Politics & Policy

A Wall That Could Not Stand

A section of the Berlin Wall comes down near Potsdamer Square, November 11, 1989. (Getty Images)
People power and bureaucratic blunder ended the Berlin Wall 25 years ago.

The world changed 25 years ago today, on November 9, 1989. If you were in Europe or even in the United States, you probably remember when you heard the news that the Berlin Wall had fallen. As stories go, few can match the intrigue and drama of the Berlin Wall. It stood 13 feet high and was supplemented by watchtowers, alarms, mines, trenches, dogs, and guards with machine guns. More than 100 people died trying to cross it. Imagine other great cities slashed through the middle: New York’s Manhattan at 42nd Street, say, or Paris at the Champs-Elysées.

The fall of the Wall marked freedom for the divided former capital of Germany. Within a year, Germany itself was reunited. Just over two years later, the Soviet Union dissolved, and countries from Estonia to Ukraine won their independence. How tragic that their status as free states should be in doubt on the 25th anniversary of the Wall’s fall.

But that doesn’t mean the celebration isn’t appropriate. One of the best events today was when 8,000 gently swaying white balloons, pegged to the ground and winding nine miles along the Wall’s route, were released as a symbol of liberation.

The irony is that the Wall’s opening actually came about through a bureaucratic blunder. On November 9, East German Politburo member Günther Schabowski mistakenly announced that East Germans would be allowed to cross into West Germany effective immediately. Thousands of people surged to the Berlin border and demanded their “right” of exit. The border guards, despite their intensive training, gave up.

You can see the thrilling moment when the first people spilled across the border at the seven-minute mark of this video:

As former National Review editor John O’Sullivan has noted, “Communism had failed to retain enough true believers who would murder on its behalf.”

Who brought about the fall of the Berlin Wall and then the end of the Cold War? The ordinary people of Eastern Europe, especially those who rose up in protest, deserve pride of place. But for different reasons, history will record two paramount figures: Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan first saw the Wall in 1978, when he told his aide Peter Hannaford: “We’ve got to find a way to knock this thing down.” After he became president, he returned in 1982 and enraged the Soviets by taking a couple of ceremonial steps across a painted borderline. Then, in 1987, he overruled his own State Department by giving a momentous speech in which he implored the Soviet general secretary directly: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Peter Robinson, a former Reagan speechwriter, tells the fascinating story of how the president’s entreaty came to symbolize the desire for freedom in Europe. After Robinson inserted the now-famous phrase into a draft of the speech, it became a topic of bitter dispute inside the administration. Officials tried over and over to have the section removed, judging that it was too provocative and theatrical. White House officials believed the language would embarrass Gorbachev. A June 2, 1987, memo from a National Security Council aide called the speech “mediocre” and said it represented a “lost opportunity.” The edited draft that was attached to this memo had the entire “tear down this wall” section crossed out.

But Reagan insisted on leaving his sock-it-to-’em lines in, and they proved a hit with the many thousands of people who heard it — they cheered for a full 20 seconds. Many Reagan aides remained unconvinced, but two and a half years later, the Wall had been entirely swept away.

The “tide of history” that Reagan liked to refer to in his speeches must have been on Gorbachev’s mind two years later when he visited East Berlin a month before the Wall fell and informed the comrades there that they needed to change. He told reporters who asked about the Wall: “Dangers await only those who do not react to life,” sending a signal that Moscow would no longer prop up a corrupt system.

Today, the notion of reformers in Moscow allowing oppressed people to free themselves seems quaint. As early as 2005, only 16 years after the Wall’s fall, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s authoritarian president, said in a speech that “the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” The fact that the fall of the Berlin Wall was marked with a frosty silence in Moscow today should remind us that while people seek freedom naturally, the forces that seek to extinguish it never go away. They just reinvent themselves in different guises.

— John Fund is a columnist for National Review Online. He reported from Berlin both before and after the Wall’s fall. His video recollections on the event can be found here: “John, this is Monika . . . I’m over the wall.”

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