All Germans Have a Right To Be Free

GRANDFATHER left Berlin a century ago. His father worked in the imperial palace, but young Gustav did not want to war for the Kaiser. He emigrated to Cincinnati's ``Over-the-Rhine'' district and taught music. When he died, his chamber ensemble played at the funeral. Kultur for them was special. Gustav's son, Walter, attended German-language schools in Cincinnati. In 1917, however, Walter heard of ``Hun'' atrocities in Belgium and joined to fight Gustav's Vaterland. In 1918 he saw starving Germans and traded a chocolate bar for German binoculars.

Dad saw ravages of one war; I saw those of its successor. Vienna, when I studied there in 1952-53, was still in ruins. Austria's occupation did not end until 1955; Germany's has continued 44 years.

June 17, 1953: East Germans revolt but are crushed by Soviet tanks. Still, citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) can travel easily to West Berlin. Visiting the Free University of Berlin, I hang around a US relief station where ``Eisenhower'' food parcels are given to refugees. Two scruffy East German 11-year-olds arrive after hours. I take them to a pub so they can have hot potato soup. Danke, but they want chocolate. Shades of 1918!

The cover of Life shows two young Berliners throwing stones at a Soviet tank. Both were jailed. One later went west. Joachim is now a professor at Boston University.

West German young people in 1953 have deep feelings for their brothers. They dig tunnels to East Berlin and smuggle food and literature. They evacuate Easterners in trouble.

In 1962 I return to Berlin, now divided by the Wall erected the previous year. Border guards have been shooting compatriots trying to escape. US and Soviet forces have confronted each other.

Just now, however, things look calm. I pass through Checkpoint Charlie and walk around East Berlin. Not far from the Wall is ``The Thistle,'' a cabaret where anti-Soviet jokes get big laughs. The next day it is easy to sneak into the Humboldt University Library without a pass. Totalitarian controls are not complete.

In August 1968 many East German tourists and I are entrapped in a Tatra mountain resort when Soviet, East German, and other Warsaw Pact armies invade Czechoslovakia. Economists are now touting the GDR Wunder. These Germans are its beneficiaries - engineers and managers able to afford a foreign vacation. How will they respond? Many tune their car radios to Vienna - Oesterreich Eins - for accurate information.

Several join me to hike up a mountain Lenin once climbed; we hope to walk down into Poland, but hear that the border is closed. Several East Germans say they will join the Czechs if they fight. Many Germans sign a testimonial book at the town hall declaring ``Long Live Svoboda! Long Live Dubcek!'' They even write their addresses in East Germany, inviting reprisals.

In 1982 I visit Hof, the Bavarian town where many East German refugees will de-train in 1989. My host, Helmut, was born near Leipzig the same year as I - 1933, when Hitler came to power. His family escaped in the 1950s. Now he owns a big house and a factory in West Germany. Had his father or my grandfather stayed home, Helmut or I could be behind the Wall.

Helmut's wife drives us to see the Wall in the Bavarian countryside. It is uglier than in Berlin, gashing beautiful rolling hills. It even cuts one village in two, separating former neighbors and relatives.

With binoculars I study a border guard in his tower. He peers back. As I ponder what kind of animal could shoot his own people, he unrolls a tape measure and points to a number. Anna explains: The recruit has only 15 days more to serve. Some border troops are human.

Later I meet two East Germans at the Bayreuth Opera. More surprises: The husband writes for a Christian newspaper in East Berlin, and travels freely with his wife. True, the couple is gaunt and their clothes are shabby. But their minds and souls are rich.

In 1989 I meet East German academics at Harvard University. They seem a bit insecure. The contrasts between here and there must boggle the mind.

More than 1 percent of East Germany's population has fled in recent months. This hemorrhage may be too much for the new GDR leader, former security chief Egon Krenz. Perhaps he will understand:

All Germans have a right to be free.

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