Tuesday, 26 October 2021

Wall’s gone but not forgotten

Iain MacGregor and Giles Milton, Baillie Gifford Marquee

TODAY the city of Berlin is a cultural and tourist hotspot. But for almost half a century during the Cold War it was, according to author Iain MacGregor, “the most dangerous place on earth”.

In this “international garrison city” deep within the territory of the German Democratic Republic — “democratic” in name only — the forces of the Western alliance and the Soviet bloc confronted each other, tank-barrel to tank-barrel.

Iain MacGregor, author of Checkpoint Charlie, was joined on stage by fellow historian, Giles Milton, whose recently published Checkmate in Berlin explores the power struggle which broke out in the city immediately after its occupation and division into four sectors by the Second World War victors.

The two speakers neatly dovetailed their histories, with Milton focusing on the post-war period and MacGregor concentrating on the history of the Berlin Wall, the best-known crossing point in which was the famous Checkpoint Charlie, little more than a shed on the Allied side though a bureaucratic slab in the Eastern sector.

Stalin’s attempt to intimidate the West in 1948 by cutting off road and rail access to Berlin failed because the Allies organised the airlift to supply the city’s more than two million inhabitants. At its peak, this meant that a cargo plane was landing every 90 seconds, with a turnaround time of a few minutes.

Until 1961 East Germans could cross into Western territory by merely walking across the boundary between the two halves of the city.

Tens of thousands did so. This open door was, to the communist authorities, an open wound which had to be staunched.

Hence the wall, at first no more than posts and barbed wire but eventually a nightmarish obstacle race of machine-guns, dog runs and electrified fences.

If it was the power of people voting with their feet that led to the construction of the wall it was also people power that brought about its destruction in 1989. A happy ending.

Yet both speakers in this absorbing and informative talk agreed that relations between Russia and the West are now so frosty that it is possible to refer once again to the Cold War not as recent history but as present fact.

Philip Gooden

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