World

Remembering the Berlin Wall

A man hammers a section of the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate, November 9, 1989. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)
It fell 30 years ago; freedom has yet to win the twilight battle.

This year has seen many important anniversaries — the 75th of D-Day, the 70th of the establishment of NATO, the 50th of the first landing of men on the moon, and the 20th of the Senate trial of the impeached President Bill Clinton. Nine days into November will mark the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall, an event that confirmed the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and heralded the eventual end of the Cold War.

By the time the Wall came down, the Communists had already lost their grip on Poland and Hungary. Before 1989 was out, Soviet-style regimes would surrender power in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria. Within the next couple of years, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union itself would throw over their Communist leaders and break up along the lines of nationality, yielding more than a dozen new sovereign states in eastern and southern Europe, the trans-Caucasus, and Central Asia.

For those who had lived much of their lives since the Second World War in a bipolar global configuration, and under the constant threat of “mutually assured destruction” in a nuclear holocaust, the fall of the Wall was an event they never expected to see. Both sides had long made clear their intention to give no ground along it, after all, and their armed forces glared at each other in high states of readiness day in, day out, around the clock, across its crude divide.

Berlin, moreover, was one of the likeliest spots along the Cold War boundary to produce the kind of military confrontation that could explode into World War III. The “island of freedom” that was West Berlin, deeply embedded in the belly of Communist East Germany, posed a constant irritant and threat to the totalitarian grip on the eastern half of Europe. Before the Wall went up in 1961, hundreds of thousands of East Germans had availed themselves of unhindered access to the West through Berlin to gain the precious gift of freedom. During the 28 years the Wall was in place, scores of mostly young people, trying to escape the prison encased by its concrete and barbed wire, died from East German bullets.

On Nov. 9, 1989, when East Berliners once again acquired the liberty to pass through the inner-city partition, it seemed as if all was somehow right with the world. The strains of Beethoven’s immortal Ninth Symphony soon filled one of the great Berlin concert halls, with the word for “Freedom” substituted for “Joy” as the focus of celebration in the choral text of the final movement. And, as subsequent events cascaded toward the reunification of Germany, the end of the Cold War, and the more widespread collapse of Communism, many of us allowed ourselves to believe that world peace was at hand.

The past 30 years have largely dashed the hopes of that heady November. Even so, we should not allow ourselves to forget the promise proffered to millions by the collapse of one of the most hideous structures ever fashioned by human hands. Certainly the fruits of freedom are enjoyed today by more Europeans, and more people worldwide, than ever before. But current events in China, and the bafflingly large number of Americans who seem favorably disposed toward the same collectivist ideals that gave the Berlin Wall its reason for being, caution us that freedom has not yet won the twilight battle — and will never win it if we lose sight of the true nature of its adversary.

Thomas H. Conner is William P. Harris Professor of Military History at Hillsdale College.

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