Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon
For Martha, Gregg, and Tess
AS MOST READERS WILL know, postwar Germany was divided by the Allies (the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union) into four zones of military occupation. The capital, Berlin, was similarly divided into four occupied sectors. Located deep inside the Soviet zone, Berlin became an inevitable bone of contention as wartime cooperation deteriorated into the open hostility of the Cold War. Finally, in June 1948, the Soviets decided to force the other Allied powers out of Berlin by cutting off all land access to the Western sectors, a blockade to which the West responded with the Berlin Airlift (July 1948–May 1949), often considered the first battle of the Cold War. At its height the airlift provided Berlin with eight thousand tons of supplies a day.
The events of Leaving Berlin take place in January 1949 while the blockade was still a daily presence and occupied Germany had not yet formally split into two states. It was a time, like our own, fond of acronyms. A few key ones that are used here: SED (the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, which incorporated the old Communist Party and effectively replaced it), OMGUS (Office of Military Government, United States), SMA or SMAD (the Soviet Military Administration, governing its zone from the Berlin suburb of Karlshorst), BOB (the CIA’s Berlin Operations Base), DEFA (the largest German film studio, successor to Weimar’s Ufa, located in Babelsberg, just outside Berlin and hence in the Soviet zone). Earlier, the SA (Sturmabteilung) was the Nazi storm trooper unit.
Readers with even a glancing acquaintance with the eastern German Democratic Republic (GDR) will be familiar with the notorious Stasi (Ministry for State Security) and its armies of IMs (Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter—unofficial collaborators), but the Stasi was not founded until February 1950, and the term IM was used only after 1968. The first German secret police in the Soviet sector was the Interior Administration’s Intelligence Information Department (K-5), who worked with the city police. On December 28, 1948, a new independent secret police division was established, the Main Directorate for the Defense of the Economy and the Democratic Order. K-5 continued to exist, both organizations under the direct control of Erich Mielke, who later ran the Stasi (1957–1989). Informants were then called, as here, GIs (Geheime Informatoren—secret informers).
Although I have tried to be accurate about details of time and place, one deliberate chronological liberty has been taken: the SED party purge, and its attendant show trials, actually began a year later, in the summer of 1950. Finally, the real people in these pages—Bertolt Brecht, Alexander Dymshits, Anna Seghers, Helene Weigel, et al.— appear only as I imagine them to have been.
THEY WERE STILL A few miles out when he heard the planes, a low steady droning, coming closer, the way the bombers must have sounded. Now loaded with food and sacks of coal. After K?penick he could make out their lights in the sky, dropping toward the dark city, one plane after another, every thirty seconds they said, if that were possible, unloading then taking off again, the lights now a line of vanishing dots, like tracer bullets.
“How does anyone sleep?”
“You don’t hear them after a while,” Martin said. “You get used to it.”
Maybe Martin had, new to Berlin. But what about the others, who remembered huddling in shelters every night, waiting to die, listening to the engine sounds—how near?—the whining thrust as the nose was pulled up, free of the weight of its bombs, now floating somewhere overhead.
“So many planes,” Alex said, almost to himself. “How long can they keep it going?” Die Luftbrücke, Berlin’s lifeline now, with little parachutes of candy for the children, for the photographers.
“Not much longer,” Martin said, certain. “Think of the expense. And for what? They’re trying to make two cities. Two mayors, two police. But there’s only one city. Berlin is still where it is, in the Soviet zone. They can’t move it. They should leave now. Let things get back to normal.”
“Well, normal,” Alex said. The planes were getting louder, almost overhead, Tempelhof only one district west. “And will the Russians leave too?”
“I think so, yes,” Martin said, something he’d considered. “They stay for each other. The Americans don’t leave because the Russians—” He stopped. “But of course they’ll have to. It’s not reasonable,” he said, a French use of the word. “Why would the Russians stay? If Germany were neutral. Not a threat anymore.”
“Neutral but Socialist?”
“How else now? After the Fascists. It’s what everyone wants, I think, don’t you?” He caught himself. “Forgive me. Of course you do. You’ve come back for this, a Socialist Germany. To make the future with us. It was the dream of your book. I’ve told you, I think, I’m a great admirer—”