Sometimes, you come across someone so bold and so outrageous in their actions, that you are left in complete shock. Now, I can’t say that I am the one in complete shock, but I suspect that a squad of German soldiers might have been, when on October 17, 1906, Wilhelm Voigt, a 57-year-old German shoemaker, decided to impersonate an army officer and lead an entire squad of soldiers to help him steal 4,000 marks. When calculated to American dollars and to 2023, that would be approximately $33,000. While Voigt was a shoemaker by trade, he also had a long criminal record as a thief. So, he carefully planned the robbery, knowing that the German soldiers had a long history of blind obedience.
Voigt got his hands on a captain’s uniform and hatched a plan to manipulate the German army into following his lead, thereby exploiting their blind obedience to authority and making them assist in his crazy robbery scheme. Voigt approached a troop of soldiers in Tegel, Germany. Just outside Berlin, he boldly ordered the unit to follow him 20 miles into the town of Kopenik. The group had lunch, and then Voigt put the men in position and stormed into the mayor’s office. They proceeded to arrest the mayor. He demanded to see the cash box and confiscated the 4,000 marks inside. The mayor was put in a car, and Voigt ordered that he be delivered to the police in Berlin. Just like that, the mayor was under arrest…by an imposter.
And the misfit squad of soldiers proceeded to Berlin, Voigt managed to disappear with the money. No one noticed that he had gone, and it took more than a few hours at the police station before everyone realized that it was all a hoax. As for the Kaiser…well, he thought the story was funny, but They had been humiliated by the man who was obviously impersonating a captain. They launched a massive campaign to find Voigt. They wanted revenge for the fact that they were fooled. Voigt was caught in Berlin a few days later. Voigt was found guilty and was sentenced to four years for the robbery. Somehow, the Kaiser himself pulled some strings to get him out in less than two. While he was a convicted criminal after that, the people considered him a bit of a hero for the rest of his life. He even posed for pictures for years. His little ruse, while considered a crime by the Germans, made Voigt famous.
Anytime a government is going to pull off a big change, there must be meetings…planning meetings, if you will. The Third Reich, under Adolf Hitler had long wanted to literally remove the Jewish people from the face of the earth. They began making plans for what they called “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question” and later called the Wannsee Conference to ensure the co-operation of administrative leaders of various government departments in its implementation.
The Wannsee Conference was called by the director of the Reich Security Main Office SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich and included senior government officials of Nazi Germany and Schutzstaffel (SS) leaders. The conference was held in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee on January 20, 1942. The plan of the “Final Solution” was to deport most of the Jews of German-occupied Europe to occupied Poland, where they would be murdered. Hitler was obsessed with what he considered purifying the world. He wanted to build an Aryan race, which is “white non-Jewish people, especially those of northern European origin or descent typically having blond hair and blue eyes and regarded as a supposedly superior racial group.”
In the course of the meeting, Heydrich outlined how European Jews would be rounded up and sent to extermination camps in the General Government (the occupied part of Poland), where they would be killed. Of course, the meetings were merely a formality. The decisions had been made and they were not asking for the support of the attendees, but rather they were simply telling them what they would be doing…if they wanted to live, that is.
Hitler began his discrimination against Jews began immediately after the Nazi seizure of power on January 30, 1933. At first, he employed violence and economic pressure to encourage Jews to voluntarily leave the country. Sadly, the Jews thought that with compliance, they would be ok, but Hitler was determined to remove them from Germany…one way or the other. Then, after the invasion of Poland in September 1939, Hitler stepped up his plan for the extermination of European Jewry and began the killings.
The killings continued and accelerated after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. On July 31, 1941, Hermann Göring gave written authorization to Heydrich to “prepare and submit a plan for a ‘total solution of the Jewish question’ in territories under German control and to coordinate the participation of all involved government organizations.” At the Wannsee Conference, Heydrich emphasized that “once the deportation process was complete, the fate of the deportees would become an internal matter under the purview of the SS. A secondary goal was to arrive at a definition of who was Jewish.” Basically, this meant that the Jewish deportees would simply “disappear” into thin air and never be heard from again. Just one copy of the “Protocol” with circulated minutes of the meeting survived the war. It was found by Robert Kempner in March 1947 among files that had been seized from the German Foreign Office. That copy was used as evidence in the subsequent Nuremberg trials. Like many other Holocaust sites, The Wannsee House is now a Holocaust memorial.
The cold war was one of the strangest times in world history. It wasn’t a war…exactly, but a period of geopolitical tension between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies, the Western Bloc, and the Eastern Bloc, which began following World War II. While the war did not really “act” like a war, at least 389 soldiers were killed in the line of duty, as estimated by the American Cold War Veterans. These casualties were the result of planes being shot down by the Communist forces of the Soviet Union. One such plane was an American Navy P2V-3W was shot down near Vladivostok over the Sea of Japan by Soviet forces in November of 1951. The P2V-3W exploded off the coast, and the crew of 10 American soldiers was reported as missing. The Soviets accused the crew of gathering intelligence, and the Americans claimed that the mission was related to weather reconnaissance. The truth may never be really known. There were many other hazards that Americans were exposed to during the conflict. An estimated 400,000 people were subject to harm from toxins, which killed more than half of those who were exposed to them. Several thousand soldiers also lost their lives during these years in training accidents and friendly-fire incidents. So, while there were never any “battles” there were losses.
Because of the Nazi loss in World War II, and the surrender in 1945, the nation’s capital, Berlin, was divided into four sections, with the Americans, British, and French controlling the western region, and the Soviets controlling the eastern region. The three western sections came together as the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). East Germany became the German Democratic Republic in October of that same year. With tensions mounting, the border between the two new countries was closed in 1952, and by the following year East Germans were prosecuted if they left their country without permission. The situation grew worse when in August 1961, the Berlin Wall was erected by the East German government to prevent its citizens from escaping to the West. People were trying to escape every day, and between 1949 and night the wall went up, an estimated 2.5 million East Germans fled to the West.
By the time President Ronald Reagan was in office, the Cold War had started to really get old. Something had to change, and Reagan was determined to do something to stop the feuding. Like all presidents, part of keeping the people informed on matters of importance is making speeches, and on June 12, 1987, President Reagan made one of his most famous Cold War speeches, when he issued a challenge to Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down” the Berlin Wall. With the Berlin Wall behind him, Reagan said, “There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace.” He then called upon his Soviet counterpart: “Secretary General Gorbachev, if you seek peace—if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe—if you seek liberalization: come here, to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The speech was also intended to ask Gorbachev to undertake serious arms reduction talks with the United States.
Many people thought that Reagan’s speech as a dramatic appeal to Gorbachev to renew negotiations on nuclear arms reductions, but it was also a reminder that despite Gorbachev’s public statements about a new relationship with the West, the United States also wanted to see action taken to lessen Cold War tensions. The people of East Berlin just wanted freedom, and two years later, on November 9, 1989, East and West Germans got their way when the people broke down the infamous wall between East and West Berlin. Germany was officially reunited on October 3, 1990.
Born Jewish, on April 4, 1922, in Berlin, Germany, did not necessarily set Marie Jalowicz up for a long carefree life. Marie was 11 years old when the Nazi Party came to power, and soon after began to imprison her family members. By age 20, Marie was forced to fend for herself. She found herself faced with the difficult task of constantly avoiding the Nazis. For Marie, this meant somehow assimilating into German life…basically pretending to be a non-Jew. I can’t imagine having to pretend to be a nationality other than my own, but that is what she had to do. Anything about her that was Jewish had to be set aside, forgotten, or hidden from the eyes and ears of the Nazis, who seemed to be everywhere around her.
Marie knew that as the situation for Jews in Nazi Germany deteriorated, things would grow steadily worse for her. She had to somehow come up with a way to virtually hide in plain sight. When a postman wrongly delivered a letter for a job offer intended for the neighbor in 1941, she told a postman that her “neighbor” Marie was taken by the Nazis, then she simply started walking around without a star on her jacket. She was successfully living under a false identity. She took the job and began working at the Siemens arms factory in her neighbor’s place. While living this double life, Jalowicz sabotaged production at the arms factory where she worked. Marie evaded Nazi capture through a long string of forgeries, impersonations, and help from people from every walk of life. Marie became Johanna Koch, using her wit and charm to seduce people in positions that could help her and moved around constantly. She took the words of a friend of hers to heart, “In absurd times, everything is absurd. You can save yourselves only by absurd means since the Nazis are out to murder us all.” On more than one occasion she tried to flee Germany, narrowly evading apprehension and escaping back to her homeland each time. She relocated often, and at one point was sold to an abusive Nazi with late-stage syphilis for 15 marks, which added to her cover as a non-Jew. In the coming years, she took menial jobs and lived in several Berlin flats, at times with roommates who were fervent Nazis. I can’t imagine how awful it was for her.
Marie went on to become a German philologist and historian of philosophy, pursued a career in academia, and received a Ph.D. in ancient literature and art history at Berlin’s Humboldt University. Then, after the war, she become a professor at Humboldt University, where she worked until her death in 1998. Just before her death she recorded 77 cassette tapes of audio with her son, Hermann. In the tapes, for the first time, Marie chronicled her experience during the Nazi reign. They were later compiled into a book called, Underground in Berlin: A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany. She became known to larger audiences for this, her autobiographical account of the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany, which was published posthumously. Marie died on September 16, 1998. She returned to her original identity only on her deathbed. Her mother died of cancer in 1938. Her father died in 1941. She is survived by her only son, Hermann Simon.
As the chief architect and minister for armaments and war production, Albert Speer designed many of the great buildings that Hitler craved. Hitler loved having the very best. Hitler was always impressed by academic credentials and any kind of artistic or technical talent, so he made Speer his personal architect. Albert Speer was born March 19, 1905, in Mannheim, Germany. At the age of 22, he received his architectural license, having studied at three German technical schools. He became an ardent Nazi after hearing Hitler speak at a rally in late 1930, and joined the party in January 1931. It was his decision to become a Nazi that gave him the opportunity to be noticed by Hitler.
It was the fact that he now worked for Hitler, that gave him the power he craved for himself. Hitler began a massive Berlin building program. Among the projects the Fuhrer entrusted Speer with was the design of the parade grounds for the Nuremberg Party Congress in 1934, which Leni Riefienstahl made famous in her famous propaganda film Triumph of the Will. As minister of armaments and munitions, Speer’s job description expanded to include not only armament production and transportation, but also the direction of raw material use and finally the conscription of slave labor, culled from concentration camps, for war material production. On this day, November 21, 1941, Speer approached Hitler, and asked for 30,000 Soviet prisoners to be slave labor for his projects,telling Hitler that these slave laborers would come in handy for his “new” Berlin. Speer wanted to begin construction even as the war waged. Despite the drain on resources Hitler agreed. Speer beguiled the Fuhrer with models of a Great Hall for the Chancellery and a grand office for Goering. I find it strange to think that someone finally pulled a few things over on Hitler, who always seemed to have the upper hand.
The program was going well, but the times were not in Speer’s favor, or Hitler’s. The war turned against Nazi Germany, the rebuilding plans were scrapped. When the war was over, Hitler was dead by his own hand, and Speer was tried as a war criminal at Nuremberg, the site of his grand parade, and sentenced to 20 years in prison for his role in the Nazi regime, principally for the use of forced labor. Despite repeated attempts to gain early release, he served his full sentence, most of it at Spandau Prison in West Berlin. Following his release in 1966, Speer published two bestselling autobiographical works, Inside the Third Reich and Spandau: The Secret Diaries, detailing his close personal relationship with Hitler, and providing readers and historians with a unique perspective on the workings of the Nazi regime. He wrote a third book, Infiltration, about the SS. Speer died of a stroke in 1981 while on a visit to London.
It seems there is always talk of the Third World War coming, and what might set it off. Most people hope that it stays all talk, because the weapons that are available these days could potentially wipe the human race off the planet, or at the very least, wipe whole nations off the map. Sometimes I wonder how we have avoided it so far, considering all the hate in the world today. Somehow our world leaders have held it off…for now. Nevertheless, there have been times when we have come very close to the last straw that would bring World War III. For 16 hours, between October 27 and October 28, 1961, at the height of the Cold War, US and Soviet tanks faced each other in divided Berlin in an action that brought the two superpowers closer to kicking off a third world war than in any other cold-war confrontation, with the exception of the Cuban missile crisis one year later. It was a very heated time in history.
Washington and its British and French allies had failed to stop the Russians from building the Berlin Wall in August of 1961. By October, East German officials began to deny US diplomats the unhindered access to East Berlin that they were required to allow as part of the agreement with Moscow on the postwar occupation of Germany. Then, on 22 October, E Allan Lightner Jr, the senior US diplomat in West Berlin, was stopped by East German border guards on his way to the state opera house in East Berlin. The East Germans demanded to see his passport, which he insisted only Soviet officials had the right to check. The situation grew more heated with this exchange. Lightner was forced to turn back.
General Clay, who was an American hero of the 1948-1949 Berlin Airlift was sent by Washington to deal with the Russians after the erection of the Berlin Wall. He gave orders that the next American diplomat entering East Berlin be escorted by armed US army military police in jeeps. The maneuver succeeded, but the East Germans continued to attempt to assert their claim to control western allied officials entering East Berlin. Never one to suffer defeat easily, Clay ordered American M48 tanks to head for Checkpoint Charlie. There they stood, some 80 yards from the border, noisily racing their engines and sending plumes of black smoke into the night air. Alarmed by the apparent threat, Moscow, with the approval of the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, sent an equal number of Russian T55 tanks rumbling to face down the Americans. They too ground to a halt some 80 yards from the East/West Berlin border and, as with the US tanks they faced, stayed there for 16 hours.
American officials were becoming more and more alarmed by the potential consequences. General Clay was quickly reminded by Washington that Berlin was not so “vital” an interest to be worth risking a conflict with Moscow. President Kennedy approved the opening of a back channel with the Kremlin in order to defuse the situation that had blown up. As a result, the Soviets pulled back one of their T55s from the eastern side of the border at Friedrichstrasse and minutes later an American M48 also left the scene. That was how it went until all the tanks were withdrawn. General Clay’s reputation among West Berliners rose, but not so much his warrior capabilities as far as the united States was concerned. Khrushchev had been equally uninterested in risking a battle over Berlin. In return for Kennedy’s assurance that the west had no designs on East Berlin, the Soviet leader tacitly recognised that allied officials and military personnel would have unimpeded access to the East German capital. From that point on, the western allies freely dispatched diplomats and military personnel to attend the opera and theater in East Berlin. Soviet diplomats, too, attended functions in West Berlin and sent Volga limousines packed with Soviet military police on patrol to West Berlin. The elaborate routine served to prove that the Four Power status of the city was intact. It was faithfully observed until the Wall fell in 1990. they weren’t as eager to start World War III as they thoughts they were.
Imagine a world in which you could go to sleep living in freedom, and wake up behind prison walls…and you didn’t leave your home. That is exactly what happened to the people who lived in East Berlin. The Berlin Wall was erected overnight on August 13, 1961. The people of East Berlin were prisoners in their own city. Many of them had friends and family members who lived in West Berlin, but they were no longer allowed to go and see them, nor could the West Berliners come to East Berlin to see the inhabitants of that part of the city. The people in East Berlin were in a panic, and yet nothing could be done to free themselves from their plight. At least, not until they began to get very creative.
Many attempts were made in an effort to escape their captors, and many of those failed, but it would be the successful attempts at escape that would stay in our minds all these years. It was the successful attempts that were written about and celebrated in history, because those people won against a tyrannical government. One such escape was captured in pictures. Early in the construction, before most people even knew what was going on, Willy Finder figured it out and took steps to get his family out. His was a daring plan,but the people of West Berlin were willing to help pull it off. Willy’s wife was the first to go. I con only imagine how she must have felt. The plan required her to jump from the window ledge of their 4th story apartment, into a net held by residents and firemen in West Berlin. These apartments were along Bernauer Straße (street) in Berlin. The building actually saddled the border between East and West Berlin. After the wall was first constructed in 1961, many residents escaped through these apartment blocks, in this manner. So many, in fact, that the Soviets finally bricked up the windows and raided the apartments, evicting the people who lived there. After his mother jumped, four year old Michael Finder was tossed by his father to the waiting net below. There was no time to explain all this to his son…no time to reassure him. His daddy simply had to toss in out the window. Then Willy Finder made the jump himself. Theirs was a successful escape, one of many, and this infuriated the Soviet Union, because this was a part of the Soviet occupation zone formed after the reconstruction that followed World War II.
The Soviet occupation zone in Germany, and in Berlin, was suffering from numerous movements of educated individuals from their sectors toward the West throughout the 1950s. This movement, thought to be a brain drain, encouraged the Soviet Union to begin construction of a “Fascist Protection Wall” that was supposed to keep East Germans protected from “Fascism” that the Western Allies had “not eradicated in their sectors.” Of course, the reality was that the wall, later called the Berlin Wall, was designed to keep East Germans from emigrating to the West. The apartments where the Finders lived were later torn down and the Berlin Wall that most of us picture in the news reels, and have chunks of in our museums all over the world, was erected. Nevertheless, between 1945 and 1988, around 4 million East Germans migrated to the West. The majority…as many as 3½ million people left between 1945 and the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Of those, most simply walked across the border. After 1952, they exited through West Berlin. After the border was fortified and the Berlin Wall was constructed, the number of illegal border crossings fell drastically. The numbers fell further as border defenses were improved over the following decades. In 1961, 8,507 people fled across the border, most of them through West Berlin. The construction of the Berlin Wall that year reduced the number of escapees by 75% to around 2,300 per year for the rest of the decade. The Wall changed Berlin from being one of the easiest places to cross the border, from the East, to being one of the most difficult. The wall was finally torn down on June 13, 1990, and the German people were again free to move around the country.
When the United States entered World War II, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, we were a nation with a score to settle. The Japanese had killed our people, and we vowed to make them pay. In addition to that, the Nazis were killing the Jewish people, and they had to be stopped. Their cruel killing of so many people in their gas chambers could not be tolerated. Revenge against the Japanese would have to wait for now, because the Nazi cruelty could no longer be kept hidden.
On of the biggest battles fought on German soil was the Battle of Berlin. It was fought over the course of a couple of years, and Britain’s Royal Air Force had been badly beaten by the Germans. Then when the United States joined in, things began to take a turn for the better. On May 7, 1944, the United States 8th Air Force sent 1500 bombers in to attack Berlin. More were sent the next day. The headlines were exuberant. Headlines like Berlin “Condemned to Death”, U.S. Planes Blast Berlin Twice, Capital Lies In Stark Ruins, and Berlin Again Plastered By Yank Fliers, were splattered across the papers. It was the ultimate attack on the heart of Nazi Germany from the Mighty 8th Air Force. I think everyone knew that Hitler’s days in power were numbered. It was true. The Nazis surrendered unconditionally a year later.
My dad was a Top Turret Gunner and Flight Engineer on a B-17G Bomber at this time, and while I don’t know if Dad took part in this attack, I can say that it is entirely possible. My dad didn’t talk about his war days much…most men from that era didn’t. I have to think that it was hard to remember those missions, because no matter how distanced you were from your target, you were still very aware that people were dying because of the bombs you were dropping. Sure, they were the enemy, and you were doing your job, but the were also humans. I think, if it were me, I would rather have to kill in the way my dad did…not looking into the eyes of the person you are about to kill, and in some attacks, the people didn’t have any idea that they were about to die. They, like my dad, were just doing their jobs. Still, they were soldiers under a cruel dictator, with no choice but to obey orders. Nevertheless, sad as it was for those people to die, I am very proud of my dad’s service. And if he was in this battle, then I am proud of that too.
On August 13, 1961, in the hours just after midnight, the East German soldiers began laying down barbed wire and bricks as a barrier between Soviet-controlled East Berlin and the democratic western section of the city. It was a day that would change life in Berlin for the next twenty eight years. In the days that followed, a wall was built to permanently close off access to the west. The citizens of East Berlin became prisoners in their own homes and city, in a prison that was built around them. The road between East and West Berlin had become a one way street. If you wanted in, you couldn’t come back out. Families were separated from each other, and those in the West had to make the choice to go be with family in East Berlin…and captivity, or not. The wall became the symbol of the Cold War. It was a literal Iron Curtain, dividing Europe.
When World War II ended in 1945, Germany was divided into four Allied occupation zones. Berlin, the German capital, was likewise divided into occupation sectors, even though it was located deep within the Soviet occupation zone. The future of Germany was a source of contention. Disagreements brought tensions which grew when the United States, Britain, and France moved in 1948 to unite their occupation zones into a single autonomous entity known as the Federal Republic of Germany or West Germany. In response, the Soviet Union launched a land blockage of West Berlin in an effort to force the West to abandon the city. The United States and Britain responded with a massive airlift of food and supplies to West Berlin, and in May of 1949, the Soviet Union ended the blockade in defeat.
That didn’t remove the tensions that plagued the area, however. By 1961 the Cold War tensions were running high again. The East German people became very dissatisfied with life under the communist system. West Berlin was a gateway to the West and Democracy. Between 1949 and 1961, about 2.5 million East Germans fled East Berlin to West Germany. By August of 1961, East Germans were crossing into West Germany at a rate of 2,000 people per day. Many of the refugees were skilled laborers, professionals, and intellectuals, and their loss was having a devastating effect on the East German economy. The Soviets had to figure out a way to stop the exodus, and its devastating effect on the economy. Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev made the decision to close off access from East Berlin to West Berlin.
Then came the night of August 13, 1961. The citizens of East Berlin could no longer freely pass into West Berlin. The West was taken by surprise, and threatened a trade embargo against East Germany as a retaliatory measure. The Soviets responded that such a measure would bring new blockades. The West did nothing, and the East German authorities grew more and more bold. They began closing of more and more checkpoints between East and West Berlin. On August 15, they began replacing barbed wire with concrete. The wall was supposedly designed protect their citizens from the influence of decadent capitalist culture. In realty, it protected the East German authorities from scrutiny as they did what they wanted with out retaliation.
Once it was up, the only way for East Berliners to escape the oppression of their government was to take their chances to get across in whatever way they could dream up. People attempted escape by train, tight rope, zip lines, hot air balloons, through old tunnels, impersonating soldiers, a stolen tank, and swimming. Many of these attempts ended in death for the person attempting escape. It didn’t stop them. They were so determined to live freely. About 5,000 East Germans managed to escape across the Berlin Wall to the West, but the frequency of successful escapes dwindled as the wall was increasingly fortified. Thousands of East Germans were captured during attempted crossings and 191 were killed.
On June 12, 1987 President Reagan made his great “tear down this wall” speech, but the wall remained until 1989, when the democratization movement began sweeping across Eastern Europe. On November 9, 1989 travel restrictions were eased. Jubilant Berliners climbed on top of the Berlin Wall, painted graffiti on it, and removed fragments as souvenirs. The next day, East German troops began dismantling the wall. In 1990, East and West Germany were formally reunited. For those in the free world, it would be almost impossible to completely understand just what Communism was like, but those who lived it, would never forget it, if they even lived through it, which many didn’t.