Monday, February 05, 2007

Retail therapy for the US Vice-President


'We live in a capitalist society' was fellow blogger Alex Ross' timely reminder on my recent article about Sony putting PlayStation consoles into a London opera house. So, here today is an article celebrating that great capitalist society where the customer is king, or at least Vice-President.

In Berlin, there was a great surge in the popular mood when Vice-President Lyndon Johnson and the mayor of Berlin Willy Brandt’s triumphal progress towards the North Charlottenburg municipal housing project and Marienfelde was interrupted at around 2.30. Momentous news had been received. The US battle group from West Germany was approaching the border between the GDR and Berlin. The VIP’s must get ready to receive it. The limo turned south-west, weaving its way through back streets cleared by police cars with their sirens wailing and by skilful motorcycle outriders. The car was heading for the Avus highway, which would speed it down to the Dreilinden checkpoint. This was where the battle group would cross back into Western territory.

This moment, shortly after noon in Berlin on Sunday 20 August 1961, was a potential turning-point in the West Berlin crisis. Nevertheless, by Brandt’s account, as they roared towards Dreilinden in the open car, his Texan guest’s mind seems to have wandered to other matters. To shopping, in fact.

Johnson chose this dramatic juncture to make an enquiry of the mayor, not about Brandt’s views on the crisis, or on the European scene, but about places where the Vice-President might be able to pick up some stuff to take home for the folks there. You know … what about the place where they did the wonderful china? Ah yes, Brandt responded helpfully. The former Prussian Royal Porcelain Manufactory, now the State Porcelain Factory. This was famous for its pale-blue chinaware, which had adorned the dinner table of
Frederic the Great and was still produced for the international luxury market. They had an outlet, but of course, it being Sunday, the place was unfortunately closed. Johnson’s reaction reflected his position as leader of a nation that lived to shop, forced to endure the privations of a nation that still, at that point in its history, shopped to live.

‘Well, goddamnit!’ he exploded. ‘What if they are closed? You’re the mayor, aren’t you? It shouldn’t be too difficult for you to make arrangements so I can get to see that porcelain. I’ve crossed an entire ocean to come here …’

That true story is from the newly published, and highly recommended, The Berlin Wall by Frederick Taylor (Bloomsbury ISBN 0747580154), from which both photographs here are also taken with acknowledgment. Willy Brandt's version is taken from his book Begegnungen und Einsichten: Die Jahre 1960-1975. (Hamburg, 1976). Frederick Taylor is also author of the acclaimed book on the bombing of Dresden, on Tuesday 13th February 1945.

My header photo shows Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt and Lyndon Johnson during the Vice-President’s visit to the newly divided Berlin in August 1961. To the left of Johnson is General Lucius D Clay who was military governor in Berlin in the post-war period. He was sent by President Kennedy to represent US interests in Berlin after the Wall was built. In this photograph the US Vice-President’s mind seems to be on other things – porcelain perhaps?

Below is the scene the beleaguered Berliners were waiting for, the arrival of armed US troops. Sadly though the Western troops did little more that take part in a stand-off with East German forces, a stand-off that lasted until the Wall fell in November 1989. In the background can be seen the reconstructed Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church which I have written about on these pages.


Now, to understand how the Berliners really felt read The Berlin Philharmonic’s darkest hour.
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