11-13-14 – Berlin Wall Tumbles After Joshua Trumpet Sounds

By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS–A quarter century ago, the Joshua trumpet of freedom sounded and the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.  Naturally, this allegory was slightly more complicated as the epic political events which led to the fall of the Wall on 9 November 1989 were long in coming but nonetheless still not at all anticipated.   

The year 1989 represented an extraordinary epoch for human freedom both in aspiration and in fruition.  Starting in the Spring with Tiananmen Square in China, mass protests against regime corruption soon morphed into a swell of protest against the ruling communist  party.  But the brutal crackdown in Beijing soon sent the political reverberations across the vast land mass of Russia and into Eastern Europe.  

By Autumn these political shock waves had reached Hungary where the ruling communists allowed for the opening of a breech in the Iron Curtain dividing the two systems.  East German tourists were allowed to exit through Hungary en route to Austria and West Germany. 

Before long, massive demonstrations in East Germany during the Fall, largely organized through the Lutheran churches in Leipzig, combined with a hesitation by Mikhail Gorbachev’s reformist Soviet Union to militarily intervene and to defend the ruling communists, led to a political Tsunami throughout the East Bloc by November.  The Soviets blinked. 

Seeing Berlin the first time in the 1970’s through the window of a Pan Am aircraft descending through the steel grey clouds one viewed the Wall as a gash across the heart of the city.  

Visiting the city offered the glaring contradictions of a brash and prosperous West Berlin literally alongside the grey, sullen but still historically significant East.         
On the one hand, Berlin  was a Cold War theme park, a tableau vivant of contrast and coercion.   On the other, the pathos of division;  divided families, separated neighborhoods, and blocked streets brought the reality up close and personal.  

The Wall was erected by the ruling communists in August 1961.  Indeed, Berlin stood as a somber if glaring reminder of  the German capital’s post-war division as well as the political fault line between the democratic West and the communist East.  The lines were drawn in this political morality play where the American, British and French allies protected West Berlin and the Soviets East Berlin. 

What’s largely overlooked is that Berlin was in itself over 100 miles inside East Germany, the quaintly titled German Democratic Republic (DDR) and thus its free access could always be blocked.   Though the Soviets tried such a blockade early on, the Berlin Airlift in 1948, just three years after the end of WWII, broke the siege.  And in 1961 the dangerous confrontations at Checkpoint Charlie again erupted.

But for a long time Berlin slipped into a kind of political Purgatory inside the larger struggle of the Cold War, “The most dangerous place on earth,” as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev called it. 

The divided city was vulnerable to coercion but also a symbol of enduring freedom and prosperity.  For the East Germans, the Wall barred exit to liberty but more aptly represented a suffocating cordon of their socialist society.   For many who tried to escape the East, often using the most ingenious methods, there was freedom in the West.  For others, over 138 people, they were shot and killed trying to flee the workers paradise. 

Repression by East Germany’s regime was legendary; see the truly amazing film The Lives of Others for a serious and jarring look into both the spying and psychological repression of what was called the “socialist State on German soil.”  Today the former DDR is remembered for the polluting Trabant autos, the Stasi secret police, and a still-lingering psychological separation between former West and East Germany. 

There are of course the poignant memories at the Brandenburg Gate;  John F. Kennedy’s iconic 1963 speech. “Ich bin ein Berliner!” or President Ronald’s Reagan’s memorable clarion call, “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall!”

Yet until its reunification in 1990, Germany remained a divided nation. 

Names like Ronald Reagan, Helmut Kohl, Mikhail Gorbachev and significantly Pope John Paul II played an extraordinary role in these epoch events which would sweep through Eastern Europe, see the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and lead to the singular achievement of German re-unification a year later in peace and freedom.

Fast forward to 2014; Berlin united, prosperous, and free. What happened to the Wall, its 87 miles of concrete slabs?  Most of the barrier has been torn down and simply disappeared, slabs are in Parks around the world, but the haunting memories linger.


John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues.  He is the author of Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated States; Germany, Korea, China (2014).

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