Aviation, History, Local Heroes, War

Divided Berlin: Lesson in Freedom

Click to see original imageWhere could you find a more striking contrast of the fruits of freedom versus repression than on the two sides of the infamous Berlin Wall?

Gail S. Halvorsen has some special insights on why so many East Berliners “have left behind everything but the clothes on their backs and then given their lives in an unsuccessful attempt to have what we daily take for granted – freedom!”

A retired U.S. Air Force colonel. Halvorsen is remembered as the “candy bomber” who dropped sweets to destitute German youngsters during the Berlin Airlift of 1948-49. Now an assistant dean at Brigham Young University, he was featured in a recent Herald Magazine spread on the airlift, along with Retired Lt. Col. Thomas O. Nelson of Orem.

Gail has returned to Germany many times since the historic airlift which was carried out by the Western Allies to break the Soviet-imposed Berlin Blockade. In 1970-74 he was commander of the Temple of Central Airport and Air Force representative to the city of West Berlin.

I think his observations on freedom are specially appropriate right now, the 35th anniversary of the Sept. 30, 1949, windup of the Berlin Airlift.

“All men and women are endowed of our Maker with the gift of free agency,” Halvorsen commented. ”I knew that principle before the airlift but I didn’t know what a political system could do to it.”

During the airlift era you could travel back and forth into East Berlin. It wasn’t until 1961 that the Communists built their wall to prevent East Germans from escaping to the West.

But, said Halvorsen, even in airlift times the contrast was striking. “Those in West Berlin were free to choose their destiny, do what they wanted to do with their lives.

“World War II rubble was cleared away, window boxes with live flowers were found in bomb-damaged apartments. People read and spoke what they wished. They went about with a purpose – and enthusiasm born of interest and initiative.”

But, Halvorsen related, “Across the dividing line, oppression stared hack at you from the faces of those whose souls had been requisitioned by the state. Residents were told what they would do and where. They were captives in their own land.”

He further described the East Berlin picture: “The dullness of spirit was reflected in the uncleared nibble and unpainted, and flowerless surroundings. It seemed to be engulfed in a pervasive mist of desperation. Free agency was non-existent.”

Surviving children of free Berlin understood the implications. “In my conversations with them they were more concerned about keeping their free agency than how much flour we could bring out of the sky to provide their meager bread rations,” Gail recounted “They knew the difference and the long-term effects better than I could have imagined.

“They pledged that there was no sacrifice they and their parents would withhold to support the Americans, British and French to break the blockade. Freedom to speak, travel, choose – freedom of information, freedom to decide – these, not flour, were the most treasured values.”

Years later — after the “wall” and the Four Power Accord of 1973 which liberalized travel from West Berlin to East Germany – Halvorsens earlier perceptions were reinforced.

One blockade child, then in his late thirties, told of the first visit to a relative in East Germany. It was winter, but the West Berliner was deeply tanned and his host asked why.

“Remember how our families used to go to the ski chalet in the Alps in wintertime?” the West Berliner replied. The response was a far-away look and a momentary gleam in the eye of his East Berlin relative.

Gail concluded the story, “As the West Berliner went back through the wall, armed guards separated the easterner from the westerner. One had his freedom, the other would lose his life if he attempted to make the same journey.”

Halvorsen’s reflections on Berlin further enhanced my own appreciation of freedom. I hope they have increased yours also.