August the 13th — it wasn’t a Friday, but it was unlucky nevertheless — marks the 50th Anniversary of the Construction of the Berlin Wall. This was unquestionably one of those defining moments in history that determines the course of human events for decades and generations to come. T.H.E. Hill, the author of two spy novels about Berlin — The Day Before the Berlin Wall: Could We have Stopped It? and Voices Under Berlin — is a graphic artist as well as an author. He has designed a sheet of commemorative Cinderella Stamps for this anniversary.
Interview with T.H.E. Hill
LN: Why did you decide to design a sheet of stamps to commemorate the Construction of the Berlin Wall?
Hill: Because nobody else was going to. In all the years that I, and others like me, fought the Secret Cold War, it was under the banner of “Peace is our most important product.” That was our motto, because the alternative was unthinkable. We accomplished our mission. The Iron Curtain came down without the Cold War turning hot, but people seem to have forgotten what we accomplished.
On a recent visit to Berlin, we met an old German couple, who, when they discovered that I am an American, thanked me for the food and coal brought in on the Berlin Airlift that kept them and their new-born son alive that very cold winter, and for keeping them out of the clutches of the Russians. They also apologized that the younger generation has forgotten those things, and does not like America anymore.
A friend who teaches Russian at DLIWC (Defense Language Institute, West Coast) put their apology into perspective when he pointed out that almost all his students these days were born after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. To his students, the Cold War is that history lesson they missed on the day that they were sick at home. But not to me. The Cold War and I grew up together, and Berlin was its hometown.
While a whole generation has grown up since the Fall of the Berlin Wall, remembering the 50th Anniversary of its construction will help to keep humanity from making the same mistake twice, I hope. Like Mark Twain says, history may not repeat itself word for word, but it does rhyme a lot. That is why I wrote The Day Before the Berlin Wall and designed the stamps.
LN: Could you explain the iconography that went into the designs of the two stamps on the sheet?
Hill: The first stamp has a lot of black to represent the sense of mourning that the construction of the Berlin Wall caused. The anniversary dates (13 August 1961-2011), and the number 50 are in a heavy black. There is, nevertheless, an accent on the Fall of the Wall, which marks it clearly as a “post-Wall” design. The left side of the stamp shows the start of construction. This was the first of four versions of the Berlin Wall, made of small individual cinderblocks. The right side of the stamp shows version four of the Berlin Wall, built of pre-cast concrete segments, but with a prominent hole, surrounded by the zero in the number 50, displaying the date upon which the Wall fell: November 9, 1989. The hole represents the breach of the Wall that preceded the Reunification of Berlin and Germany.
The second stamp shows the Berlin Bears (the mascots on the coats of arms) of West and East Berlin, facing each other across a barbed wire fence to represent how the wall forcibly separated friends and families. This stamp expressly lacks the “Happy Ending” of the first, to recall the suffering that the Wall caused. The Berlin Bears are displayed against the background of the German flag, because though they were separated, they were still one people. The anniversary dates abut the barbed wire.
LN: Why are you so fascinated with Berlin?
Hill: Berlin was the focal point of the Cold War, and The Cold War and I grew up together. I was born during the Berlin Airlift, and came of age wearing an Army uniform inside the confines of the Berlin Wall. I watched in awe as the East Germans cowed the border guards into opening the wall by chanting “Wir sind das Volk!” (We are the People!), which is terribly ironic, because the border guards were supposedly the servants of the People. The People were making the point: “You work for us! Now open the Wall and let us through.”
The official reason for the construction of the Berlin Wall was to protect the People of the Soviet Zone of Germany from the Fascists in the West, but all the barriers were designed to keep people in the East from crossing the Wall, not to keep people in the West out. The real reason for the construction of the Wall was to stem the flow of refugees from the Soviet Zone of Germany, which was a major concern for the East German regime, because the flow of refugees threatened to empty the country.
This is reflected in a popular joke about the Berlin Wall that involves Erich Honecker and his wife, Margot. The joke goes that Honecker and his wife were having dinner one night when Margot said, “Oh, Erich, why couldn’t you open the wall up for just one day?”
Erich looked at her with a loving twinkle in his eye, “How romantic, Margot,” he said. “You want us to be alone.”
The point of the joke is that, if the East Germans had not constructed the Wall, Eric and Margot Honecker would soon have been the only Germans remaining in the Soviet Zone of Germany, and would have been quite alone.
Alas, poor Cold War. I knew it well. It was a war of infinite jest and most excellent fancy, fought more often in the shadows of the mind than to the death, yet the lives of millions hung in the balance. It is a war without monuments, but not without casualties. 136 people were confirmed killed while trying to cross the Berlin Wall into West Berlin. Major Arthur D. Nicholson, a USMLM (United States Military Liaison Mission) tour officer, the last casualty of the Cold War, was a classmate. That makes it very personal. I couldn’t build a monument, so I designed a sheet of Cinderella stamps. We all do what we can in our own small way.
LN: Q: Tell me something about the art medium of Cinderella Stamps
Poster Stamps were particularly popular in Germany in the first half of the twentieth century. In the second half of the twentieth century, in the USA, the VFW issued a sheet of commemorative Cinderella stamps every year. The twenty-first century has seen an increase in the interest in Cinderella Stamps, with a growing number of exhibitions.
A previous article on these stamps is here.
[There’s also a well-done site put up by Der Spiegel Online with 33 photos of the Berlin Wall and events surrounding it at various stages.]