Monthly Archives: June 2017

Curtain of Concrete: The Berlin Wall


By May of 1945, most of Europe was in shambles, utterly destroyed by nearly 6 years of war waged in countries such as Czechoslovakia, France, England, Italy, The Soviet Union, Spain, The Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Poland and Germany. Considering the unyielding daylight bombing by Allied aircraft over German targets and the “Nerobefehl” or Nero Decree (scorched earth) policies of the retreating Wehrmacht, it is amazing that the survivors even had homes to return to after the cessation of hostilities.

General Alfred Jodl signs the instrument of surrender.

When the weapons and machines of the war fell silent, some 40-million* non-combatant people (civilians) had been obliterated – wiped from existence. In the Allied European nations, estimates of the civilian dead are upwards of 25 million. For the European Axis nations, nearly 8,000,000 civilians were gone.

Utter devastation was present seemingly in every location. Those who survived the conflict were left facing uncertainty and immense challenges to reconstruct and rebuild their cities and towns from the mountains of rubble and bomb-craters. The effort would require a coalition of nations to coordinate the monumental effort while overseeing the dismantling of the German war machine.

This map shows the post-war occupation zones agreed upon during the Potsdam Conference. Each Allied nation would be responsible for the management of their zone in order to restore peace and facilitate the destruction of the Nazi war machine.

In the waning weeks of conflict in Europe, the Allied nations had established and agreed upon boundaries that would limit the extent each nation’s push as German resistance ebbed. By the first week of May, 1945, it was all over. Hitler, fully aware of the fate that awaited him should he be captured by Soviets who were closing in on his bunker, chose to take his own life on April 30. Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz now in charge (Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring was removed from this position due to his attempt to take power prior to Hitler’s death), agreed to surrender unconditionally to the Allies. The instrument of surrender was signed on May 7, to take effect the next day, by Germany’s representative, General Alfred Jodl, who would be hanged in 1946 having been found guilty of war crimes.

These printed paper signs (I have two) date from the final days of WWII or immediately after the German surrender. My uncle, who was with U.S. Army intel during the war, sent these home (in May 1945) along with a few trunks of material. They remained sealed in the trunk until 1994 when I found them in the attic. The German text translates to, “Prohibited access-command of the U.S. Army Central Command.”

During the first half of the twentieth century, Germany had initiated two world wars, and initiating and inflicting considerable devastation upon other nations. Rather than leave this repeat aggressor to its own devices and risk a third global war, the Allies decided to be proactive in overseeing not only the German reconstruction effort but to instill a system (under the Potsdam Agreement) of governance for control and management. Not only did the Allies agree to create zones of occupation but they had to work to establish and define national borders due to Germany’s continuous disputes and territorial claims spanning the previous decades resulting in the redrawing of much of the Western European map.

This map shows the boundaries of the four zones of Berlin – what later became the two cities of West and East Berlin.

Germany was divided, in accordance to Allied agreements, into five zones: British, French, Polish, American and Soviet, providing for monitoring and governing by military leaders from the respective nations. The capital city of Berlin was similarly divided between France, Britain and the U.S. controlling one half of the city and the Soviet Union taking over the other). With re-construction well underway and the war criminal trials concluded in 1946,

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” – Sir Winston Churchill, March 5, 1946:

With increased tensions between the former allies over which nation would be the sole supplier of West Berlin (the USSR sought control of West Berlin by making the city solely dependent upon Russian provisions) , the Soviets began an 11-month long blockade (June 1948 – May 1949) in an effort to choke off the supply routes (roads, rails and waterways) between West Germany and West Berlin prompting the United States and Britain to commence a massive-scale relief effort, flying all supplies into the isolated city.

 

The original intent of the allied agreements was to eventually merge the zones back into a single German nation. Between 1947 and 1949, the three western zones (American, British and French) merged to form the West German Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). Due to continued breakdowns in negotiations with the Soviets, the Eastern zones would remain in Soviet control and a subsequent establishment of communist East Germany – also known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Within two years of the creation of the German Soviet-state (the GDR), fear began to run rampant among the East German citizens who were witnessing the increased control being foisted upon them by the Stalin regime. In West Germany, reconstruction was in full swing and her citizens were beginning to taste the freedom and prosperity of a democratic society. Seeking to escape the death-grip of communism, East Germans began to flee the GDR for the FRG (West Berlin, specifically) beginning in 1950. By 1953, upwards of 1 million East Germans had escaped in nearly four years’ time – over a quarter million in the first few months of ‘53 alone.

East German troops stand guard at the Brandenburg Gate, 1961 prior to the construction of the Berlin Wall.

Seeking to stem the outflow of their citizens, East German officials began restricting travel to western areas, following the direction of other Eastern Bloc nations. This control would be tightened over the next several years. Losing more than 3.5 million to successful escapes to the West, the first elements of the infamous wall would begin to be set in place in August of 1961 by order of GDR government officials. It is unknown, however if the decision was directed by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The Iron curtain was solidifying, being set in concrete.

This image shows the hasty construction of the Berlin Wall that was well underway in November of 1961.

For decades, the wall would be in place, surrounding the city. Unlike the ancient times when cities were walled to protect those within from invaders, this wall was constructed to keep its citizens from escaping to freedom. The Wall stood as both a symbolic and literal representation of communism. For those behind it, getting beyond the Wall meant having a chance at a better life and that getting there alive would be a monumental challenge. Countless few did make it across while Some 136 people would die in direct connection to the Berlin Wall. 98% of those deaths were the result of attempted escapes – 97 of them were shot dead by GDR border guards.

Note the large space, known as the “Death Strip” between the two walls. Certain death awaited those who attempted escape. This photo was taken at the wall along the Luisenstadt Canal (it had been filled-in during the 1930s).

By the mid-1980s and the height of President Ronald Reagan’s time in office, Soviet control over Europe was beginning to wane. Fed up with the boot of communism, the citizens of the Eastern Bloc nations began to revolt as they pursued democratic freedom. Seizing upon the momentum of the spreading freedom and liberty, President Reagan visited the Wall and gave the famous speech at the Brandenburg Gate, calling for the removal of the wall.

“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” – President Ronald Reagan, June 12, 1987:

The Wall had effectively closed off the historic Brandenburg Gate. The sign in the foreground provided its readers with a stern warning that they were now leaving West Berlin.

The grip of communist control continued to disintegrate. In 1989, beginning with Poland, the revolution was in full swing as one by one, Eastern-bloc nations emerged from behind the Iron Curtain. On November 4th, more than 500,000 East Germans gathered at the Alexanderplatz in protest, the culmination of the Peaceful Revolution that had started previously in September. By the 9th of November, the Wall began to fall – the actual demolition taking the better part of the following year.

German reunification was now free to commence.

Since WWII, the U.S. military has maintained presence in Germany in an evolving capacity beginning with dismantling of the Nazi war machine to providing security and stability in holding the spread of Soviet communism in check. Today, U.S. Army and Air Force bases are maintained in Germany, strategically located, providing vital services and resources for forward deployed forces.

Collecting items directly related or connected to the allied occupation and the Berlin Wall, to me is an interesting proposition. For militaria collectors, locating a grouping from veteran who served in the Berlin Airlift (something of a rarity) or of guard at Checkpoint Charlie would make for a uniquely historic display.

Along with the occupation medal that was awarded to my uncle for his post-VE Day service in Germany, I have some signage with stern messaging in both German and English.

For $30, you could acquire a piece of the Berlin Wall like this one (source: eBay image).

If collectors simply wanted a piece of the Berlin Wall, there are plenty of online sources selling pieces of varying sizes, though it would be a dubious pursuit as an investment as there were nearly 70 miles of the double-wall.

More about the Berlin Wall:


*This number includes the victims of the Holocaust.

Two Hundred Forty Years of Steadfast Colors


On May 30th, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation to establish a national day of observance to honor the national ensign of the United States of America. Though the national annual observance wasn’t signed into law until President Truman did so in 1949, the annual recognition of honoring Old Glory was carried on by many Americans each year since 1916. With all that has transpired in the realm of politics within our nation, I suspect that rather than rendering honor to our flag, many of the people living within our borders will, instead choose to desecrate it…but I digress.

This illustration dates from 1885 and shows the first five flags of the U.S along with the (then) current configuration with 38 stars.

Flag Day (June 14) was set aside to encourage American citizens  to display their nationalism, patriotism and civic pride by hoisting the national ensign on their homes, places of business and on public and government buildings. To put it simply, it is a day in which we show and honor the flag.

The Flag Day observances can be traced all the way back to 1885, when a teacher in a small town in Wisconsin decided that he would honor the flag. The National Flag Day Foundation cites,

Our mission is to carry on the tradition of the first flag day observance. On June 14th, 1885, Bernard J. Cigrand, a 19 year old teacher at Stony Hill School (located in Fredonia, WS), placed a 10 inch, 38- star flag in a bottle on his desk then assigned essays on the flag and its significance.

What is the significance of June 14 and why did Cigrand choose that date for recognition and rendering honors to the flag? In 1777, the second Continental Congress passed a resolution that stated,

Resolved, That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.

There is significant debate as to who is credited for designing and creating that first flag of the United States–none of which I will discuss here, leaving it for you to make your own determination. Meanwhile, if you reside within a tolerable driving distance from the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia, you can take part in the final events of Flag Fest which concludes tomorrow, June 17, 2017.

For those seeking WWI or WWII period flags, 48 star flags are readily available in either vintage or excellent, weather-proof reproductions.

This week (as we do for each patriotic holiday) we are flying the Stars and Stripes in front of my home. Though we are consistent in honoring our current flag (thirteen stripes of alternating red and white; fifty stars, white in a blue field), I have considered acquiring and hoisting some of the historic iterations in its place.

Even if I could afford to purchase an antique iteration of the flag, obviously, I’d never run it up the staff, subjecting it to the elements thereby inflicting rapid deterioration and damage to the delicate fibers and stitching. Instead, locating high-quality reproductions (nylon, sewn and two-sided construction) of those historic colors that could stand up to the forces of nature are more reasonable and would afford me the opportunity to publicly display an area of my collecting interest.

This is a reproduction guidon for “I” company of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, 70th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers (known as “Rush’s Lancers”) is similar to the one I just ordered for my collection (source: eBay photo).

One of my most recent flag acquisitions is a hand-sewn reproduction of the regimental guidon of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry (“F” company), the unit in which my 3-times-great grandfather served during the Civil War.  I would love to have a period-correct original for my collection, but even if I had the financial resources, sourcing something with such rarity is next to impossible.

Happy 240th to Old Glory!

Sound Timing and Patience Pays Off


I am a sucker for U.S. naval history. There, I said it. I love it all from John Paul Jones and the USS Ranger to the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), the lead ship in the newest class of aircraft carriers, I can’t get enough. My tendencies and preferences seem to take me to more contextual aspects of naval history – anything to do with the geographical region of my birth holds my interests (unless, of course it is connected to the ships or commands where I served).

I seek out items that can be associated with ships named for geographic locations (city names, place names, etcetera), pieces that can be connected to the local naval installations or anything that originates with local naval figures, such as the Rear Admiral Robert Copeland group in this earlier post. To date, the majority of these items have been vintage photographs…until yesterday.

Armored Cruiser No. 11, shown here in 1909, was originally named USS Washington, and was later reclassified as a heavy cruiser and renamed USS Seattle (source: Library of Congress image).

While searching online, I stumbled across a listing that contained a piece of history that made my jaw drop. To see the price was so much lower than it should have been made me giddier than a kid on Christmas morning. I placed my watch on the item and planned observe it for a few days to see if any bids were placed. A few days later, with no one bidding (that I knew of) I configured my bid snipe and hoped that all would work out.

Judging from the auction listing photo, the cover of my new vintage cruise book is in nearly pristine condition (source: eBay image).

Around the time of the auction close, I was out and about when I received an email that my sniped bid was the winner and that no other parties had bid against me, leaving the closing price the minimum amount. The item, a World War I cruise book from the USS Seattle (an armored cruiser of the Tennessee class) that was placed into commission in 1906, documents the ship’s WWI service during the war, serving as a convoy escort as she provided merchant vessels protection from German U-boats during trans-Atlantic crossings to the United Kingdom.

As cruise books were produced in small numbers (for the crew), they are quite rare typically driving the prices close to, and sometimes surpassing, $500. Like most vintage books, condition is a contributing factor in the value. My USS Seattle book was available at a fraction of these prices making it affordable when it would normally have been well out of my budget.

Good things come to those who wait…and who check at the right time. For me, the waiting continued right up until the time that I tore into the package moments after it was delivered by the letter carrier (yes, I can behave as a child, still).