A Chink in the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie


THAT cold April day in 1974, there hadn't been much action at Checkpoint Charlie. By evening only a handful of United States soldiers had crossed into East Berlin for sightseeing - a few in a van, and at least one on foot. Under the four-power rules governing the cold-war division of Berlin, the East German border guards weren't allowed to stop them. But they kept count, since the American servicemen had to return the same way and at the same place they'd come through: on foot if they had entered on foot, by van if they'd come by van. At 7 p.m., the soldier on foot returned to Checkpoint Charlie. In keeping with the regulations, he didn't stop. He didn't even look at the guards. He simply walked through the slender chink in the then 13-year-old wall - through the Iron Curtain separating the Communist bloc from the Western world that looked as if it might stand forever. The guards dutifully ticked him off the list. Uniform, rank, mustache, glasses, bushy eyebrows, photo bag - they'd seen him come through earlier.

And then, to their consternation, he showed up again 10 minutes later. He was still coming from the East. He still had the same uniform, rank, mustache, glasses, eyebrows, and bag. According to their list, it was one soldier too many. They stopped him for questioning. But everything checked out, right down to the identity card. Letting him go, they must have surmised what had happened: That the earlier ``soldier'' was yet another East German who, carefully disguised, had risked imprisonment or even death to escape to the West.

They were right. His name is Wolfgang M"uller, and for years he didn't talk much about his escape. After all, too many others had been involved: Jane, his American girlfriend (now wife), and the team of US servicemen who, against regulations, had crafted the plan, brought him the uniform, and recruited the Army look-alike who would follow him out.

Last week, in a Washington restaurant, he detailed the story - how he had fallen in love with Jane when, as a student taking her junior year abroad from Macalester College, she had gone to a party in East Berlin in 1969; how they had no language in common but a love of Beatles music and the romance of the '60s; how she had tried working in East Germany for a while; how they were prevented from marrying because she was not allowed to reside there; how, back at the University of Michigan, she had obtained a fake US passport for him, which they were never able to use; how his parents only knew of the plan when, at 8 o'clock on that April night, he had phoned to say he was in the West forever.

How dangerous was the plan? A while later, another East Berliner tried a similar disguise and was stopped. ``They interrogated him for an hour,'' says Professor M"uller, who is now in the German Department at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., ``and he kept his cover until somebody said to him, `You're bleeding on your foot!' and he looked. So they knew he understood German.'' He was sentenced to six years in prison.

These days, M"uller's tale has an oddly surreal feel. In recent weeks, crowds of East Germans have done on the spur of the moment what he spent five years plotting to do. The wall, once so imposing, has suddenly gone porous. And with it has gone the postwar era, where the cold-war ethos reigned and where good guys and bad guys were clearly marked.

Going fast, too, are the familiar national alignments. Will Germany reunite? Will a less imperial Soviet Union, shrugging free of its East Bloc entanglements, suddenly find itself making common cause with the United States against the united European market scheduled for 1992? Will Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria follow East Germany's lead? Is that great 19th-century institution, the nation-state, finally on the wane?

These are heady questions. In the rush to probe them, one thing needs to be remembered: They only matter insofar as they affect individuals like the M"ullers. They succeeded, part of a trickle that eventually became a torrent. Thousands like them didn't. The 28-year history of the Berlin Wall is not about bricks and crowds. It's about chinks, and the lives of courageous individuals who found them.

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