On This Day | 29 May 1917: John F. Kennedy is born

President John F. Kennedy was born 29 May 1917
President John F. Kennedy

29 May 1917: On this day in history John Fitzgerald Kennedy, descendant of Irish immigrants and son of an ambassador, would be born into one of the United States’ most formidable political families.

The future 36th President enjoyed an idyllic childhood in Massachusetts and spent a dilettante season as a ranch hand before enrolling at Harvard to study international affairs. He embarked upon a tour of Europe immediately before the outbreak of World War Two, and wrote a thesis on the Munich Agreement which would later be published under the title ‘Why England Slept.’

Despite the various health complaints which left him in lifelong pain, he served in the US Navy, and once had to swim to safety when his patrol boat came under fire from a Japanese destroyer. Following VE Day, Kennedy returned his attentions to politics, and was elected to the House of Representatives in the early days of the Cold War. A decade on, he announced his candidacy for the presidential nomination. Though many found him too green, he would defeat Richard Nixon to become, at 42 years old, the youngest elected president. His presidency would last for only half its term, before his assassination on November 22nd, 1963.

Berlin fondly remembers the speech which JFK gave at the Rathaus (town hall) in the American-occupied borough of Schöneberg, to an audience of 120,000, less than six months before he would be murdered. Speaking in solidarity with the West Berliners and promising to protect them from Communist encroachment, Kennedy proclaimed:

“All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin.

And therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words,

Ich bin ein Berliner.”

Since a ‘Berliner’ is also a certain foodstuff (as is a hamburger, frankfurter, and so on) people to this day leave doughnuts on the steps of Rathaus Schöneberg each November 22nd.

 

This edition of On This Day in history was written by BBS member Dr Finn Ballard. It’s one of four events he chose to remember in May. See our blog to find out what else he picked.

Joachim Neumann talks Tunnel 57 with BBS members

Berlin Wall Memorial by David Montero
Berlin Wall Memorial | Photograph by David Montero

On Tuesday 18th May 2021, members of the Berlin Guides Association seized a very special opportunity: an online encounter with Joachim Neumann, a witness to the history of the Berlin Wall who took part in the building of several escape tunnels underneath it. In the 90-minute session, Neumann gave us a fascinating account of the challenges of the ‘conspiratorial’ activities, the moral implications and the tunnel-building itself.

After leaving East Germany with a ‘borrowed’ Swiss passport in late 1961, Neumann became part of a group of young people in West Berlin who dedicated much of their free time to helping other East Germans to escape from the GDR. They started out as just eight like-minded people, mostly close friends or relatives. The tunnels they built were improvised, narrow and often unstable. Neumann, being a student of civil engineering at Berlin’s Technical University, was in charge of planning & construction.

Joachim Neumann was involved in digging Tunnel 57
Tunnel 57 location marker | Photo by N-Lange CC BY-SA 3.0

Over 130m long, they went underneath the Berlin wall, the border fortifications and the restricted-access residential zones close-by. Many of the escape helpers had personal motives for digging up to 10m deep into the Berlin soil, like wanting to help friends who had stayed behind. In Neumann’s case it was his wife-to-be (who had been arrested and imprisoned for over a year in the GDR after her first failed escape attempt).

He managed to get her out, together with 56 other people through the famous “Tunnel 57”.

The escape helpers relied on a large informal support network, among them the messengers who had to get information to people in East Berlin waiting for a chance to escape. These couriers had to be foreigners or Germans from West Germany, as West Berliners were generally not allowed to visit the other part of the city in the 1960s.

In his later life as an engineer, Neumann specialised in this field of construction and was even involved in the building of the Channel Tunnel between England and France!

This meeting with Joachim Neumann, coordinated by Alazne Artetxe, was organised by Edo Schreuders from the Berlin Wall Memorial.

This piece was contributed by BBS Member Konstanze Deeters.

Learn more about organised escape assistance at riskingfreedom.de.

On This Day | 10 Feb 1962: Powers, Abel and “Bridge of Spies”

10 February 1962: On this day in Berlin history, the US spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers was exchanged for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel at the Glienicke Bridge, between West Berlin and Potsdam. A key event in the Cold War and one depicted in the Steven Spielberg film ‘Bridge of Spies’.

Glienicker-Brücke-Bridge-of-Spies
Glienicker Brücke (Glienicke Bridge)

The ‘U2 Incident’, which resulted in Powers’ capture came at a particularly tense period of the Cold War. Powers’ mission was to photograph missile bases in Kazakhstan and Russia, in aid of the US counter nuclear strategy. His Lockheed U2C spy plane took off from US base Peshawar in Pakistan on the 1st of May 1960. The Soviets were ready. When Powers’ plane entered their airspace, Soviet command scrambled several fighters to intercept him. However, they were unable to reach the plane due to the extreme height of above 21 kilometres. Eventually coming into range of a Surface-to-Air missile site in the Ural region, Powers’ plane was hit. The explosion to the rear of the aircraft left the plane careening out of control – but with the cockpit still intact, the pilot was able to eject and parachute to safety. He was arrested quickly and taken into Soviet custody, where he was sentenced to 10 years in jail.

U2 Pilot Francis Gary Powers
Francis Gary Powers | RIA Novosti archive, image #35172 / Chernov / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The timing was difficult for the United States. Powers’ arrest came just before the four power Paris conference between leaders of France, the UK, the USA, and the Soviet Union. Even more embarrassing, President Eisenhower had initially claimed he had no knowledge of the flight, but finally admitted the existence of the U2 spying program and justified their use as part of US defence planning. At the Paris conference, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev publicly demanded an apology. When Eisenhower refused, the conference was ended (after only two days) and an offer for the US President to visit the USSR was rescinded. The conference – far from easing the Cold War temperature – unexpectedly ratcheted up the heat leading into the cauldron of the 1960s.

Soviet spy Rudolf Abel
Rudolf Abel’s mugshot | FBI

Fortunately for U2 pilot Powers, the United States had a spy ready to exchange – Rudolf Abel. In 1957, Abel (real name William August Fisher) was arrested after a defecting Soviet spy informed on him. Without his former colleagues’ defection, it is likely Abel would have remained undetected, having come under no suspicion during his 9 years as a Soviet spy in the USA. Abel never considered defection himself, knowing that to do so would have forfeited his ever seeing his wife or daughter again. During his trial for espionage, his defence attorney, James B. Donovan argued Abel should be spared the death penalty, for the purposes of future spy exchanges.

Donovan’s arguments would prove to be prescient. In 1962, he would be sent to negotiate the exchange spy swap in Berlin. Although the CIA was opposed to the swap, President Kennedy approved it. In addition to Powers, an American student accused of espionage, Frederic Pryor, would also be traded for Abel. On February 10th, Abel and Powers were brought to the Glienicke Bridge in Potsdam, where they were exchanged. Pryor meanwhile would be handed over at Checkpoint Charlie.

A visit to the famous Bridge of Spies is a highlight of any Potsdam tour.

Campbell Bews

This slice of On This Day in Berlin History was written by BBS Member Campbell Bews.

It’s one of four events he has chosen to remember in February. See what else made the cut on our blog.

 

On This Day in Berlin History | 4 November 1989: East Germans protest on Alexanderplatz

Crowd of protestors at Alexanderplatz
Crowd of protestors at Alexanderplatz | Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-1104-437 / Settnik, Bernd / CC-BY-SA 3.0

4th November 1989: On this day in Berlin history, one of the largest organized protests in East Berlin’s history took place. Reports vary, but an estimated 500,000 people (the highest reports estimate 1 million) gathered to protest on Alexanderplatz in support of political reform and greater freedoms for East German citizens.

 

“What moves a communist at this moment at the sight of hundreds of thousands?

Only he who hears and understands admonition is capable of a new beginning.”

 

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-1104-046 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

At this point, the DDR was already fragmenting. In August thousands of East Germans had fled west through Hungary to Austria; Erich Honecker had resigned as leader of the country on October 18th and, on October 23rd, 300,000 people demonstrated in Leipzig.

Günter Schabowski speaking 4. November 1989
Günter Schabowski speaking 4. November 1989 | Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-1104-041 / Link, Hubert / CC-BY-SA 3.0

 

The quote above is from SED Politburo member Günter Schabowski, who spoke at the protest on Alexanderplatz on this day but was booed by the protesters. All were unaware that just five days later he would unwittingly say the words responsible for opening the Berlin Wall.

Friedrich Schorlemmer, a theologian and speaker at the demonstration said:

“For me, November 4 remains a more important date than the opening of the wall on November 9… Because at Alexanderplatz ‘D’ stood first and foremost for ‘Democracy’, not for ‘Deutschland.’”

 

 

 


This slice of On This Day in Berlin History was written by Berlin Guides Association member, Susan Grouchy. It’s one of four noteworthy events she’s chosen to remember this November. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else made the cut.

On This Day in Berlin History | 8 October 1923: Tempelhof Airport opens

Tempelhofer Feld from the air
Tempelhofer Feld from the air | CC BY-SA 3.0

8th October 1923: On this day in Berlin History, Berlin’s Tempelhof airport opened its gates for the very first time. From that time until its closure in 2008, Tempelhof was to be centre stage for the German capital’s aviation history.

 

C47 planes at Tempelhof Airport, 1948

The original layout was dramatically changed in 1935 when, two years after Adolf Hitler took control of Germany, construction began on what British architect Sir Norman Foster was to call “the mother of all airports”. The 1.2 km long main terminal building (designed by Ernst Sagebiel to resemble an eagle with wings spread) is still one of the largest buildings in the world.

During cold war division the airport was marooned West Berlin’s window to the world, a vital connection during Stalin’s blockade of the city in 1948/49. The subsequent airlift, in which U.S., British and commonwealth air forces flew in almost 2,500,000 tonnes of vital cargo, ensured the pilots as well as the airfield a special place in the hearts of the embattled locals.

 

Visitors to Tempelhofer Feld in May 2010 | CC BY-SA 3.0

After reunification, plans were made to replace the three existing commercial airports with one. Despite the construction running around four times over budget and ten years behind schedule, the last flight left Tempelhof in November 2008.

In 2010, the space (an area larger than Monaco) was given over to the public. The Tempelhofer Feld has since become one of the inhabitants’ favourite green spaces and encapsulates that unique blend of history, re-invention and freedom which is quintessentially Berlin.

 

 

 

 

Chris Cooke - Berlin Tour Guide
This slice of On This Day in Berlin History was written by Berlin Guides Association member, Chris Cooke. It’s one of four noteworthy events he’s chosen to remember this October. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else made the cut.

 

On This Day in 1955 GDR President Wilhelm Pieck Opens Tierpark Berlin

Saturday, July 2, 1955 at Friedrichsfelde, East Berlin: East German President Wilhelm Pieck opens Berlin’s second zoo – the Tierpark – in East Berlin. 

GDR President Wilhelm Pieck (center with walking stick) ceremoniously opening the new Tierpark with the Friedrichsfelde Palace in the background

 

With the devastation of the end of the Second World War still fresh on their minds, many East Berliners were eagerly waiting for some kind of positivity to present itself as they continued to clear away debris and mitigate housing shortages. This finally arrived on August 27, 1954 when the Parliament of East Berlin decided on the ambitious plan to build a zoo despite the many hardships that confronted the city at that time. 

When the Allies carved up the city after WWII, Berlin’s original zoo, dating back to the 1840s, had wound up in the British Sector of Occupation and it was becoming a constant thorn in the GDR’s side that their citizens were journeying over to West Berlin when they wanted to visit a zoo. After all, a zoo can somehow be seen as a part of a ‘real’ capital; and since the East German Government had declared East Berlin its de facto capital, what better reason was there for them to erect their own?

Elector Friedrich III of Brandenburg who became King Friedrich I in Prussia in 1701

The plan was quickly put into action and the place chosen for this development was the overgrown Schlosspark Friedrichsfelde, which is about seven miles east of Berlin’s city center. This area’s home to the Friedrichsfelde Palace which was built under the reign of Elector Friedrich III of Brandenburg (who’d later become the first King in Prussia, Friedrich I), as well as the residence of Prince Augustus Ferdinand who was the youngest brother of Frederick the Great. The land offered an exceptionally spacious 410 acres (160 hectares) to work with, dwarfing the 85 acre (35 hectares) zoo in West Berlin. 

Citizens of East Berlin volunteering their time building the Tierpark in early 1955

What’s interesting about the construction of the Tierpark is the fact that it was actually built by the citizens of East Berlin themselves. Because construction workers couldn’t be taken away from important job sites that were essential to post-WWII rebuilding and redevelopment, the East Berlin City Council called on volunteers. Men and women grabbed their shovels and headed up to Friedrichsfelde, sometimes going before or after their ‘real’ jobs to pitch in. Thousands of East Berliners, including pupils and college students, put in over 100,000 working hours of their free time to build the zoo. 

“Kosko”, the female elephant from Vietnam, makes her way into her new home in 1958

After just seven months of construction, the zoo became the new home to some 400 animals when it opened on July 2, 1955. It’d quickly begin to boast the fact that it had more exotic animals than the zoo in West Berlin, thanks to the ‘socialist brother countries’ like China who supplied the alligator, “Mao”, and Vietnam who provided the female elephant, “Kosko”. Tigers and polar bears from the Soviet Union would eventually follow too. 

Today over 9,000 animals live in Tierpark Berlin and over 1.5 million Berliners and tourists visit annually.

 

The Berlin Airlift Ends OTD: May 12, 1949

In Berlin on Thursday, May 12, 1949

It was on May 12, 1949 that the Berlin Airlift, one of the largest humanitarian aid efforts in European history, came to an end.

The iconic photo of Berliners waiting on a pile of ruins for Allied supplies that are being flown into Tempelhof Airport.

Out of response to the Western Allies’ (United Kingdom, the United States, and France) introduction of the new Deutsche Mark into their occupied sectors of Berlin, which the Soviet Union saw as a clear violation (of the Potsdam Agreement of 1945) to treat Germany as a single economic unit, the Soviets responded by shutting down all rail and highway links across their zone of occupation, which stretched between the Western zones of Germany and the Western sectors of Berlin. Two and a half million Berliners living in the American, British, and French sectors now had enough food and coal to last for just a little over a month, since most of Berlin’s power had been coming from the Soviet’s sector and zone of occupation.

In a show of strength against the Soviets, President Harry S. Truman of the United States, and British Prime Minister Clement Attlee authorized a full-scale airlift to fly food and supplies to the beleaguered Berliners. At the height of the Airlift, as targets were being met and exceeded, 1500 flights from the USA and UK (including the British Commonwealth nations) flew into Berlin per day bringing in an around 4,500 tons of supplies.

99 year old Gail Halvorsen of Utah being honored last year at the baseball fields in the former American sector on the north grounds of the former Tempelhof Airport.

In the end, after 10 months and 23 days, 594 supply aircrafts would land on average in Berlin per day, which totaled 277,804 flights that brought in nearly 2.5 million tons of supplies.

The main artery of the Berlin Airlift (along with Kladow Airport in the British sector and Tegel in the French sector), Tempelhof Airport is a city park today.

One of the heroes of the Airlift – and who will always be considered as one of the most beloved figures in Berlin’s Cold War history – was American Lieutenant Gail Halvorsen of Utah, who casually started out dropping candy that was wrapped in handkerchiefs to kids he saw watching his plane from the ground. To no surprise, he became an immediate sensation and started a trend for Allied pilots to drop candy and chocolate bars on their landing approaches. Despite the basic necessities that Halvorsen and the rest of the Allied pilots were flying in, he nonetheless would quickly and heroically become known as the “Berlin Candy Bomber.”

To commemorate last year’s 70th anniversary of the end of the Berlin Airlift, Gail was honored at the baseball fields on the grounds of the former Tempelhof Airport, where he and so many other Allied pilots risked their lives to supply and thus save the free people of Berlin from 1948-1949.

On This Day – February 25, 1947 – The Allied Control Council Officially Abolishes Prussia

Tuesday, February 25, 1947 at Berlin-Schöneberg: The Allied Control Council Issues Control Council Number 46 Abolishing Prussia

The sheer size of Prussian territory at the time of German Unification in 1871 indicated in red

After the Kingdom of Prussia was established in 1701, its kings – particularly Friedrich Wilhelm I and his son, Frederick the Great – would quickly transform it into a formidable military state and expand its hegemony deep into current day Poland and across what is much of current day northern Germany. And it would be this so-called “Iron Kingdom” that would create a single unified German state for the first time in 1871.

Unfortunately for Prussia, its reputation would be tarnished after Hitler came to power in 1933 as the National Socialists would fuse this ‘old glorious’ history with their ‘new’ regime, making it obvious to the western Allies by the end of WWII that – according to historian Christopher Clark – Nazism was merely the latest manifestation of ‘Prussianism’. As a matter of fact, as early as 1943, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt told a joint session of Congress in September of that year, “This is one thing I want to make perfectly clear: When Hitler and the Nazis go out, the Prussian military clique must go with them. The war-breeding gangs of militarists must be rooted out of Germany.” 

The upper torso and head of a fallen statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I lie near a chunk of his horse in front of the still standing city palace in 1950

After Nazi Germany signed the unconditional surrender at the end of WWII, it didn’t take the occupying Allies long to quickly see that this defeated corpse that was Prussia needed to finally be ended. The Allied Control Council – established under Part II, Section A, Point 1 of the Potsdam Agreement of 1945 – soon began to discuss its future in the summer of 1946 when a member of the British Allied Control Authority submitted a memorandum to the Council putting the case against Prussia rather succinctly:

“I need not point out that Prussia has been a menace to European security for the last two hundred years. The survival of the Prussian State, even if only in name, would provide a basis for any irredentist claims which the German people may later seek to put forward, would strengthen German militarist ambitions, and would encourage the revival of an authoritarian, centralised Germany which in the interests of all it is vital to prevent.”

Map of the current states of Germany that are completely or mostly situated inside the old borders of Prussia

Therefore, it was on this day – February 25, 1947 – that the Allied Control Council issued Control Council Law Number 46 liquidating the State of Prussia, its central Government, and all its agencies. Technically the Nazis had already done this when they issued the “Law on the Reconstruction of the Reich” on January 30, 1934 which dissolved all federal states and placed them under the authority of governors who were now going to be appointed by Hitler himself, but Control Council Law 46 had now made the dissolution of Prussia official.

Today, its name is rarely seen, only a handful of structures exist to remind us of its past, and Prussia’s once humongous territory has now been divided up among nine federal states within the borders of current day Germany. 

 

On This Day – April 3, 1948 – The European Recovery Program Is Passed

Saturday, April 3, 1948 at the White House in Washington D.C. 

WWII had ended just over two years earlier and the winter of 1946-1947 had been the worst one in living memory. With mass starvation, chaos and the spread of communism riddling Western Europe since the end of the war,  a comprehensive system of economic aid for Europe had now finally come to the fore.

Its official title was the European Recovery Program (ERP), but history and the world would better know it as the ‘Marshall Plan’, named after Secretary of State George C. Marshall – one of the most highly respected and most popular persons in the United States at that time.

General George C. Marshall

What Secretary Marshall and President Truman were proposing was not military action, but an economic plan that would involve a delay in the withdrawal of American forces from Europe and a program of financial aid that would pump anywhere between $8-17 billion dollars into the economies of receptive countries. This money would then be used to buy food, resources and other goods from the United States in the hopes that it would help them combat mass starvation, rejuvenate their economies, rebuild utterly destroyed areas, and prevent their democracies from rapidly moving toward the Left – something that was seen as a real danger at the time.

Therefore, it was on this day 72 years ago that U.S. President Harry S. Truman signed the Marshall Plan, initially granting $13 billion dollars in economic assistance to 16 European nations. With this coming a little over a year after Greece and Turkey had been granted $400 million dollars in aid, no other president in U.S. history has ever approved so much money to aid people who weren’t Americans.

Propaganda Photo of Receptive European Countries of the Marshall Plan


The success of the Plan has been criticized by modern historians who argue that some recipient nations had already been experiencing economic recovery, while others negatively argue that it strengthened American economic imperialism abroad. Yet, what’s important to keep in mind is that this stimulus came at a time when a psychological boost was badly needed as countries were still struggling to cope with the economic and human aftermath of WWII, as well as the terrible aforementioned winter.

In short, many people at that time – who were living history forward and not backward – understood the Marshall Plan as a compassionate program and found it to be a real badge of honor for the Truman administration. 

President Truman signing the Marshall Plan on April 3, 1948

“Some of the White House Staff suggested to President Truman that they didn’t much like the idea of General Marshall getting credit for it, but Truman was very firm on that: ‘The Congress will do anything that George Marshall wants. If my name is on it, it will probably become controversial. I don’t want it to become controversial. I want it to succeed. It will be called the Marshall Plan and we will have no more talk about changing the name.’

– Administrative Assistant to the President, George M. Elsey, on President Truman

V-J Day: Victory in Japan – Sunday, September 2, 1945

The highly anticipated ‘unconditional surrender’ is finally signed by the Government of Japan: Today, 73 years ago: Sunday, September 2, 1945 on the USS Missouri in the Tokyo Bay.

Aboard the deck of the ship named after President Truman’s beloved home state – the USS Missouri – Japanese officials arrived to sign the surrender documents that would finally and officially bring World War II to a close.

The scene surrounding this ceremony in Tokyo Bay was awe-striking.

With a fleet of navy ships anchored in the Bay, while American flags rippled in the wind, the colossal figure that was General Douglas MacArthur conspicuously appeared aboard the USS Missouri.

Today, it might be hard for us to understand the aura surrounding General MacArthur at that time. Called to active duty in the U.S. Army as major general, and named as the commander of U.S. Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) as early as July 1941, Americans would collectively come to see him as a kind of God – an infallible God – who had averted failure on several occasions and led successful campaigns – primarily in the Philippines – all the way up until the end of WWII in the Pacific.

The General only stood around 5 feet 9 inches tall, but many have said that – if you’d stood in his presence – it would’ve felt as if he were standing around 6 feet 6 inches tall. And he had all the props: The open collar shirt, the sun glasses, the crunched hat, and pipe. Furthermore, he took unclear directives and interpreted them in his own way. General Douglas MacArthur was the modern day ‘American Caesar.’

As the ‘American Caesar’ stood on the Missouri’s deck monitoring the proceedings, his face was so expressionless that he looked as though he was – as historian A.J. Baime would say – “(already) a bust that would sit in a museum.”

Finally, after it’d been proclaimed by President Roosevelt in 1943, reconfirmed by President Truman at Potsdam in the summer of 1945, slightly revised in the second week of August 1945, and finally ‘agreed to be accepted’ on August 14, 1945, unconditional surrender was a signature away.

The Japanese government (on behalf of the Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mamoru Shigemitsu – and on behalf of the Japanese armed forces, Yoshijiro Umezu) officially accepted the Potsdam Declaration by signing the highly anticipated unconditional surrender on this day: Sunday, September 2, 1945.

World War II was now over. Victory in Japan – or V-J Day – could officially be celebrated, and General Douglas MacArthur had now become the supreme ruler of  80 million people in Japan.