Western Journalists in East Berlin

From Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, The Berlin Wall, and the Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Iain MacGregor (Scribner, 2019), Kindle pp. 121-123:

Mark Wood, embedded in East Berlin, still has distinct memories of the city during that pivotal time. “In the seventies, my overall impression of the city was on the one hand utterly depressing, and on the other, a place of pure decrepit drabness. Walking through East Berlin, one was surrounded by unpainted, bullet-pockmarked buildings, all of which were in poor general repair. The winters were not only renowned for being unforgivably cold, but I also recall the all-pervading smell of briquette dust. The only heating fuel available to us East Berliners were the industrial brown coal briquettes, and I would use copious amounts (my Reuters salary helped) in the old pre–World War Two stove I had in my kitchen (one of only two in the whole building that worked). It still had old pieces of Soviet shrapnel in the tiles. Quite often, a balcony of a nearby neighbor within the block would simply fall off the building through decay and disrepair. At that point the authorities would round up a group of ‘experts’ to inspect one’s own balcony, which usually involved all of them jumping up and down on it in unison to make sure it was ‘safe.’

“East Berliners’ clothing was drab; restaurant interiors, such as existed, were likewise drab. To those marooned in the austerity of the GDR with no access to the delights of the West, only one wine was available and then only sometimes, joyfully labeled ‘Bull’s Blood’ and shipped in from their Communist ally, Hungary. There were regular shortages of everything but the staples, and what could be bought was invariably of poor quality. If an East German saw a queue, they would join it immediately, and only then check what might be on offer. It was no wonder that shopping and entertainment for the very few who had access, like me, was all done in the west.”

For Uli Jörges, the thrill of finding the story was mixed with the energy of youth and living for the moment every day. “There is a special relationship between journalists that cuts across nationalities, language, and culture because you are all in it together, trying to get to the truth of a story amid tough times. We all worked and covered stories in East Germany for Reuters. For Mark and me, it was tricky to get information from the local SED [Socialist Unity Party] press officers, and it made it more fun going up against them to try to find the story we thought was there, that they were hiding.”

For Wood, East Berlin was by its very nature in 1978, to a foreign correspondent’s eyes, never dull. Granted, he didn’t lead the cut-and-thrust life of one of his esteemed Reuters predecessors, the thriller writer Frederick Forsyth, who had not only lived in the same apartment Wood later had but claimed he had rather colorfully managed to circumnavigate his actual day job of reporting to instead enjoy various sexual and undercover escapades in Her Majesty’s service with MI6. “My flat was the only one in the block with a working bathroom. Needless to say, that did not stop the Stasi from bugging it. In fact, I was later told by an ex-Stasi operative in the 1990s that the flat had fourteen listening devices placed in the bedroom alone, as well as my phone being tapped. Two doors down my corridor was a Stasi-owned room, which was the ‘listening center’ for the whole building—I never knew.

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Filed under Britain, economics, food, Germany, military, publishing, U.S.

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