When a barrier to freedom fell: reflections on the Berlin Wall

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Monuments to freedom and liberty generally come as things — marble statues, carved granite slabs — that are meant to last for the ages.

But on June 12, let’s pause to remember a monument noteworthy because it no longer exists: the Berlin Wall. As we do, let’s also recall and celebrate the monumental words spoken 25 years ago that helped spur its destruction.

On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood in front of that concrete-and-barbed-wire emblem of the Cold War and challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace … Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

In August 1961, what was then East Germany had suddenly erected temporary barriers aimed at stopping a drain of educated workers to the West and to insulate itself from eastward free flow of pre-Internet information and news from Western Europe and the United States.

By June 1987, the 96-mile wall had become an ugly chain of concrete blocks, guard towers, machine-gun posts and guard dogs cutting through the heart of the city, bordering the Allied sectors created after World War II that divided it into East and West Berlin.

Nearly 100 people died trying to escape from East Berlin during the Wall’s existence. Its end came little more than two years after Reagan’s stirring speech, when the East German government collapsed in late 1989 along with the communist leadership in other Soviet-bloc nations. The scenes of celebration by reunited East and West Germans still evoke emotion in those who love freedom.

Very little of the Wall remains intact today: The largest unaltered portion of the original wall outside of Germany stands in the Newseum, in Washington, D.C. The exhibit features eight 12-foot-high concrete sections and a three-story East German guard tower that loomed near Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin’s best-known East-West crossing.

On June 10, the Newseum will commemorate Reagan’s speech with a program featuring former Reagan chief of staff Ken Duberstein, who was in Berlin with Reagan.

In the mid-1980s, while teaching about a free press to U.S. and foreign military journalists based in Berlin, I crossed through Checkpoint Charlie several times over several years, often in the company of U.S. Air Force officers. The change from West to East could not have been more stark.

First came a theatrical checkpoint charade in which we ignored East German police and insisted on presenting our identification only to Russian troops — a bit of Cold War diplomatic one-upsmanship, as the U.S. didn’t recognize the Wall as an “international border.” Then we entered a chilling world of all-too-obvious police surveillance everywhere.

West Berlin was a booming economic power, filled with bustling shops, the latest cars and a vibrant and often irreverent panoply of news outlets. On the other side of the Wall, despite subsidized efforts to paint a pretty picture, East Berlin could not have been more different — particularly when it came to freedom and openness.

East Germany had no competing news outlets, freedom of speech and association were nonexistent and — we now know — an amazingly complex system of surveillance monitored personal lives to an extraordinary degree. Records discovered after German reunification in 1990 show that, effectively, about half of the nation was reporting in some manner on the other half.

Freedom was denied in even the most casual and personal matters — something I observed.

Police with binoculars and clipboards in second-story windows would note license-plate numbers on cars from the West.

The European custom of sharing unoccupied seats at any table had a perverse twist: Any East Berliner who happened to sit at a table with a Western visitor – even if no words were spoken – often was reportedly whisked away for hours of interrogation by secret police.

A tour guide and housekeeper at one of the few churches in central East Berlin permitted to remain open was denied basic civic services, including public transportation and educational opportunities for her children, I was told after a visit. For making such an incidental contribution to the survival of religious liberty in the communist state, the tour guide and her family also were relegated to the bottom of the applicant list for state-controlled housing, Western authorities later said.

There are now nearly 30 mainstream and ethnic local news operations based in Berlin alone, with additional online Web-based news sources available. Just this March the city hosted the Berlin Freedom of Expression Forum, studying how to resist media censorship around the world.

For an American 25 years ago, it was impossible to understand draconian penalties for making brief remarks to visitors, or to comprehend the intellectually bankrupt philosophy of repression that the Berlin Wall embodied.

I suspect future generations may have just as difficult a time imagining the mindset that thought a mere wall — however solidly built, however ruthlessly imposed — could permanently restrain freedom or imprison liberty.

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