Published November 09, 2011
Fifty years ago in 1961 a tyrannical regime built the Berlin Wall. Twenty-two years ago this week the sledge hammer of freedom broke through and the concrete Berlin Wall crumbled into the rubble of history.
On Nov. 9, 1989, thousands of East Germans flooded the gates of the Berlin Wall to the surprise of many guards, who had not yet heard the news that their government had lifted its ban and was now allowing East Germans to freely pass into West Berlin. No visas required.
Once the truth was clear, euphoria erupted. Germans from both sides danced on the wall. Families were reunited. German flags unfurled. Berlin was no longer a divided city. The iron curtain was torn apart.
Six months earlier in May 1989 I visited the Berlin Wall with a singing group from Baylor University. This was an exciting trip for me because I was born to American parents in Germany during my dad’s service in a U.S. Army artillery unit stationed there.
Because I returned to the United States when I was two years old, I jumped at the chance to see my birth place while a college freshman.
We toured all around Germany. But seeing the 12-foot tall, three-feet wide concrete Berlin Wall is something I’ll never forget. Ugly graffiti tattooed the west side while sharp shooters at guard towers stood ready to permanently mark and martyr a would-be escapee on the other side.
I’ll also never forget the tension we felt as East German guards checked and doubled checked our tour bus while we waited to enter East Berlin. When we did arrive, I felt as if I’d gone back in time. The cars, buildings, clothing and technology all screamed the 1960s.
My dad remembers seeing and hearing about families divided by the wall and border fences. On the west side a young couple would lift their child high into the air in hopes that their elderly parents on the east side could catch a glimpse of their unknown grandchild.
As a U.S. Army officer my father also conducted artillery drills along the borders. Not far away, the Soviets and East Germans did the same thing. War seemed around the corner, over the fence.
What led to the wall’s creation? Today as an author, historian and mom, I wanted to better understand...why.
At the end of World War II, the four Allies—the U.S.A., France, England and Russia—split the conquered Germany into four sectors and made the city of Berlin their operation center. Though Berlin was surrounded by Soviet-controlled Germany, the Allies also divided the city into quadrants. This soon launched the Cold War as America, France and England agreed to eventually return government control to the German people in what became West Germany and West Berlin. The Soviets saw the situation differently. Because they had marched through Germany—and Hungary, Poland and other nations—they should continue to control them. And they did.
Over time these Eastern Soviet states created government-controlled socialist economies while Western Germany flourished through capitalism. By 1961 the disparity from east to west was so great that more than 2.5 million East Germans fled to West Germany where they could find jobs.
Seeing no end to their brain drain and realizing that 20 percent of their population had migrated west, the East German government under a Soviet thumb built a fence throughout their nation before erecting the Berlin Wall in August 1961.
Over time five thousand East Germans escaped by concealing themselves in car bumpers, flying in hot air balloons or any other desperate means. Another 5,000 tried and failed, with as many as 200 of those dying in the attempt.
What brought the wall down? In 1989 it was hard to know which force had the greatest influence. Was it President Ronald Reagan’s speech before the Brandenburg gate in 1987, when he publicly called on Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to “open this gate. . . and tear down this wall?”
Or was it Gorbachev’s summer 1989 announcement that Eastern Soviet states should have greater control over internal matters? Was it the wave of 13,000 East German refugees who stormed into Austria after the Hungarians took down their border fence? Or was it the thousands of East Germans who protested their government in the fall of 1989?
Today it’s clear. All led to the fall. Reagan’s public speech and prodding in private meetings with Gorbachev paid off. When the Soviet Union failed to send troops to stand down the East German protesters, they tacitly gave the green light for change. East Germany’s leader stepped down, and a new leader emerged. On November 9, 1989, the order came and the political wall came down.
The Berlin Wall fell because the will of the people, the spirit of freedom, didn’t give up. Liberty, the cry of every human heart, triumphed. Elections throughout Eastern and Baltic Soviet blocs booted the communist party from power. Within two years the Soviet Union dissolved. The Cold War that began in Berlin after World War II had finally ended.
The fall of the wall was something to celebrate 22 years ago and certainly something to cheer about in remembrance today.
Award-winning author Jane Hampton Cook is co-author of "Stories of Faith and Courage from the War in Iraq and Afghanistan" and author of several books including "What Does the President Look Like?" She is a former webmaster to President George W. Bush.