Berlin prepares a drawn-out burial for Cold War

May 07, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau of The Sun

BERLIN -- The city that gave birth to the Cold War, nurtured it through an age of checkpoints and spy novels and laid it to rest five years ago at the base of a broken wall is finally ready to pay its last respects.

It will be a long goodbye.

Berlin's send-off for the departing Cold Warriors of the United States, Britain, France and Russia begins next week with a day of outdoor concerts, beer swilling and fireworks, and it won't end until Sept. 8, when the last visiting heads of state march home.

But if the Cold War at times seemed an exasperating stalemate of graying men, dirty deeds and nuclear brinkmanship, Germany has found it also difficult to arrange a graceful goodbye for all the combatants.

For starters, there has been the embarrassing question of what to do about the Russians, who earlier this year were insisting on equal honors.

No way, said the Americans, British and French. No shared podiums, no shared parades. If the Russians are invited, we're not coming.

So, the Germans decided to set aside separate days to honor theRussians, although at last report, politicians in Bonn were still wondering what sort of nice things they can say at their departure.

"It is like a family gathering where there is an uncle who nobody likes," said Professor Hennieng Koehler, a Cold War historian at the Free University of Berlin. "But he's still part of the family, so you have to find some polite phrases anyway."

For younger Germans, there are also reasons to feel less than grateful about the American, British and French presence.

Although speeches during the next few months will repeatedly thank them for "keeping the peace" since 1945, they joined the Russians in lugging tanks and nuclear weapons into Germany with the assumption that if World War III ever started, it would begin on German soil.

Heinz-Gerd Reese, director of a German-American friendship foundation, has little patience for that kind of thinking, emphasizing the situation at the time.

"The elder generation had realized the severe threat from Stalin and thus considered the Western allied forces as friends," he said.

Still, the allied occupation had its own irksome aspects. Until the 1980s, for instance, the occupying Western armies had the power to execute Germans, even though capital punishment was banned by German law.

"But people really didn't care because they said, on the other hand, the Allies guarantee our safety," Mr. Koehler said.

So now, most older Germans are more than ready to pay homage, and they'll have plenty of opportunities to do so. A series of public and private events will attract the heads of state of all four of the occupying powers.

President Clinton will say his farewell with a visit July 12, when he's expected to journey to the Brandenburg Gate at the center of town. He might also return for the final ceremony Sept. 8, although so far only Vice President Al Gore is scheduled to

attend.

Yeltsin is scheduled

Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin will help say goodbye to the last Russian troops Aug. 31, and he'll likely refer to the farewell when he visits Bonn later this month. Also this month, Britain's Prince Charles will preside over the final Queen's Birthday Parade in Berlin. And British Prime Minister John Major, French Premier Edouard Balladur and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl plan to be on hand Sept. 8.

Along the way, there will be more than 40 other events, featuring more than a few soldiers parading to the drone of politicians and the blare of military bands.

The first big event is Thursday, a daylong cultural festival of outdoor concerts, food, beer and fireworks titled, "Berlin Says Thank You."

Occupying armies haven't always been so appreciated here, zTC although by now Germans should at least be accustomed to their presence. One or another has been on German soil for 61 of the past 75 years, and American troops will still be posted in other parts of Germany.

French stayed around

The French army hung around the Rhineland for 12 years after World War I, and when they finally left in 1930, Germans considered it good riddance. They celebrated with liberation parties and a wave of nationalist rhetoric.

Adolf Hitler rode that wave to power, and it took 12 years and a massive war to sweep his Third Reich off the map. It was in this enterprise that the Soviet Union lost 20 million soldiers and civilians while battering the Germans on World War II's Eastern Front.

So, the Russians argued recently, if there were to be parades and speeches for the old Allies of World War II, then shouldn't they be included?

Well, no, the Western side said, pointing out the small matter of events during the 49 intervening years.

First, the Soviet Union tried to starve the west side of the city with a blockade in 1948. That brought on the Berlin Airlift, a parade of American planes flying in food and relief supplies.

A year later, the Soviet Union made East Berlin the capital of a new Communist nation of East Germany, and in 1961, the Communists put up the Berlin Wall to keep their own people from heading west. The Wall didn't come down until 1989, and by then, East Germany was on the brink of economic and environmental ruin.

How does one tactfully say thanks for all that?

The betting is that remarks honoring the Russians will focus on the sacrifices of World War II, then skip to praise for the glasnost politics of former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

"Even with the bad memories," Mr. Reese said, "I think everyone here remembers Gorbachev and what he has done for this country. This will never be forgotten."

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