The Dos & Don’ts of Driving to West Berlin During the Cold War: A Weird Piece of Ephemera from the 1980s

As gen­er­a­tions have come of age with few or no mem­o­ries of the exis­tence of the Sovi­et Union, a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion about Berlin has become more com­mon. Because the Ger­man cap­i­tal was divid­ed between the for­mer East and West Ger­many, it’s easy to assume that it must have lay on the bor­der between the two states. In fact, the whole of Berlin, East and West, was com­plete­ly sur­round­ed by East Ger­many, and to dri­ve from West Ger­many to West Berlin entailed more than 100 miles on the auto­bahn through Sovi­et ter­ri­to­ry. How, exact­ly, this was done is ful­ly explained in “Des­ti­na­tion Berlin,” the 1988 video from the Roy­al Mil­i­tary Police above.

“You do not need to wor­ry about the trip,” says the north­ern-accent­ed nar­ra­tor, an announce­ment that  rather under­cuts it own intend­ed mes­sage. And few dri­vers, affil­i­at­ed with the British mil­i­tary or oth­er­wise, could watch the mate­r­i­al that fol­lows with­out spec­u­lat­ing on the host of false moves that could result in an invol­un­tary extend­ed stay on the wrong side of the Iron Cur­tain.

You must nev­er pull off at a rest stop. If you break down on the high­way, you must accept assis­tance only from Allied dri­vers. When salut­ed by any of the Sovi­et offi­cers inevitably encoun­tered along the jour­ney, “you must, irre­spec­tive of your sex, sta­tus, or form of dress, return his salute.”

“Should you be spo­ken to by a Sovi­et or East Ger­man nation­al,” the nar­ra­tor explains, “you must do the fol­low­ing: remem­ber as much detail about the con­ver­sa­tion as you can, as well as the phys­i­cal descrip­tion, dress, and rank of the indi­vid­ual. Remain non-com­mit­tal through­out, and do not agree to any­thing.” (And remem­ber, “you only attract atten­tion to your­self by speak­ing in Russ­ian to the Sovi­et check­point per­son­nel, so don’t do it.”) These stern warn­ings evoke the Cold War era as pow­er­ful­ly as the audio­vi­su­al pro­duc­tion of “Des­ti­na­tion Berlin” itself, even in the minds of those who did­n’t live through it. Could any­one watch­ing back in 1988 — anx­ious about just which doc­u­ments to present at which guard sta­tions, to say noth­ing of the poten­tial geopo­lit­i­cal con­se­quences of a fend­er-ben­der — have imag­ined that the Berlin Wall would fall the very next year?

via Metafil­ter

Relat­ed con­tent:

Louis Arm­strong Plays His­toric Cold War Con­certs in East Berlin & Budapest (1965)

Pro­tect and Sur­vive: 1970s British Instruc­tion­al Films on How to Live Through a Nuclear Attack

Bruce Spring­steen Plays East Berlin in 1988: I’m Not Here For Any Gov­ern­ment. I’ve Come to Play Rock

The East Ger­man Secret Police’s Illus­trat­ed Guide for Iden­ti­fy­ing Youth Sub­cul­tures: Punks, Goths, Teds & More (1985)

The Psy­che­del­ic Ani­mat­ed Video for Kraftwerk’s “Auto­bahn” from 1979

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Jonathan says:

    My father was in the US Army 1960–62 sta­tioned in Ger­many. He was there when the Berlin Wall was being erect­ed, and went through Check­point Char­lie. A tru­ly amaz­ing time in his­to­ry.

  • Jim says:

    Was sta­tioned in Ger­many from mid 88 until mid 90. Made the Helm­st­edt to Berlin run more than a few times. Check­point Alpha and Bra­vo! Due to our secu­ri­ty clear­ances, we could only go to E. Berlin for 6 hours a day and had to be in full class A uni­form. The Rus­sians at Check­point Bra­vo were always friend­ly and cour­te­ous. East Ger­mans on their side of Char­lie were arro­gant bastards…LOL

  • Bill says:

    What a great piece of his­to­ry. Thanks for writ­ing this up and post­ing the video.

  • Phil Ratcliffe says:

    In 1988 in West Berlin I met some Amer­i­can tourists who had dri­ven there from West Ger­many. They were still upset at being fined for turn­ing off the “Tran­sit” auto­bahn by mis­take after mis­read­ing the signs.
    I read that the East Ger­man bor­der guards at the West Germany/ East Ger­many bor­der cross­ing would record the time that tourists crossed and tele­phone the details to the guards at the far end of the Tran­sit route in Berlin. If the tourists had tak­en too long, they were fined for stray­ing off the Tran­sit route. If they had arrived too quick­ly, they were fined for speed­ing!

  • Peter kapp says:

    I hitch hiked to Berlin from Hanover in Octo­ber 1960. Four ladies in a Volk­swa­gen gave me a lift. They told me they had been born and raised in Berlin and nev­er intend­ed to live any­where else. We arrived some time after mid­night. I spent the night in a Police sta­tion. The police pro­vid­ed me with a bed in an open cell after I explained that I did not have enough mon­ey for a hotel. At dawn when the offi­cer who took me in went off duty announced that I would short­ly see the sun rise over Berlin. He took me to a youth hos­tel. I spent a week in the city and made quite a few walk­ing vis­its past Bran­den­burg Gate into the East zone. The wall went up the fol­low­ing year. There were lots of ruins in the East right up to Bran­den­burg Gate. West of Bran­den­burg only Kaiser Wil­helm Kirche was a delib­er­ate ruin. It was left that way as a mon­u­ment to the bomb­ing.

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