Paul Andersen: When I smuggled contraband through ‘The Wall’
It seemed like a cloak and dagger lark in winter 1972, when I smuggled forbidden contraband through the Berlin Wall hidden inside the folds of my umbrella.
The memories flood back as Germany just celebrated 30 years since the tearing down of The Wall, a wall that defined the Cold War and divided Europe.
The Iron Curtain was actually a double wall of concrete and rebar containing a no-man’s land of concertina wire and obstructions that would stop a Sherman Tank. This forbidden swath was scanned from machine gun towers festooned with spotlights.
I was 21, hitchhiking through Europe, when West German friends from Hamburg dropped me off at Checkpoint Charlie; they had to pass through another crossing. We had already driven through East Germany, so I knew the drill of crossing the border into the dark and somber Soviet Bloc.
There were German Shepherds held on short leather leashes by men in drab overcoats who watched us as if we were curiosities – or criminals. They instructed our driver to slowly idle over a set of mirrors installed on the ground to search the underside of the car.
In Berlin, I had to cross the border alone, with something hidden and forbidden for my German friends who naïvely assumed that an American would be immune to espionage charges. As a product of James Bond, “Man from Uncle,” “Mission Impossible,” “I Spy,” The Avengers, “Secret Agent Man” and other Cold War spin-offs, my role as a secret agent was exciting.
How cool it felt to infiltrate the German Democratic Republic with a dog-eared copy of Der Spiegel. How avant-garde to liberate minds held captive within the “1984”, “Fahrenheit 451” dystopian authority of the Stasi, the Secret Police of East Germany.
I held my breath as I was ushered through the long hallway between the two outlying walls that formed the impregnable perimeter between East and West. With great relief, I stepped into the East to see bombed out buildings, fresh reminders of the war. There were churches with crushed domes, bullet-spattered walls, and a palpable sense of quiet desolation.
My friends soon met up with me, and we walked the somber landscape of East Berlin. In a drab department store, the novelty of color TVs drew huge crowds. Later, we joined their East German friends for dinner in their tiny apartment. They served Polish vodka and a bowl of oranges, an opulent display for this materially deprived couple.
When I produced the contraband magazine, they took it eagerly, but with a caution that was impossible to hide. Here was the Western World in print! Thanks to me, they possessed the forbidden essence of our world in living color.
Eight U.S. presidents presided during the 40-some years of a divided Europe: Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter — and finally, Ronald Reagan. Kennedy had gone to the Wall in June 1963, where he proclaimed “Ich bin ein Berliner!” This became a joke because a “Berliner” is a jelly doughnut, not a citizen of Berlin, as Kennedy had intended.
It was no joke, however, when in 1987, Reagan stood at the Wall and demanded: “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
At Reykjavík, Iceland, Reagan and Gorbachev had met a year earlier in “The Bubble,” a glass enclosure where a breakthrough was supposed to be brokered. It wasn’t, but there was a crack in the façade, and the light that came in burned through the Berlin barrier like a laser.
In August 1989, Hungarian border guards for the first time allowed people from East Germany to cross freely into Austria, paving the way for the fall of the Berlin Wall three months later.
In late 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved, the Iron Curtain was lifted, and the Cold War ended, as did my spy career when I came in from the cold, crossing back through The Wall to West Berlin and the welcoming “Free World.”
I wouldn’t have made a good secret agent anyway because, as a romantic, young, American provocateur, any sexy femme fatale could have easily extracted whatever state secrets I had … plus a year’s subscription to Der Spiegel.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at email@example.com.