HELLO TO BERLIN – Part Six

The young film maker joins illegal and violent demonstration in West Berlin to protest at death of Red Army Fraction (Baader Meinhof) member Holger Meins

Berlin (West) Demo image 2

(Part of an early draft of novel Friends & Enemies not included in published version)

After a year in Berlin, I had reached some sort of alternative Cloud Nine. I had friends in the West and friends in the East and when I stood in the control hut at Checkpoint Charlie with East German guards staring at me and my passport – back and forth, up and down – I felt a heightened sense of being somewhere, of being someone, of being here and being now.

And it wasn’t just the Wall. In Berlin, I had, at last, came across like-minded people; people, with a serious approach to life, trying to understand how they fitted – or had been fitted – into society and how they could break out. In autumn 1974, West Berlin was a place for discussion and practice of everything from revolution to relationships and communal living to open sexuality: ‘Need for tenderness’, ‘Compul­sion to orgasm’, ‘Whole body relating’, ‘An end to genital fixation’ – the list was end­less and, in many ways, far ahead of its time. Everyone, women and men, felt oppressed by the sexist adverts on the hoardings and in the U-Bahn; everyone accepted that things would have to change, inside and out. Marx had met Freud and women had stated their case; the notion of simple futures where wives would nurture hard working husbands had been blown away. The uphill climb by me, the lone male mountaineer with an over-sensitive take on gender and life in general had become a communal caravan across the desert of capitalism. Now people saw where they were going, helped each other on the way and did not doubt they would get there in the end.

Some, of course, wanted to take a short cut – Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof sat in cells in Stammheim, condemned for blasting their way through the sand – but I did not support violence and saw it as a form of capitulation to the psychotic ways of the ruling class. I had, however, demonstrated against the prison conditions of Holger Meins, another member of the Red Army Fraction. He was not in Stammheim, but in Moabit jail in West Berlin where he had gone on hunger strike in protest at his solitary confinement. He had not eaten for three months, the authorities refused to transfer him to a hospital and his death was expec­ted soon.

It finally came on November 10th, a grey and unpromising day. I was reading a book on semiotics in my room at the back of the commune, when the news broke. The door burst open and Gisela bounced in. She was a round woman with red cheeks and a permanent air of enthusiasm. Along with my friend Dieter, she was the founder of the commune where I lived and had roped me into her Sponti political movement after a Sunday seminar on undogmatic Marxism a few weeks earlier.

“Come on, Joe! We’re meeting at Turm­strasse and marching down to the prison.”

“What? Why?”

“Haven’t you heard?” Gisela’s eyes gleamed as she warmed her hands on the tiles of a brown coal oven. “Holger Meins is de­ad.”

“When?”

“Last night. They only let the news out this morning. The Senate’s banned marches so we’re keeping the meeting place secret, spreading it by word of mouth. I’m to tell sympathisers round here. Will you help?”

“Of course.”

We ran through courtyards, climbed staircases and left notes informing people where to go. We hammered on doors, cajoled and persuaded, and, at our last port of call, dug out Stefan, the lover of Gisela’s best friend Hanna and a man more into movies than Marx.

By the time we reached Turmstrasse, the demonstrators were forming into rows. I spotted Hanna and waved. She ran over and gave me a hug.

“My favouri­te Englishman!” she cried.

Then she saw Stefan attempting to hide behind Gisela.

“You’ve come? You told me you were ill?”

Stefan shrugged his shoulders.

“You told me you couldn’t get off work and you’re here.”

“That’s because I was speaking from the teachers’ common room.”

Gisela pushed her way between the lovers and linked arms with them both.

“Come on, you two. No arguments today. All right?”

A police bus – light flashing, siren wailing – screeched past the demonstrators and pulled across the road. Riot police jumped out and positioned themselves in front of the first row. The way to the prison was blocked.

“Someone must have informed,” said Hanna, taking hold of my right arm.

A loud-hailer declared the demonstration illegal and ordered all participants to disperse. A group at the back began shouting. Somebody threw a bottle.

“RAF,” said a voice to my left. “They provoke on principle.”

I turned and found a tall man with blonde hair standing next to me.

“Your first demonstration?” the man asked as he linked arms.

“Oh no,” I replied.

“But the first with action, yes?”

“Well,” I said, ducking as another bottle smashed in front of the police, “I was nearly in Grosvenor Square in ’68.”

The man laughed.

“Nearly in Grosvenor Square in ’68. I like it. English humour, no?”

“Yes. Yes.”

I laughed, too.

The police gave a second warning and said they would charge if the crowd did not disperse. I was in row six. I turned to see how many were behind us and was surprised to find people complying with the order. Row by row the demonstration was dissolving.

“We’re not moving,” hissed Hanna to the tall man. “Right, Manfred?”

But someone had tapped Manfred on the shoulder.

“New tactic,” a voice whispered. “Pretend to cave in. Regroup at the Ku’dam.”

Manfred passed the message on to me and peeled off.

“Manfred, you shit!” yelled Hanna.

I explained the tactic to her and soon everyone was heading for the Ku’dam – ambling off in twos and threes, pretending to be out for a stroll.

Near the entrance to Tiergarten, Manfred glanced up at the sky.

“Damn!”

I followed his gaze and saw helicopters approaching from the south.

“Should we scatter?” asked Stefan hopefully.

“No, we should not,” said Hanna. “Straight on for the Ku’dam!”

“I only asked,” whined her boyfriend.

“If you don’t want to come, don’t,” snapped Hanna. “Go to a stupid film instead.”

“Hanna!” hissed Gisela.

At the junction of Kurfurstendam and Joachimstaler­strasse, demonstrators had already occupied the pavements. Reinforcements were emerging from the U-Bahn and spilling on to the road. A whispering began, like wind in the willows.

“Make a circle. Block the traffic.”

People formed into lines of five and walked round the centre of the junction – one after the other, closely packed, column after column. Motorists hooted. A policeman blew his whistle. But they were powerless to break the human wheel.

My group linked arms and squeezed in behind five Red Army men in crash helmets.

“The state has murdered Holger Meins – Holger, Holger, Holger Meins!”

A white Mercedes tried to push its way through. An RAF man forced open the driver’s door. Manfred pulled him back. The driver reversed away.

“That’s what the authorities want us to do,” said Manfred, rejoining the line. “Beat people up, behave like animals. It doesn’t help our cause. We must win the public’s sympathy.”

I nodded and joined in the chant. I had never felt better, never felt so much. Acting for justice with no self doubts, a rebel with a cause – no dream of what might be, just action now.

“The state has murdered Holger Meins,” I shouted at the top of my voice, “Holger, Holger, Holger Meins!”

Hanna laughed and yelled in my ear:

“Your accent is atrocious.”

Then the sirens began. A chill ran down my spine. Tank-like vehicles clea­red a path through the cars – blue mon­sters with blank faces.

“Water canons,” Manfred shouted.

The line in front stopped. A helmeted man turned and yelled.

“New formation. Rows of twenty across the Ku’dam!”

He indicated that my group should move forward and link arms with his.

“Oh no,” wailed Stefan. “We’re in the front line.”

“That’ll make a change for you,” said Hanna, but her voice sounded nervous too.

The cannons halted behind a phalanx of shield-wielding riot police with visors down. I glanced over my shoulder. Row upon row of demonstrators stretched back towards the ruined shell of the Gedaechtniskirche – faces alert, tense, determined.

Die bullen sind bloed!” yelled a Red Army man.

Police are stupid.

“Don’t provoke,” said Manfred.

“Shit liberal!” the man replied, but stopped his chant.

Night had fallen and a cold wind from the East cut through the seams of my worn sheepskin coat. The advertisements flashed and winked, mocking the protesters with their message of stabi­lity. In Kempinskis, ladies in fur hats sipped coffee and toyed with cakes, faces turned towards the street waiting for the show to start. Press photographers positio­ned themselves near the police, flashguns firing. TV cameras took aim from rooftops or patrolled – tape recorders in tow – up and down no-man’s land. One reporter argued with her direc­tor about where to stand. She wanted to be in front of the demonstrators, the director wanted her with the police. In the end, she and the camera walked around in circles.

Then the space between the front-lines was cleared. A new chant rolled for­ward from the back of the demonstration, picking up momentum and volume as it approached us.

“No repression by the state! We have the right to demonstrate!”

The Red Army men added ‘Holger, Holger, Holger Meins’ and as the chants met they doubled in force and surged across no-man’s land to the waiting police, drowning out an officer calling on the demonstrators to ‘Disperse or face the consequences!’

“This is it,” hissed Manfred.

The police moved forward followed by the water cannons. Slowly. Steadily.

Then they fired.

“Stand firm!” shouted Manfred, as water slammed into his stomach.

I bent to help him but was hit too, a block of ice smashing into my skull.

“Turn your back!” Hanna shouted.

I couldn’t breathe, could­n’t move.

Another jet of water smashed into my groin. The police were only yards away – truncheons high, shields out. The crowd surged forward, pushing me towards the truncheons that now began battering batons on shields in a deafening cacophony of terror.

“Fall back and regroup!” came the command.

I turned and ran. Manfred ran. We all ran. Retreating head over heels in front of the drums, lines disintegrating as the din approached. I glanced back and saw a policeman beat a Red Army man across the back – not once, but on and on and on. A woman was hit between the legs and dumped into a van that moved forward with the canons picking up human refuse as it was clubbed into submission.

My coat felt heavy – soaked through, weighing me down. But I kept on running.

Suddenly a pair of arms grabbed me. I ducked, ready for a blow to the head, the back, the balls. The arms held me, but didn’t abuse me.

I turned. It was Manfred.

“No good running. Police are everywhere. We must regroup.”

I locked arms with Manfred and counted a dozen rows ahead of us – we were no longer in the front line.

I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned. It was Hanna. Her long hair soaked with water, her face blue with cold. She locked arms, too, and huddled close.

“Stefan’s been hit. Gisela’s taken him home.”

“Is he all right?”

“I think so.” She wiped away a tear. “He was trying to stop a pig hitting me.”

“And Gisela?”

“Cut in the face – best for her to go with him.”

With the column reformed, the chan­ting swelled again. We surged forward as one – at a run this time – charging headlong at the state’s protective wall, the words of the chant coming fast and loud.

“No repression by the state! We have the right to demon­strate!”

I kept my eyes on the front line. When it hit the police, it would stop dead.

“No repression by the state! We have the right to demonstrate!”

I concentrated on the words – spitting out each sylla­ble, fighting off the cold.

“No repression by the state! We have the right to demonstrate!”

Shots broke across the chanting. Four rows in front of me, lines scattered as a plume of smoke rose from the ground. More shots and a canister landed by my feet.

“Tear gas! Cover your mouth and nose!”

Manfred thrust a scarf at me. I pressed it to my face, but gas had already reached my lungs. I wretched. I no longer cared what happened, as long as I could stop and lie down. I tried to cover my mouth, but the gas numbed my brain and my hands would not move. I collapsed to the ground coughing.

“Get up!” – Manfred’s voice – “Get up! Head for Zoo Station!”

I struggled to my feet, fighting off nausea, willing myself to move.

All around people coughed and screamed. Beyond the fog, sirens wailed.

“Can you walk?” Hanna yelled.

“I think so,” I replied.

“Good. Keep your face covered and follow us.”

Figures loomed from the shadows clutching scarves to mouths. Red Army men ran past with iron bars, guided by the sound of breaking glass. Onlookers cowered too terrified to move.

One old lady crouching by a kiosk on the corner of Kantstrasse held a cardboard carton over her head with the word ‘Hilfe!’ scrawled on its side. Men in suits, emerging from the peep shows behind her – eyes stained with prurience, expressions blank and empty – ignored her plea, fastened their trousers and ran for safety.

I struggled across the street and took hold of the woman’s hand.

“Where are you headed?” I asked.

“Anywhere,” she stuttered.

“Want to come with us?”

The woman nodded.

Manfred took her other arm and we pressed on.

Baton-wielding policemen appeared from an alley and charged. Manfred pointed at the woman. The police took no notice. Manfred and I hoisted her onto our shoulders and ran as best we could.

The police pursued. A flashgun fired. Aimed at us, I hoped: ‘Demonstrators save granny from police!’

“Ought to be ashamed,” the old lady mut­tered into Joe’s ear.

“Who ought?” I gasped. “The demonstrators?”

“No! The police.”

Near Zoo station, the pursuers were diverted by a fire and gave up. Manfred and I, out of breath from our exertions, lowered the woman to the ground and entered the station. It was packed. Wounded demonstrators lay in rows tended by medical students. Unhar­med protesters huddled in corners discussing tactics. Members of the public wiped eyes and dusted down clothes, unsure what to do next. The station regulars – junkies and unemployed Turkish workers – stood in front of the exchange office too bemused to ask for money. Beyond them a crowd pushed up against the ticket counter, desperate to get home.

Hanna bent down to the woman.

“Where do you live?”

“In the East. Prenzlauer Berg”

“In the East?”   Hanna queried, and then burst out laughing. “You can tell them it’s true then. We are oppressed and brutalised.”

“I know,” said the woman. “I was here in ’68. I always come for the riots.”

I wondered how she could have crossed the wall, and then remembered that pensioners were free to travel back and forth.

“The East – that’s a good idea,” said Manfred, as a group of policeman arrived to block off the entrance to the street. “Let’s go to Friedrichstrasse.”

“Coming too?” I asked the woman.

“No thank you, but I’m grateful for your help.”

I squeezed her hand and ran after Hanna and Manfred.

At the S-Bahn entrance Man­fred ducked under the barrier. Hanna and I followed suit. On the platform most people were heading west, and when a train for Frie­drichstrasse clattered in we were the only ones to board. We collapsed on to the slatted wooden seats and sighed with relief when the doors shut and the train pulled out.

As it rolled through the Tiergarten, we saw blue lights flashing in the trees and a gas cloud hanging low over the Ku’dam Ecke. The cross on the Ge­daechtnis­kirche shone forth, the Mercedes sign winked.

We win, it said. You lose.

Hanna took my hand and squeezed.

“You all right? You were in a bad way back there?”

“A bit cold.”

“A bit cold? Is that all? You English understate everything. Aren’t you exhilarated, terri­fied, exhausted, happy, sad?”

“Yes, that to.”

 Hanna leant across and hugged the sheepskin coat. I put an arm around her and an arm around Manfred and together we rattled past the ruins of the Reichstag, over the Spree and across the wall – today a welcome barrier against the hypocrisy and conflicts of capitalism. When the train reached Friedrichstrasse – with its East German guards on gantries above and kiosks selling duty free goods below – we found a bench and declared it free of East and West. Manfred bought whisky and Swiss chocolate and we sat getting drunk against the cold – happy to be in no man’s land, happy to be alive, happy to wait a little longer for the revolution.

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