The Hidden Cold War

Paul Oestreicher’s Cold War

Speech delivered at the launch of Stepping Off the Map

… Ordained in 1959 as the Cold War was the great new threat to the world, I felt called to fight in that war. Who was the enemy? The Cold War itself: not the Communist East, nor the capitalist West, but their demonization of the ‘Other’. Western liberal values were my values; so were the ideals of Socialism, of Marx, the young 19th century journalist who dreamed of a revolution in social justice … and turned it into an alternative religion, a religion that Stalin ruined, as religious leaders tend to do – Christian leaders, Jewish leaders, Muslim leaders.

I first went to East Germany in 1955, to try to visit my grandmother in an old people’s home – the non-Jewish one; the Jewish one had perished in the Holocaust. The police thought I was probably a Western spy with a fake New Zealand passport. So an NKVD agent – that’s what the KGB was called then – interrogated me for two days. I was very scared, but in the end he believed me. Even so, he still didn’t let me go to see my grandmother, but sent me back to the West to apply again for a visa. Why, I asked? A long silence. What if I’m wrong? What happens to me then? His hand across his throat answered the question. He would not survive. If I was scared, so was he – permanently. He didn’t send me to Siberia, as he could have. Maybe I owe him my life. Who am I to condemn him? The Cold War was his enemy – and mine.

My real war started when I joined the BBC in 1961 when they sent me to Berlin to make a feature programme about how the Berliners felt about the newly built Wall. That taught me, as Merrilyn’s research has shown, that the official news – on both sides – is not what it seems. The West had its slogan: ‘Freedom!’ I don’t know how many people the CIA has killed as it toppled democracies in Latin America. The Stalinists preached peace and killed, God knows how many. In Berlin I interviewed the British deputy military commandant. He took me to dine in Berlin’s best restaurant in the French army’s Maison de France. ‘Here’s what you can say, on the record, about British policy: The Communists have imprisoned the people of the GDR, broken the inter-allied agreement on free travel in Berlin, and broken the basic principles of human rights in threatening to shoot people when they try to escape over the Wall. But here’s what we Westerners actually think, off the record: We welcome the Wall. It has ended the huge flow of East German refugees to the West. It will stabilise the government of the GDR, and ensure stability in Europe. It has secured the future of free West Berlin. It has, in a word, assured peace’. That is the real reason the West did nothing to oppose the Wall. And the Soviets knew it. They had the West’s assurance that they could go ahead at no risk.

On a much smaller scale, the Provost of Coventry’s wonderful wish to organise a British version of Sühnezeichen – Expiation in reverse, after young Germans had come to Coventry to make good a little of what their parents had destroyed – this Christian act of reconciliation was what (in secret) both sides in the Cold War welcomed. It was more than just healing the wounds of a past war. It was making yet another war less likely. Bill Williams didn’t intend that. His initiative went far beyond his horizons. Helping to stabilise the GDR was not on his mind. It was on mine. I was part of the conspiracy – though even I was only vaguely aware of it.

It was me who persuaded Dr Seidowsky, that shadowy Stasi agent, to support the project and help to persuade the GDR government to do so. I didn’t know then that he had done so. It was me who persuaded him to talk to Merrilyn when she was writing her book on it all, as she explains in the conclusion to today’s moving collection of your memories.

I learned to sup with my Cold War enemies in East and West, the Cold Warriors on both sides. I did not and would not despise them… like that KGB officer who interrogated me … like Oleg Gordievsky, the chief of the London KGB centre who turned out to be a double agent working for MI6. He told me over lunch, as a Soviet diplomat, a joke that could have had him killed by Stalin: ‘Do you know the difference between the Soviets and the Americans?’ Answer: ‘The Americans believe their own propaganda’.

Over many years I learned to tell the difference between appearance and reality. Nothing has changed in this today. The world remains a cruel and dangerous place, but not quite as dangerous as it might be, because there are – well-disguised – human beings on every side of every conflict. When in doubt, take Jesus’ word for it, and go on loving the enemy.

Anne McElvoy, who writes for the Economist, wrote maybe the best book – The Saddled Cow – about the GDR, where she studied and which she knew as well as I and my wife Barbara Einhorn did, Barbara, who knew a Stasi prison from the inside. Get hold of Anne’s book if you can. Anne helped Seidowsky’s boss, Markus Wolf, Head of the Stasi’s international arm – to write his memoirs. She called him her ‘frenemy’ – friend and enemy in one. I suspect that is how both the Stasi and MI6 saw me too.

Today it has become even more difficult to know who our frenemy is. Your Dresden project, like Coventry’s Sühnezeichen project before it, were the best possible examples of how to oppose the Cold War. I would not have wanted to speak here today without paying a very special tribute to Aktion Sühnezeichen, which we now call ARSP. This post-war German movement, called to life by a remarkable opponent of Hitler’s regime, had a vision of young Germans forming, in effect, a Peace Corps as an act of reparation for what Germans had done to other nations. Obviously, trying to do the almost impossible, in acts of penitence, working in Israel and elsewhere in Europe, to re-create human links with Jewish people. It took Germans a long time to acknowledge what the Holocaust had truly meant. But Sühnezeichen wanted to extend its work to the rest of Europe, and of course that included Britain. …

…The book we are launching today provides moving testimony by those who went and worked in Dresden, and is all the more valuable for showing that what was done half a century ago is still vividly alive in the memories of whose who went, and of those who received them with warmth and gratitude.

The GDR is no more, but the tales of life there – with much light and much darkness – are an important reminder that political systems are one thing; the people who live in them quite another. That is no less true of the Britain in which we live now.

Finally, thanks most especially to you, Merrilyn, for your remarkable doctoral research and for editing these human testimonies.

Extracts from Canon Paul Oestreicher’s speech delivered on 13 November 2015 at Coventry Cathedral