Posts Tagged Berlin Wall

25 Years

Twenty-five years ago tonight, I stood in my apartment in Arlington, Virginia, and watched Berlin free itself.

It was a moment I really never thought I would see.

The Wall had been built in 1961, five years before I was born, so to me, it was eternal.  It was built to prevent the East German dictatorship from turning into a land without a people.  Berliners, and Germans in general, were using the Allied Sectors as an escape hatch in growing numbers, and the East Germans were putting pressure on the Soviets to do something about it. Having found Kennedy weak, Khrushchev acted.  The wall went up, and the city divided.

Escapes – successful and failed – became the stuff of legend.  People tunneled under, jumped over, drove through, and just sneaked across.  Checkpoint Charlie – the official crossing between East and West – assumed a mythic status in the Cold War imagination, for exchanges, infiltrations, and releases both real and fictional.

Over time, the embarrassment of the Wall exceeded the embarrassment of the East German exodus:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtYdjbpBk6A

The Wall, built in 1961, just like the tyranny that put it there, was a fixture.  And then, it wasn’t.

Now, there are pieces of the wall all over the world, although, perhaps surprisingly, not in every former Soviet bloc country.  Pictures of these segments invariably show the spray-painted western side, because it’s more visually arresting and more colorful.  That’s almost always the side that’s displayed, where the little plaques explaining the history are placed, as well.

That’s a mistake, and it’s one that reprises a mistake we made during the Cold War itself.  American tourists were often disappointed.  “It’s just a wall,” they’d complain, after having seen it.  They should showcase the drab, dull grey side instead.  For the West, the Wall was just a wall; for the East, it was a prison.  Let the spectators see the other side first, and have to circle around to see the colors.

In a very real sense, the wall isn’t gone.  Forty years of separation, 28 years of the Wall, effected a lasting societal change:

Not everyone is happy about this change.  During the Day at the Capitol for the JCRC, in the House gallery, I sat next to an older gentleman, representing one of the JCRC’s organizations.  It turned out he was a retired American diplomat, back from a long-term posting in Leipzig, in the former East Germany.  To break the ice, I mentioned something about the Leipzig Trade Fair, and then offered what I assumed was a fairly innocuous observation about how the people there are better off since the fall of Communism.  At first, I wasn’t sure he had heard me, so I tried again.

In fact, I had stumbled across not an American patriot, but a Communist fellow-traveler.  What followed was an hour-long discussion that could have happened during my college days, complete with assertions that East Germany was free for certain values of “free.”  With representatives like that, it at once became clear to me why it took 70 years to win the Cold War.

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