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6 January 2018 at 12:54 pm
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As I walked across from the Western end of Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie I could see Kurt Kann waiting for me just behind the red and white striped barrier in the Soviet sector.
He waved as he recognised me and gave me a remarkably English looking grin. Which was as it should be. For Kurt, who during the war had served as an anti-Nazi refugee in Britain's REME, is the secretary today of the snappily titled 'German-British Society in the German Democratic Republic'. As a VIP he has an office in the Nationalrat (National Council) which is housed in what used to be Dr. Goebbels's Propaganda Ministry.
"Very sorry to be so late Kurt," I apologised. "There was a man ahead of me in the queue who wanted to bring a couple of childrens' books into East Berlin with him for his godson. The frontier police would not let him because the books were not on the list of those authorised for importation. We had to wait for twenty minutes while the chap argued with them before he gave up."
Kurt smiled wryly. He was accustomed to my jibes at 'the Socialist system'. "Yes, you old capitalist reactionary, I know all about that. We have been suggesting that they ought to have the forbidden books on a list, not the authorised ones. But it takes time to get things changed."
Then he told me of a change he was proposing in our own immediate plans.
"Instead of taking you to my office and showing you photocopies of those Nazi files, as I promised you, how would it be if we took a trip out to Potsdam and you had a look at the originals in the Central Archives?"
Of course I jumped at the chance. I had not visited Potsdam since July 1934 when Hitler expelled me from his Reich. I very much wanted to see what that pretty little Prussian town looked like now - thirty years later. Irresistible bait for me too were the Central Archives, where they store the mountains of files recovered from the salt mines and other caches in which the Nazis had hidden them.
So off we went in a grey Sachenring saloon supplied by the motorpool of Comrade Ulbricht's Friendship Societies. (Kurt Kann's 'German-British Society' is one of a tribe of such organisations.)
Our Friendship vehicle had one defect, however, as was soon revealed. Every two or three hundred yards the lid of its trunk compartment flew open. The driver had to stop, get out, and close it down. At last after the eleventh stop the secretary of the 'German-British Society in the German Democratic Republic' alighted and with the expertise of an old REME corporal secured it firmly enough for us to proceed without further delays.
The drive to Potsdam turned out to be one long demonstration of what the Ulbricht wall means for East Berliners, in both its negative and its positive aspects. Negative because instead of driving out to Potsdam through Berlin's West End, which would be the common sense route, we now had to drive in the diagonally opposite direction until we reached the Outer Circle Autobahn and made for Potsdam that way. It was as if someone wanting to get to Ealing from Fleet Street was compelled to drive out to Leytonstone to get on the North Circular Road. (West Berliners, of course, cannot get to Potsdam at all.)
But the wall has had a positive effect as well - a rejuvenating, face-lifting effect. Everywhere I found new blocks of flats built and being built. Entire new residential areas were going up. Old houses whose peeling and grimy walls were still pockmarked with shrapnel from the fighting were either being pulled down to make room for new ones or having their stucco freshly done up to match the new clean shaven, functional (no decorative Wilhelminian angels allowed) style favoured by West-Berlin. There was even an impressively tall and spacious new hotel, the Berolina, with enough glass and chromium to vie with West Berlin's Hilton. And the rooms cost just half what they cost in the West.
How can this be ascribed to the wall?
"Well," explained Kurt "before we put up that wall most of Berlin's building workers used to sleep and eat in East Berlin but work in the West. The pay they got there was good and when changed into East Marks on the Black Market at the rate of one West Mark equals five East Marks it was a fortune. Now that has all stopped. The building workers are rebuilding East Berlin instead of West."
Quite an important change it seemed to me, and I saw it reflected in the faces of the people in the streets. They looked gayer and freer and better dressed than they did only two years ago - even though the drab old propaganda slogans with their boring prate about 'Fascist Oppressors' and 'Imperialist conspirators' still droned away all around them.
Alas, East Berlin's building wave did not seem to me to have reached Potsdam yet, when at last we got there.
The place gave a depressed and dreary impression. Only a very few new buildings and restored ones caught me eye. One of them was the Crownprince's palace 'Ceilienhof' which the Kaiser built for him during the First World War to show his English cousins what a gentleman's country house really should look like. Today the 'Cecilienhof' is a hotel. The dining-room with its imitation Tudor oak panelling has been turned into a restaurant. The hotel's main purpose however seems to be not gastronomic but propagandist. Its prospectus for instance is devoted entirely to the Potsdam treaty signed here in 1945 and the 'despicable' failure of the Western allies to implement it.
Kurt Kann was born in Potsdam where his family had been highly respected merchant bankers for several generations. And with Kurt guiding the driver and pointing out the historic spots to me - "This was my old school... we used to skate on this lake in the winter... that's the gaol where the Gestapo kept me on bread and water..." - we at last reached our goal, the Central Archives.
They were housed in one of Potsdam's new buildings, a barrack-like affair with long halls filled from concrete floor to concrete ceiling with rows and rows of shelves stacked with files in their original Nazi folders. Some showed signs of burning and bombing. All were a treasure trove for a historian seeking out the inner history of the Third Reich. Here for instance were the Minutes of Dr. Goebbels's wartime conferences at which he discussed the effect of allied propaganda and how to counter it. Here too were such top secret treasures as Goebbels's list of the "Gottbegnadeten" - an almost untranslateable phrase used by Hitler to describe those artists with such exceptional 'divinely endowed' talents that they must not be exposed to work in the factories or trench digging under the general call-up for total war. I loved the note inserted after the name of a singer named Taubmann: "...at the special request of Reichsleiter Bormann." Another note read "The representative of the Theatre section could not resist questioning the divine nature of Fraulein Seide's particular talents."
Public prosecutors from West Germany too could have themselves a field day in these files. That is if they would consider including judicial murder among war crime offences. I found the archivists had devoted several shelves to card indexes of Nazi origin ghoulishly listing the death sentences pronounced by Hitler's terror tribunals, the so-called 'People's Courts'.
But the West German prosecutors will have to be quick about it if they mean business. For time is getting short. Under the West German statute of limitations all war criminals will escape scot-free against whom no charges have been brought before May 8, 1965.
I wonder what Lord Shawcross for instance would have to say of the death sentence passed on five young Poles by the Special Court (Sondergericht) in Poznan on October 25, 1939 and executed by an SS firing squad three days later on October 28, 1939. Hitherto only the SS-men carrying out such orders have been in trouble. The report which Herr Sommer, the State Attorney conducting the prosecution of the Poles made on November 5, 1939 to the Minister of Justice in Berlin and which is preserved in the Potsdam archives, made me feel some doubt whether that is altogether just.
For in his report State Attorney Sommer sets out that to justify the death sentence the court found that the sticks and stones used by the young Poles to smash the windows of farm houses belonging to Germans in their locality were lethal weapons and the attack an "armed attack" because although no German was in fact physically harmed by the Poles they might have been. The raid on the German houses, I must add, took place on September 3, 1939, the third day of Hitler's invasion of Poland. Bombs had been dropped by German aircraft in the area.
Herr Sommer, the State Attorney signing the report, is stated to be in office once more in West Germany. He is today, I was told, the senior State Attorney in Dusseldorf.
When we got back to Berlin Kurt Kann insisted that I should visit a pub with him near the East Berlin law courts. The pub was aptly named "Zur letzten Instanz" - roughly "court of the last instance".
Behind the bar stood an amazing old Berliner who made not the slightest attempt to hide his dissatisfaction with the Ulbricht regime. On the contrary he voiced it loudly and bitterly and no one tried to stop him.
"For thirty years", he said to no one in particular, "I was the owner of this establishment. Now they have taken it from me without a Pfennig of compensation. They have even forbidden me to have my own decorations on the walls. Beer mugs they were. I collected them. Beer mugs of all sizes and shapes, some dating back to the seventeenth century. And do you know what reason they gave? I was glorifying the Whilhelminian era, they said. Pah!"
Kurt Kann drove me back to Checkpoint Charlie justifiably delighted with the old man's demonstration of the Soviet-German citizen's newly won right to free speech. But in case I was inclined to forget that the Cold War was still with us there was a huge black and white notice at the Western end of the Checkpoint. "It has been proved again and again" it announced to the Tommy-gun toting East Berlin guards "that there is nothing in the service regulations compelling a man to aim when he fires."ï»¿