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November 23rd, 2017

Insight

The fall of the wall: Now, it seems inevitable that the Berlin Wall would tumble down; then, it seemed impossible

David Shribman

By David Shribman

Published November 10, 2014

Checkpoint Charlie crossing point, marking the border between East (Soviet sector) and West Berlin (American sector)

BERLIN -- Today a Starbucks coffee house sits a few steps from the Brandenburg Gate. A quarter-century ago the baristas would be standing in the Soviet Bloc.

Today well-dressed tourists sip sparkling water in the Hotel Adlon. Three decades ago the original hotel building was used to house East German worker trainees.

Today an American flag flies from the U.S. Embassy on Pariser Platz, then the rubble-strewn territory of the Warsaw Pact, now restored to its place as a resplendent plaza at the heart of a unified Berlin.

History usually consists of what is built — Westminster Abbey in 1245, for example, or an experiment in democracy in 1776, or the transcontinental railroad in 1869. But here in the booming heart of Germany, history also consists of what is torn down, especially the Berlin Wall, constructed in 1961 but demolished 25 years ago today.

The fall of the wall was one of history’s signature moments, the sort of thing considered impossible before it happened but inevitable in retrospect. For decades the West spoke of the collapse of the wall, a metaphor for the collapse of communism, but its yearning was little different than Christmas dreams of a pony; the likelihood of realizing those wishes seemed to be close to nil. Even the two greatest speeches at the wall — John Kennedy’s and Ronald Reagan’s — were more exhortations than expectations.

And then communism fell, and with it so did the Berlin Wall, a 12-foot-high barrier that separated East from West, Warsaw Pact from NATO, privation from prosperity, expressionless conformity from artistic and political freedom.

It is impossible today to convey the hopelessness of life behind the wall, or the joy at the collapse of the wall, or the tensions that the wall produced. Frederick Kempe, who wrote an evocative history of the crisis of 1961 that led to the construction of the wall, described Berlin as “the most dangerous place on Earth.” No one then alive would contest that assessment.

The wall was the East’s answer to a flood of people escaping across its borders, 2.5 million in total between 1949 and 1961. The hardening of the concrete hardened the Cold War. It also ended the daily commute of 65,000 workers and students, transformed the divisions between capitalism and communism into physical form, and stood as a symbol of a political and economic system so unappealing that it had to wall in its citizens.

Indeed, here in Berlin the word wall was both noun and verb — and figure of speech.

In the period 1961-1969 the word wall was also a collective noun. That’s because there wasn’t one wall but many walls — a front border wall, of course, but also an anti-vehicle trench, patrol strips, tank barriers, an electrified signal fence and a forbidding area piled with mines and guarded by guns and dogs.

Even those skeptical of American interests and impulses during the period — and in some cases that skepticism was merited — must concede that the wall that split Berlin had nothing in common with the other symbolic wall prominent in Cold War mythology: the white-picket fence of the peaceable kingdom of America.

Escaping from East Berlin — crossing the wall — became an obsession, often a fatal obsession. Some left with documents from states and international organizations that didn’t exist. Some, an estimated 136, perhaps as many as 520, were left for dead after abortive escape efforts. Some of their stories are the most affecting of the Cold War period: men, women and teens who would risk their lives in front of guard towers rather than live lives of towering fear guarding their every word.

The wall itself was erected in the gray colors of tyranny with the sort of brutal efficiency that eluded most other East German enterprises, Olympic sports excepted. But it was destroyed with the spontaneity of joy, the “wall woodpeckers,” as they came to be known, tearing it down with hammers and chisels, attacking totalitarian rule with blistered hands but full hearts.

Some of the wall was broken up for use in paths and roads, some of it was taken by souvenir hunters, some is for sale by the side of the road — talismans, perhaps, or maybe simply proof that in a capitalist society everything is for sale. Today, only traces of intact wall remain, along with only three of the 300 observation towers.

More than traces remain in the memories of those who lived on either side. Checkpoint Charlie, the fabled crossing point, still stands, but the wall today is so reviled that street signs refer, without self-consciousness and without contradiction, to “East Germany’s brutal border regime.”

East Germany had brutal minders, too, far away in the Kremlin. “The establishment of border control restored order and discipline in the East Germans’ lives,” Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev said later, “and Germans have always appreciated discipline.”

The fall of the wall has shown that they also appreciate freedom.

The most remarkable recovery, besides the one in the spirit of Berlin, is the border strip that once was an empty space save for the rubble and wreckage dumped there. Today it is filled by flea markets, galleries, even beach bars. A city once mired in deprivation now is full of cafes, bistros and restaurants, with one of the most popular offering entrecotes of U.S. prime beef for $52.22. (Add a side of vegetables for $18.75.)

Some 27 years ago, Peter Robinson, then a 30-year-old Reagan speechwriter, traveled here to prepare for a presidential address to mark Berlin’s 750th anniversary. The ranking American diplomat advised it would be crude if the president made too much of the wall.

That seemed discordant to Mr. Robinson, who later was told by a research assistant that Berliners may have stopped talking about the wall but certainly had not grown used to it. She asserted that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev could inject meaning to his “perestroika” efforts by dismantling the wall. That remark stuck with Mr. Robinson.

“I knew Ronald Reagan would have responded to the decency and power of that comment,” Mr. Robinson, now the editor of the Hoover Digest at Stanford University, recalled recently.

So, despite qualms from more senior Reagan advisers, the president stood at the Brandenburg Gate and delivered perhaps his most powerful entreaty: “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

The rest made history.

David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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