A post for Omnified by Linda Mannheim
Berlin’s borough of Steglitz-Zehlendorf still has remnants of its earlier incarnation as the American Sector. Liberty Pizza and Uncle Sam’s American diner are located there. Sports centers and former cinemas once served U.S. troops. Fin-tailed Cadillac cars shipped over by American servicemen have been sold on to new owners and sometimes cruise the streets. At McNair Barracks, former U.S. military members act as volunteer docents to show visitors where members of the Berlin Brigade were once housed.
West Germany became home to between 15-20 million American soldiers and their families as well as civilian employees during the Cold War. And some stayed when their posting was over. One of them is Stanley Greene, who arrived in West Berlin in 1979 as an U.S. Army recruit from St. Petersburg, Florida.
West Berlin, said Greene, who’s African-American, was a place where he felt a sense of freedom he’d never felt before.
“When I was in the States, there was times where — you know — you get harassed for things that you know you’re not responsible for,” he recalled. “This…is something I did not experience here. I felt as if, you know, I was treated — or people were treated — as equal. As one.”
Greene went on to launch a career in broadcasting with the American Forces Network (AFN).
One of the things he enjoyed when he first came was the status that U.S. troops had in West Berlin.
“The city belonged to the Allies,” he said. “And we were the Allies.”
AFN, in particular, was an organization that was held in high regard by local people, he said. After the U.S. military began to withdraw following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Greene began to work with German broadcasters.
Greene is now the owner of an American barbecue shop at the Thielplatz subway station, in Berlin’s former American Sector. The walls are covered with photographs of celebrity guests who visited AFN in the 1980s.
“A lot of people didn’t really see AFN as part of the military because it was more entertainment than anything else,” Greene explained.
AFN estimated that, at their peak, they had an audience of 50 million listeners, a listenership that reached far beyond West Germany. The station was known for introducing Germans to jazz and rock as well as songs that hadn’t yet reached German radio.
The American troops stationed in West Berlin also had an impact on the city’s club culture, Berlin DJs Daniel Best and Kalle Kuts sneaked into some of the military clubs as teenagers, and they believe the sounds coming from those clubs shaped modern West German music.
Herman Purcell, who came to Berlin with the U.S. Army in 1981, discovered the military club scene in West Berlin and became a DJ after he saw DJ Master Blaster, a well known DJ who played R&B at US military clubs across West Germany in the 1980s.
“I was kind of flabbergasted at his show,” Purcell said. “And then it kind of like dawned on me that I can do that too. So I talked to him and I started working with him as a DJ in the military clubs.”
When Purcell finished his posting, he went back to Greensboro, North Carolina briefly. But he knew he would return to West Berlin.
“My dad always told me that if you have something going for yourself, you should stick with it,” Purcell remembered. “And I followed his advice and took a chance on coming back to start another life in Germany, not as a soldier but as a civilian. And things seemed to pan out very well.”
The life that Purcell lives in Germany is one he couldn’t live back home, he said. He’s traveled widely – to Spain, Turkey, Greece, and beyond – places that, in Berlin, are “right here at your fingertips.”
There were also recruits who didn’t imagine settling down in West Berlin at first. KerRick Beach was an 18-year-old recruit from Millington, Tennessee in 1989. His first journey on the military night train to Berlin was one he’d never forget. As he traveled across East Germany in the middle of the night, he looked out the window and saw Russian soldiers carrying Kalashnikovs.
He’d never been away from home before and realized how isolated West Berlin was. Then he arrived at the barracks.
“There was snow on the ground. I don’t know. It was terrible. And I just remember thinking: I don’t remember signing up for this,” Beach said.
Beach began to enjoy life in West Berlin though. By the end of his posting, the Wall had come down. He and his then wife, whom he’d met in Berlin, decided to return to Tennessee. But in Tennessee, Beach was working two to three part time jobs to make ends meet. He thought that, back in Berlin, he could find more solid employment. And his wife, who was from West Berlin, wanted to return to her hometown.
Beach and his family went back and forth to the U.S. again later but ultimately decided to settle down in Berlin. They wanted to figure out the best place to live as a biracial family, and there were three children in the house by then. At the forefront of their minds was education, which they thought might be stronger in Berlin.
Berlin is known for having a large American community, 20,000 strong according to according to Destatis, Germany’s Federal Statistical office. And former U.S. military members are some of the most long-standing members of this community.
Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels, Director of the MA in International Migration at the University of Kent, writes frequently about Americans in Europe and the concept of “accidental migration” where temporary migration becomes permanent because of a relationship, work, or a mix of reasons.
“We don’t know how many GIs have stayed in Germany,” she said. “But it’s certainly clear that a number stay on after their tour of duty, or they return later. Some met a partner and chose to stay. Others simply prefer living in Germany. African-American soldiers often feel that there is less racism in Germany, which plays a role in their decision-making. Of course these factors combine in various ways.”
Klekowski von Koppenfels, who is American, is an accidental migrant herself.
Beach stays in close contact with friends and family members in the U.S. by phone and online. When asked if he feels like he had a different life in Berlin than he might have in the U.S., he said, “I think we all realize that things are not quite the same here as they are in the States. And don’t get me wrong. I am very proud to be an American first and foremost. There’s nothing like us in the world. But I’m also saddened to see that we’re in 2019 and racism is still there and it’s always going to be there.”
The children from Beach’s first marriage are grown up now.
“The environment here in Berlin was a lot better for the kids — the multicultural aspect of things,” he said.
Beach felt like they never had to worry about school shootings in Germany or deal with the kind of racism that he experienced in the American South.
“We knew that there would be something possibly here, but Berlin was so multicultural that it would be less likely that our kids would hear anything like that,” Beach said. “The only way they heard those things were through stories from me talking about my childhood and where I grew up.”