A discussion with Iain MacGregor about the French Occupation in West Berlin.
Gary: Hello, everyone. Quick reminder, June 27 at 145. I will be presenting a talk at the Intelligence Speech Conference 2020, which is all online this year. Tickets are online at their Web site. And you can listen to me and dozens of other top podcasters talking about hidden history. My talk is how you can find hidden history. How you can develop original ideas and discover things that no one else has discovered before. Whether you’re a podcaster looking for a new interesting episode, a history major looking for a thesis, dissertation or article topic, or whether you’re just a history buff that really wants to find something unique and original. Be sure to check it out.
Today’s special episode is an interview with noted author Iain MacGregor. As an editor and publisher of nonfiction, Iain has over 25 years experience working with authors such as Bruce Springsteen, Simon Schama, David Grann, Bob Woodward and Max Hastings, to name but a few. He is currently a publisher for the Hachette Publishing, one of France’s biggest media groups. A cycling fanatic, Iain is also the author of To Hell on a Bike Riding Paris Roubaix; The Toughest Race in Cycling. Today, we’re talking about his newest book, Checkpoint Charlie, The Cold War, the Berlin Wall and The Most Dangerous Place on Earth. Iain’s exhaustive work examines the daily life in Berlin from interviews with Berliners, allied soldiers and officers and members of the press. Since we are French history podcast, we are focusing on the French sector and how France administered the capital of its European rival. All while it was caught between two contentious superpowers. Additionally, we look at daily life in French controlled Berlin, which was anything but ordinary as some areas, notably Bonner Strause, where the most dangerous on earth. Please enjoy.
Thank you very much for sitting down with me Iain to discuss your new book, Checkpoint Charlie, The Cold War, The Berlin Wall and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth.
But before we actually jump into that, I couldn’t help but notice your previous book was about France. The book to Hell on a Bike Riding Paris, Roubaix, The Toughest Race in Cycling. Details a French race that is among the hardest bike races on Earth that even some people from the Tour de France will avoid. Care to tell us a little bit about the book?
MacGregor: Yeah, sure. Thank you. And thank you for having me on the podcast. I really appreciate it. Yes, well, I’m I’m actually, if I’m not taking up my passion for history, my my other passion, which I’ve had since I was a teenager writing for Cycling Club is obviously cycling. I’ve done lots of different routes and touring holidays. I’ve done a Tour de France which was hell on earth, as it were. But nothing’s as bad as Roubaix. If you’re if you’re a cyclist that loves European cycling, you love Paris, Roubaix, and there’s no kind of ifs or buts. It is the oldest one day cycling race that still is on the calendar. And obviously it’s northern France going into Belgium. And the Flemish speaking areas is really hard core cycling at his best, in my opinion. So I’ve always, since I was a student, I’ve been fascinated, obsessed with Paris-Roubaix, always watched it every year. And I mean, for the pros, I mean, it’s just an incredible race. I mean, they obviously ride a far greater speed than us amateurs. But, is it roughly around for there for the pros is about 230, 240 kilometers of which fifty eight of those kilometers are on cobbles. And that’s what you have nowadays. There was more cobbles back in the day, especially before the first and second world wars, but with with the use of modern farming and things like that, lots of sections of the Pavé(4:59), as it’s called, have been lost. So I just wanted to rediscover it and do it in a kind of travelogue way and be able to realize a childhood dream and cycle it. So the story I’ve told is, half the book is the history of the race, talking about the famous events, the famous riders and the famous personalities around it. How is invented, that kind of thing. The interruptions of the First and Second World War and then the other half of the book is me training just as a your eyes are normal civilians, so to speak. And how you go about doing this? The level of training you need to do to not just survive it. But I’m one of those guys that I don’t want to do it just to survive. I want to actually enjoy the experience. And if you do that, you’ve got to be relatively fit and go across it at speed. And that’s what I did. And it was it was hugely enjoyable. And I got to meet some incredible people, got to meet some of my heroes, bike riders from yesteryear. And I was genuinely very happy, happily surprised that it sold really well in the UK and in France. That helped me with my my passion for writing as well. I thought, well, if this works and I know I can do it, and that’s why there is let on to then the book we’re about to talk about.
Gary: So what was harder doing the historical research or doing the bike ride itself?
MacGregor: I’d say the research, only because I was lucky. Paris Roubaix is always held around Easter time, and obviously you’ve got the vagaries of weather and the many, many races down the years, the professional races where they’ve had a lot of rain. The night or the day before the race and raining during the race. You literally don’t recognize these guys once they finished because it’s a mud bath. And obviously because you’re cycling so close to the guy in front of you, and these guys don’t race with mudguards. You’re drenched. So all you have is this guy at the end of the race who’s won it, literally covered head to foot in mud. And the only white you see is his teeth smiling and his eyes blinking. But obviously, if it’s a dry race, then it’s dust clouds. It’s famous for its huge dust clouds. So, again, the guy who wins it and the guys that finish the race, they’re covered in dust, but, you know, they’re much more recognizable. So I was lucky that the day I did it, it was quite a dry day. It rained in the morning just for an hour or so. Made it a bit slicker. But as the day wore on, it was it was a lovely day, actually. And I and I’ve done the training, so I really enjoyed it. I mean, that the cobbles there proper. They’re not those kind of smooth cobbles you might see in a nice tourist area of an old town in Edinburgh or Bath where, you know, I’ve been. They’re proper Napoleonic cobbles there. They’re big, big things that were more used to making sure horse and cart heavily laden horse and cart could drive over them. And they’re all at different angles. You get some some pieces that are vicious, that just stand right out like an iceberg. You’ve got to avoid them. And I love that kind of thing. It’s fantastic. This is wacky races is absolutely wacky races.
Gary: All right. So now let’s move from France to the French sector of West Berlin. So tell me, what inspired you to write your second book on West Berlin during its division? And what new takes or information do you want to add to what’s already been written?
MacGregor: Well, in my day job. I’m a publisher of nonfiction and I have been for the last 25 years. And I’ve published a lot of either military or political books from big books on Donald Trump by Bob Woodward to World War One, World War Two, Napoleonic, all that kind of thing. The very first book I ever published was on the Imperial Guards under Napoleon. My love of this era and of Berlin itself mainly comes from my father and my my uncles who all served in the British army or the RAF during the Cold War, after the Second World War, obviously. And my dad was in the British army and he served in the British army of the Rhine. And so his R & R where he’s having weekends furlough, he’d been to West Berlin a few times and then obviously he’d been there were on holidays. Well, once he came out of the army. So I grew up with this knowledge and passion from him what an amazing city it was. And where he talks about the division of Germany as well. And then obviously I had uncles as well that served. So my dad was in the army in the 50s, but my uncle served in the 60s and the 70s, so and the 70s was my childhood. So I grew up with all this. And then I was lucky enough to go on student exchanges to East Germany and to the Soviet Union in the early 80s. And that again, just lit a fire on my passion for history. So I did a degree in modern European history. My dissertation was on the Prague Spring of 68 and that’s led having fallen into publishing led to me obviously wanting to work in the history area. I’ve published a couple of books on Berlin. I published several books on Germany, published many books on the Cold War. But on my storyboard at home was, if I’m going to write a book, I really, really want to write a book on Berlin during the Cold War and the Berlin Wall. I again, I finished my degree in 1990, but in 1989 I was at my in my house with my housemates at university. And as you would know, this is before we had the Internet or a 24 hour rolling news, that kind of thing. All you saw was what was on the news bulletins on on one TV. So I signaled my housemates watching the checkpoints open. And to me, it must have been the same for you, the Berlin Wall and the Warsaw Pact and the Iron Curtain, because we were we were born and raised in that era. It was as physical to us as the Himalayas. And so to see that open and potentially the Warsaw Pact fall and even the USSR was just an incredible moment. And so the following summer, I think I’d said this to an email. I made sure I got an interrail pass and I travelled through the eastern countries that I was allowed to travel through at the time just to make sure I would see it before I knew it would all go. So I did that. So, the book itself. Yeah. I mean, I’m getting back to my job as a publisher. I’m very much into oral history. I think that’s the most important aspect of all of history, is people that have lived that important sections that you want to study or publish. So, I spent two years researching and contacting and then traveling to and interviewing over 70, nearly 80 people from all walks of life, military, civilian, media, political from east and west, East Germany, the Soviet Union, and then obviously the allies to make sure that I had a complete take as best as I could of what it was like to live, work and if potentially escape through or try to escape through the Berlin Wall. And because I’d never read a book like that before. I mean, obviously, I’d read many books on Berlin and the division of the city and then life in the cities. The 28 year lifespan of the war. And Anna Funder’s book, Stasi-land really inspired me. And I loved the way she’d gone about doing that book. And she captured the thoughts of various Berliners straight after the wall opened because she’d lived there in West Berlin and then she went into the east. And I wanted to do the same, but obviously to paint a bigger picture. And so, yeah, I mean, I was very, very lucky to find some key people, one of which, for instance, very quickly was from the American side. He was he was German American guy called Adolf Knackstedt, who I’ve given a whole chapter to in the book. And his life is incredible. He was born in the Bronx to German parents who moved to America from Germany in the Depression 1920s, but then returned to Germany because they were all Volksdeustche and believed in the new fatherland. Hitler was building. The family survived, obviously, the Second World War. It’s a long story short, they survived the war, survived the Berlin airlift in 1948. Adolf’s father was one of the guys that was a Temple Half unloading the allied planes that were landing. But Adolf was getting into trouble with his with brother, stealing coal from the Russians and the Russian sector. And so it got to the point where he thought, I’ll make use of my American passport because I was born in the Bronx. I’ll move back to the States. He enlisted when he was 18 and was immediately drafted into military intelligence because they realized what his background was. And then from 1953 onwards, all the way through to the building of the Berlin Wall, and afterwards he was a spook in western East Berlin and no one had spoken to him before. No one had captured his memories. And he literally was involved or a witness to all the major incidents in Berlin from 1956 onwards. And he had written some incredible things and did some incredible things. To get his take was amazing. From a French perspective I had Margit Hosseini, who again, was incredible. Her father was a French diplomat, worked in the French sector, and she grew up from the early 1950s all the way through to and she left West Berlin in mid to late 1960s. She saw, obviously, the wall go up. But before that, she traveled throughout the Soviet sector with her father and saw what kind of states East Berlin was in and how different it was from the French sector that she grew up in. And then obviously she witnessed the war going up. She witnessed people getting killed, trying to cross the wall. She witnessed JFK arriving to give his famous speech, “Ich Bin Ein Berliner.” And then she obviously left the city to try and carve a new life for herself out in Western Europe. And then again, from a French perspective, very lucky and hugely privileged to interview Major General François Cann, who we’ll talk about later, who was the French commandant of the French sector in 1989 and obviously was caught up in events then. To have his take on how he dealt with the situation with the other allied commanders was fascinating.
Gary: It certainly sounds like it. And I think you at least went partially to answering my next question, which is, I imagine this book must have been hard to write since you had to work with English, French, Russian and German sources. How many languages do you speak and how did you overcome this obstacle?
MacGregor: Well, obviously, I speak English. That’s very easy. I speak some German. I can read German, though. I can speak it. With French I do not speak. But I was very lucky with my French and Russian interviewees that one of the researchers I worked with who’s French, German born, she’s called Sabine Chirac and she’s from Berlin, but she works in London as well. And we’ve known each other for a few years. She was vital for me to talk to the French interviewees that I met, because obviously it’s, you want to do them the honor and just the politeness to obviously, speak and capture their their memories and their anecdotes and their own language. And it makes them feel comfortable as well. And there’ll be more relaxed to actually talk to you properly than obviously me obviously trying to discover what they’re saying and stumble around. But German was easier. But again, the trouble with that is, from an East German perspective, a lot of the border guards that I interviewed were from Saxony in the southern southeastern part of the country, and their dialect is quite nasal, quite difficult, especially if they’re speaking quickly to understand. So, again, Sabine was sitting with me on the various interviews I had with these people. And just to make sure that obviously there was no error in what they were saying to me or what I was saying to them, that we both understood each other. And every single, didn’t matter if they were Russian, German, French or English speaking, American or British. Every single person I spoke to had their transcription emailed to them so they could pick over it and make sure that they were happy with what they’d said. Any redactions? I, of course, took and made, any extra things they wanted to add were made. So François Cann wrote down a few things, took a couple of things out. And the nice thing is, well, getting back to Sabine, who was my researcher, an interpreter, her uncle had actually been gendarme working in Berlin in the 1970s. So again, she had a real love and passion for the subject and she had some really good and knowledgeable angles to discuss with the gendarmes that I did meet about the role they played that I wouldn’t have thought of, because obviously I haven’t got any relatives that were in the gendarme working in Berlin.
Gary: One of the first major events you detail is the East German immigration crisis. Russia was understandably trying to ruin Germany both as a means of defending itself and as punishment for the German actions in World War II and purposely crashed the Reichsmark. This and the imposition of totalitarian rule meant that by 1961, two point one million East Germans or one sixth of the entire population went west. My questions are how did the allies deal with this massive influx of people? Was this a positive, a negative or both?
MacGregor: The personnel, the allied personnel, military and political and civilian that I interviewed that dealt with this massive migration over the years. So obviously from, sort of 1954, definitely 1954 onwards, because obviously 1953, you’ve got the East German uprising of the workers. These East German workers were so fed up of the constant quotas that they had to meet in heavy industry without their hours of work increasing. Their output was increasing, but their wages were being lowered. And there wasn’t much to buy anyway. And so obviously by 1953, the powder keg burst and you had these German uprising, which mushroomed from one small scale event in Berlin to the whole country was up in flames almost, figuratively speaking. And there’s only Russian tanks to put it down. So that was kind of, even though you had quite close, tight border control by then, that really exploded the need for East Germans to leave the country because they didn’t see a future for themselves. And of those two point one million East Germans you talked of one sixth of the population, of those two point one million, fifty percent were under 25 years of age. So that gets me to your major question. How did the allies deal with this massive influx of people? Was it positive or negative or both? They seem to think if you’re dealing with this influx on the ground, then obviously it’s a very stressful situation. You’ve got to deal with these people as tens of thousands coming over every month for a good few years with all the attention that that brings with the East and West political hierarchy, having various conferences, trying to sort out what was called the Berlin crisis, about what would happen to the sectors in East and West Berlin. The Russians obviously wanting the allies out. As you just said, the Russians obviously wanting a demilitarized Germany. And if they can get a whole one, they definitely wanted a demilitarized Berlin. And then obviously with all these migrants coming through, it’s just they were overrun and it was a case of trying to process them as quickly as possible by the allies in their various camps that were based in the allied sectors and then getting them out either by train or by air, depending on how important they were. Because obviously it wasn’t just civilians leaving. It was it never obviously announced at the time, but the way East German politicians leaving, police and military officials wanted to leave. They were the ones that had to be vetted properly. But overall for West Germany, West Germany was very happy to have this huge influx of a guaranteed workforce that would help build up their economy as well, because obviously from 1948 onwards, you got the Marshall Plan building up the Western allies in Western Europe with huge amounts of money so their infrastructure could be rebuilt, their economies could be restructured, and then the Western economies could be integrated to work better, more work fluently and become a very big, the most successful success stories, I should say, of postwar economics. But if this workforce of two point one million East Germans and 50 percent of the world’s 25 and the vast bulk of them are professionals, as well as the professional classes that were leaving East Germany in their masses because they didn’t see a future for themselves. So there’s a ready made workforce that’s going to that obviously speaks the language, which is perfect, wants to live in West Germany, which can obviously house them because Germany is a huge country. Germany, 61 million people. 63 million West Germans were there at the time. They’re perfect. It’s a perfect workforce. So for the far West Germany, it was a win win situation. It was obviously showing to the world that the East German socialist experiment wasn’t working. And for them it was they were getting a ready made professional workforce that was very keen, very eager to build a new life for themselves in West Germany and obviously helped build the economy to when it was a world beater.
Gary: So moving from Germany itself to France’s dealings with Germany, as a secondary power to the U.S. and USSR. What role did France play in Berlin, particularly during periods of crisis?
MacGregor: Well, you can go right back to the end of the war. I mean, France obviously wanted to play a big, significant role in the rebuilding restructuring of Western Europe and ultimately their main goal it was clear, they didn’t want a militarized, strong, united Germany again, right on their doorstep. Added to that, they wanted to hopefully, I mean, de Gaulle was still in charge until he had to step down a few years later. They still had themselves their own issues with politically what was going on, the internal struggles that were going on between, would it be a communist led government because the Communist Party in France was hugely significant and influential, or whether they could get back to where they’d been before the start of the Second World War. So there’s there was a big internal situation going on in the country. And also, in the end, much as a they didn’t want it to happen. They realized within a couple of years after the war that they had to play ball with the Americans. The Americans were there to stay. The Americans were going to get their way of what they wanted to happen with Germany. And it became obvious that Russia was not going to leave their East German sector. And to the French, it was pragmatism. On the one hand, publicly, they would they would be arguing against having a creation, for instance, in 1948 of a West German republic. But obviously, in private, when they talking to the likes of Eisenhower who became president of the United States, they’re thinking, well, it’s better that then we have a very strong, very militarized Soviet Union that could potentially move from East Germany into West Germany. And then we’ve got them right on our doorstep with all our internal struggles that we’re having. So that’s been going on all the way through the 1950s. Added to that, which leads to why the response the French had to the Berlin crisis was the way it was, was they obviously were going through a period like Britain was of decolonization all the way through the 1950s. So, whether it was Indo-China or Algeria, the fiasco in Suez in 1956 the French realized that they had to pull back from the areas of control they had because they couldn’t afford to administer it, It wasn’t feasible. And also, they also wanted to make sure that they would still try and evolve to be a major military player, not only in Europe, but in the world. I mean, they were on the Security Council in the UN. They were going to play obviously some kind of part in the creation of NATO in the late 1980s. There wouldn’t be a big player later on. But also they wanted to try and develop their own nuclear weapon. They wanted to make sure that they had a strong, modernized, armed forces. And for instance, in Algeria, within one point five million I think, Frenchmen served in in Algeria throughout its time from 1950, I think it was 1954 through to 1962 when eventually they pulled out. That’s a lot. And of those, most of them were conscripts. So to the French, they wanted to evolve their armed forces into a very modernized, nimble, quick moving, powerful force. And to have that, you need nuclear weapons. So, again, that was one of the things they wanted. So to get to the question for de Gaulle, who was in charge when the Berlin crisis was happening, he saw it primarily as a side show. He was one of the main allied leaders that wasn’t intimidated or scared by Nikita Khrushchev, who by then was the premier first secretary of the Soviet Union who had taken over from Stalin. So as much as Khrushchev was banging his shoe on the table famously about, he wanted to have the Berlin crisis sorted and he wanted the allies ultimately out of Berlin, or they’d have to do something about it. And obviously, famously, the Vienna conference in the summer of 1961, before the wall went up, he’d first met Kennedy and really giving him what we call an ear bashing, quite demonstratively and aggressively, which really shook Kennedy up and really shook up the policy the White House probably wanted to have with the Soviets about what they would do about Berlin and other places elsewhere. But always, always, there was de Gaulle who was very, not saying Freud about it, but he was just calm. He was just very ideal. He ultimately thought they will not go to a nuclear war level over Berlin. I just don’t believe it will happen because I know that I’m prepared to match them blow for blow in all their threats. They think they’re going to build up any kind of barrier in the sectors, I’m going to try and knock them down. So he was different to say, Kennedy, who had a big fear that he didn’t want a nuclear confrontation with Khrushchev because obviously by the at that time, they didn’t know how much bigger the US nuclear also was compared to the Soviets. The Soviets were obviously expanding what they had. Well, they obviously didn’t have it. So I would say that it’s obvious when you read some of the in the archives of some of those letters and correspondence I was reading from de Gaulle was, in the first two weeks of the war going up from after the 13th of August 1961. He was all for knocking down, but it was because the other allies, America and Britain, weren’t prepared to do that. He said, well, we’re not going to do it on our own. So he obviously told the guys, his men on the ground in Berlin. Well, you’re not going to do that, even though some of them wanted to. And this, again, goes back to some of the the allies the on the ground in 1961 that I interviewed. They all said the same thing, that the East German border guards that they were talking to that were guarding that these German workers that were erecting the first barriers that were obviously at the time there were just barbed wire with cement posts, obviously later, much more sophisticated and deadlier. But these guys were saying, look, guys, you know, the Americans, French, British, we have no bullets in our guns. What are you waiting for? You can come over. You can knock this down easily. And those messages were passed up the chain of command, but still nothing was done. So it was a chance missed. But like I said, the French were very relaxed about what the East Germans had done because they they didn’t believe anything else was going to happen.
Gary: So one of the most striking sections of your book and one of the most contentious areas of Berlin was around Bernauer Straße in the French section, which was famous for its illicit escapes. Can you tell us about this place?
MacGregor: Yeah, well, I mean, Bernauer Straße is just a fascinating, fascinating place, and I would say to all your listeners, if they’re ever over in Berlin, I would go to Bernauer Straßefirst before you go to Checkpoint Charlie. In all seriousness, because it still, obviously it is in the eastern sector. And as a point of interest, the first three or four times I was going over to Berlin three or four years ago when I was doing my first interviews, I deliberately stayed in a hotel near Bernauer Straße just because I wanted to feel the atmosphere again. And you can you can still feel it. And when you walk from Bernauer Straße in the eastern sector through Mitte, which is the central district, the government district of Berlin, which is still which is obviously famously Unter den Linden, the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate. You walk through meter into the western sector, you can still feel the difference. The houses are still shabbier around Bernauer Straße, is a bit gloomier. If you go off the side road, you can still feel the atmosphere there. There’s still some Cyrillic graffiti that was written by Soviet soldiers who obviously took the city in 1945. They’re still pockmarked bullet holes in the walls. So it just gives you a really good idea of what it must have still been like in those 28 years, the Berlin Wall going up. But for those who don’t know, Bernauer Straße just exist it early on as a commercial military connection road between Berlin and the Brandenburg area of Berlin. And with the formation, as it was, all the cities were expanding before the Second World War with Greater Berlin from 1920, the district divisions were changed. And this is what led to the problems when the Berlin Wall went up. So house numbers along Bernauer Straße from 1 to 50 on the south side of the street would line the district of Mitte, and that would later be the Soviet sector of Berlin, whereas the House numbers of 51 to 121 on the north side of the street, which you just cross the road, as you would do in any of the places that your listeners live. And this would like to be part that would be the district which is called Wedding, which would later be the part of the French sector of Berlin, which they took control of after 1947. So the road itself belongs entirely to Wedding. So it’s entirely part of the French sector. And obviously that was the proper map that there in laid the seeds of what we saw once the Berlin Wall went up. So once it was erected along the streets, it became famous for escapes because obviously if you’re an East German living in these these big housing blocks, which were about six stories high and hundreds if not thousands of East Germans were living in these blocks of flats, the window you looked out of looked down instantly down into the French allied sector. So like lab rats in a trap if they’ve sealed off your sector with barbed wire and armed guards and you now can’t obviously walk straight through from east to west into the French sector, the best thing you can do is try to find these loopholes, which many, many people did in the first few months of the Berlin Wall going up. They would find hidden doorways that the East German authorities hadn’t realized in their plans that they needed to seal. And then more famously, they would find that the best way to do is just open your window, look down into the French sector and hopefully these people there would catch your fall. And that’s what you did. And famously, the first casualty is German casualty of the Berlin Wall was a week after the wall had gone up Ida Siekmann, she died after jumping out of her third floor apartment from Bernauer Straße number 48. And like many of her neighbors, they were either lowering themselves down on tied together blankets or the West Berlin Fire Department were there with a tarpaulin waiting to catch them. And that’s how she tried to get out. And she just missed time to jump. Missed the guys below that were trying to capture and obviously hit the ground very hard and then died of her injuries. She’s the very first East Berliner to die of trying to escape. And so the authorities knew that some of these Germans from the autumn of 1961, they realized we got to try and stop there. So they emptied all the buildings, forcibly, break them all up, and then by 1963, as the the first generation of the proper Berlin Wall, as it made completely of cement blocks topped with barbed wire, and then at time they had wooden armed century posts, which would obviously develop into these much more sophisticated big cement purpose-built watchtowers that had 360 degree vision. They would be all knocked down, all the housing would be knocked down. And the authorities would then use that space to create what became famously the “death strip”. But if you can’t get over those, you can’t get through the “death strip” anymore. What became famous because Bernauer Straße was so, it was still easy because there was less of a gap to go from east to west. Bernauer Straße than most other points of the Berlin Wall through the city is where East Germans started to tunnel. And that’s where you have the famous, these tunnels are given numbers because it relates to how many East Germans escaped through that tunnel. So famously in 1962, there was a tunnel twenty nine which started in Bernauer Straße and went through to Schnholtzer Strasse. And twenty nine Berliners all different ages escaped into West Berlin before it is discovered. And that became a famous American documentary and is a huge, you might not know it, but if you go into the BBC podcasting system at the moment, you’ll find a dramatized version of Tunnel 29, which came out this year and it’s been a huge hit in Britain. And then there was Tunnel 57, which again started in Bernauer Straße and ended up Strelitzer Straße and that was in October 1964. And that’s what the authorities would then try and create an even bigger gap at Bernauer Straße, to make it practically impossible for people to tunnel their way through as well. So it’s got so many, so much of the Berlin Wall and the suffering of the East Berlin people is wrapped up in Bernauer Straße. It’s just fascinating. And that’s why obviously in November 1989 when the checkpoints were opening. Burner Strausse who was one of the first places that the West Berlin and Allied media went to watch to see what was going to happen and that’s where they were coming through as well. What’s lovely as well and again, what I’d recommend your listeners go to, is the reason why I think Bernauer Straße is a really important place to visit is one of the only places in Berlin you’ll find that they’ve retained an original longest stretch of the original wall, and where they set up, it’s not huge, but it gives you a really good idea of what it was like. They’ve retained the “death strip.” They have retained the watchtower, the famous dog runs, that kind of thing, and there’s a museum right by there as well. And it’s just terrific. I have to commend the Berlin authorities. They are very, very good at interactive museums that relate to the life of the Berlin Wall. And what was it like living in West and East Berlin and like the GDR Museum on Museum Island (?? 39:16 By then London) is amazing. The museum by Bernauer Straße is completely fascinating. You could spend a whole afternoon there and it’s full of interviews with East Berliners who tried to escape and did escape or failed to escape and were jailed. It captures their memories, their anecdotes and is really valuable. So I would highly recommend it to your listeners.
Gary: So now let’s talk about the man who was the head of the French section who you had mentioned before, François Cann. He was an interesting character. Can you tell us about his background and the role he played in West Berlin?
MacGregor: Sure. So out of the three allied commanders of the American, British and French, I really, really enjoy talking to François Cann. I mean, if you like boxing, if you know boxing from yesteryear, he’s built like Rocky Marciano. He’s just a tough, tough, tough man. Comes from Brittany, which is a tough section of France. I mean, from a cycling perspective, some of the best and toughest cyclists come from Brittany and Bernadino, for instance. I think he came from a long line of tough military men as well. So his father was a highly decorated hero from the Second World War who distinguished himself with the French Resistance. And it helped dozens of allied air crews that have been shot down by the Germans flying over France. And he helped them to recover them. He’d hide them and tell them to escape down the the famous travel routes that took the allied airmen through to Spain and then back to where they come from. And then eventually, such was his reputation that once the allies had landed in Normandy, he became General Patton’s liaison officer in his staff and traveled with Patton all the way through France and into Germany. And then it served post-war in the French section of Berlin as a police commissioner. So from the age of 11, François Cann grown up in the French sector of Berlin. So he knew it really well. He knew it intimately. And once he was 20, François would go back to the city once he’d been in the army. He would he go often back there to see what was going on. And just was a really, it’s hard to say, he basically, it was evident it came through the way he talked about it. His eyes would gleam over. He just had such a love for Berlin and especially obviously had a love for the French sector. So obviously, François had gone from enlisting in the French army. By 1954 he was a second lieutenant in the colonial infantry, qualified a year later into the colonial paratroops, which was like the elite units of the French army, because obviously where they were serving in Indochina and Algeria. And he rose through the ranks and served in Algeria, Cambodia, Lebanon. Commanded the Elite 11th Parachute Division. And so because he’d had all those touchstones of military service by 1987, it was felt he was ready to take command of what was seen as obviously a blue ribbons posting and he would be in charge of the French sector in Berlin. And what I liked about him was he just had a very, he was resolute and he had a very debonair way of talking about what his service meant to him and what his role was in the French sector, you know, 70 odd miles, 100 kilometers inside Soviet territory, surrounded by probably what? How many? It’s about 3000 Soviet tanks. You know, the Warsaw Pact around you. You’ve got over a million Soviet troops around you. And I used to say I said this to all the allied commanders. What did it feel like to know that obviously you had no idea the Berlin Wall was going to come down? You had no idea from an economic and strategic political situation that the Soviet Union was teetering on the brink of collapse. East Germany was on the brink of collapse. When you were serving there, you had no idea until it actually happened. So how did it feels to be surrounded by that much firepower and threats from the Warsaw Pact? What would you have done if they decided the balloon had gone up and the Warsaw Pact had taken West Berlin? Because obviously it wouldn’t have taken them that long term to rumble through with all their firepower. And he was very much like, all three commanders were the same kind of opinion. It was, they would put up a hell of a fight. It was obviously going to be one way traffic. But I loved the way François described it. I said, “well, what would have been the result of you putting a fight?” He kind of shrugged his shoulders and said “glorious annihilation.” I just sort of sang froid to say something like that was just a classic paratrooper to say. The British coming down at the time, Robert Corbett, he was also from the parachute division. And interestingly, they had they remained firm friends. Today, they’re in their 80s. Both have ill health issues to deal with, but they still very much in contact. They’re almost like blood brothers. But they’d actually met in the 70s. And I think that bred in them later on, once they met a real bond that helped with the situation because basically General Robert Corbett had served in one of the parachute divisions. He was attached to them for a year and a half to obviously learn the skills and establish relations between the British parachute division and the French. And long story short, he’s had a major accident in on an exercise where him and his unit were dropped prematurely at night over a location. And instead of landing where they should have landed, they landed in a quarry, a stone quarry. Quite a few of his unit were seriously injured, as was he. And so General Corbett, I think, broke one of his legs and broke or fractured his hip bone, couldn’t walk, managed to spend hours crawling in agony. I think it was three kilometers to get help. And so he recovered. But they they later had a court of inquiry. And who was leading that court of inquiry would be General François Cann. And the both of them didn’t realize this until they were having dinner with each other and their first commandant’s meeting in 1989, because Robert Corbett joined two years after François Cann had been there, and they realized that they had this joint connection and that served them well. But François Cann is just a product, obviously, of his upbringing, his military family’s military background and his service. That’s why he was why he was placed where he was. It was to make sure that if the time came and the balloon went up, France had someone there in charge. That would obviously do his duty, not just for his country, but for the man that served under him at the time and talking to his aide-de-camp and several other officers that served with him. They were all the same. I mean, that their attitude and their determination that they would go down fighting. And like I said, that was reflected in the American and the British sectors was was inspiring, actually. It was just a like, I came away from that thinking they just don’t make men like this anymore.
Gary: Yeah. He sounds like he deserves a book just for himself. Before we move on. Do you want to explain the phrase when the balloon went up?
MacGregor: Well, yeah, the balloon goes up became a saying that the related to the nuclear holocaust that might resolve or sorry might come about because all roads led to Berlin and it was always felt definitely were where I was growing up. The history lessons I was being taught and the programs we watch on TV that if a major military confrontation came between East and West, it would always start with Berlin. And it would be the Warsaw Pact would take Berlin first before they obviously rumbled on through to Western Europe. And that would lead to obviously nuclear confrontation. So the western sectors in Berlin was always seen as a weathervane. And so if the balloon goes up, that’s almost like a weather balloon. But actually, the saying comes from the First World War. And again, it evolves to where this is before the allies developed planes that could fly high enough and would be equipped with photography to take pictures of the German trench lines that they were facing. So before that, it was they were used balloons and that that had gone back all the way through to the American Civil War in 1860’s. So when the balloon went up, was always saying that that would lead to trouble. So that’s where it came from. But it was very much saying that we had as I was growing up as a teenager in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, the balloon would go up if West Berlin fell because you knew that the Warsaw Pact was coming.
Gary: All right. Thank you for explaining that Britishisms. As an American I actually had never heard that before. So were there any other interviews with French people that stuck out to you?
MacGreor: Well, Margit Hosseini was amazing because like I said, it’s an again, I almost gave her a whole chapter because I needed to find people that not only served there for a specific period of time because obviously most allied soldiers would be routinely switched in and out. So, you know, you would serve a couple of years, then you would go and even the whole unit would proudly say, well, we serve that like the American US military police or even the French army. They will say, well, we were there the whole time. We were there from the end of the war to when the allies took control of the of Berlin itself to when we left in 1994, which is true. But obviously, within that, thousands and thousands of thousands of personnel were switched in and out to serve their time. So I needed to find someone that could obviously give me a reflection, not just from a military perspective, but from a civilian perspective and obviously from a from all different ages. And so Margit, because she lived in the French sector and her father was a French diplomat. It gave her a lot of access with her father to get into the Soviet zone. That would become obviously East Berlin. So from her, I’ve I’ve got some amazing anecdotes in the book that talk about the at the physical state of East Berlin. By the time she got there in 1953-1954, because her father had moved there much earlier. But obviously, he didn’t want his family there until it was he established himself. He’d gotten proper courses to live in the French schools, set up that kind of thing. So she moved there with her family and she saw everything. And her father had married. His wife was German and her relatives were some of her relatives, anyway, were based in the Hinterland of East Berlin. So Margit managed to not only see the state of the Soviet sector and the destruction that was still there all the way through to the end of the Cold War, really. Obviously, they rebuilt the main sections in International, and allied military personnel will be allowed to travel through because that was the agreement of free travel. The allies were allowed access and the Soviets were allowed access through to the allied sectors as well. So that those main sectors were rebuilt by the East Germans and the Soviets. But they were whole areas, districts of of East Berlin that were still pretty much as you found them if you were a Soviet soldier coming in through there in 1945. I mean, it’s forgotten that it’s something like this is over 80 percent of German housing totally was destroyed by 1949 due to allied bombing and the Russian capture of the city. So obviously, the allies with the Marshall Plan aid had rebuilt all the Western sectors to where they were in amazing places to live. And and all the allied soldiers I talked to said it was the best posting of their lives because the city was just an incredibly exciting place to live it. But it wasn’t like that in East Berlin. And so through Margit’s eyes, I captured that ostensibly her travels going through Bernauer Strasse drafts and the crossing point there and then through Checkpoint Charlie with her father. And she saw everything. And then obviously, as time went by and the Berlin Wall was built, by then she was a teenager and she was witnessing everything. And I captured this incredible moving story of how the panic and fear and paranoia her father had at the time of the war going up, because obviously the French authorities were were caught napping just as the British and the French were when the barriers went up. Margit’s younger sister, was actually with her relatives in East Berlin. Weekends, holiday, as they did all the time, because they could go through and there was no problem. But obviously when the barriers go up, they’re thinking, well, what’s going on? Is this going to lead to conflict? Will there be no more actual access to East Berlin? How do we get out? How do we get my sister, my father and my father’s daughter back? So I catch that story of how the family were rushing hither and dither trying to find news, along with tens of thousands of other West Berliners how they were going to get their loved ones back. So I capture that. And then Margit was witness to various shootings. I think I said at the beginning she was witness to JFK arriving to give his famous speeches in West Berlin and give the city and the citizens there a real shot in the arm to realize that they weren’t forgotten. So it was great. I had many American, many British interviews, but I was really pleased to get Margit’s and François’s because their stories are key. They’re really key. And they’ll go down through history if people want to know what it was like in certain hotspots in East and West Berlin during the Cold War. They are from a French perspective. So I was very, very happy to capture those for the book.
Gary: So the Berlin Wall didn’t fall for any one reason. As you note, on the one hand, the USSR faced an incredible amount of global geopolitical pressure. On the other hand, not elite Germans on both sides of the wall fought for its removal. What do you think was the most influential factor in the fall of the Berlin Wall?
MacGregor: The Berlin Wall, wouldn’t had fallen and the GDR would still have been in place if the Russians, the Soviet leadership under Gorbachev by this time had wanted it to be there. It was one of many dominoes over a seven, eight year period through the 1980s that led to 1989 and the fall of the wall. The opening of the wall and then obviously, ultimately the fall of the GDR and the reunification of Germany. Russia was basically struggling to keep intact its eastern empire that faced West active that Stalin had always wanted as a buffer zone, which included East Germany. And even though it had friendly regimes in place from Poland all the way through to down to Albania, Yugoslavia, East Germany, Czechoslovakia. They were still having the same problems economically. Russia was potentially on the verge of collapse, and that was mirrored in lots of the other Soviet satellite states. And one by one, they realized that they could either keep in check their populations who were all clamoring for democratic change and freedom of travel and a better life, which involved obviously spending power and things to spend your money on. These little things everyone wanted and East Germany was no different. And, added to that, you’ve got Gorbachev coming into power and coming up with perestroika and glasnost, his idea of he’s got to change the Soviet system internally to have a fairer economic system that will help his own citizens lead better lives and have more spending power, have more money to earn. And then obviously, he had to sort out the brinkmanship. The Soviet Union was having with the allies, particularly America. Now, Ronald Reagan had been in charge where they were having another nuclear arms race, which the Soviets were never going to win. They didn’t have the money and they didn’t have the wherewithal to create the kind of weapons that the Americans could really mass produce. So added to that was the fact that East Germany, again, was pretty much bankrupt. So that was obviously hidden from the vast bulk of the population. But by the time it came to 1989 and East Germany was celebrating its fortieth anniversary and a special guest was Gorbachev. He was only there for one reason, and that was to basically tell Eric Honecker he was obviously the party leader,dictator, you could say, that time’s up and you need to do what I’m doing and start releasing the constrictions you’re placing on your population who are clamoring to have freedom of travel and Aa different experience of life in terms of what jobs are allowed. Easing of of state security restrictions because overseas Germany enjoyed one of the highest state security oppressive regimes they had in the form of the Stasi. One in four of the population was an informant. So all this was a ticking time bomb. So by the time of 1989. It was going to happen, I think, and once Gorbachev signaled that the to the younger generation of the East German government. So Egon Krenzler and his ilk that if Honaker left, the Russians wouldn’t mind. And obviously, if then should the wall eventually come down and the East Germans are going back and forward into West Germany the Russians would be kept in barracks and nothing would be done about it. And playing in the back of many, many of the leaders of the East European blocks. By 1989 they’d seen what had happened in China, in Tiananmen Square in the summer of 1989, which was quite similar in a younger generation, was wanting massive change. And their leadership was prepared to send the tanks on the street and kill as many people as possible who were going to oppose them. A lot of leaders and crucially, the East German leadership did not want that to happen. And so once you got all that in the pot and obviously these East German civilians didn’t know this. The allies in the Berlin sectors did notice. But that explains a lot why the pressure cooker of would the East Germans be given freedom of travel, which is the key thing. That led to the infamous news conference the night before on November 9th were Günter Schabowski, The press, the East German press secretary gave news that travel restrictions would be lifted and when questioned further, because he hadn’t been briefed properly, several that come into effect immediately. And that just set the ball rolling. But the ball had been rolling for months, if not years before that it was going to come. The East Germans and the Soviets just chose not to make a fight of it and chose not to make it a bloody spectacle.
Gary: So on that note, François had a very complex relationship with Germany and Berlin. On the one hand, they worked as Germany’s defenders against communist takeover. Yet when the Berlin Wall actually did come down and the two Germanys look poised to reunify. French President François Mitterrand and much of France weren’t really excited for it. How do you view France’s post-World War Two relation with Germany and its people?
MacGregor: Well, it was there was a public and a private, with a massive dose of pragmatism from a political point of view, because I talked earlier about the fact that the modernization that France needed to do in terms of our armed forces and the fact that she had to, the policy of decolonization all the way through the 1950s. But from the end of the war, excuse me. Obviously, they didn’t want a powerful Germany on their doorstep again. And allied to that, they knew they couldn’t push against the Americans who were very keen, especially by 1948, when it became blindingly obvious that the Russians weren’t going to give up their East German sector and all the eastern states were falling to de facto communist regimes that were just taking over in bogus election results. They realized that they had to create the Federal Republic of Germany. So France had to go along with that, even though from a public perspective, they would have preferred that they had a completely demilitarized Germany that they could oversee with their other European allies and and obviously try and play down the American angle. They knew that America called the shots once America decided by 1948 that they were staying for a very long time in Europe to counter any Soviet aggression, the French would have to go along with it. And so, obviously, to the public, they would say one thing, but in private, in obviously high powered political conferences and secret meetings, the French knew that they would have to go along with what the Americans and the allies wanted, so that would happen. But then I was going to say, once the issue of Algeria had been sorted by 1962, and obviously there was those ramifications with the terrorist organizations that were affiliated to the French units that served in Algeria, we’re trying to obviously assassinate de Gaulle. But once that period ended, there was obviously the European Union was set in place. The main drivers of the European Union from the late 1960s, all the way through to today was West Germany, which obviously became a unified Germany and France. Hence we got the problems where I’m living about. Obviously, Britain’s leaving Brexit because we’ve always been, as far as I’m concerned and I’m a big Europhile. I would love us to stay. But there’s always been a case of us on the outside looking into some respect with the way our media portrays it. But all I can say is he’s very famous from 1989. Once the wall came down and it was obvious that the Warsaw Pact was going to get broken up and it was going to be democratic elections within Germany. I think both Mitterrand and Thatcher were very, very wary, very wary because of their past of their from World War II, what they’d suffered of a unified Germany. They’re afraid of the power economically and potentially military. And they were equally more shocked at the speed with which Helmut Kohl, who was then the chancellor of West Germany, wanted to bring East Germany into the bosom of West Germany to create a unified state. And he did that within, what, 18 months where you had then elections. And obviously the East German Socialist Party was defeated in the elections and then they instantly had a almost like a plebiscite of, does East Germany want to join for reunification? And you got the famous two plus four agreement, which I talk about my book, which signaled obviously the allied powers agreeing with the Soviet Union to the reunification of Germany. And it all happened bloodlessly. It happened with West Germany. Helmut Kohl taking a huge economic risk of matching the the West German mark with the East German mark, which obviously was, you could buy so much more with the West German mark in East Germany. But he matched Mark for Mark just so that there wouldn’t be an economic disaster in East Germany and the East German citizens would have some spending power at last. And they would obviously not be too much of a disadvantage to the West German citizens. So that all went on. And then gradually, I’ve seen it as a student, a degree student from 1990 all the way through to today. It’s it’s almost they have their ups and downs, but it’s become very clear from Jacques Chirac all the way through to where we are today that Germany and France go hand in hand economically, politically when it comes to the future of Western Europe. And maybe that’s where the issues have come, where sections of the right wing media in Britain have taken huge umbrage at that and figure out that we haven’t gone to the same say at the European table, but that they’re almost like conjoined twins. I mean, and I’ve grown up with that, and I’m very much a Francophile and very much a passionate supporter of a unified Germany. Where it takes us going forwards is a is an issue because obviously with Britain leaving the EU, that will have a massive economic effect definitely for the next three or four, if not five years on the the outputs of the EU. And then obviously what’s going on with Covid-19 is having a dramatic effect. My fear and I see it a lot when the people I talk to, not just in Britain, but my friends Germany is with Angela Merkel, who’s been such an amazing figure, a unifying figure. Not just in our own country, but in Europe and with France is once she steps down, who will replace her? And will the balance of power remain the same? What will Macron do? Will he push for a bigger say for France in the EU? And then the danger, as there always is a danger with Germany, the reunification. Again, lots of old generation East Germans that I talked to have said, well, you know, the extremist elements right and left in East Germany haven’t gone away. They’re going to rise again. And you’ve seen it to a degree with as we see it in the U.K., where certain parties, if they hold to their traditions of trying to hold integration and one nation politics, they’ll get some of the vote. It started in Germany and in certain sections, regions of East Germany. They get a bigger share of the vote, but it hasn’t taken off to any big degree. And I would argue it’s because there’s a unifying figure like Angela Merkel in charge. So I would say the jury’s out. Once Angela Merkel leaves power, it will be interesting, very interesting to see what happens to Germany itself. But obviously, the relationship between France and Germany.
Gary: Yeah. I think you’ve touched on so many things. And I think it’s interesting to reflect on where Germany and Europe is headed, especially because this October 3rd, 2020 will be the 30th anniversary of German reunification. So on that note, I think we’ve covered pretty much everything that I set out to cover. Do you have any final thoughts before we head out?
MacGregor: Just that. Yeah, I would recommend for your listeners, 22nd of June marks the 30th anniversary of Checkpoint Charlie closing. And I would really recommend to them have a look on YouTube at the closing ceremony, because it’s fascinating just for the political players that were at that ceremony. So an insignificant almost like a mobile classroom getting lifted away by a crane shouldn’t really grab the world’s attention. But everyone was a it was an absolute packed event. And not only were the allied commandants there like François Cann spoke at the events, but all the major political players were there. And that says something for how important not only Checkpoint Charlie played in the history of the Cold War, Berlin, but also to how important it was for the allies to quickly reunify the country and for France to play a really key part in that as well.
Gary: Well, thank you so much for being on the podcast. The book is Checkpoint Charlie, The Cold War, The Berlin Wall and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth.
This has been enlightening.
MacGregor: Thank you. Great to be on board.
Gary: As always, donations keep the podcast going. So, if you would like to make a one time donation or become a patron, please consider doing so. Thank you very much for your continued support.