Peacemonger: Stories form the Cold War in Berlin

Reaching the advanced age of 77 gives one leave to reminisce. I have been privileged to love and be loved. My parents raised 12 children during the Depression without a complaint. I have been a dedicated teacher of German. We have a cut flower business, and our goal during recent years has been to produce a blossom of perfect beauty. Success has eluded our grasp while all around our gardens perfect daisies grow wild in our fields.

For a few short years of my life I was a "peacemonger"—a title given me by the student newspaper at University of Maine before my visit there in the 1960s.

After spending two years with American Friends Service Committee working in Darmstadt in the early 1950s, I taught German at Scattergood School in Iowa. I felt my knowledge of the language needed strengthening, so in the fall of 1958 I went to Germany for another visit to study German literature. But this wasn’t my only reason for going. How could I— how could anyone—have understood my second motivation for the move? During my service with AFSC, I had been deeply moved by experiencing a country ravaged by Allied bombing, but even more by the spiritual devastation wrought by the Nazi government. In the midst of all this I had met many Germans who harbored a strong desire to help build a world in which peace and justice prevailed. I was heading back to Germany, focal point of the Cold War, determined to see what one person could do to help Germans become a force for peace in Europe and the world.

Friends have a sound custom of moving "when way opens"—and not before. Way did not open during my wonderful year of study in Marburg. The fall of 1959 found me in Berlin, a scene of frequent Cold War confrontations, where Berlin Quakers gave strong, practical support for me as a student newly enrolled at the Free University. Financial support came in 1961 in the form of a part-time position as a youth worker for the German Protestant Church. One of my first responsibilities in this capacity was to help organize a workcamp in the U.S. for young Germans at Scattergood School. During that summer, word came that the East-West Berlin border had been closed, and a wall was being built—devastating news for young Berliners with family on both sides of the divided city.

Back in West Berlin, essential avenues of communication with the East had been cut off. My church employers knew that as a foreigner I could still travel to the eastern sector. Would I be willing, they asked, to act as courier for the church, carrying messages, medications, and a few food items to East Berlin? My response was reluctant assent. Little did I realize that the building blocks were being assembled for my personal involvement in an attempt to build human bridges across the concrete and barbed wire barrier through Berlin.

Surely the best piece of "luggage" I had brought back from the U.S. were words from Elise Boulding, spoken after a visit of our Berlin youth with Friends in Ann Arbor: "Paul, this is a wonderful project, helping these young Germans see America. And surely you will also travel to the Soviet Union. Compared to our location, the USSR is right on your doorstep!" Remembering this message helped focus my commitment to be an instrument of peace in the midst of the Cold War. Contact with the Russians seemed essential, but how could one initiate such contact? The Soviet film Ballad of a Soldier gave an appealing picture of young Russians. It would be helpful, in the midst of post-Wall tensions, to give our youth groups such a positive picture of the Soviet people.

During 1962 my life became a routine of university lectures, youth work, and courier trips to East Berlin. Even the state security police shadow following behind through East Berlin became routine. Way did not open to give practical expression to peace concerns, always in the back of my mind but easy to put off during days of busy activity.

Then came the day when the East German security police gave me the kick in the pants needed to make Soviet contact not just desired but immediately urgent.

Elisabeth Guertler was the secretary in the East Berlin church office of Action Reconciliation/Service for Peace, which organized service projects for young Germans in countries ravaged by the Nazis. It was with Elisabeth that I always left all the medications and messages from Bishop Scharf’s office in West Berlin. On this particular day she needed to take the train home to Stahnsdorf, south of Berlin. Behind us was the security police car, two men in it—nothing unusual about that. Elisabeth got out at the station, but then a chilling event happened. One of the security policemen got out and followed her. As a foreigner I was somewhat vulnerable, but Elisabeth, as a GDR citizen, was completely so. I had been thinking of initiating contact with the Russians. Wouldn’t such contact make me a more complex person in the eyes of my East Berlin shadows, and indirectly make Elisabeth somewhat less vulnerable? "Contact with Russians must start now, this minute," I thought, so I headed directly down Unter den Linden toward the House of German-Soviet Friendship. Being rattled, I was driving down the wrong side of a divided street, with the shadow right behind, also driving illegally.

I stopped before the building, entered it, and presented my query at the information desk. Could we rent Ballad of a Soldier for showing to young West Berlin workers? The answer was, "We can’t help you. Come back Thursday."

Emerging disappointed from the Haus, I looked around for the security police car. Nowhere to be seen. Had this simple move made me complex enough to confuse my shadow?

A Dutch colleague and I went back on Thursday, and were sent to the office of Sovexportfilm, which supplied Ballad of a Soldier. It was warmly received by our West Berlin youth groups. After that, detours to Sovexportfilm during East Berlin visits were frequent, and the Russians were glad to show us other outstanding films produced during the cultural thaw under Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Still, there was always a certain air of doubt and suspicion evident in frequent questions by one of the Russians. Surely it was understandable if their unspoken question was, "What is the real reason why a U.S. citizen living in West Berlin and working for the German church desires contact with Soviet citizens?"

I was very open in talking about my background, my studies, and my youth work in Berlin. One day I told Nikolai, a Sovexportfilm staff member, about our visit with young workers to Scattergood School the previous summer. Suddenly Nikolai exclaimed, "Aha! Now I know who you are!" "Who am I, then?" "You are Kennedy’s agent for the youth of Berlin!" "What makes you think that?" "If you were not Kennedy’s agent for the youth of Berlin, you would organize trips not just to the U.S. but also to the USSR!" At last, way was opening! My reply: "If you can help us find a travel plan our young industrial workers can afford, we will be ready to leave tomorrow!"

Through Nikolai’s initiative I, on behalf of the Protestant Parish for Youth in Industry and its director, Franz von Hammerstein, came into discussion about Soviet travel with a third secretary of the Soviet embassy, Julij Kwizinskij. During the ensuing months and years a firm and rewarding friendship with Julij developed. After he left Berlin, we, his friends, watched with great interest as he rose through the ranks in Soviet diplomacy to be a major force for reconciliation and understanding between East and West: he became the chief Soviet negotiator with Paul Nitze from the United States in atomic talks in Geneva; then Soviet ambassador to the German Federal Republic during reunification negotiations; and then first deputy foreign minister of the USSR under Eduard Shevardnadze.

We had hoped to travel to Russia the first time with 20 West Berlin youth, and at first the prospects looked bright. Understandably, however, in Berlin during the years of the Wall many families had the equivalent of an Aunt Matilde who raised vigorous objection. "You must not, you may not travel to Russia! You would disappear into Siberia and we’d never see you again!" Thus it was that I boarded the Moscow-bound train with only six brave young industrial workers. I think it was early 1963. We all returned safe and sound from that first great adventure to the USSR. Encouraged, and with mistrust greatly diminished, new groups from West Berlin traveled at least annually to the USSR, and during the late 1960s a West Berlin-USSR exchange program was organized, with groups traveling in both directions once a year or more.

On the occasion of Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to East Berlin in 1965, Willi Brandt, then mayor of West Berlin, wanted to talk with the Soviet leader and explain to him the problems and suffering of Berliners, both East and West, resulting from the Wall, but because of strong objection by the opposition Christian Democrats, Willi Brandt decided to give up the project.

Soon thereafter, perhaps a day later, a call came from the bishop’s office. Because we assumed that the phones were bugged, the call began with the usual standard message from the bishop’s elderly secretary: "Brother Cates, I have such an intense desire for you." This time there seemed to be a particular urgency in her voice. Soon after my arrival at the bishop’s office the reason for a sense of urgency became clear. Fraulein Klatt explained that since the political leaders of West Berlin were not facing up to their responsibility, the Church must take the initiative to speak with the Soviet leader. Could I present this concern to the Soviet Embassy in East Berlin?

The conversation between Nikita Khrushchev and Hans Martin Helbich, general superintendent of the Protestant Church in Berlin, took place in an open and frank exchange. Khrushchev gave Helbich a case of Soviet mineral water as a parting gift, and the next day Helbich gave me a bottle of the same for my work in arranging the meeting.

I tell this as an introduction to my final story. There was a growing wave of positive support in the West for our West Berlin-Soviet youth exchange. The movement to organize international evenings in West Berlin was a natural development. Roland and Margaret Warren, AFSC representatives in Berlin, hosted the first such evening with attendees from Holland, France, Russia, of course Americans and Germans, and perhaps others. After several such evenings, it was my turn to be the host. Everything was in readiness: beverages, open sandwiches, and desserts. What was missing were the Russians. Finally, I became impatient. Had I given confusing directions? I went down three flights of stairs to the street to investigate. Across from my building sat a Soviet embassy car with the Russians inside.

"Why are you waiting down here?" I asked. "Do you see that car back there?" one asked. "It followed us all the way from the border. It’s surely the West German secret service. We didn’t want to get you in trouble."

After brief persuasion, the Russians came up and joined the gathering. As they sat at my coffee table, Juri Kuturev from the Soviet film agency had a twinkle in his eye. "Paul," he said suddenly, "You are not a Christian!" "Why do you say that?" "You have such good refreshments here, and those poor West German agents are sitting down there, cold and hungry. If you were a good Christian, you would go down and invite them to come up!"

I had to think fast, and I responded: "No, that would be a very un-Christian thing to do, since it is strictly against their protocol to be invited by the person they are investigating." Juri was equally quick in his rejoinder: "Well, if you are a Christian, the least you could do is to go out on your balcony and sprinkle them with Holy Water!"

I pointed to the bottle of mineral water above the sink, the gift from Nikita Khrushchev himself. "And there," I said triumphantly, "is a genuine bottle of holy water!"

"Oh no," replied Juri, "That bottle is much too holy. Dishwater would do just fine!" (Needless to say, no water, holy or otherwise, was sprinkled. It would have taken a fire hose anyway, since their car was on the other side of the street.)

On February 26, 1969, I received the richest reward conceivable for all my efforts in Berlin. On that day, after years of waiting, Elisabeth and Martin, our first child, then two years old, were allowed to come and join me in West Berlin, their exit having been negotiated through Bishop Kurt Scharf’s office.

Why am I now motivated to share these stories from the Cold War era in Berlin? In this year there is more open and blatant warmongering emanating from the U.S. administration than we have experienced in a very long time. I feel moved to say that there was once a "peacemonger" who went out to make a small contribution toward reconciliation in our time. He felt lonely in his undertaking back then, but then he found that he was working not just with Quakers but also with Protestants, Communists, atheists, and other people on both sides of the Cold War. Peacemongering—attempting to be an instrument of God’s peace—has its discouraging times, but also it brought moments filled with humor and even great joy and exhilaration.

Paul Cates

Paul Cates is a member of Vassalboro (Maine) Meeting. The eighth of twelve children, he grew up in East Vassalboro across China Lake from Quaker scholar and activist Rufus Jones, who offered him early encouragement. In 1948-49 he spent eight months in Danbury Prison in Connecticut for nonregistration for the draft as a conscientious objector. He graduated from Haverford College in 1950, with Quaker educator Douglas Steere as his faculty advisor. After his "peacemonger" years he returned with his growing family to East Vassalboro, where he has taught German and written local-talent plays, and where he continues to raise cut flowers, especially gladiolas.