National Geographic : 1959 Jun
Modern Miracle, Made in Germany ahead through the Berlin subway to stay with relatives in West Berlin. The rest of the family followed a few days later. Why had they left East Germany? "Almost everyone wants to leave," Herr Schmidt explained. "Working conditions there are very bad, and if you don't work hard enough they accuse you of sabotage. There are men called 'activists'-Communist Party agents-who have jobs in the factories and claim impossible production records. Then you're supposed to match those records. You can't. But if you could, it would do no good, because when you take your pay to the stores, they have nothing you want to buy. "Even so, it's hard to make up your mind to leave. But I helped arrange for a friend to get away-I worked on a railroad-and then another friend warned me that the police were suspicious of me. That made up my mind. I decided to get out while I still could. "At first, you see, everyone thought that these conditions were just temporary, that in a few years Germany would be reunified. Now they don't believe it any more. "You might say," he added with a sugges tion of a smile, "that I got tired of waiting, so I reunified myself." Energy Generates a German Problem Herr Schmidt has made his choice. Word has gone out across eastern Europe that the Fatherland is rebuilding in the west, and Herr Schmidt, like millions of other German refu gees, wanted to be part of it. Yet though he has crossed the frontier, he has not left it very far behind, and its proximity will affect almost every facet of his future. For the same factors that make West Ger many a showcase also make it Europe's most explosive political problem. Precisely be cause the German people are so fantastically energetic and because they live along the fringe of the Communist world, their country is the biggest source of friction in the cold war. For more than a decade, U. S. and British troops have stood guard along the 825 miles of frontier that separates West Germany from its eastern neighbors. I remember squatting one afternoon in a trench on this border, where four American soldiers manned a loaded machine gun and a radio transmitter. A few hundred yards away, across a valley, East German soldiers manned a similar post, with a machine gun aimed at us. But now a change is taking place. The frontier north of Bad Hersfeld is patrolled in part by West German border police. By 1961 the new West German Army, the Bundeswehr, will probably be the biggest standing in west ern Europe. And as this is written, the Bonn government of the Federal Republic of Ger many is approving a contract to acquire 296 supersonic jet fighter planes. Ninety-six will be purchased from the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation in California. But the other 200 will be built, under license from Lockheed and General Electric, in West Germany. Thus for the first time since World War II, German air plane factories, including one named Messer schmitt, will be making fighters again. New Army Lacks Old Glamour The new German Army is different from Hitler's or the Kaiser's. Its uniforms are drab and businesslike; hobnailed boots are gone, and so is much of the old glamour. Like the U. S. Army, it is run by a civilian defense minister, an arm of an elected demo cratic government. Under NATO command, it is not the potent political force that German armies have been in the past. Yet there are straws blowing the other way. The famous student dueling clubs, symbols of German militarism, are coming back to the universities. Their members are aristocratic young men who believe that scars on the skin prove mettle and manhood. The clubs are still so unpopular with most of the students that they remain secretive, holding their duels in strictest privacy and even, one student member told me, trying to confine their saber scars to their scalps where, with the hair properly combed, they do not show. I asked serious questions of a number of Germans: Do you think West Germany will keep her democratic government? Or will a new Fiihrer arise? Will she stay at peace with her neighbors? Will East and West Germany ever be reunited? What will become of Berlin? Most often, the answer I got was something like this: "Why ask us? Our future is not in our own hands. All these questions are really up to you and the Russians." Well, yes. At least for the past decade, and perhaps for the next half decade. But at the rate they are going, it will not be long before the future of Germany and, to a degree, of her neighbors, will again rest largely in the hands of the Germans. It will be interesting to see what they make of it this time.