My gratitude to the Cold War

As the the British Army presence in Germany came to an end, so did a way of life that engraved itself into the hearts of hundreds of thousands of Brits and Germans.

Artillery Row

If it wasn’t for the Cold War, there’s a strong chance I wouldn’t exist. My parents met in the late 1970s when posted to Berlin as an army dentist and nurse with the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR), deployed with the Allied Forces in Germany to deter and block any Russian attack.

Set against World War III potentially kicking off, my parents courted—there was a first kiss in front of the Brandenburg Gate—and fell in love. They went on dates in East Berlin thanks to an agreement between the allies and Russians that cordially put aside the nuclear standoff to permit officers to cross the divided city marooned in East Germany behind the Iron Curtain.

Mural of the famous photo of an East German guard escaping into West Berlin.

After passing through the American sector’s Checkpoint Charlie, my parents traversed empty East Berlin streets. Russian and East German soldiers threw up smart salutes at the sight of my father’s mess kit. Upon their entering a restaurant, the resident band struck up the British National Anthem. The surreal absurdity of it all ended at midnight, when Cinderella-like they had to return through Checkpoint Charlie to avoid causing a diplomatic crisis.

In unified Berlin today, the site of the former checkpoint is a deflating tourist trap. The BAOR and its raison d’être is long gone too. Presumably the world would be a better place if the Cold War had never happened—with all its proxy wars and suffering caused—but, then again, who knows. Perhaps the world might have gone in an even worse direction without it, plus I almost certainly wouldn’t be here writing this without the Cold War setting up my parents’ encounter. The existential rub for myself and the world of tampering with the space-time continuum is beyond my philosophical powers.

I don’t think many people appreciate how much Germany and its cities, especially Berlin, played a major part in British overseas history

What I do know, though, is how Germany once formed the heart and soul of the British Army during a deployment that dominated army thinking for the latter half of the 20th century. It was only this February that the army finally relinquished control of its last remaining military headquarters in Germany following 75 years in the country. I don’t think many people appreciate how much Germany and its cities, especially Berlin, played a major part in British overseas history—akin to the likes of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore—leaving an indelible mark on the lives of countless generations of British Army families.

After a small group of senior Wehrmacht officers led by Admiral von Friedeburg signed the surrender document on 4 May 1945 in a tent on a hilltop overlooking the ancient town of Lüneberg, occupied Germany had to be policed and administered by the victorious allies. The short-term plans of 1945 changed constantly, influenced by world events over the next 70 odd years. What started as an army of occupation—the British Liberation Army as it became briefly after the ceasefire—morphed into something very different due to the looming threat of the Soviet Bloc. The force changed completely to become an army of protection as part of NATO. By the 1950s, what had become BAOR assumed a permanence that made it the UK’s largest overseas presence, a home away from home for hundreds of thousands of servicemen and women and their families over several generations, based in 120 locations in the two main German states of Lower Saxony and North Rhine Westphalia.

As my family learned during multiple postings around Germany, being deployed there was just as much about a way of life and a partnership with the Germans themselves as it was about the macro military strategy. Life for service families was sustained by an impressive support network, including MOD schools to educate children—though the children of officers tended to get dispatched to boarding school, hence my ten years in a North Yorkshire valley with the Benedictine monks of Ampleforth—the British Forces Broadcasting Services and Forces TV to keep us informed and entertained, the British Military Hospitals, the churches for spiritual welfare, and the iconic NAAFI for just about everything else.

Mural at Schwedter Straße (formerly in East Berlin) depicting crowds of locals pouring through a hole in the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Germany was a sought after posting. Our family loved it there. It offered a quality of life and opportunities that many—especially if you were a soldier from a humble British working-class background—had never encountered before: sailing in the Baltic, skiing and adventure training in the Bavarian mountains. Life in the garrison towns was generally good, attended by the likes of regular inter unit and garrison sporting competitions, fairs and military music shows. In Germany deep friendships were forged, marriages were made with locals and many Brits chose to make Germany their permanent home, as did my brother, who was born in the northern town of Detmold, and after finishing university in the UK went to live in Berlin with his girlfriend.

This existence was full of oddities, many of them grounded in the threat of war and danger, yes, but also incongruously endearing in the day-to-day reality. There was the separate deployment in West Berlin and its distinct allied sectors—with its strange romance that my parents experienced coupled with a John le Carré spy thriller-esque atmosphere that permeated the city—marooned in East Germany right up until reunification. There was the excitement of traveling on the Berlin train from West Germany along a special corridor through East Germany to get to West Berlin. When my mother took the train, she sat in a nearly empty carriage as the train passed a landscape of military watch towers and tank traps. There was the weirdness of sharing guard duties with the Russians at Berlin’s Spandau Prison, which housed seven Nazi criminals after the Nuremburg trials and eventually only housed Rudolf Hess until his death at 93 years of age in 1987.

Germany was a sought after posting. Our family loved it there

The surreal undertone to it all reached its zenith in the underlying military strategy, which when parsed down to its essence was actually rather bonkers, straight out of the 1964 black comedy film Dr Strangelove. In the event of war breaking out and a full-scale Russian invasion, BAOR would deploy to defensive positions in Germany knowing that they would almost certainly be wiped out. The strength of the Russian forces was greatly overestimated. The main goal on our side was simply to buy time to allow what would most likely be a nuclear retaliation. Hence the claxon call of sirens interrupting a quiet weekend afternoon at the British barracks cinema to practise for this deployment. The Crusader and Lionheart Exercises ranged all over the north Germany countryside throughout towns, villages and barns, with the local population usually proving incredibly tolerant and hospitable. Soldiers in their Land Rovers and armoured vehicles would pull over at a local Imbiss—snack booth—for a bratwurst sausage and frites before checking the map and driving on. Distinguished military careers were made in Germany, while the requirements of the deployment drove the procurement and organization of the entire British Army.

Last year, I visited Berlin for the first time since our family went there on holiday. There was the additional imperative of seeing my brother and his girlfriend before the birth of their first child. My brother and I visited the Brandenburg Gate, now teeming with tourists and activists protesting in front of the foreign embassies lining the mall approaching the gate. When our family visited the gate shortly after the Berlin Wall began to come down in 1989, we were pretty much alone at the trestle tables selling bits of the wall and Russian army memorabilia such as hammer and sickle cap badges and headwear.

Author (left) with his brother at the Brandenburg Gate.

Going off verbal recollections from my parents, we managed to track down Edinburgh House, the former hotel where British Army families like ours could stay on holiday. The building that housed the hotel now exists in a weird limbo. All the English hotel signs are still hanging, though much of the hotel is closed or in a state of disrepair. The floors that remain open serve as rather ramshackle international student accommodation. Outside, the hotel swimming pool that I remember teeming with activity and shrieking children and adults heading to the bar for gins and tonics, has been filled in and turned into a pretty but rather dull small park.

The park that now covers the filled-in swimming pool of former Edinburgh House, the building in the background.

I visited the former location of Check Point Charlie. It proved a rather deflating tourist trap, a fake-looking knock-up of the check point existing in the middle of a busy main street. Following the former delineation of the Berlin Wall proved more edifying, with detailed historical markers providing harrowing context about what it was like for a city and its population to be rent in two thanks to the caprices of an ugly ideology and the soulless men in suits behind it.

The former location of Checkpoint Charlie in modern Berlin today.

The sum total of my Berlin trip proved fascinating and rather sad at the same time. My parents are now a long way from the youthful couple that courted in Berlin, while their children that played in Edinburgh House’s pool are now around the same ages of my parents when they took our family there. The lens of nostalgia easily distorts the reality, but looking back it is hard not to assess that the Germany of those days offered a simpler, and arguably more fun, world that has now vanished other than in old photos in a family album. The peace dividend that we assumed was secure with the Cold War’s end appears long gone now in the aftermath of 9/11 and all that has followed.

And now we have the COVID-19 coronavirus to contend with. We watch on appalled as the likes of Italy and Spain are pummelled by the virus. Each of us have our own reasons for paying attention to particular countries other than our own. I’m relieved that so far Germany appears to have a lower virus-related death rate that even has the experts puzzled. Leaving aside brotherly concerns, I remember a country and people who were very good to my family and countless others as the British tanks and artillery did their range firing at Hohne and Munsterlager and the infantry trained at Sennelager for a callout that never came.

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