Demand to see a Soviet officer
March 1, 2023 12:48 AM   Subscribe

West (through East) to West If you were in the British Armed Forces in the 1980s it was possible to drive from Helmstedt in West Germany to West Berlin passing through East Germany on the way. You simply needed to carry the right paperwork and to follow the rules. A lot of rules. This Royal Military Police film from 1988 talks you through the dos and (multiple) don'ts of making such a trip. SLYT
posted by jontyjago (41 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
This video came up in passing during one of the recent Well There's Your Problem episodes, and I believe it was Alice who described the experience of watching this as "the weirdest piece of Berlin ephemera of the Cold War". She talks about the oddity of the rules for if your car breaks down en route as one of the most striking parts of it.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 1:58 AM on March 1, 2023 [3 favorites]


The bit about ensuring that your passport wasn't stamped is interesting. I assume that's because your purpose of travel is not entry into the DDR/GDR, but rather transit through it from West Germany to West Germany. I suspect there are similar (though less stressful) rules about travel on the Alaskan Highway through Canada.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 2:08 AM on March 1, 2023




The travellers were told never to speak to East German officers, only Soviet officers, and to request Soviet officers if they were not present. What was the reason for this?
posted by Termite at 2:40 AM on March 1, 2023


Very interesting. I liked most the bit at the end about not agreeing to anything if you had a conversation with a Soviet or East German on the way. Also the bit about having to return 3 salutes to the guard at the checkpoint was interesting. I wonder what would happen if you failed to return a salute. You get the feeling the officials would use any excuse to throw you in prison or make you disappear or something.

It's funny you should post this as it's only about a week since my mind was completely blown by discovering that West Berlin was an enclave in East Germany. I'd always just assumed Berlin must have been on the East/West border.

Also I've been reading some Len Deighton spy novels so very interested in this whole thing right now. I think the cold war was really the most perfect setup for spy stories.
posted by mokey at 3:00 AM on March 1, 2023 [3 favorites]


I'd guess that East German officers would be considered a greater risk of attempting defection, which would annoy all the involved parties.
posted by pompomtom at 3:20 AM on March 1, 2023 [1 favorite]


The travellers were told never to speak to East German officers, only Soviet officers, and to request Soviet officers if they were not present. What was the reason for this?

I think this was probably for political reasons, because the Allied position was that the German Democratic Republic had no control over their access to West Berlin. At the time of the video, Allied access to West Berlin was governed by the Four Power Agreement (1971), to which the Soviet Union was a signatory, but not the GDR. Accepting the authority of East German police to control Allied traffic would have been a first step towards accepting de facto GDR control over Allied forces access to West Berlin.
posted by cyanistes at 3:38 AM on March 1, 2023 [10 favorites]


The political reason was that soldiers in divided Berlin came under the command of the Allied Control Council, which were until reunification the sovereign authority for the post-1945 city (counterintuitively, the Western military powers administered the city, through all its crises, together with the Soviet Army, until the fall of the Wall). The DDR authorities were not to be acknowledged by the Western military since that would have implied East German sovereignty in Berlin.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 4:04 AM on March 1, 2023 [4 favorites]


I liked most the bit at the end about not agreeing to anything if you had a conversation with a Soviet or East German on the way.

Are we talking about enemy agents or trickster fairies here?
posted by Servo5678 at 4:14 AM on March 1, 2023 [2 favorites]


Are we talking about enemy agents or trickster fairies here?

“... never accept food or drink from them, never dance to their music unless you wish to dance for a year and a day without pause, and above all, never offer to be an arbiter at one of their fae tribunals.”
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:57 AM on March 1, 2023 [8 favorites]


This is fascinating stuff. So far as I can recall, the only person I know who has taken this trip and who has talked to me about it is my mom. Not a huge traveller, she — I think save for a few weekend trips to the US, she has left Canada exactly twice in eight years, once to visit a school friend in Germany in the late seventies. My recollection is that beyond the strict ordinances and regulations, she told me that the highway itself seemed very prosaic, save that every exit had multiple parked police cars parked alongside the ramp in case someone attempted an unauthorized departure from the straight and narrow... which again leads us back to Servo5678’s speculation about the fairies.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:06 AM on March 1, 2023 [1 favorite]


A lot of the information in this also protected you from being a cash cow.

They didn't miss many opportunities to strap you of hard cash, either by fining you for taking photos of the wrong sign post (this movie may have cost quite a bit to make), invented traffic violations or straight up bribery.

"You talked to the wrong police, so we will now interview you for five hours unless you can convince us not to."
posted by flamewise at 5:10 AM on March 1, 2023


I took some German language classes a few years back, and our instructor (who was German) spent a good bit of time describing the back-and-forth hassle of crossing the border to see relatives. One time while crossing, the East German border guy found a foreign coin in the car's ashtray and asked him about it. Our teacher was in a foul mood over something and (unwisely) responded with a smart-assed comment. Whereupon the border officers waved the car over into a siding, pulled out a set of wrenches, and methodically began disassembling the entire vehicle looking for additional contraband.

The language classes were fun, but his stories about daily life there and the events of the wall coming down were worth the price of admission alone.
posted by jquinby at 5:50 AM on March 1, 2023 [5 favorites]


The opening thirty seconds of music for this is a time capsule in its own right, dang.
posted by mhoye at 6:48 AM on March 1, 2023 [2 favorites]


Now I'm disappointed we never got a Spies Like Us 2 in which Milbarge and Fitz-hume had to make this journey.
posted by Servo5678 at 7:10 AM on March 1, 2023 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure the 1985 film Gotcha! , starring Anthony Edwards and Linda Fiorentino, had this trip in it. It's an alright movie, nothing great, but I remember the trip out of Berlin for some reason.
posted by fiercekitten at 7:33 AM on March 1, 2023 [1 favorite]


Wow, I had no idea that the NES game Gotcha! was loosely based on the Gotcha! movie.
posted by Servo5678 at 8:01 AM on March 1, 2023


Cold War version of “grey rock.”
posted by Captain Chesapeake at 8:03 AM on March 1, 2023 [3 favorites]


So I was an exchange student to (then West) Germany in the late 80s, and we took a class trip to Berlin for a week. We did this trip by bus, and the drive through East Germany to Berlin was peculiar indeed. The road had fences and walls and guard towers all along it. At Checkpoint Alpha, they came on the bus to check things and they took my USA Today newspaper I had with me. They gave me a receipt and said I could get it back on my back through the checkpoint. It was at Checkpoint Charlie where I got my passport stamped, along with having to turn over Deutschmarks for Ostmarks (that you can't exchange back, and could barely spend while in there). At the time, the Reichstag was a museum, and we did a tour of that.

Anyway, it was a weird thing, the whole East/West Germany experience. All the exchange students in country with our program met at the Inter-German Border for a day of weird Cold War militarism exercises. I've long thought that when people talk about closing the border with Mexico, they're envisioning that border. Although many of them were born after that was taken down.
posted by hippybear at 8:23 AM on March 1, 2023 [7 favorites]


This was great. Thanks for posting. I also had my mind blown learning that West Berlin was hundreds of km from the rest of West Germany though I learned that a few years ago when I visited Berlin. The Stasi Museum is great and terrifyingly banal if you’re ever in East Berlin.
posted by Uncle at 8:47 AM on March 1, 2023 [1 favorite]


I was there from '86 to '89, and the crux of many of these things is that the allies didn't recognize the existence of East Germany as a separate country. It was still the Soviet occupied zone from World War II. And West Berlin was, technically, also still occupied territory. Command of West Berlin rotated between the U.S., England and France, and they had a separate entity called the Kommandatura to coordinate. They still had wartime occupation powers, but didn't exercise them (to my knowledge). So you asked for your Soviet allies because you were living in a legal bubble that still went by WW II occupation rules. You didn't get your passport stamped because the GDR didn't exist and the wartime allies (minus Russia) didn't want to do anything that would seem to recognize it as a legal entity. Anyway, U.S. GIs only needed a military ID card to travel throughout all the parts of Europe we could get into. I forget why we returned the three salutes, but the U.S. was very careful about following the rules. The Soviets liked to be sticklers and hold you up and call in people from the HQ to complain. That said, people traded things (often Playboy magazines) with the Soviet soldiers at the checkpoints. The trick was, you left the magazine on your dashboard and they'd trade you a hat pin or something. You also got this great binder with travel instructions, including the exact distance between turns and photos of the exits you needed to take. People still got lost. The U.S. command would send out its political officer to negotiate your return to U.S. custody. I assume the other allies did the same. A few other tidbits:
-- The U.S. timed your transit through the corridor, and if you got there too fast, you got a speeding ticket. If you took too long, they investigated why that was.
-- It was illegal for a U.S. service member to enter East Germany without going through the checkpoints. I actually got read my rights because the parking lot I parked in so I could go inside to ask a question was usually only used by people who were turned back by the Soviets for trying to enter without paperwork.
-- There was also an overnight train you could take to West Germany. I remember a specially labelled wine, I think associated with the train. I'd have to call a friend to figure that out. I didn't drink wine at the time.
-- There was an U-Bahn (subway) line that went From West Berlin, through East Berlin and back to the West. There were stops inside the East, and legally U.S. service members could get out there, but the U.S. military wouldn't let us. They wanted to know exactly when you went in and when you came out. They did, however, send people (intelligence or counter-intelligence, iirc) through those stations to exercise our right to do so.
-- East Berlin had a scam where they would sell people (mainly from Africa, iirc) tickets to East Berlin, then allow them to use the U-Bahn to get into West Berlin and seek political asylum.
-- East Germany would soak West Germany for money in various ways. Two I remember hearing about (can't vouch for the truth of them): the corridor between Berlin and West Germany was a crappy road. The West complained so the East talked the West into paying for repairs, then switched it to another highway in need of repairs when it was finished. They would also tell the West they were going to tear down some historic building (churches, iirc) because they were old and broken down. The West would then pony up the money to repair them because they were important historically or culturally.
The U.S. military's newspaper, the Berlin Observer, is online. I recommend the issue after Reagan's visit to the wall. It's the only one in color and it's when he did his famous "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" speech. That was quite a day.
posted by 1369ic at 9:12 AM on March 1, 2023 [33 favorites]


So this is a Road Movie to Berlin?
posted by jclarkin at 9:26 AM on March 1, 2023 [6 favorites]


I have an elderly friend who was in British Naval Intelligence during the Cold War, and he has some interesting stories that he sometimes shares after a couple of beers. Those times were strange.
posted by 43rdAnd9th at 9:32 AM on March 1, 2023


This was fascinating. I believe the who return salutes thing was because this was made for RMP so you were assumed to be military. For those curious of who the check point looks now, it’s a memorial here in Google Maps.
posted by misterpatrick at 10:40 AM on March 1, 2023


I went to East Berlin the summer before the Wall came down. We had to exchange Deutschmarks to Ostmarks (which we called Scheißmarks) at 1:1; the actual rate was around 10:1.

You also had to spend it all, which was a challenge because finding anything to buy was hard and things were cheap so it was hard to find expensive things. We got comically large candy bars and an excellent giant meat-based dinner (we ate our way to freedom).

The bills were crisp and new, but had been printed in the '70s. The coins were made out of aluminum (or some other light metal) so I had a handful of coins that barely weighed anything.

It was oppressive and weird. No one on the street would look at us or talk to us, quite a change from the West Germans. The people in the restaurant were fine.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:12 AM on March 1, 2023 [1 favorite]


The U.S. timed your transit through the corridor, and if you got there too fast, you got a speeding ticket. If you took too long, they investigated why that was.

I recall this was one of the things my mom mentioned to me about her trip. Incidentally, I noticed a spellcheck-invisible typo in my comment above: I mentioned she is no great overseas traveller, having left this continent only twice in eight years; this should of course be eighty years. I’ve travelled abroad a lot more than she has, and I haven’t crossed an ocean in the last eight years myself.

If a mod could fix that typo, I’d be glad.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 11:22 AM on March 1, 2023


I went to East Berlin the summer before the Wall came down. We had to exchange Deutschmarks to Ostmarks (which we called Scheißmarks) at 1:1; the actual rate was around 10:1. ... You also had to spend it all.
any idea why? who enforced it? would the GDR border guards confiscate any ostmarks they found?
posted by Sauce Trough at 1:19 PM on March 1, 2023


I suspect there are similar (though less stressful) rules about travel on the Alaskan Highway through Canada.

Not withstanding some allowances for covid rules during a transit there aren't any special transit rules. Americans have to legally enter and are subject to regular customs rules (like no guns).
posted by Mitheral at 1:31 PM on March 1, 2023 [3 favorites]


My aunt and uncle have a hilarious (in retrospect) story about their tourist trip from Poland to West Berlin in what I assume was the 80s. They got their visas, and entered West Berlin from the East in whatever convoluted way was the norm (I understand that this involved a long train trip; I guess around most of West Berlin to Checkpoint Bravo). But they had a genius plan to end their sightseeing at Checkpoint Charlie (the coolest and most famous checkpoint; a veritable tourist attraction) and just... go through it back to the East at the end, short-circuiting a lot of inconvenience. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, it turned out that this was absolutely not allowed. I don't know exactly why (if it was not open to random tourists at all, or if it was because they had entered a different way), and neither did they, because they could barely speak German. They indignantly tried to reason with the border guards that literally nobody tried to defect from the West to the East and and that they just wanted to go home, to no avail. After a lengthy and increasingly heated argument (which IIRC roped in a horrified translator who encouraged them to stop arguing and just leave before they got arrested), they had to ride the train alllll the way back to their original entry point, without buying a ticket, because they hadn't budgeted for it (fortunately they didn't get caught and made it home safely).

Good times.
posted by confluency at 1:36 PM on March 1, 2023 [3 favorites]


Too late for an edit, but I see from Wikipedia that checkpoints Bravo and Charlie had specific official uses, and various other minor checkpoints were used for civilian traffic -- that probably explains what happened.
posted by confluency at 1:45 PM on March 1, 2023 [1 favorite]


Great post, thanks jontyjago. It brought back a few memories: my late uncle was in the British army and did this a trip a few times. He took my dad along on one of the trips. The journey along between Alpha and Bravo was apparently pretty uneventful. Well, as uneventful as handing your documents through a painted out window at checkpoints etc can be. They had an interesting time coming back through Checkpoint Charlie though after visiting East Berlin. An East German officer wanted my uncle to handover his ID and papers. He refused, demanded to see a soviet officer. DDR officer refused. This went on for 20 minutes, testing my uncle's German language skills. I think in the end he held some ID up to the window of the car but didn't hand it over. The DDR officer thanked him (in perfect English), my uncle started to drive away, only for soviet soldiers to jump in the way with guns pointed at the car: with all the arguing over my uncle's ID, they hadn't checked my dad's.

My lasting memory of that trip is that my dad brought me back a toy new york taxi cab he'd bought in the American sector. Nearly 40 years later and its still one of my favourite possessions

There was also an overnight train you could take to West Germany. I remember a specially labelled wine

Yes! The Berliner! I actually went on that a year or so after the Wall came down. I don't think the trip we did was an overnighter though. I was only a kid at the time, but I seem to remember there were still soviet soldiers checking passports on the train, and that the carriages were all locked so you couldn't leave the train.

My uncle bought a few bottles of that wine. He'd planned to keep it for some big occasion, but it didn't age well. I did have a couple of the labels somewhere, along with the menu from the dining car, and maybe the train tickets.
posted by welsh robot at 4:38 PM on March 1, 2023 [2 favorites]


any idea why? who enforced it? would the GDR border guards confiscate any ostmarks they found?

They were desperate for hard currency. And we complied because when people with submachine guns ask you if you spent all your money you say yes.
posted by kirkaracha at 5:00 PM on March 1, 2023 [1 favorite]


I feel like this should be adapted into Oregon Trail: West Berlin Edition.
posted by jedicus at 6:05 PM on March 1, 2023 [2 favorites]


I took the night duty train to West berlin in 1964, with a military Protestant church group. We were just going to Berlin for fun. The window shades had to be down the whole way. We went to the Dahlem Museum, which at the time, had the Bust of Nefertiti, and a Rembrandt self portrait. I am sure there were many more noteworthy things. The kids got "lost" out on the Kurfurstendam, and the chaplain was out rounding them up until 3AM. I liked Berlin except for the part where I had to take a crap in East Berlin, with a military matron holding the stall door open with her big, black granny shoe.

Later, visiting Berlin I met up with acquaintances who had been stuck in the East, and who had a.son who tried to escape, and paid with 10 years in prison. I got turned around near the Brandenburger Gate, and then gave up, and just drove through it backwards, they were howling, for them there was huge symbolism, and release.
posted by Oyéah at 7:00 PM on March 1, 2023 [1 favorite]


This is a great post, thanks! I wonder how they got permission to film?

Americans have to legally enter and are subject to regular customs rules (like no guns).

There was a show a few years back called Canada Border Force or something and it routinely featured bemused Canadian customs officials trying to politely inform aggro Americans at the BC border crossings that they couldn't take their Uzis with them through Canada on their way to their Alaskan cabins.
posted by praemunire at 8:54 PM on March 1, 2023 [1 favorite]


What is the narrator's accent? "Help uzzz to help yew!"
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 10:03 PM on March 1, 2023


I remember taking the subway from West Berlin to elsewhere in West Berlin that passed under East Berlin, there were a couple of closed subways stops that the train went slowly through, in small pools of light were East German guards with machine guns .....

A few years later we revisted our friend in Berlin, the wall had just come down and those stops had reopened that week, we got off at one (probably AlexanderPlatz) they were the only stops on the whole U-bahn clear of graffiti
posted by mbo at 10:25 PM on March 1, 2023 [1 favorite]


I feel like this should be adapted into Oregon Trail: West Berlin Edition.

GDR bus
. Real-time, and it pulls to the right.
posted by mikelieman at 3:26 AM on March 2, 2023


What is the narrator's accent?
That would be north-east, i.e. Newcastle or somewhere nearby.

Great post, I too heard about it via Alice on WTYP but my Google-fu failed me. What an odd film, I hope it's preserved for posterity.
posted by Acey at 5:01 AM on March 2, 2023 [2 favorites]


There was also an overnight train you could take to West Germany.

I never rode the train, but one of them was preserved at the (now, alas, closed) military machinery museum at Fort Paull, complete with instruction signs saying more or less what the instructions in the film say. They also had menus for the dining car.

I talked to a British veteran who'd ridden the train regularly as part of his duties. He said he'd gotten to know his Soviet counterparts and they had a thing going where they'd quietly swap bottles of vodka for whisky.
posted by Pallas Athena at 1:56 PM on March 2, 2023


I feel like this should be adapted into Oregon Trail: West Berlin Edition.

Jalopy (Steam) (GOG) is not exactly that, but I think it captures a GDR Oregon Train quite well.

I never made this particular trip, but we traveled to East Germany a couple of times when I was a kip to visit family before the wall fell. The border crossing was very tense every time because my dad had fled the GDR and we usually carried contraband. But it still hasn't left an impression as deep as the sheer awfulness of the GDR lemonade.
posted by the_dreamwriter at 2:25 PM on March 2, 2023


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