The Fall of the Berlin Wall

The following blog by Dr Grace Huxford is a copy of a blog originally published on 8 November 2019 by our funder , the Arts and Humanities Research Council. For more detail see: https://ahrc-blog.com/2019/11/08/the-fall-of-the-berlin-wall-british-residents-remember-november-1989/ It includes a link to an interview with Grace about the project on BBC Radio 3 and the AHRC’s ‘New Thinking Podcast’: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p07srdmh

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.

Th e Berlin Wall with East and West Germans crowded on the top of it
THE BERLIN WALL, 9-10 NOVEMBER 1989 (HU 73009) East and West Germans celebrate the lifting of travel restrictions on East Germans on a graffiti covered section of the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg gate, November 1989. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205191556

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 – one of 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.

A soldier smiling as he shakes a civilians hand
© Crown copyright. IWM (HU 101402) Soldiers and civilians celebrate the opening of the Berlin Wall, 9 November 1989. Creator: British Army Official Photographer. www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205219683

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.

A scooter drives around inside the no-mans land behind the Berlin Wall
© Crown copyright. IWM (CT 2234) The opening of the Berlin Wall, November 1989. Creator: British Army Official Photographer. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205219669

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.

A derelict observation tower
© Crown copyright. IWM (CT 2229) The opening of the Berlin Wall, November 1989. An East German observation tower seen through 23 January 1990. Creator: British Army Official Photographer. www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205219664

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.

References

Patrick Major, Behind the Berlin Wall: East Germany and the Frontiers of Power(Oxford, 2010).

Living on a Cold War Frontier? A Project Update

When I first began this research in 2016, the pilot project (funded by the British Academy) was entitled ‘Living on a Cold War Frontier’ (Ref SG15233). In my earliest oral history interviews, I asked former residents of British military bases in Germany lots of questions about the nature of the Soviet threat, how prepared they felt for a potential attack and their feelings about Germany’s various dividing lines and borders at the time they lived there.

I continue to ask these questions in interviews today and have heard fascinating stories about living with potential (and actual) danger: narrators recall Operation Active Edge in British military bases and Operation Rocking Horse in Berlin, both “rehearsals” for “the worst”. Others vividly describe visits to Berlin, forays into East Germany or patrolling the border in the Harz mountains (interestingly, the latter, like many existing or former border-zones, is now a ‘treasure trove for wildlife’ and a national park).

For many participants, the Cold War was very real and featured prominently in their memories of their time in Germany. For those who were there when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the shifting geopolitical context seems particularly important, especially as the 30th anniversary of its fall draws near.  

But others have had taken a different view. Far from a constant anxiety, for some the Cold War felt like a distant concern or one that they associated largely with Berlin or bases closer to the East German border. Other concerns were more pressing or “real”, such as base security threats from European terrorist organisations, but also far more everyday concerns associated with family life, living on the base, or work life.

So, one of the aims of this project is to explore further this variance in opinion more and ask why some felt they were on a ‘Cold War Frontier’ whereas others did not, and how to incorporate these divergent views into a social history of British base communities in Germany. Also, it will ask what this signifies for the wider history of Britain’s Cold War.

I have now spoken to almost 50 people since starting this research and am so grateful to all of them for their time and willingness to share their memories. Thank you also to everybody who has shared their memories via this webpage or indicated that they would be happy to be interviewed in future. We will be getting in touch over the summer, so thank you for your patience and interest in sharing your memories – we look forward to hearing about your experiences in Germany soon.

I will also soon be joined by a Research Assistant on this project – more news to follow soon.

Grace Huxford

May 2019

Berlin: British Cold War City, 1945-1994, PhD studentship

The Principal Investigator of the ‘British Military Bases in Germany’ project, Dr Grace Huxford, will be acting as a supervisor on an exciting new Collaborative Doctoral Partnership Studentship funded by the AHRC and in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum on “Berlin: British Cold War City, 1945-1994”. If you meet the relevant qualifications and are considering postgraduate study, see the details below. Deadline is Sunday 5th May.

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Applications are invited for an AHRC-funded PhD at the University of Bristol: ‘Berlin: British Cold War city, 1945-1994’. This is offered under the AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership programme. The partner institutions are the University of Bristol and the Imperial War Museum (IWM). The studentship will be supervised by Dr Grace Huxford and Professor Josie McLellan at the University of Bristol and Sarah Paterson at IWM. This full-time studentship, which is funded for three years at standard AHRC rates, will begin in October 2019 (welcome week begins 23rd September 2019).

This project will research the British Forces in the city of Berlin between 1945 and 1994. The former capital of Germany was probably the most famous ‘flashpoint’ of the Cold War, where East and West met on a daily basis. Its unique status as a divided city deep within Soviet-dominated territory led to it being a hub for espionage and intelligence activities. West Berlin was divided into three Sectors controlled by the Americans, British and French, and each Power left its own legacy.

Much has been published on Berlin in the Cold War, but this tends to concentrate on particular periods of crisis or dramatic events. This project offers the opportunity to examine the British presence as a whole over this period, and to analyse its legacy. How did the British interact with the German community? How did they work with the Americans and French? And with the Soviets? How important was Berlin for providing information that influenced British political thought? What was the relationship between the British Forces in Berlin and in the rest of Germany? What influence did a posting to Berlin have on an individual? What were the social effects of German-British inter-marriage? What role did language play in a quadripartite community?

Location: Department of History and Imperial War Museum
Eligibility: Home/EU 
Start date: October 2019 

Applicants should submit via email a curriculum vitae (no more than 2 pages), a sample of writing, a brief letter outlining their qualification for the studentship, transcripts of undergraduate and masters qualifications, and two academic references to Dr Grace Huxford on grace.huxford@bristol.ac.uk. Please note it is the responsibility of applicants to request references from their referees and ensure that they have been received by Dr Grace Huxford by the deadline below. All documents should be submitted in either a MS Word or PDF format. Please ensure the subject line of your email appears as ‘surname, first name – IWM/Bristol studentship.’

Deadline: 5pm, Sunday 5th May

Welcome!

Welcome to the ‘British Military Bases in Germany’ blog. Over the coming year, I will be using this blog to share aspects of my research into the social history of base communities and to share some of the fascinating, moving and amusing experiences of those who lived, worked or grew up in Germany.

I will also shortly be advertising the post of a full-time Research Assistant (12 months) who will work with me on this exciting project and will be circulating a Call for Papers for an academic workshop on oral history and the Cold War.

The original inspiration for this research came from hearing of the significant reduction of the British military presence in Germany and the final closure of bases which had existed, in some cases, since the immediate post-war period. I have vivid memories of visiting family members on these bases as a child and much later, now as a modern social historian specialising in the Cold War period, I wanted to understand more about these spaces as distinct social communities. The closure of bases marks the end of an era for the British military, but it also indicates a shift in British social, political and cultural history which I am keen to investigate.

So this project aims to explore the lived, everyday experience of these bases, but also to understand them in the context of British, European, Cold War and global history.

Furthermore, many of the military families who currently live in Germany will be returning to the South West region, where I also live and work. As a trained oral historian, I wanted to speak to those who had lived in Germany from 1945 to the present day. I have already had the tremendous pleasure of speaking to thirty people about their experiences and thank them for their generosity in sharing with me their memories of Germany.  

The site contains an overview of the project, its funding and key people and partners. There is also a space for participants to sign up to be interviewed or share their memories – such voices are central to this social history and we would like to give you an opportunity to set the research agenda too.

Finally, there is a resources page which highlights many of the excellent exhibitions, initiatives and resources on this area of Cold War history – please let me know if there are any others you would like me to share.

Grace Huxford, February 2019