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?

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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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