November 7, 2003
On November 9, 1989, thousands of East Germans marched to Berlin’s border crossings, demanding they be allowed to cross over into free West Berlin. Such isolated events are almost never seen as predictors of national or global change.
Nor could anyone have foreseen the effects of President Ronald Reagan’s words at the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987, when he challenged the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev with, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Two events, 29 months apart. Who could have predicted their roles in changing the face of the post-Cold War world?
Even today, liberal revisionists refuse to acknowledge Reagan’s vision and statesmanship. They don’t acknowledge that he understood Communism and its failings probably better than any other American president.
And they resent that the vision and leadership that hastened Communism’s demise and ended the Cold War will, in any balanced account of history, place Reagan among America’s greatest presidents.
On that June day in 1987, Reagan wanted to say something about “The Wall,” which so tangibly illustrated Communism’s shortcomings, and kept East Germans and others from escaping to the West.
Reagan’s words gave eloquent emphasis to the Wall’s powerful, silent message:
“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate!
“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate!
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Reagan’s words cheered East Berliners, whose harsh lives few Westerners understood.
Prior to Reagan’s visit, I had seen firsthand the bleak struggle of East Berliners under the boot of the Russian Army and the cruel imposition of Communism. And I had seen the stony-faced, vacant-eyed hopelessness brought by the monstrous barrier to freedom known as “The Wall.”
West Berlin blossomed with western-style freedom, and artists made their side of the Wall a veritable 28mile mural of free expression. However, on the East Berlin side, life became a grim existence as stark as the ugly concrete apartment complexes East Berliners inhabited.
In the early 1980s, most East Berliners were afraid to be seen talking to Westerners. And at the Brandenburg Gate, hard-faced members of the Vopos, the “People’s Police,” armed with German versions of Russian AK-47s, wouldn’t let me photograph them or the Gate.
I did photograph them from a distance, with a long lens, while my West Berlin friend Georg almost had another conniption fit one of many he’d had when I photographed other forbidden sites, such as the Bunker ruins where Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide as Russian troops closed in.
We got out with some photos, but little else. For although we had been required to purchase 25 East German marks when we crossed at Checkpoint Charlie, there was virtually nothing to buy in East Berlin.
By 1984, the East Berliners I met seemed to have given up hope of gaining the freedom that lay beyond the Wall. But that changed in June 1987, with President Reagan’s historic words.
East Berliners later put feet to their hopes when, on November 9, 1989, they marched to border crossings and demanded that guards let them cross into West Berlin. Border guards stepped back, and the crowds swarmed the barrier and began to pound and gouge chunks from the wall that had claimed 192 lives of those trying to escape over it.
The Wall was breached!
On October 3, 1990, East and West Germany were reunited into a single nation.
Germans still admire Ronald Reagan. But too few credit him with bringing an early end to the Cold War that held Europe indeed, the world hostage to fear of a nuclear war.
If present-day Germans properly traced their route to freedom, June 12 and November 9 would be national holidays.
And they would honor Ronald Reagan who, more than any other person, brought about a reunited Germany, and a Cold War victory for the West.