During the depths of the Cold War, Kenneth Atkinson crossed through the heavily fortified Checkpoint Bravo from West Berlin into enemy territory – Soviet-controlled East Germany. He was carrying a package he was certain contained a rifle.
The next day he looked through the papers to see if anyone had been assassinated. No one had, but the night was emblematic of the unique role Atkinson played in a city that starkly displayed the differences between capitalism and authoritarian socialism.
“It was a very unusual job,” Atkinson, now professor of history at the University of Northern Iowa, said. Atkinson was part of a U.S. Army unit called the Berlin Brigade, serving as a specialist fourth class in the Headquarters and Service Company Combat Support Battalion. It was the last unit from World War II still stationed in the city.
This classification afforded the unit an unusual relationship with the Soviets. It was Atkinson’s job to receive classified correspondence and information gathered by United States spies operating behind the Iron Curtain and deliver it to the command in West Berlin. The Soviets knew what Atkinson was doing, but they were powerless to stop it, thanks to that fact that, in World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union were allies. That relationship still applied to Atkinson’s unit.
“Even though the Russians were our enemies, on paper, we were allies,” Atkinson said. “It was an odd situation. They knew I was carrying secret correspondence across, but if something happened to me, it would be an international incident.”
Atkinson was stationed in West Berlin from 1984 to 1987. Only a few years after he left, the wall, and the Soviet Union, would collapse. But when he was there, people thought it would last forever.
“No one thought the wall would fall,” Atkinson said. “If you could see what it was like, the size of it, the country, the police, the institutions – communism had such a strong control. People thought it would never end.”
Control was the goal of the Berlin Wall, and the Soviets went about that goal ruthlessly.
The swath of barren land separating the walls in West and East Berlin was called the Death Strip, and it earned that name. Soviet guards had orders to shoot to kill, and 136 people lost their lives trying to escape East Berlin.
But Atkinson, with his special status, was one of the few people in the world who could cross freely into East Berlin. He traveled there often, and received a first-hand view of the deplorable conditions and brutal state repression the populace endured.
“It was a pretty depressing place,” Atkinson said. “There were still buildings bombed out from World War II. Saturday afternoon around 1 p.m., the whole city would empty out. Everything closes and it was just police and soldiers out. It felt like a post-apocalyptic movie.” Many buildings were still pockmarked with bullet holes and riddled with substandard construction.
“It was sad to see the living conditions,” Atkinson said. “In the winter, you’d see people carrying bricks of coal up to their apartments and the long food lines. It was really a primitive place.” And, whenever he was in East Berlin, Atkinson was constantly followed.
“There’d be someone behind you, and then you look ahead and someone’s peeking around a building,” Atkinson said. “The Soviets would take pictures of you. You assume the phones are bugged. You’re constantly watched; it was a bizarre place.”
Last September, Atkinson returned to Berlin. He was being honored by the German government, through the Checkpoint Charlie Foundation, for his service during the Cold War.
“It was a shock to go back and see it,” Atkinson said. “Going to Checkpoint Charlie, you used to have people with weapons and dogs. Now, there are Burger King and McDonald’s.”
Today, Atkinson uses his experience as a lesson for his students. He mostly earned his unique post on the merits of his college degree in human resources development from Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.
“That’s the advantage of having an education. It opens doors,” Atkinson said. “That’s what I tell my students. It’s important to get an education and learn about the world. Because things can change instantly.”
For more information about UNI's Department of History, visit csbs.uni.edu/history.