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‘At the Wall he was as an all-powerful thug’

Post-World War II international agreements enabled Americans — servicemembers and civilians — to visit East Berlin without visas. Still, crossing the Berlin Wall was an intimidating experience.

No “Willkommen” there.

Frowning East German guards stared as visitors drove or walked through an opening in the Wall, past tank traps, barbed wire and a watch tower with armed Communist soldiers peering down with orders to shoot if they had to.

For pedestrians like me, heading for East Berlin in 1982 for a weekend sightseeing visit with my family, the path led to a temporary frame structure where guards checked documents and carried out a grueling inspection.

That day, a tall, muscular East German guard gave me a particularly hard time. As he rifled through out bags, he scowled and demanded: “Why are you here? What will you do? How much cash do you have? Are you carrying any newspapers?”

Finally he let us go.

Two days later, we were strolling through Alexanderplatz, a major square in East Berlin.

All of a sudden, I saw a harried-looking man, dressed in shabby street clothes and pushing a baby carriage while a short, stout woman — presumably his wife — barked at him. “Speed up. Slow down. Be careful with the baby.”

I stared at him. It was the same guy who’d given me such a hard time.

At the Wall he was as an all-powerful thug — the face of the Communist monolith that spread from the heart of Europe to the Pacific.

Now he was just another schmuck being nagged by his wife.

I thought to myself — take off the uniform and we’re basically all the same. Just human beings, just trying to get through life as best we can.

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