Barbarians at the Gate

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West Berlin was known at the time as the “Outpost of Freedom.”

With more than 100 miles of Soviet-dominated East Germany separating West Berlin from West Germany, residents – and members of the United States Armed Forces – justifiably felt isolated and vulnerable. Until President John F. Kennedy gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech on June 26, 1963 – signaling U.S. support of a free West Berlin – the fear of a takeover by East Germany was real.

Regardless of the boost in morale Kennedy’s speech gave to Berliners, they still lived their daily lives with the knowledge that the only thing separating them from the Soviets and East Germany was a primitive concrete wall.

When the Soviet Union and members of the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia on August 21,1968 to crush the reforms of Communist Party First Secretary Alexander Dubček, there was a genuine fear that they would take the opportunity to roll on and take over West Berlin as well.

I guess those of us working on Teufelsberg should have been concerned about this possiiblity – particularly when we showed up at work to find our rubble pile surrounded by tanks – but we were young and dumb and laughed it off as a typical overreaction by the treads. For the next 30 days we worked shifts of 12 hours on and 12 hours off until it became clear that the Soviets had gone as far as they were going to go.

Afterward, there was a lot of speculation over how the treads thought a couple dozen tanks would protect the Hill from an invasion of Warsaw Pact countries. That is, until someone realized that the tanks probably weren’t there to protect the Hill but to destroy it, and all the top secret information and electronic equipment it housed, should the Soviets really show up. This wasn’t so far-fetched when one considered that following the capture of the USS Pueblo, an intelligence-gathering ship working off the coast of North Korea, Cmdr. Lloyd M. Bucher was severely criticized for not scuttling the ship. His life and those of the 82 crew members were of secondary concern.

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