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The Unbelievable Night the Berlin Wall Fell
Two scenes from the end of the Cold War:
Scene one: On June 12, 1987, President Reagan stood before the Berlin Wall, the Brandenburg Gate rising behind him, to challenge to the leader of the Soviet Union. “General Secretary Gorbachev,” the president said, “if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate.
“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Scene two: On Nov. 9, 1989, just 29 months after Reagan’s speech, the Berlin Wall fell. Responding to weeks of protests across East Germany, the East German politburo met in emergency session, hoping to quell the protests with new diktats.
When a member of the politburo mistakenly announced that the East German regime had lifted all border controls, East Berliners began streaming to the wall. As the crowds grew, one border guard, unable to obtain orders from his confused superiors, opened his gate. Guards at the remaining checkpoints followed his example.
Thousands of East Berliners rushed into West Berlin, which took on the air of a giant street party. While some Berliners danced atop the wall, others mounted a run on hardware stores, buying every sledgehammer and pickaxe they could find to begin demolishing the structure.
Did Reagan’s 1987 speech prompt the events of 1989? Since I drafted the address, I’ve pondered that. And though I’ve found no direct or immediate link, conversations over the years have led me to conclude that it mattered.
Consider the account of Ulrike Marschinke, who grew up in East Berlin. “When I heard Mr. Reagan say, ‘tear down this wall,’” Marschinke once told me, “I thought to myself, ‘What a strange idea!’”
“I only knew the world with the wall. I couldn’t imagine how it would work to live without the wall. It was impossible for me to understand what would happen.”
Or listen to Otto Bamel. A West German diplomat, Bamel lived in East Germany when the wall came down. “I didn’t believe this could happen,” he told me.
Strange. Unimaginable. Unbelievable. The Berlin Wall seemed so immovable — such a fixed part of everyday life and of the entire Communist outlook and philosophy — that the very idea of life without it seemed inconceivable.
Reagan thus spoke the unspeakable.
He helped create for people in the East a new sense of the possible. If an American president could call on the leader of the Soviet Union to tear down the Berlin Wall — if that could happen — what else might prove possible?
Reagan was not alone in calling for freedom, of course. Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel and others all denounced the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. Yet Reagan alone spoke in the tradition of America’s Cold War presidents.
Like President Harry Truman, who bucked Stalin’s 1948 blockade of West Berlin by flying supplies to the city in the Berlin Airlift. And John F. Kennedy, who went to Berlin and declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”
Reagan spoke, that is, as the leader of the one nation that possessed the military forces capable of counterbalancing those of the Soviet Union — and that for more than four decades demonstrated its determination to stand for the cause of liberty. When Reagan called on Gorbachev to tear down the wall, he was only giving voice to the American people.
On this 30th anniversary of the fall of the wall, it’s worth a final glimpse of that second scene. In the words, again, of Otto Bamel:
“Early in the morning we saw a piece of paper on our kitchen table from our youngest boy, Jens, telling us, ‘I crossed the wall. I jumped over the wall at the Brandenburg Gate with my friends. I took my East Berlin friends with me.’
“I said to my wife, ‘Something is wrong.’ Without eating we took our bicycles and went to the border … There were people crossing the border on foot and in cars and on bicycles and motorbikes. It was just overwhelming. Nobody expected it … The joy about this event was just overwhelming all other thoughts. This was so joyful and so unbelievable.”
Whatever mistakes we make or bitterness that seeps into our politics, be proud: Throughout the Cold War, Americans stood for one cause — liberty.
First published in the New York Post.Published in History
Thanks, Peter. A great reminder. And yes, you own a piece of that wall, in a very real way.
I remember one of my friends from the USAF Academy managed to obtain a piece of the wall in 1989. I picked it up and it crumbled. It was ok, then he had 2 pieces of the wall.
As someone who studied both Soviet and European history in UCC, Ireland I am eternally greatful for American leadership in the Cold War. But I think the most strategic player in all of this even more so than Reagan, was Gorbachev and not even the decisions he made in 1989 with the East Bloc.
In 1985-1987 in private sessions with the Politburo and later with East German and other Eastern Bloc dictators Gorbachev told them bluntly that there would be no intervention by the Soviet Union like there had been in Prague and Budapest. The fact that no reprisal of Warsaw Pact invasions came about meant that the peaceful democratic spring could emerge in Eastern Europe.
Sadly such a thing did not happen in Beijing in 1989.
Think We’ll ever draft another Varsity team like that again?
And my experience with The Wall was in some ways the opposite, and has informed a lifetime of detesting socialism. When I saw The Wall in 1963 as an American 7 year old kid whose family had always gone wherever we wanted whenever we wanted, I found it inconceivable that a government could make its citizens so miserable that the government had to build such a wall to keep its citizens in, and that the situation was so dire that people were willing to take such enormous risks to try to cross The Wall from East to West. As Americans, we could take tours of East Berlin, and little 7 year old me found it inconceivable that there could be so much obvious economic difference between life on the two sides of The Wall.
There were a series of newsworthy and noticeable events between the Brandenburg Gate speech and the fall of the wall. Steven Hayward gives a succinct summary in “The Fall of the Wall, 30 Years Later.”
Start with the stunning Polish election sweeping the Communists from office. Carry on through Hungary, where the new government simply threw open the gates to Austria, allowing a trickle to turn into a flood of East Germans just going the long way around the wall. It was this voting with feet, combined with massive demonstrations, emboldened by Poland and Hungary, that led to the East German regime suddenly, without fanfare, announcing freedom of travel. That was what inspired the citizens of Berlin to do their bit of DIY infrastructure improvement.
I remember East Germans in their tiny cars driving on the shoulder of the Autobahn north of Munich, in the time between Hungary opening the gates and the DDR folding. They were gawking, eyes as big as saucers, as working class West Germans blew by in the slow lane in Opals, Fords, and VWs. In those first ventures onto West German roads, the Osties knew that their entire lives had been built on lies. The gap between the people divided for less than a half century was a chasm.
Most importantly, this story is not lost on today’s generations – that history needs to be understood in its entirety. It’s profoundly important and those that were there need to keep telling it.
I remember taking the UBahn in West Berlin and getting out in East Berlin. We had to show our passport and exchange some money at the official rate. Saw lots of historic buildings on the Lindenstrasse with bullet holes made by the Soviets. Went to get beer and sausage to spend the ostMarks. Things were so cheap. Couldn’t spend all the money. Then came back west through Check Point Charlie. Much more tense leaving than entering.
I was camping near the zoo about 100 feet from the wall. Constantly woken during the night with dogs barking and AK47s being fired.
The last thing I remember is all the graffiti on the wall though only on the western side.
I remember being so elated when the wall came down and was glad I remembered what it was like before.
And history didn’t end.
The effects of the wall coming down and reunification are still being felt.
I have a piece of the wall. Or at least a piece of something I was sold in Berlin in 1993 by someone who claimed it was a piece of the wall.
A vignette suggested for the scenery change between Acts I and II: a phone call between a nice German lady living in Berlin and her American friend, fiendishly devising affordable death and destruction somewhere in the United States. This occurs the evening after the November 4th rally where 500,000 East Germans turned out.
“I can hear then sometimes, during my evening walks. They’ve been chanting wir wollen raus … we want out. But last night they were chanting wir bleiben hier … we’re staying here! “We want out” is a protest. “We’re staying here” is a revolt. Please pray for us.
Someone should write a play on Günter Schabowski and the importance of not winging it during press conferences.
Re: Reagan’s influence, I remember reading an article about Reagan’s “evil empire” speech. It quoted some people who had lived in the Soviet Bloc. They said his speech made them begin to hope because in an era when prominent people visited the USSR and spoke platitudes, finally someone in the West (and a big someone) had named the evil.
We call those items “Freedom Ornaments”. Hang ’em by the chimney with care.
Peter, you should get the Presidential Medal of Freedom for writing these words.
Just sayin’ . . .
My wife was there. She was studying in France at the time. Heard about it on the radio, got on a train to go see. She says it was incredible.
I was working in Milan when the wall came down. I’m sure that the Italian news outlets were carrying the story, but our American team didn’t speak Italian and this was essentially BI (before internet). We got the news from “Zee Bee Esse Effening News con Dan Rather presentato dalla carta American Express.” It was still exciting!
I remember when the Berlin Wall came down. I grew up reading stories and watching movies about people trying to escape East Germany. My parents made sure that it was part of our education. My mom, in particular. I’m trying to follow in her footsteps! (It’s intimidating.)
Also, the Freedom Festival that is in Provo every year celebrates those who escape from communist countries, right for our freedoms, etc. It’s how I learned about MiG fighter pilots, etc.
I also had a German AP European History teacher who talked about the realities of what occurred in Germany during those times. When she talked about the wall coming down she said she wanted to wrap herself in the German flag because she was so happy!