For Americans old enough to remember the Berlin airlift and the erection of the infamous wall between the eastern and western sectors of that divided city, it is a bit shocking to hear what a large minority of West Berliners are saying these days. What they are saying is that they no longer need nor want the protecting presence of troops from the United States, France and Britain. This while they live on an island of affluence and freedom totally surrounded by the grim and gray reality of Communist rule
If the day ever comes when a majority of West Berliners truly prefer to take their chances without allied protection despite the presence of 21 Soviet divisions around Berlin, they should of course be accorded that privilege. But a withdrawal could trigger dangerous instabilities in the heart of Europe, and should be avoided if possible.
Fortunately, the situation has not reached a critical stage. Given a little flexibility by America, Britain and France, perhaps it won't.
The restiveness in West Berlin is in part a reflection of the generation gap. Growing numbers of people on the western side of the wall have grown to adulthood since the grim days when military occupation by Communist forces seemed a real possibility. In addition, many of the young people attracted to West Berlin by the city's draft-exempt status are street people with no interest in geopolitical realities.
The major problem, though, is the outmoded legal and political situation in West Berlin.
Berlin was occupied by U.S., French, British and Soviet forces at the end of World War II, and, unlike the Federal Republic of Germany, it is still technically under military occupation.
In West Berlin the city council is elected by the people, and it in turn chooses the mayor and the executive authority. But supreme authority still lies with the Kommandatura, made up of the three occupying Western powers. About 6,000 or so occupation laws remain on the books; until recently a West Berliner could have been imprisoned for "defamation" of the allies. The death penalty can still be imposed in Berlin, although it is forbidden under West German law. The allied powers try not to abuse their ultimate authority. But the British did recently forbid the civilian courts to hear a suit filed by West Berliners objecting to a new military rifle range.
A recent poll showed that 60% of West Berliners are unhappy with this state of affairs; about half of them want the "occupation" forces out.
Unfortunately, the allies can't tear up the legal framework of the four-power occupation without undercutting the legal justification for their trip-wire military presence--and possibly opening the way for ultimate incorporation of West Berlin into East Germany.
But whatever can be done should be done. Richard Burt, U.S. ambassador to West Germany, is determined to get as many of the occupation laws off the books as possible, and to transfer jurisdiction to civilian Berlin authorities wherever feasible. If the British and French cooperate in such an endeavor, West Berliners will have more reason to see the allied forces--the continued presence of which is ardently desired by the West German government--as guarantors of their freedom rather than as unwanted foreign intruders.