Lionel Walsh • My Life and Times
Correspondent in Germany during a troubled period
On an early assignment after my return to Germany, I sent myself to Berlin to cover the release from Spandau prison on 30 September 1966 of former Reich Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach and Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and former Reichs Armaments Minister.
War criminals released
The two appeared, still in their scruffy prison garb, in the lobby of the Hilton hotel. There, they were subjected to a barrage of mostly hostile questions by an angry Berlin press corps.
The release of the Spandau prisoners had troublesome consequences for one of our colleagues, Inge Deutschkron, correspondent of the Israeli daily, Maariv.
Inge’s father had been a leading German Social Democrat. Inge herself had always been a Social Democratic Party member. She resigned in disgust when she discovered that the Social Democrat Mayor of Berlin, Willy Brandt, had sent flowers to the Speers at the Hilton Hotel where they had their reunion. Inge, who had survived Nazi wartime Berlin in hiding and was now the Bonn correspondent of the Israeli newspaper Maariv, found Brandt’s well-meant sentimental gesture utterly misplaced and intolerable.
Shortly before the release-of-the-prisoners-of-Spandau came another drama, this time a tragedy. On 14 September 1966, the German navy’s submarine Hai sank in a heavy storm in the North Sea. An agonising day of press briefings followed as hopes slowly faded for survivors. Only one crew member survived. A rescue crane brought the stricken vessel to the surface on 19 September and towed the wreck into Emden.
End of Ludwig Erhard
My time in Bonn coincided with the collapse of the governing coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats and the departure from office of Chancellor Ludwig Erhard. I recall Erhard being savaged in the Bundestag by Socialist Helmut Schmidt, soon to be Defence Minister and ultimately Chancellor himself.
The end came for the Erhard government when the minority Free Democrats walked out of his coalition government.
Erhard resigned on 1 December 1966, leaving the way clear for Kurt-Georg Kiesinger to take power at the head of a Grand Coalition with the socialists, bringing them into government for the first time since the formation of the German Federal Republic after the war.
Kiesinger had in fact joined the Nazi party in 1933 , the year Hitler came to power, and had been a senior official in the radio department of the Propaganda ministry. The darkest moment of his chancellorship came a few days after taking power. At a party congress of the Christian Democrats in Berlin, Beate Klarsfeld walked to the podium and slapped the Chancellor’s face, denouncing him as a Nazi. Kiesinger himself never commented on the incident.
The Social Democrats join government
The Grand Coalition featured the Socialist Willy Brandt as Vice-Chancellor and Foreign Minister. Socialist Professor Karl Schiller took office as Economics Minister, alongside died-in-the-wool conservative Franz-Josef Strauss, leader of the Bavarian Christian-Social Union as Finance Minister. The two quickly became known in the press as Pfisch and Pflum. The likeable Helmut Schmidt became Defence Minister.
Dentist’s visit for the boss
When my boss at Reuters, Gerry Long, came to Bonn on one of his frequent visits to see his dentist, Herr Schmidt-Rimpler, Helmut Schmidt kindly accepted my invitation to dine with us at the Maternus restaurant in Bad Godesburg.
Meeting the Chancellor
I was also able to arrange for Gerry to be received by Chancellor Kiesinger at the Palais Schaumberg, the Chancellor’s office. Gerry professed himself most impressed with Kiesinger, so the interview gained me a few temporary Brownie points.
End of the Grand Coalition
Elections in September of 1969 brought the demise of the Grand Coalition and the accession to power of a Coalition of Willy Brandt’s Social Democrats and the small Free Democratic Party led by Walter Scheel, who became Foreign Minister. As the results came through on election night, it at first looked very much as though the Christian Democrats would do well.
Swing to the SPD
The leads I was putting out suggested a victory for Kiesinger’s conservative Chistian Democrats. Congratulatory cables began to fly between other European capitals and Bonn.
But suddenly there was a hiccough in the estimates flowing in on the television screens, and I put out a new lead pointing to a strong swing to the socialists.
A right royal row back
No sooner had the new lead gone out than the telephone rang. It was Jack Hartzman, Editor in charge in London that night.
“Looks like you are rowing back,” said Jack.
As he spoke, Willy Brandt appeared on our television screen, and announced that he was forming a government on the basis of the latest results.
“Get off the line Jack,” I yelled, Brandt has just announced he is forming a government. And so it transpired.
The Ostpolitik continues
Brandt was thus able to pursue his Ostpolitik of gradually improving relations with East Germany, Poland, and the other communist countries of Eastern Europe.
On 19 March 1970, one day before my 40th birthday, Chancellor Willy Brandt travelled by train to Erfurt in East Germany for his first meeting with the East German oremier, Willi Stoph. The encounter was soon followed by another, in the West German town of Kassel.
An historic encounter
I was on the platform in Erfurt to cover the historic meeting between the two leaders. They walked together across the square to the hotel where they had their talks. After German reunification,the square was renamed Willy Brandt Platz.
Cheers for Brandt
Some 2,000 youngsters had gathered in the square to cheer the West German leader. “Willy, Willy” they chanted, changing to “Willy Brandt, Willy Brandt” when they realised that the name Willy applied to both leaders.
My years in Bonn coincided with the outbreak of student demos and rioting in several countries, including Britain, France, Italy and the United States, largely over the Vietnam War.
The German students vented their hostility to the powerful Springer press. In Berlin, Hamburg and other cities the students tried to prevent the distribution of Bild, Die Welt and other Springer titles
Riots turn ugly
Students srolled ball bearings under the hooves of police horses. They hurled stones at the police, who responded with water canons and baton charges.
On 11 April, 1967, a rightwing youth shot and seriously wounded student leader Rudi Dutschke, provoking more outbreaks of rioting.
In West Berlin the rioting got particularly ugly, especially after a student, Benno Ohnesorg, was shot dead on 2 June 1967 by a plain clothes policeman during a demonstration against a visit to West Berlin by the Shah of Iran.
In the past, student excesses in Germany had tended to be of the rightwing variety. But the demos of 1968 marked a shift to the left.
It was several weeks before calm could be restored to the streets of German cities.
The Prague Spring
The year 1968 was the year of the Prague Spring when Alexander Dubceck sought to introduce “Socialism with a Human Face” to Czechoslovakia.
As the days lengthened Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev made his dissatisfaction abundantly clear, and a Soviet mobile column rolled into Eastern Czechoslovakia, ostensibly on manoeuvres.
Eventually, a conference of the Warsaw Pact was held in Bratislava, attended by Brezhnev and the leaders of all the pact countries.
I went to Bratislava to cover the meeting.
Encounter with Ulbricht
The East German leader, Walter Ulbricht, was among those attending. I caught up with Ulbricht in the lobby of his hotel as he returned from the final session, and asked him what was the outcome.
“Wir haben uns mit den Tschechen verbrudert,” he said. (We have established fraternal relations with the Czechs.) And so the Bratislava conference ended, with nothing resolved and the Soviet army still hovering menacingly on the Czech border.
Holiday in East Germany
Everything seemed to be on hold. I returned to Bad Godesberg, picked up my family and drove to Tarbarz in the Thuringian Forest for a much deserved holiday.
To the children’s delight, we slept in tents in the garden.
Early on the morning of 21 August, my brother in law, Siggi, woke me with the news that the radio was reporting Warsaw Pact forces had invaded Czechoslovakia.
I sprung out of my sleeping bag, listened to the radio announcement, got the family dressed, packed, bundled the kids into the car and headed for the frontier with West Germany.
The Germans invade Czechoslovakia again
On the way down the Autobahn, we passed columns of military vehicles heading for the frontier with Czechoslovakia.
At the crossing point into West Germany, the guard on duty looked at my passport and noted that my visa did not run out for several more weeks. “Why are you leaving now?” he asked.
At that, I foolishly lost my temper. “Because German troops are marching into Czechoslovakia again!” I exclaimed.
The guard stood there, tapping my passport against his knee, and said nothing.My wife told me to shut up, and eventually the guard took the passport into his office and returned it, marked with an exit stamp.
We were through, but I should not have taken the risk of annoying that guard.
Return to Czechoslovakia
Back in Bad Godesberg, I packed my things for a return to Czechoslovakia, hired a Volkswagen and drove to Duesseldorf, where I handed over the car to the rental company and took a flight to Munich. At the airport I hired a superb BMW, and set out for Vienna, convinced that the Czech Consulate there would give me an entry visa.
Such proved to be the case. The Czechs wanted the whole world to know what the Russians were doing to their country.
I crossed the frontier at a tiny place called Neu Nagelberg, was given an escort of a Czech army motorcyclist for the first part of the journey, and then found myself on the main road to Prague. Soon the road was filled with Russian tanks, all heading in the direction of the Czech capital.
To overtake the tanks, I had to hoot and gesture to the tank commander perched in the turret. Each tank would then make a little lurch to the right to give me room to pass. Steel-helmeted Soviet soldiers were on duty directing traffic at every crossroads, looking just like a scene from World War Two. My account of that journey won me a byline in London’s Evening Standard.
Arrival in embattled Prague
Eventually I halted the BMW opposite the terrace of the Esplanade Hotel facing the statue of Saint Wenceslas in the main square. The square was filled with Soviet tanks, surrounded by angry citizens arguing with the tank crews and telling them to go back to Russia.
The Reuter team, headed by my old friend Ian MacDowall, was sipping drinks on the hotel Terrace. “Ah, the sixth Reuter correspondent to reach embattled Prague!” cried Ian.
Among the Reuter journalists were Vincent Buist,then Warsaw correspondent, Bernd Debusmann, from Bonn, and Martin Pendel, also from Bonn.
Whenever the team ran short of sepplies, Pendel would be dispatched on the long car journey to Bonn to pick up whatever was needed. I called this PendelVerkehr, which translates as “Shuttle Service.”
We spent several weeks covering the forcible abduction of Dubcek to Moscow and the vain attempts of the Czechs to keep the Prague Spring alive.
A tank crew’s farewell
Then the time came to leave. The Soviet soldiers encamped with their tank outside the hotel waved me goodbye as I drove out of Wenceslas Square on the long drive back to Bonn.
There was one other incident associated with my departure. I had met a Jewish man who had shown me the old Synagogue in Prague and the Jewish cemetery. He feared an anti-Jewish clampdown with the end of the Prague spring and implored me to help him and his family to get out.
Accordingly, as soon as I crossed the frontier into West Germany, I went to the nearest post office, and sent him a telegram in German: “Otto has died. Funeral at 1100 on such and such a day at Frankfurt Synagogue.”
The trick worked, and my friend succeeded in getting a visa to leave the country. He did not plan to return.
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Copyright © 2008 Lionel Walsh