Posts Tagged ‘West Berlin’

Lucius D. Clay – Berlin’s defender of freedom

Monday, April 18th, 2016

General Lucius D. Clay died in 1978. At his gravesite at West Point you’ll see a memorial. It was erected by the people of West Berlin and reads: Wir danken dem Bewahrer unserer Freiheit (We thank the defender of our freedom). Those words were spoken from the heart because General Clay literally saved West Berlin from starvation during the Berlin Blockade. I was only three years old when the blockade started in 1948, but I am keenly aware that I would not write about it today, had it not been for the actions of General Lucius D. Clay. Years later, when President John F. Kennedy dispatched Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson together with Lucius D. Clay to Berlin to shore up the spirits of Berliners during the Berlin Wall crisis, it was Clay whom we went to see. It was Clay whom we trusted.

General Lucius D. Clay and the Berlin Blockade

So how did the Berlin Blockade come about and what did General Lucius D. Clay do to earn the respect and the hearts of West Berlin’s population? Following World War II, Germany and the city of Berlin were divided into four sectors and occupied by British, French, American, and Soviet forces. On 23 June 1948, in an attempt to revive the German economy, the three western Allies issued a new currency, the Deutsche Mark. The Soviets vehemently opposed this action and in return blockaded all land and water access routes to West Berlin. With this move, they hoped to force the Western Allies take back the new currency and subsequently hand West Berlin to the Soviets. By blocking all deliveries of food and electricity they hoped to starve West Berliners into submitting to Soviet control.

At that time, Clay was military governor of the American section of occupied Germany. He decided to supply Berlin by air. Lucius D. Clay gave orders even before having received authorization from President Harry S. Truman. Within three days of the start of the Berlin Blockade, the Berlin Airlift started. It was an incredible logistical feat because never before had a population of 2 million been supplied from the air. But with the help of a man by the name of William H. Tunner, Clay fine-tuned the Airlift until planes landed every three minutes, twenty-four hours a day. Over the course of the next eleven months, General Clay directed some 277,800 flights, carrying 2.3 million tons of food and fuel to West Berlin.

The Berlin Airlift lasted 324 days. When the Soviets realized that the Western Allies could supply West Berlin indefinitely, they threw in the towel. The Berlin Blockade ended on 12 May 1949. It was Clay’s decisiveness and tenacity that saved Berliners from starvation.

General Lucius D. Clay(1898 to 1978)

General Lucius D. Clay (1898 to 1978)

Who was this man, General Lucius D. Clay?

Born in 1898 in Georgia to U.S. Senator Alexander Stephens Clay and Sarah Francis, Lucius DuBignon Clay was the youngest of six children. He graduated from West Point in 1918, became a military engineer and held various civil and military engineering posts during the 1920s and 1930s. During that time, he earned the reputation of being a hard-charging, chain-smoking, tireless and decisive worker who could turn chaos into order.

From 1947 to 1949, Clay was commander in chief of the U.S. Force in Europe and the military governor of war-torn Germany’s American Zone. General Lucius D. Clay also directed “A Report on Germany,” which became one of the source documents for The Marshall Plan. After retiring as a four-star general in 1949, Clay went into the private sector and became a successful business executive. Over time, he served on 18 corporate boards and became the principal architect of our Interstate highway system.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of


Cold War Checkpoint Charlie – Part 2

Monday, April 11th, 2016

For almost 30 years Checkpoint Charlie embodied the Cold War. Only a small shack, erected in the wake of the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, it served as the main demarcation point between Western-occupied West Berlin and Soviet-occupied East Berlin. To read about Checkpoint Charlie’s function and how it came by the name, please visit

Checkpoint Charlie and the East/West Showdown

Checkpoint Charlie became the scene of a nail-biting showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union. I remember it well because I lived in West Berlin at the time. According to Allied agreements, German personnel did not have the authority to inspect travel documents of members of the occupying military forces. But when U.S. diplomat Allan Lightner attempted to cross Checkpoint Charlie in October 1961 to attend the opera in East Berlin, East German border guards demanded to see his passport. Mr. Lightner refused, turned around and returned in the company of military jeeps and armed U.S. soldiers. The East German guards let him pass, but on the next occasion they again denied entry to American military personnel. The United States responded by moving ten tanks into position on their side of Checkpoint Charlie. The Soviets responded by moving three-dozen tanks to the eastern border. Then, on 27 October 1961, ten Soviet tanks rolled forward and faced the American tanks. For 16 hours American and Soviet tanks stood within 100 yards, facing each other. Along with the rest of the world I feared the beginning of World War III. But the standoff ended peacefully on 28 October following an American-Soviet agreement to withdraw all tanks.

Checkpoint Charlie and prisoner swaps

Occasionally, Checkpoint Charlie was also used for prisoner swaps. The best-known exchange occurred in 1962 when American U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers was traded for Soviet agent Rudolf Abel. While Powers and Abel were swapped at Glienicker Bruecke (Glienicke Bridge), Soviet officials released Frederic Pryor, an American student, at Checkpoint Charlie.

Checkpoint Charlie today

On 22 June 1990 the guardhouse at Checkpoint Charlie was removed. It is now on display in the Allied Museum in Berlin’s Zehlendorf district. On 13 August 2000, a replica of the original US Army guardhouse was erected in the Friedrichstrasse location. Today, it is one of Berlin’s most famous tourist attractions. Nearly 900,000 tourists from all over the world visit the replica every year. On one side, the image of a Soviet solder is shown; on the opposite side, the image of a U.S. soldier is displayed.

Checkpoint Charlie guardhouse on display at the Allied Museum in Berlin-Zehlendorf, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

Checkpoint Charlie guardhouse on display at the Allied Museum in Berlin-Zehlendorf, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of

Oberbaumbruecke – mock medieval bridge

Monday, March 28th, 2016

Of the city’s nearly 1,000 bridges, Berlin’s Oberbaumbruecke (Oberbaum Bridge) is by far the most striking. Its Backsteingotik (brick gothic) towers, pointed arches, turrets, cross vaults and arched walkways hark back to its city gate past. The double-deck bridge with its seven arches spans the River Spree. Vehicles and pedestrians use the lower deck; Berlin’s bright yellow underground tram, the U-Bahn, uses the upper deck.

  • Berlin's Oberbaumbruecke spans the River Spree between the districts of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

    Berlin’s Oberbaumbruecke spans the River Spree between the districts of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

What does the name “Oberbaumbruecke” mean?

The bridge got its name from the spike-covered tree trunk that was lowered into the river each night during Friedrich Wilhelm I, King of Prussia’s reign. The purpose was to prevent the passage of ships without paying taxes. “Baum” means tree in German; thus the name “Oberbaumbruecke” can be translated to mean “Upper Tree Bridge.” There was also an “Unterbaumbruecke,” a “Lower Tree Bridge” downstream.

The Oberbaumbruecke’s history

Archival evidence shows that around 1724 a timber bridge on pilings was constructed close to the location of the current bridge. When King Friedrich Wilhelm I established a customs border in 1732, the bridge formed the border between Berlin and the surrounding State of Brandenburg. Between 1737 and 1860, the Oberbaumbruecke functioned as one of 14 city gates and was an integral part of Berlin’s Custom Wall.

At the end of the 18th century the wooden barriers were replaced with stone walls, and in 1860 the Customs Wall was removed altogether. At the end of the 19th century, when plans for an elevated railway required a reinforced structure, a granite bridge with a brick façade was built. Architectural details included the current mock medieval turrets, reminiscent of the old toll bridge and city gate function.

Backsteingotik mock medieval turrets of Berlin's Oberbaumbruecke, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

Backsteingotik mock medieval turrets of Berlin’s Oberbaumbruecke, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

In April 1945 the German military blew up the middle section of the bridge to prevent the Red Army from crossing it. After the war ended and Berlin was divided into four sectors, the Oberbaumbruecke crossed between the American and the Soviet sector. Until the mid-1950s pedestrians, motor vehicles and the underground tram were able to cross the bridge without difficulty.

The Oberbaumbruecke and the Berlin Wall

But with the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 the bridge became part of the border between East Berlin and West Berlin. The River Spree at this location belonged to East Berlin so that East German fortifications extended all the way to the shore on the West Berlin side. The West Berlin underground tram, the U-Bahn, was forced to terminate at the previous stop. Between 1963 and 1989, the Oberbaumbruecke served as a pedestrian border crossing for West Berlin residents only. Only pedestrians were allowed to cross. The bridge was closed to vehicular traffic. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and German reunification in 1990, the bridge was restored and reopened to pedestrians and motorized traffic at the end of 1994.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of

A Berliner is a Doughnut, myth or fact?

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

The myth persists that President John F. Kennedy said, “I am a doughnut,” when he spoke the famous words,

All free men, wherever they live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

I stood in the crowd in front of Schoeneberger Rathaus in West Berlin in June of 1963. Let me assure you that none of us in the audience thought for one minute that JFK had misspoken. Here is why:

A Berliner

True, a Berliner Pfannkuchen, in short a Berliner, is a jelly filled and sugar-glazed bakery item, akin to our well-loved doughnut. So far – so good. But, as a long-time US citizen who was born in Berlin, I still respond to the question what area in Germany I originally came from with, “Oh, don’t you know, I am a Berliner.” Same word – different context. I hope no one ever assumes that I like to refer to myself as a doughnut. And John F. Kennedy knew what he was saying as well. In fact, translators who knew the German language very well had written the phrase for him.

A Berliner Pfannkuchen - in short a "Berliner,"Photo by J. Elke Ertle © 2014

A Berliner Pfannkuchen – in short a “Berliner,” Photo by J. Elke Ertle © 2014

When President John F. Kennedy made that statement, “Ich bin ein Berliner” in his speech in West Berlin, his German audience understood without question what his words meant. They meant, “I am a citizen of Berlin.” No one laughed at or misconstrued his words. Instead, the audience understood him to say that America would stand by them in their Cold War battle against the Berlin Wall and a divided Germany.

An American

Let’s take this persistent myth one step further. In Berlin (maybe also in some other German cities), there is another bakery item, called an American. Americans are a little larger and flatter than Berliners (no pun intended). Americans are not jelly filled but are also sugar-glazed. And now the most interesting part –  Americans are available with a white sugar glaze or a chocolate sugar glaze and are called light Americans or dark Americans, respectively.

A light "American," Photo by J. Elke Ertle © 2014

A light “American,” Photo by J. Elke Ertle © 2014

Next time you call yourself an American when abroad, aren’t you glad that the rest of the world isn’t wondering whether you are referring to yourself as an US citizen or as a flattened doughnut? So let’s put that stubborn myth to rest once and for all.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.




Ex-Berliner recalls Kennedy’s death

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

J. Elke Ertle was a Berlin teenager when John F. Kennedy’s death plunged West Berlin into depression and despair. From the end of World War II in 1945 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Berlin was physically divided. In 1961, the East German government, with Soviet backing, surrounded West Berlin with a 12-foot wall. In June 1963, Kennedy gave a historic speech in which he expressed admiration for those who had remained in the tiny capitalist island despite being surrounded by a communist sea.

Excerpt from Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom

Elke writes, “My eighteenth birthday fell on a Thursday. I didn’t celebrate until the following afternoon, November 22. Three girlfriends came for a Kaffeeklatsch and had barely left when the phone rang. It was my American friend. I assumed he wanted to wish me a happy birthday. Instead he asked, “Have you heard the news?”

“What news?”

“President Kennedy has been shot!”

A long silence. I tried to comprehend.

“President Kennedy? When?”

“Less than half hour ago.”

“Shot at? Or shot dead?”

My friend shared what he knew. “Go and turn on the TV,” he said. We quickly said good-bye, and I flicked on the set. In disbelief, I watched as the tragedy in Dallas unfolded. Although the shooting had occurred shortly after noon Texas-time, it was already evening in Berlin. Within hours, thousands of Berliners gathered in the Rudolph-Wilde-Platz in front of city hall where John F. Kennedy had spoken only five months earlier. In a broadcast, the Mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt, read,

“Eine Flamme ist erloschen. Erloschen fuer alle Menschen, die auf einen gerechten Frieden hoffen und auf ein besseres Leben. Die Welt ist an diesem Abend sehr viel aermer geworden. (A flame has gone out. Gone out for all people who hope for a just peace and a better life. The world has grown considerably poorer this evening.)” 

The following afternoon, my friends and I joined the 15,000 students who walked in silence from the Airlift Memorial to the Schoeneberger Rathaus. We marched behind a banner that read Wir haben einen Freund verloren — We have lost a friend.

On the day of Kennedy’s state funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, 250,000 of us gathered in front of Berlin’s city hall. The Rudolph-Wilde-Platz was renamed John-F.-Kennedy Platz. In West Berlin, where the East-West confrontation could be felt more than anywhere else in the world, the grief for Kennedy was particularly deep. John F. Kennedy had been our hero. Our loss was personal.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.