Southwick Research

An Autobiographical Collection of Observations and Investigations

by J. Wanless Southwick, Ph.D.

 

 

 

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Elder Southwick at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany in 1962

Observing the Building of the Berlin Wall in Berlin, Germany

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I was an eye witness to the building of the Berlin Wall. It caused me to think deeply about political strife. During the early 1960's I served as an American missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Germany. In July 1961 I was transferred to West Berlin and stayed there for about 20 months. It was the time of cold-war political tension. Germany was divided in two by the "iron curtain:" Communist East Germany (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) on one side and free West Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) on the other side. The capitol city of Berlin was located in the middle of East Germany and was itself divided into four zones (American, British, and French zones in the western half, and Russian zone in the eastern half).

My transfer from a city in West Germany to West Berlin was by train. I was a bit apprehensive when the train made its first stop after crossing the border into East Germany, but I had to smile when the stationmaster announced that all refugees wanting to defect to East Germany were invited to leave the train and report to a certain location in the train station. I didn't see anyone get off the train. The border between east and west Berlin was open for a few weeks after I arrived. On a Saturday (August 12, 1961), my companion and I visited East Berlin, where we bought some books. When we took the subway back to our apartment, I noticed how crowded the subway was. Tension was high as East Berlin police walked up and down the subway station, looking at the passengers, many of whom had suitcases. The next morning our German acquaintances were nervous and agitated about news that the the borders around West Berlin had been closed by the East Germans. It didn't make much sense to us Americans. So the next evening (August 14th, 1961) after dark, we tried to visit the Brandenburg Gate where some of the disturbing actions were supposed to be happening. We avoided the rowdy noise from protesters along the street leading to the Brandenburg Gate (Straße des 17. Juni). We discovered a long line of West Berlin police cordoning off the Tiergarten park, which bordered the Brandenburg Gate. We approached the police and speaking in English, we asked each in turn if he spoke English. We finally found one who would admit to understanding our English. We said were American students who wanted to see what was happening. He was standing by a bushy tree and with a head gesture toward the tree, he let us slip through into the park behind him.

We cautiously walked through the dark park toward bright lights at the Brandenburg Gate. I had a camera hanging from around my neck. The first thing we noticed was a "machine gun nest" made of sand bags in the middle of the cobblestone plaza in front of the Brandenburg Gate. The machine gunner was backed up by rows of armed police or soldiers in front of the pillars of the Brandenburg Gate. As soon as we emerged from the shadows of the park trees onto the plaza sidewalk, we saw a man in plain clothes walking briskly toward us from across the street. He spoke perfect American English as he advised us not to try and take a picture of the scene. "The last person who tried to take a photograph was shot," he said. He gestured for us to walk west along Straße des 17. Juni, away from the Brandenburg Gate, toward the crowd of protestors. We tried to make ourselves inconspicuous as we blended into the crowd and found a ride back to our apartment in West Berlin.

In the next few days, our Berlin friends told us about a show of force by the U.S. Army and invited us to a place on the West Berlin border where a highway crossed the border from East Germany. American military commanders had decided to send a military convoy from West Germany, through East Germany to West Berlin. We were in a crowd of Berliners who welcomed the military convoy as it entered West Berlin. They excitedly cried out "Panzer!" (tank) when they saw armored vehicles coming. Fortunately the communists chose not to oppose the military convoy and the crossing was a successful assertion of the U.S. Military's rights to travel the highway through East Germany.

We watched as the communists began building the wall through the middle of Berlin. Pictures of tragic scenes flooded the media. People were killed trying to escape over, around, or under the wall. Memorial wreaths were laid near the wall where people had died. One day, we were working in an area near the wall and noticed that workers were repairing and strengthening the wall, including stringing barbed wire fencing near the east side of the wall. The wall was not very high at that spot and I could see over it. I tried to find our location on the Berlin street map, which I always carried with me. I couldn't be sure where we were, so I called over the wall to the workers and asked for the name of the street. One of the workers had the courtesy to give me an answer. In a moment of impishness, I called back, in German, "At home we build fences too, BUT FOR COWS!" The next thing I knew, a brick came flying over the wall from East Berlin at me. A uniformed West Berlin policeman must have been watching the exchange, because he came hurrying our direction and asked us to leave, which we did. I believe it was from that spot that I broke a piece of masonry from the wall for a souvenir.

For a time we worked on the outskirts of West Berlin, near where the city bordered East Germany. Armed guards patrolled the border and its tall, two-row barbed wire fence. Guard towers were placed at strategic places along the fence. It made the area look so much like a concentration camp that I wanted to document it with photographs. I noticed that when I aimed my camera at the guard tower, the armed guard would back away and turn so I could not photograph his face. After taking several pictures, I got an idea. The next time we came back into that neighborhood, I brought a pair of wire-cutting pliers. I was determined to get a chunk of that barbed wire as a souvenir. I approached the same location and got out my camera, pretending to be photographing the guard tower. The guard turned away as I edged closer and closer to the fence. As soon as I was close enough, I whipped out my pliers and cut a length of barbed wire off from the end of a loose strand of wire. We discretely ended our "photography" session and made our departure. I admired the huge barbs on that sample of Berlin barbed wire. Compared to our standard American cattle-range barbed wire, they are wickedly dangerous.

My focus, as an LDS missionary, was to help people of Berlin learn about my Church, but in the process I could see the despair being felt by Berliners. I empathized with them. Evidence of the anguish was all around us. Military armor often rumbled down the street where we lived. Emotional posters were everywhere. I collected some posters and pamphlets that described Berlin's tragedy. One 48 page pamphlet called "Barbed Wire Round Berlin"  (PDF 5.01 MB) described historical details of the crisis. A smaller one, called "So You See - That's Berlin" (PDF 0.55 MB) described the frustrations of life in divided Berlin.

We missionaries were committed to early morning study before we went out contacting people. I had a windup alarm clock, which didn't always wake me up. So I rigged it up to turn on a little transistor radio. I took the 9 volt battery out of the radio, unhooked one of the electrical contacts. I slid a small piece of paper between the contact and the battery to prevent an electrical contact. Then I attached one end of a string to the paper slip and the other end of the string to the mechanical winder of the alarm clock. When the alarm went off at 6:00 A.M. the winder turned round and round, winding the string up on its stem. The shortening string pulled the paper slip away from the battery, so electrical contact was made and the radio began playing.

Tape RecorderI also had a reel-to-reel tape recorder. One morning I recorded our wake-up music from the Armed Forces Network in Berlin. It also gave us a bit of news from back home in the United States. The recording date was November 6, 1962, which happened to be Election Day. The first music of the day was always "Hymns from Home." My missionary companion was Elder Tom Lomax. We were living in an apartment in the Berlin-Neukoelln area. The recording included my contemporary commentary. You can listen to an abbreviated (less than 7 minute) version of the recording by clicking on the controller bar:

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