November 9, 2009 is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, one of the most joyful historical events in my lifetime. It happened during an amazing series of events in the fall and winter of 1989 when the people of Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Checkoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania overthrew over 40 years of Soviet Communism with hardly any bloodshed. I grew up less than 50 miles from the “Iron Curtain”, a phrase Winston Churchill first coined in 1946:
Where it not for some small adjustment of the Iron Curtain that occurred 9 years later, I too would have been born on the totalitarian side of this curtain. Instead I came as a teenager from socialist, but democratic Western Europe to America where President Ronald Reagan was in the midst of destroying the Soviet Union by unleashing the power of American ingenuity in economic growth and military power. In 1987, he gave a speech in Berlin calling on Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”:
Referencing Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s refusal to remove the Berlin Wall, the speech, delivered by Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin on 12 June 1987, contained the sentence
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
On arrival in the city before authoring the speech, Robinson was warned by US diplomats to avoid Cold War rhetoric and that Berliners had adjusted to the presence of the Berlin Wall. However, after consultation with local Berliners, he found them deeply wounded and concerned about the wall; in many instances it had separated families and represented an intrusion of a police state into daily life. Returning to Washington D.C., Robinson’s phrase became controversial with the State Department and other staff members, including Chief of Staff Howard Baker and National Security Advisor Colin Powell. Repeated attempts were made to remove it from the speech, but Reagan overruled them, wishing to communicate not only with West Berliners but with East Germans on the other side of the wall.
Less than two and a half years later the events of November 9, 1989 unfolded. Mikhail Gorbachev did not tear down the wall, but, to his credit, he did not stand in the way and two years later was forced to accept the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union. Anyone who would have predicted this 10 years earlier would have been declared insane or hopelessly naive.
On the evening of November 9, Günter Schabowski, member of the East German politburo, mistakenly stated at a press conference that an order to lift border restrictions that was supposed to take effect the next day was effective immediately (German, NO subtitles):
Then West German television, which was secretly watched in East Germany and had credibility among East Germans that their government’s TV broadcasts lacked, reported that East Germany had announced that all its borders are open immediately:
The same evening pressure against the urban border grew and East German military fortunately stepped aside although there were plenty of tense moments and temporary setbacks. Watching this is a lot better than anything you will watch on TV. Enjoy!
The opening of the Berlin Wall 1989 / Reichstag:
The opening of the Wall at Berlin Bornholmer Strasse 1989: