I have heard the argument that the US is not on the path to totalitarianism. But what creates the environment that allows for the creation a totalitarian state? Hitler held the belief that nationalism and socialism should be identical. Other historical voices tell us how there was a need for Germans to feel a real sense of community during the period following World War I. It seemed to some that solidarity and comradeship might create a feeling of community that could facilitate the rebuilding of Germany. My experiences tell me that a shared sense of isolation and danger can also create an intense feeling of solidarity and comradeship between people who were once strangers.
In order to get to Berlin, I had to take a train through East Germany. I made this trip with other American soldiers whom I had never met before and who had also somehow earned this trip. We were forced to make this journey at night by the East Germans so that we would see as little of East Germany as possible. It was very disturbing to see so many uniformed East German and Russian soldiers patrolling these train tracks. At times, we would sit motionless for what seemed to be hours as other trains with more important missions were given the right of way. At one of these stops, a Russian soldier motioned through the window to me that he would like to exchange belt buckles. However, prior to boarding the train, we had been warned to avoid contact with these soldiers. Anything we did out of the ordinary could possibly be held against us. I did not acknowledge this enemy soldier and recognized that I was really afraid of his motivations for trying to get me to open my window and not by the possible exchange of belt buckles. It was then that I realized that the slightest miscalculation on my part could result in consequences that I did not fully comprehend. Could I be arrested as a spy during my stay in Berlin? After all, I worked at a job that required a security clearance and might possibly have information that the communists wanted. All of the American soldiers became quiet and sat down in their seats. A new mood seemed to have entered our car. We all now avoided eye contact with the soldiers standing just outside of our windows.
During the first couple of days in Berlin, we attended classes and toured West Berlin. It was an interesting diverse, and, most of all, fun city. However, evidence of the World Wars was still apparent in some places of the city. We rode the U-Bahn to the bars at night and we were constantly cautioned about the danger of traveling into East Berlin on this train. I talked to American soldiers who were stationed in Berlin about the affect of being stationed in a city where travel to the outside world was so difficult. Many of these soldiers felt isolated from the real world.
I made as many trips to the wall as possible and watched citizens of many countries work on destroying the walls with whatever tools they had brought with them. They used chisels, hammers and other tools. One enterprising West German (who had told me that he was spending his time tearing down the wall because he hated it) had even brought a ladder. I wanted to help them tear down the wall, but as an American soldier I was forced to stay five meters away from it. I payed an Italian teenager 10 marks to spray paint my name on the wall and took a picture of him. Finally, I stood next to the wall and payed him to take a picture of me next to my purple name on that symbol of hatred and distrust that dominated the picturesque scenery of Berlin. At one point, I watched a white couple carrying a child calmly walk through a hole in the wall while a large Asian family, possibly Vietnamese, were roughly grabbed by East German soldiers and led away. I still wonder what happened to that family. A feeling of fantasy, or a perception that life was more real here, hung over this city that was still fighting the cold war.
On the third or fourth day, our group entered East Berlin. In preparation, we had exchanged our West German marks for East German marks the night before. Some of us had gotten a more realistic exchange rate by exchanging our marks on the black-market. This was an offense that could have lead to arrest. It seemed unrealistic to think that some of us had participated in the black-market. All of the occupants of our bus had their papers checked by American and East German soldiers when we went through Checkpoint Charlie. We wore dress uniforms with no rank or other markings on them that would identify us in any way to the East Germans. We were simply generic American GI’s. The East German soldiers in their clean, pressed uniforms and highly-buffed boots coldly stared us through this ritual. It was an eerie feeling that was multiplied by the effect of noticing video cameras trained on our vehicle from the tops of surrounding buildings. In addition, our route through East Berlin and itinerary had been preapproved by the Communist regime. We were now officially in enemy territory - all of our army training had been aimed at stopping these people from destroying our way of life and from eradicating our very existence.
As we traveled through East Berlin, we were constantly stared at by civilians. Once, as we were walking down the sidewalk of a business district, a toddler strayed too close to our group and her worried mother hurriedly pulled this little girl away from us. When we entered stores, the shoppers who were already inside would become noticeably quieter and every eye would follow us as we traveled through the business. In particular, I remember a trip up an escalator where the whole store full of people watched us ascend to the next floor. Even the heads of the shoppers on the escalator traveling back down to the first floor rotated to observe us as we were silhouetted against the wall. We felt more on display than even the merchandise in the store was.
Sometimes the storekeepers, who still kept their accounts in big leather books, would not allow us to buy the items we wanted. Some did this because there was a shortage of this particular product in East Germany while others made it clear that we could buy nothing in their store. Most disturbing were the occasions when we encountered Russian soldiers as we walked down the street. At times, we would nearly brush our uniformed shoulders against theirs. Both groups of soldiers walked in tight compact groups and attempted not to display any emotion. I felt that they were as intimidated by us as we were by them. However, I felt a closeness to these other American soldiers who walked by my side that I had never felt with American soldiers before. This feeling came although I had known them only a short time. In addition, I would probably never see them again once this trip was over.
I can only define this feeling as comradeship. Here we were, isolated within a society where we were made to feel unwelcome. The feeling I shared with these soldiers in East Berlin was not even equaled during my participation in Desert Shield and Desert Storm although I spent a great deal of time within the borders of Iraq. The perception of real danger combined with a total sense of isolation was something that always seemed to accompany us during our stay in Berlin. I can only wonder what the feeling in Berlin-and the rest of Germany-was like after World War I.
The period after World War I in Germany was a unique place in time that will never be recreated. The US is currently in a unique historical space. We have Permanent War we call The Global War on Terror. Our government tells us that, because of the GWOT, we need to sacrifice liberty in the interest of security. There is even a secret court that decides law that affects our liberties. In Wisconsin, “observing is now participating” in protests - tourists are threatened with arrest for watching people sing in the capitol-building. “Enhanced Interrogation” is blase. Collecting and storing data on everyone - literally - is “nothing new” and not worthy of discussion even for many on the left.
How do Americans react when they see people from the Middle East in their neighborhood mall? Do we surreptitiously watch them or blatantly stare at them? Do we get nervous if our toddlers get too close to them for our comfort? Do we care when US drone strikes kill innocent people in Pakistan? Or, are those people not really people, but merely “collateral damage” in the GWOT? When we lose our sense of humanity and our belief in justice for those who are not members of our community, what does that make us?
If we lose our will, or are just simply too disinterested to personally fight for our civil liberties, where will we end up? No, of course we aren’t Nazi Germany or East Germany; but does this country now uphold the values you believe it should? I watched the videos of people being arrested in Wisconsin with my kids yesterday, and the first thing we all wanted to do was get in our car and support those brave citizens of our country. What are you, personally, willing to do to help make this country what you believe it should be?