Saturday was the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the last few days have seen a flood of commentary about the end of the Cold War and the changes it wrought in Europe and the world.
If you were alive and following the news in the autumn of 1989, you couldn't not be mesmerized by East Germany's abrupt, unplanned decision to let the captive residents of East Berlin freely pass through the checkpoints to West Berlin for the first time in 28 years . For decades, the Berlin Wall had been one of the planet's most nauseating and visible emblems of tyranny. More than that: It had been a physical manifestation of that tyranny's permanence. Just months before it came to an end, East Germany's Communist dictator, Erich Honecker, confidently proclaimed that the ugly barrier might never come to an end. "The Wall will still be standing in 50 and even in 100 years," he boasted to a Western journalist in January 1989.
He was wrong about that, and so was nearly everyone else. On the history-changing night 30 years ago, when, at a press conference, a bureaucrat from the Central Committee of the East German Communist Party awkwardly announced the end of all restrictions on travel to the west — "permanent emigration is henceforth allowed across all border crossing points between East Germany and West Germany and West Berlin," he said — many people thought they must have misheard him. But some young people wasted no time putting the announcement to the test.
"A group of friends, who had been watching the televised press conference in a bar, quickly paid their bill and walked four blocks to the nearest border crossing, at Bornholmerstrasse," wrote William F. Buckley Jr. in his 2004 book on the fall of the Berlin Wall . "The showed their identity cards to the Grepo [short for Grenzpolizei, or border policeman] on duty. He permitted them to cross the bridge into West Berlin. One of them spoke to an American reporter. 'To walk across this bridge into West Berlin is the most normal thing in the world. But things haven't been normal here for 28 years."
The news spread at the speed of light. Soon a flood of East Berliners was rushing through the gates. By the hundreds of thousands they came, surging all night long and through the next day, making their way to the free world that had always been so close, yet utterly inaccessible.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was a sense that history and politics had permanently shifted human affairs for the better.
In the first 48 hours, more than a million East Germans crossed over. Many were keen to see the Kurfurstendamm, West Berlin's glittering shopping boulevard — a paradise unknown in the drab and scarcity-plagued East. Traffic came to a halt all over the city. And not only there. At Helmstedt, on the border between the Germanies, cars were backed up for 40 miles; some drivers waited 11 hours to drive across to the west.
But nothing could top the tableaux at the Wall itself. The huge crowds of weeping, laughing, cheering Berliners, filling every square foot of what had been a grim no-man's-land just a day earlier. The exuberant young men and women clambering to the top of the wall to dance and drink champagne. The welcoming throngs of West Berliners, pounding with glee on the hood and roof of each Trabant that came sputtering through the checkpoints. And everywhere, Germans with chisels and hammers and drills, attacking the wall in joy and in triumph.
"The long-awaited day has arrived," West Berlin Mayor Walter Momper said. "The Berlin Wall no longer divides Berliners."
Yet the heartbreaking truth, which I haven't seen mentioned in the 30th anniversary coverage, is that those long years of separation had been wholly unnecessary. If only the United States had acted at the outset to stop the wall, the wall would have been stopped. When the East German police first began putting up barbed wire to close the crossings between the Eastern (Soviet) and Western sectors of the city, US tanks could have easily and bloodlessly knocked them down. What's more, they had every legal right to do so — the Allies' post-World War II agreements covering the administration of Berlin had stipulated that there was to be free movement within the city. But President Kennedy, notwithstanding the swagger of his Inaugural Address — "we shall pay any price, bear any burden" — was afraid of provoking a military confrontation. The orders came down from the top: Do nothing.
The bitter irony is that the orders coming down from the top on the other side were to back down if the Americans made a show of force.
There was no mystery about why East Germany wanted to seal off East Berlin. Communist central planning had afflicted East Germany with the usual results of communist central planning — impoverishment, unemployment, and shortages — and growing numbers of East Germany's people wanted out. In 1959, 7,500 East Germans a month were showing up at the Marienfelde refugee center in West Berlin to apply for asylum; by 1960, the number was up to 12,600 per month. In June 1961, a whopping 20,000 East Germans made their way to West Berlin.
Desperate to stop the hemorrhaging, the Soviets and East Germans resolved to apply a tourniquet. Shortly after midnight on August 13, 1961, they started sealing off West Berlin from the rest of the city. The orders from Moscow were to proceed — but only if the Americans didn't make a move to interfere.
"As the city slept," recounts Buckley,
East German soldiers, militiamen, and police fanned out along the whole 28 miles of the jagged inter-sector border and began stringing barbed wire. It was there in copious supply — Honecker had been stockpiling it in army and militia garrisons since March. . . . Militiamen with jackhammers and crowbars began to tear up the paving stones on major streets, making them impassable by ordinary vehicles. Others stood by with tommy guns to block any interference. On the Western side, nightclub patrons, spilling out onto the streets, yelled insults at the Easterners. Some called out, "Wait till the Amis [German slang for "Americans"] get here!" But the Amis with their tanks, which would have rolled right over the barbed wire, never came.
There were those on the American side who pressed urgently not to yield to the communists' violations. Among them were Dean Acheson, the highly respected former secretary of state; Allan Lightner, the senior US diplomat in West Berlin; and Gen. Lucius Clay , a hero to Berliners for organizing the 1948 airlift that broke the Soviet blockade of the city, and JFK's personal envoy to Berlin during the 1961 crisis. A few weeks earlier, the president had delivered a tough-sounding speech that echoed their views: "We cannot and will not permit the communists to drive us out of Berlin, either gradually or by force," he told a nationwide TV audience. But "we must also be ready to resist with force, if force is used upon us."
When push came to shove, however, the United States did nothing. Not when the East Germans rolled out the barbed wire, not when they began pouring concrete for a wall, not when they bulldozed homes and shops to clear a vast "death strip," not when they added the dogs, or the watchtowers with machine-gunners, or the spotlights, or the land mines.
And not when desperate East Berliners were shot dead, in plain view of American observers, for trying to cross into freedom.
One of those East Berliners was Peter Fechter, an 18-year-old Berlin bricklayer desperate to join his sister, who lived with her husband in the West. With another teenager, he made his dash through a deserted lumberyard that faced a relatively low stretch of the wall. The friend made it across the no-man's-land and over the barbed wire. Fechter wasn't so lucky.
A submachine gun fired. Fechter fell to the ground, bleeding from a bullet wound in his pelvis. He lay at the foot of the wall for nearly an hour, in full view of the East German border guards — and of the horrified West Berliners on the other side. "Helft mir doch," he kept crying. But no one helped him, and he bled slowly to death.
The East German government officially designated the Berlin Wall as the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall, or "Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier." Ordinary Germans called it Die Schandmauer — the wall of shame. But it wasn't only Germans who had reason to feel ashamed.
"The wall was our shame, American shame, too," I wrote in a column some years back.
Fechter died just 300 yards from Checkpoint Charlie, the US command post at the Friedrichstrasse border crossing. Among those watching him bleed, hearing him cry for help, were American MPs. They could have intervened.
"One conscience-stricken US second lieutenant," Time magazine reported the following week , "could stand it no longer, picked up the 'hot line' to Major General Albert Watson II, the US commandant in West Berlin. Back came the order: 'Lieutenant, you have your orders. Stand fast. Do nothing.' Not knowing the reason for the Americans' inaction, an agonized crowd swirled around the command post crying, 'For God's sake, go get him.' When a German reporter asked why the American troops did not rescue Fechter, one GI replied, 'This is not our problem.' "
A generation later, a different American president adopted a very different approach.
Ronald Reagan had come to office determined to win the Cold War and to dispatch the Soviet Union's communist hegemony to the ash heap of history. And he was a president who matched words with action. In June 1987 he traveled to Berlin and delivered an electrifying speech in front of the Wall, in plain view of the Brandenberg Gate on the other side.
"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
"As long as this gate is closed, as long as this scar of a wall is permitted to stand, it is not the German question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind," Reagan declared. "General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace . . . come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
Reagan hadn't been killing time waiting for Gorbachev to take the initiative. He had come to office believing that the Iron Curtain could be brought down and Eastern Europe liberated by applying economic, military, and political pressure to the Soviet Union. In a landmark document — National Security Decision Directive 75 — he had laid out the strategy by which the Soviet rulers would be forced to their knees.
On every front, Reagan bore down. From rebuilding the US military to opposing Soviet proxies in Afghanistan and Central America, from funding Poland's Solidarity labor movement to bluntly denouncing the crimes of communism, Reagan fought the Cold War to win. By the time he stood before the Berlin Wall in 1987, the Kremlin was under terrible strain and badly demoralized. When the endgame began in Eastern Europe two years later, Mikhail Gorbachev knew better than to send in the tanks.
Now, in 2019, another generation has elapsed. The near-delirious joy that accompanied the end of what Reagan called the Evil Empire is long gone. The overwhelming surge of optimism, the sense, so palpable in those last weeks of 1989, that history and politics had permanently shifted mankind to a better, happier, more decent existence, is barely a memory. But for those of us who lived through that moment — oh, it was intoxicatingly sweet.
No one put that exhilaration into words quite like P. J. O'Rourke in his contemporaneous essay, "The Death of Communism." O'Rourke had arrived in Berlin the week the Wall came down, and — well, here's a sample of how it affected him. Fasten your seat belt:
The East German border guards didn't interfere. Instead they came up to openings in the Wall and made 'V' signs and posed for photographs. One of them even stuck his hand through and asked would somebody please give him a piece of concrete to keep as a souvenir.
The hand of that border guard — that disembodied, palm-up, begging hand . . . I looked at that and I began to cry.
I really didn't understand before that moment, I didn't realize until just then — we won. The Free World won the Cold War. The fight against life-hating, soul-denying, slavish communism — which has shaped the world's politics this whole wretched century — was over.
The tears of victory ran down my face — and the snot of victory did too because it was a pretty cold day. I was blubbering like a lottery winner.
All the people who had been sent to the gulags, who'd been crushed in the streets of Budapest, Prague and Warsaw, the soldiers who'd died in Korea and my friends and classmates who had been killed in Vietnam — it meant something now. All the treasure that we in America had poured into guns, planes, Star Wars, and all the terrifying A-bombs we'd had to build and keep — it wasn't for nothing.
And I didn't get it until just then, when I saw that border guard's hand. . . .
We won. And let's not anybody forget it. We the People, the free and equal citizens of democracies, we living exemplars of the Rights of Man tore a new asshole in International Communism. Their wall is breached. Their gutstring is busted. The rot of their body politic fills the nostrils of the earth with a glorious stink. We cleaned the clock of Marxism. We mopped the floor with them. We ran the Reds through the wringer and hung them out to dry. The privileges of liberty and the sanctity of the individual went out and whipped butt.
And the best thing about our victory is the way we did it — not just with ICBMs and Green Berets and aid to the contras. Those things were important, but in the end we beat them with Levi's 501 jeans. Seventy-two years of communist indoctrination and propaganda was drowned out by a three-ounce Sony Walkman. A huge totalitarian system with all its tanks and guns, gulag camps, and secret police has been brought to its knees because nobody wants to wear Bulgarian sneakers. . . . It made me want to do a little sack dance right there in the Cold War's end zone. . . . I wanted to get up on the Wall and really rub it in: "Taste the ash heap of history, you bolshie nosewipes!" But there was nobody left to jeer at. Everybody from East Berlin was in West Berlin watching Madonna music videos.
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(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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