The past week has seen commemorations marking the 30th anniversary of the Berlin Wall and in our latest blog post, Dr Grace Huxford, Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Bristol and AHRC Leadership (Early Career) Fellow, ‘British Military Bases in Germany: Living with the Cold War and its Legacies, 1945-2000’ shares the viewpoints of those that were often overlooked during this defining moment in history.
On 9th November 1989, the ‘fall’ of Berlin Wall astonished and excited many onlookers across the world. Now-famous images appeared on televisions – of people on the wall near the Brandenburg Gate, and of East Germans speeding by border guards at checkpoints, unimpeded. Such events heralded the end of the Cold War that had dominated politics since 1945 and which had for so long profoundly shaped geographies, societies and individual lives.
But the fall of the wall had some particular onlookers whose presence in Berlin – and in Germany – has often been overlooked: the thousands of British service personnel, their families and many civilians who had been stationed in the country since the end of the Second World War, first as a post-war occupying force and then as a front-line against the Soviet Union.
An Ordinary Day
9th November was an ordinary working day for this British community. In fact, for the teachers in schools in Berlin it was the start of a rather nervous week of inspections by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate. When the news came through, many curious British residents in Berlin headed for the wall – even the inspectors excitedly called their families at home to relay the news. Children gave flowers to East Berliners and shopkeepers gave them oranges – two British teachers recalled how ‘the whole of Berlin smelt of orange peel.’ Another teacher recollected how it was a ‘wonderful moment for the children’, using the imagery of young people to emphasise the gravitas of this event and the new future it signalled. As in our own era, young people were a symbol of a more hopeful future. These multi-layered, sensory memories are among the many things that spoken, rather than written sources, can uncover. Our project – the first academic oral history of the British community in post-war Germany – places the stories of the British women, men and children who lived in Germany squarely at the centre of Cold War social history.
Cold War Warriors?
The wall was a source of fascination for many British residents. Several of our narrators recalled visiting Berlin shortly after it first went up in 1961 – seeing the roads ‘just stopping’ by the wall was ‘something you don’t forget’. Many British residents eagerly made the journey to Berlin from elsewhere in Germany, either on the famed military train through East Germany or via the ‘corridor’ for car traffic – both amid considerable security restrictions. For some, this was their closest brush with the Cold War. Others sought out other borders: several narrators remembered visiting the Harz mountains, sometimes with visitors from the UK, to peer at the inner German border.
One of our project aims is to use such recollections to explore how residents responded to the Cold War ‘threat’. Did the Cold War influence everyday life for British residents in Germany? Was Berlin the exception to the rule? Were borders and divisions an integral part of life? And was this something that British residents experienced in common with their German neighbours, or did they experience the Cold War very differently?
Memories of the Fall
Most narrators agreed that the wall ‘coming down’ was a surprise. One Women’s Royal Air Force veteran joked that the East Germans must have seen her and her friend, who had visited Berlin the week before, and wanted to see them again. Teachers recalled how they were in the ‘middle of history’ which presented fantastic learning opportunities. Service personnel gave cups of coffee to East Germans visiting West Berlin or leaving for the West for good (in November 1989 alone, 133,429 East Germans left permanently), though most viewed such activities from the sidelines.
In the following weeks, as the wall was dismantled, one British resident recalled: ‘it was like being amongst hundreds of woodpeckers as people banged and chipped away at what had stood so solidly for so long.’ They felt this spelled the end of the British community in Germany, a ‘silent recognition of “job done” that the allies didn’t need to be there anymore’.
These descriptions, widely shared among our narrators, often evoke a sense of bittersweet nostalgia, offering a fascinating insight into communities whose whole raison d’être disappeared, in their eyes, almost overnight. Oral history is thus not only one of the most powerful ways to capture the lived experience of something as monolithic as the Cold War, but it tells us something about how Germany, British military overseas communities and even wider Europe were regarded after 1989.
The British in Germany: the Longview
The fall of the wall is often invoked as a turning point in European history, though in some ways it is more of a convenient shorthand for more longer-term and complex changes. The same too can be said of British residents’ responses. The events of November 1989 brought the nature and purpose of the British presence in Germany into stark relief and highlighted the deep roots that military communities felt they had made in the country since 1945. As the final British bases close this year and Britain considers its relations with Europe, oral history interviews can help us to uncover the long and varied legacies of its military presence in Germany.
You can also listen to Grace talking about her research on the latest BBC/AHRC New Thinking podcast via the BBC Radio 3 website and BBC Sounds.
Patrick Major, Behind the Berlin Wall: East Germany and the Frontiers of Power (Oxford, 2010).