Berlin | Easter Sunday 1967

06 February, 2023

Berlin | Easter Sunday 1967

In this extract from Red Army Faction Blues, undercover agent Peter Urbach gets guidance from Kurt's man at a protest on Easter Sunday in Berlin as he prepares to inflitrate the student group.


Tense? Yes it is.

It’s always tense here.

What do they want now; what imagined favour is being pulled in?

I stand scowling into the rain on the edge of the Ku’damm waiting for Kurt’s man and watching the students going at it again.

Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh! Amis out of Vietnam!

A crowd of perhaps three hundred is gathered under tattered banners to stop the bomb – the Free University flotsam who spend most of their days buried under blankets. Pretty boys and girls with their leaflets and principles and anxious concern for peasants on the other side of the world. A few professors and intellectuals too, who ought to know which side their bread’s buttered.

For a moment I almost envy them as they do their ritualised dance with the bulls outside the Café Kranzler; must be a thrill with righteousness on your side. A push here, two pushes and a cuff or the swipe of a billy club back. Berlin’s security forces have to keep busy – sixty thousand of them on tap in the West Berlin bubble. More security positions than ever before it seems, in this time of peace. SchuPo, BePo, PoPo or KriPo – which level of professional assistance do you need?

Suddenly there’s a new splash of colour. One of the SchuPo – the regular grunts on the front line – takes a hollowed-out egg full of red paint straight down his smart tunic. His colleagues sneer. It looks dramatic, I have to admit, but behind the flanks they’re already reeling out the hoses from the green vans and the horses are being mounted. Another egg manages to explode across the elevated sign above the Kranzler – a bold slash of tutti-frutti Yank-Italian flash, its ‘f’ a dollar sign, its ‘z’ an English pound symbol. Now dripping blood – direct Commie hit.

I see the tank-grey Mercedes with its official plates approach and turn off down a side street. Compromised and near-soaked to the bone, I trudge over.

Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh! Amis out of Vietnam!

I take off my hat as I get in the back as directed. All-leather interior swimming with cigar smoke. Behind steel-rimmed glasses in the front next to the driver, is Kurt’s man.

‘Mister Urbach,’ he says, staring straight ahead as rain pounds at the tinted glass. ‘A little blustery out there?’

With Kurt’s man, my best response is ever silence; he doesn’t joke. He pulls a mottled flask from his leather-trimmed jacket, hair slicked raw white, links glistening from starched cuffs. Bleached, still hungry. Tapered pianist hands that have probed and twisted, blinded, garrotted, castrated. And rain still pounding at the tinted glass.

We slowly circle back on ourselves and watch the demonstration as he talks. About the Grand Coalition and the extra-parliamentary opposition; about Berlin’s mayor, Albertz, and the need for the Emergency Laws. Outside, the hoses are being trained on easy targets – observers knocked from walls, girls spreadeagled in puddles. The BePo – the specially-trained riot suppressors – having fun with it now, relaxing, lashing out; their mounted division preparing for a charge, shoes sparking against curbs. The PoPo, the covert political squad, and the serious crime mob, the KriPo, will all be in there somewhere, watching and waiting.
So which of them wants what, exactly, from me?

I glance at our driver’s fierce spheres in the rear-view and look away again, then Kurt’s man turns on me, his own eyes like gun chambers.

‘Peter, tell me,’ he demands. ‘What do they actually want?’

What do you want? That’s all I’m wondering.

‘It’s not as if they’re even Berliners,’ he continues. ‘Not one of them. Don’t know our customs or traditions. Don’t respect them. Not interested in that, any of it. Just look at them.’

The window slides silently a fraction and I’m back in my sentry box without a weapon. Eyes and ears.

Kurt’s man coughs abruptly, point proven.

‘Ingratitude is what it’s called,’ he tells me. ‘Insolence. Think they can just arrive with nothing from anywhere and impose their values on us. Driving us back to the Dark Ages this is. Come here, they should try to fit in, become part of this city, this culture, not theirs. Acknowledge the fact that we’re the hosts and they’re the lucky ones we’re letting under our wing. Adopt and adapt. Weren’t even here for the last difficulties. If they were, shit, they wouldn’t be trying to tempt the Bear back.’

He offers the flask over the seat. I shake my head, examine the crowd.

‘You know what they’re saying, the real Berliners?’ he continues. ‘Those who were born here? The ones who respect our traditions and customs and remember? I’ll tell you what they’re saying, Peter. They’re saying things were better before. That this would never have been allowed under Hitler. They’re saying get them to camps, throw them over the other side in body bags. And…’

Pauses for effect.

‘…I’ve heard what those crowds are saying, the older ones, the women who can still remember…’

With Kurt’s man, my best response is ever silence. But he’s going to tell me anyway. As if I don’t know already. Turning to me now, behind steel-rimmed glasses, links glistening from starched cuffs, he grins.

‘…Gas them. That’s what they’re saying. That’s the voice on the street, from the real Berliners who remember.’

Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh! Amis out of Vietnam!

And now there’s smoke across the cobbles, a few Free University chemistry lab concoctions, the fumes pushed low by gusts of wind.

Kurt’s man turns back and relights his cigar. More smoke.

‘Who are they really with and who are they against, the SDS?’ he asks me. ‘That’s what we need to know. The working man is it? Is that who they think they represent? And do the working men even know? Couldn’t they kick something off like back in ’53 – actually get the workers on their side? Wherever they may be these days, over here, the noble workers. Strapped by their belts to the rails of the bars already I expect, save falling into the sawdust and puke. The carpenters, the plasterers, the hod carriers and roofers and brickies. But these students…’

He dips and pulls at his tongue with distaste, examines a stray hair between thumb and forefinger.

‘…even if they never quite get around to studying, want to tear everything to its roots. Absolutely no idea what they want to replace it all with though, of course, that’s the problem. All Nazis, see, our generation. Or Stalinists. The fathers. What other options did we have? Hardly a time for sitting on the fence, was it? So now they throw a few eggs at America House.

‘You’d respect your son for such limp gestures would you Peter? Shouldn’t they be taking crowns, killing the kings? Isn’t that what it’s all about? Think they’ve got a problem with fathers, might find it started with Frederick the Great…’

He smiles at his joke. Frederick the Great’s galvanisation, his eureka moment, was when his closest of close friends was executed in front of him. By his father.

Kurt’s man turns solemn again, he shakes his head, flicks his fingers, takes a swig.

Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh! Amis out of Vietnam!

‘It’s the young, I know,’ he continues. ‘The rich young, the pampered young, with their ideals. The educations they’re receiving at our expense. And at the expense of the Allies too. Paid for, at the end of the day, in the sweat and toil of the workers they’re so keen to represent. You know what they’d also say, the real Berliners? That they don’t even want the fucking Free University here, that’s what they’d tell you. That’s the problem with it all. Too good for service. Low taxes, cheap rents, no curfew. That Dutschke lad for one, wants to stop shooting his mouth off or someone will take matters into their own hands sooner rather than later.

‘Anyway,’ he says with a sigh, ‘in the end, some are born for the bullet, others go on to power. Those lucky enough find a way to steer through it. That’s always been the way don’t you think? Steering through? Making do? Making the best?’

We stare out at the crowd as the car inches around its loop and rain still pounds at the tinted glass. The police horses have made their first charge but are getting anxious, forced into tricky twists and dips so their riders can get in close with the batons as the penned-in students try to dodge the blows.

Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh! Amis out of Vietnam!

‘We have files on all the ringleaders. That one there, for example…’

A manicured thumb turns my eyes right. Thick beard and glasses, threadbare suit, pressing leaflets on a middle-aged couple. Mister Respectable Civilian’s teeth bared like an Alsatian under a low hat, striking out with his folded brolly. His wife in fur and heels, set to break into a run.

‘The urgent message he’s peddling, thick with student satire, appears to be giving his marching pals the Virgin Mary’s blessing on this holy day,’ Kurt’s man tells me. ‘Urging them to steal. Their Holy Virgin a thief now. Mocking the authorities. Mocking the Church and the beliefs of decent people.

‘Shoplifting charge back in February appears to have gone to his head. Butter, shoe polish and two pairs of socks – a little personal protest against the obscenity of private property – fifty marks fine, but his friends rallied round. Like that one, for instance…’

He fingers a wispy ginger beanpole with protruding washboard ribs below a sheepskin, baggy pants tucked into boots, like a village farmer, carrying a papier-mâché model of an atom bomb.

‘…no papers, but working an offset litho for Rotaprint in Wedding. Situationist, or something like that. Three days ago observed outside the Chinese Embassy with two others. One of them Dutschke again. What could their business be there? That’s something you can find out. I’ll have the files delivered.’
Kurt’s man slowly shakes his head.

‘Situationist,’ he repeats. ‘What a situation. Butter, shoe polish and two pairs of socks – can that really be all this is about?’

KriPo back-up arrive now, a battalion of radio cars and troop carriers, sirens keening. Bodies roll out, barking into megaphones. The BePo horses are charging at anyone who moves.

The students have regrouped and chant louder, more stones start to fly.

‘You wouldn’t believe how hungry the Allies are for information Peter,’ Kurt’s man says. ‘A constant stream of information. Bloody insatiable they are. And then, of course, you’ve got to pass it to the other side too. Even unintended gaps lead to mistrust. It’s all got to be seamless. Truth doesn’t even come into it, one way or the other. I need you to get in close to them, close as you can. You can do that for us can’t you?’

‘I’ll do what I can,’ I say, eventually.

‘There’s one more thing.’ He turns now, watching me closely. ‘How’s work going?’

They fixed it up for me, the job. Railway maintenance. All employees working on the suburban trains of West Berlin have to be members of the West Berlin branch of the East German Socialist Unity Party and carry their red party membership card.

‘It’s fine,’ I tell him.

He turns back to the front.

‘Well it’s over, I’m afraid, for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately they believe you’ve been taking things that don’t belong to you. You’re not happy about it and you’ll let everyone know about your grievance with the authorities. I’m sure you can take care of the other details.’

We pull down another side street and the driver gets out and opens my door. Kurt’s man doesn’t look at me.

‘You’ll be okay out there,’ he barks at the windscreen. ‘You know your way around.’

Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh!

The tank-grey Mercedes pulls away – nothing to see here, business as usual in the driving rain.

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A coalition government. A widely mistrusted ruling elite. Riots in the streets and heavy-handed police tactics. Welcome to West Berlin, 1967. Undercover agent Peter Urbach is tasked with infiltrating a group of radical students whose anti-consumerist message is not without propaganda value on both sides of the Wall. Soon, high-minded political activism wi..

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