johnny Gibbon, now gets mail addressed to “General Sir John Gibbon,” a retired chief of the British General staff; Jim Lane popped up in Paris in later days as Dr. James Lane, a member of the Alsos Mission, investigating German atom bomb progress; Chris Ellingsen, a Norwegian, answered a question that’s touchy for some citizens of a land that gave us the word “Quisling,” “what did you do during the war?” by saying, “a bit of skiing.” Translation: secretly he led “a friend” through snowy winter forests to Sweden. That “friend” was a Norwegian Resistance member who came back to Norway by parachute to try to blow up the Germans’ heavy water plant. The King of Norway presented Order of St. Olaf medals to both of them.

Another student Kartzke welcomed was the quiet, 16-year-old Mona Mason-MacFarlane, daughter of the suave British military attache. Her silence in wartime Britain was most assuredly an aspect of later being a part of the code-cracking “Ultra” crowd, who never say anything; her father was also quiet but said something to the Foreign Office: that he could shoot Hitler “quick as wink” from his apartment bathroom. On that one, Downing street really lived up to its name.

Not too far from “Humbolt,” as they keep insisting it’s called, was the Akademie der Kuenste. Bombed. The green-verdigris copper tip of the spire on the Academy of Fine Arts was pulled out of the rubble by one of its professors and today it sits on his coffee table. A bit east from “Humboldt” now, as before, stands a Greek temple type of war memorial, once called the Ehrendenkmal. Before it, a guard was mounted 24 hours a day. Today’s toned-down successor, an Eternal Flame, would not have been grand enough for an event I watched during the days of the German-Italian-Japanese “Three Power Pact.” Drawn up before the Ehrendenkmal, in black uniforms and helmets, was a company of the SS Life Guards. It mirrored Friederich the Great’s Langer Kerls—The Big Fellows—because every SS man was over six feet tall. The Japanese Foreign Minister, Matsuoka, an “Honorary Aryan,” as the Nazis called their Asian allies, inspected the ranks of blonde, towering riflemen. He was five foot one if he was an inch. His top hat would have helped, but he carried it in his left hand.

As for today’s war memorials, the Soviets made sure their fierce battle to take Berlin will not be forgotten. Their memorial, planted by the victors in the heartland of the vanquished, is large, and located prominently in the Tiergarten, but it is, to put it politely, visitation-deprived.

Known to all who visited Berlin in the good old, or bad old, days, was the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Its steeple stuck up right in the middle of a traffic non-flow that would have done Pierre L’Enfant proud. It was a smashed wartime bombing casualty. As a reminder, shattered portions of the steeple still remain, but beside the decapitated church tower has arisen a dramatic, square, bell-tower and chapel. During a recent visit I almost caused a tail-gater. While driving past it, my eyes fixed on something new. It was a banner hanging down, covering most of the new tower from top to bottom, and writ large with letters advertising:


Could the Dean in Washington, D. C. , use the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial solution to make up any shortfall in the collection plates by stretching a great banner

             USE IVORY SOAP

across the National Cathedral?

The Pergamon Altar is but one of Berlin’s network of world class museums, and remains as popular and important as it has always been. Gone from its long-time stay at the Pergamon is the exquisite Egyptian head of Nefertiti; now across town in the Prussian State Museum. In my student days, I often visited both Pergamon and Nefertiti. The bridge to the Museum Island was outside across from Hegelhaus, my student dormitory at Kupfergraben No. 5a, now a pile of rubble. Gone is the staircase that led into the students’ main room. Gone are its astonishing and comfortable three-inch-high steps. It was Hegel’s house, and that’s the kind of stairs Hegel liked.

German art on the cutting edge in the 20’s and early 30’s—typified by Nolde—what Hitler called entartete Kunst, decadent art, blooms once more. Want to see a stark museum room with a number of rocks on a shiny, polished floor, the artist’s name and a title of this opus on a little card on the wall? Berlin is your place.

Out in the edges of West Berlin are the leafy neighborhoods with their pleasant and commodious private homes that look today as they did in the good old days, if you call the Allied occupation of Berlin the good old days. To see the street sign “Clayallee” brings one up with a start; but a street named after an American general seemed natural in those days. The house we were assigned in those days still looks familiar, except that the two watchmen’s boxes in the front yard are gone. Today’s owners are building something on the rear of the house. Maybe it’s a garage; my discreetly armored official car was kept in an Army garage. In nearby Miquel street the president of the German Federal Republic, Johannes Rau, has chosen to live in the nicely kept-up former house of the American minister. He prefers it to the official Bellevue Castle residence, as he says he wants his three school-aged children to grow up with youngsters their own age around them.

Kurfuerstendamm is still a great avenue, and it still has the old up-scale look, depending on where you look. The KaDeWe, the Kaufhaus des Westens, the nation’s blue ribbon department store, is going at flank speed. You still can get X varieties of caviar, Y fabrics from the globe’s most distant looms, you can get. . .you name it. But today, down at the far western end, they sell el cheapo things out of carts. That end of “KuDamm” has become, well, a bit seedy.

The bustle of the corner of KuDamm and Joachimsthaler Strasse is still the same. Kranzler’s Conditorei, an equal of Le Fouquet’s in Paris, any day of the week, is still full. Under the awning are those who like to drink coffee at Kranzler’s and those who like to be seen drinking coffee at Kranzler’s. Near this corner was a little comedy pub where a guitarist sang a politically acceptable little song lampooning King Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson

Heinrich der Achte
Der wuste was er machte . . .
Eduard der Achte,
der wuste AUCH was er machte

Not very hot stuff, but “Henry the VIII knew what he was doing; so did Edward VIII” was as near as one could dare to come to the real old time Karbaret der Komiker political material. At that time it was best not to joke about anything that would get you sent off to a “KZ,” a Konzentrations Lager. The pervasive necessity for Gleichschaltung, for being on the same protective Nazi wave length, for being a National Socialist Something or Other, stretched into comedy night clubs. One comedian dared tell of “The tree that stood at the edge of the forest, and joined the National Socialist Tree Society . . . so that nothing would happen to him.” ZAP! Off to six weeks in the KZ for that funny fellow. Then, he came back. “A tree stood on the edge of the forest,” he began, “it did NOT join the National Socialist Tree Society. . .so that nothing would happen to ME.” So what did happen to him? Further, The Despondent Saith Not.

Near where they’re still drinking coffee at Kranzler’s, a few months before World War II, I watched a Panzer division clank down Joachimstaler street. There were 40 better ways to get to wherever they were going than rumbling through the center of a Grossstadt in the middle of the afternoon. It was clearly a home-consumption propaganda operation. On that same corner, not too much later, some chums and I took part in a practice black-out. This Verdunklung exercise was carried out to the accompaniment of our nervous laughter. Why were we doing this? Yes, yes, war talk; but war was something that happened elsewhere, not in front of Kranzler’s. Then, the street lights went out, and curtains were pulled across windows, and even out on that busy corner there was a bit of a hush. We stood there, wearing glowing, round blue buttons on our lapels. Lightheadedly, we wondered if we were therefore—quite literally—not going to run into someone we knew. We milled around a while, and presently the street lamps slowly returned to full strength; our only practice blackout was over. The next blackouts were for real.

Out in the western part of the city I did not search out one street, the one where I was en famille with the Liebenaus. While she helped me polish my German, Frau Doktor Liebenau also suppressed the family’s obvious anti-Nazi views. The Wehrmacht sent her two sons to the Russian Front. We see our war films, and we honor our own wounded, missing, and dead, but seldom wonder if there were any good guys on the other side. I sometimes think of Frau Doktor and and her sons Hajo and Enno. For her, it was All Quiet On The Eastern Front, for she never heard a single word from, or about, either of them, ever. They just disappeared into the frozen battlefront.

Giesebrechtstrasse, where I lived as an AP correspondent, looks pretty normal today, although there has been 60 years more traffic on the stairs. Those are the stairs I ascended one afternoon to such an intense silence it caught my attention. At a third-floor apartment door, the keyhole was covered with a round red and white seal. On it was the Nazi spread-eagle, clutching the Hakenkreuz, encircled by the words Geheime Staatspolizei. The GeStaPo had been there. The wife of the Jewish family had been prevented from throwing herself down the stairwell, and the family had been taken away. Up past that empty apartment one night, knocking on our door, came a medium sized man in a black, short, morning coat. On his left breast was sewn the yellow star of David. Below it hung the Iron Cross (First Class). He was a Jewish World War I combat hero. Could I help him? I could not.

In that flat, I experienced the first bombing of Berlin. The British began with more impudence than success, and earlier than most casual readers of events of those days imagine (“young” Americans, even Baby Boomers, please remember World War II began on Sept. 1, 1939, NOT at Pearl Harbor’s Dec.7, 1941). One night I again heard antiaircraft fire, which I recognized, as the gunners had been practicing around the edges of the city.

This night, however, the flat bAAm!-bAAm!-bAAm!, like the sound of beating on a tremendous washtub, was more intense than I’d ever heard. It came from the fierce 88 mm. antiaircraft guns which eventually became equally notorious as a deadly field piece. I eased out on my balcony. There was something new; in addition to the exploding 88 shells, a dozen searchlights flashed back and forth. Their blue-ish beams, reflected off the clouds, lit up the blacked-out German capital.

Then, directly through the clouds and a cluster of searchlight beams, came a Lancaster bomber, tilting in a curved track trying to avoid the lights. BAAm!-bAAm!-bAAm!

Then: another Lancaster appeared, diving through the pyramid of lights that had fastened on his crippled squadron-mate. No way. The searchlight crews would not break up to let Lancaster # 1 escape. I hope # 2 got the D.F.C.

Then: one, two, three, four—out of Lancaster # 1 came the parachutes of the crew, and in my scrapbook today I still have the shaky snapshot I took.

An early bombing of Berlin; and the result was? Who knows today what was hit that night? Not much of anything, I suspect. There are Berliners alive today who knew about that first R.A.F. bombing and about the morning after, too. Today, they’ll say out loud what they didn’t say the morning after. For Reichsmarshall Herman Goering had scoffed at the Brits. He had taunted the R.A.F.: “if you ever bomb Berlin, my name is Meyer”; But I never heard a single soul say “Meyer” that morning after, believe me.

Other R. A. F. bombers swanned around above Berlin at about the period of that early raid. Searchlights lit things fluttering out of the clouds. The Brits were dropping newspapers. They looked like the official Nazi Voelkischer Beobachter, “The People’s Observer.” But, using the same type, and the same red and black headlines, this paper was titled Woelkischer Beobachter, “The Cloud Observer.” A neat language play. The paper was full of real news and British propaganda. Anyone save a sample copy? Not jolly likely.

Looking south from the roof of the reborn Reichstag building is the vista of what is happening today on the once desolate Potsdamer Platz. Past the Quadriga on top of Brandenburger Tor, visible through a lacy steel jungle of cranes and pile-drivers you see today’s building frenzy. What I recall was the old Potsdamer Platz where the circular, domed Haus Vaterland stood, advertising lights blinking in signs that would soon go dark forever. The Platz was in the middle of the area where the last battle, Brownshirts v. Red Army, took place. The spot eventually became a vast triangular, grassless wasteland between stretches of The Wall.

Potsdamer Platz is now The Biggest Building Site In Europe as a three-language, multi-colored slick-paper picture book, calls it. In the area, you can’t miss a gigantic glass cube: Sony’s European Headquarters. From its loftiest point, at its “topping-out” a young lady, in a flowing white dress, played a golden harp. At Daimler-Benz’s topping-out, Daniel Barenboim directed Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and, against a background of immense construction derrick booms, “The Dance of the Cranes.” In the area the Esplanade Hotel rises again. There I asked a barkeep what the letters behind him, “WYPFADIITY” meant. “Will you pay for a drink if I tell you?” he replied. I finally got it, paid up, drank up, and left.

The famous Cold War “Check Point ‘Charlie’ ” is no more. To me, it was no symbol of the Cold War. As a know-it-all friend drove me out to display it, I could not help saying, “but this is the Kochstrasse subway station. I got out here every night to go to the AP bureau.” In later Berlin service, I found that a TV camera was focused on “Charlie” and the receiver was in my office. Nothing interesting ever happened on the TV on my watch, and now there is no “Charlie” except the Checkpoint Museum, full of all the gear fleeing East Berliners used to try to get across, over and under The Wall.

Within our lifetime, Berlin has had an up and down history: a capital of the defeated nation of World War I; in the avant garde of the arts and architecture in the 20’s; the hub of a miserable Weimar period that led to Hitler; headquarters of the triumphant World War II victory over Paris; the site of the bloody last battle around the Fuehrer Bunker; finally, it was cut in half by the notorious Wall. Now it is trying to regain what it once had been, a European metropolis, eine Grossstadt.

Given the notorious German penchant for hard work, Berlin will probably make it.


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