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Aids emerges in the shadow of the Cold War 85 Chapter IX Aids emerges in the shadow of the Cold War The importance of science as a tool of international diplomacy is not to be sneezed at. We scientists are extremely lucky to be able to slip into foreign cultures almost unnoticed, at every stage of our lives. —Sir Tim Hunt The East German connection The Fifth International Congress of Virology was an imposing title for a meeting in a small room in the University of Strasbourg. There, Erik De Clercq became acquainted with Professor Hans Rosenthal, a virologist from East Berlin. The professor struck his walking cane against the table every time he disagreed with a speaker, which occurred rather often. An amused De Clercq made plans to visit Berlin shortly thereafter. The news that an East German state company had shown interest in Peter Langen’s BVDU made it all the more urgent. Driving his old Volvo, Erik De Clercq and his wife Lili prayed that no roadside assistance would be needed to travel across East German territory . One needed to have enough gasoline to make it all the way because stopping was not allowed. At Checkpoint Alpha in Helmstedt, as they left West Germany, the car was thoroughly checked. In search of political propaganda, soldiers rummaged through their luggage, overturned everything and looked underneath the car with a mirror device. They prodded a stick down the petrol tank and looked for the necessary equipment to change tires. The mileage and time of departure were relayed to checkpoint Bravo, the final destination. In order to reach Berlin, an island in the midst of the GDR, De Clercq and his wife had to drive along an eerie corridor, the Helmstedt-Berlin Autobahn, a highway that was protected 86 Cold War Triangle by Volkspolizei with dogs to dissuade anybody from venturing outside the passageway. It had been twenty years since West Berlin was walled off and surrounded with minefields, barbed wires, tanks and armed border guards. But as they approached the city, what a surprise! De Clercq and his wife, bracing, for drab and soulless quarters, found the Rosenthals, a warm and welcoming couple living in a stylish townhouse. They spent the weekend together exploring the “pearls” of the East. The next day, they drove to Dresden in the Rosenthal’s East German car, a Trabant spouting exhaust fumes typical of the unrefined cheap petrol that was used in the East. Dresden was only partially rebuilt, its iconic cathedral still in ruins as if the Allied bombing raids of 1945 had just ended. Upon their return to East Berlin, it was mandatory to attend a concert of classical music in one of the beautifully decorated concert halls. The country’s head of state, Erich Honecker, regularly attended televised events there as if to show the population how cultured their leaders were. On the third day of their stay, the police noticed that Erik and Lili had not formally registered themselves. This could have cost them some jail time, but Hans Rosenthal smoothed things out. Onanothervisit,ErikenteredBerlinthroughitsairport.HansRosenthal picked him up in his Trabant and drove him through West Berlin. With its flashing neon signs and bright lights, boulevards littered with cafés and restaurants, and music spilling out of theatres and cabarets, the city felt surreal. The odd East German car and its occupants received many scrutinizing looks from West Berliners as they drove by. On their way to Checkpoint Charlie to crossover to the East, Erik began to feel somewhat uneasy but Rosenthal reassured him everything would be fine. The usually intimidating border guards seemed to have great respect and deference for this tall, imposing scientist. His Jewish background , and the fact that he had survived the Nazi persecutions doing forced labor during the war years, earned him special status. De Clercq’s documents were stamped immediately, ahead of the long line of cars queuing to go through Checkpoint Charlie. On yet another visit, Erik went to see Peter Langen in what was perhaps the largest science facility in East Germany, the Max-Delbrück-Centrum für Molekulare Medizin, in Berlin-Buch. Before meeting up with students Aids emerges in the shadow of the Cold War 87 for his lecture at ten in the morning, Langen cracked open up a bottle of brandy saying: “We need this here. How else can we survive?”. Langen was shy and discreet and rather depressed by the communist regime. He nevertheless complied...


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