When the wall came tumbling down.
To help students understand the history behind the Berlin Wall, which divided East and West Germany and the city of Berlin for 28 years and served as a symbol of East-West tensions during the Cold War.
CRITICAL THINKING: East German border guard Harold Jaeger seemed confused and somewhat wistful about the disappearance of the Berlin Wall he guarded for so long. What does his mood suggest about the nature of East German society? Is it likely that citizens of that country had access to much information about the world outside?
Note that East German authorities referred to the Wall as the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart.” Is this term an example of how governments can use language to manipulate thinking about important issues? Does this euphemism conflict with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s defense of the Wall as an economic measure?
Ask students to write two views of the Wall, one from a West German perspective and one from the East German governments’s perspective. Remind students that the Wall, though a real barrier, also served as a symbol of the division between East and West.
WRITING EXERCISE: Refer again to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s defense of the decision to build the Berlin Wall. Have students write a brief rebuttal to Khrushchev. What would they recommend as a better way to have kept East Germans from fleeing to the West? What incentives might East Germany have given its people to reduce the likelihood that they would flee?
* Would you have punished border guards who followed orders to shoot people fleeing to the West?
* What evidence does the article provide that helps explain why Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev decided not to use force to prevent the unification of East and West Germany?
For several hours on the night of Nov. 9, 1989, Harold Jaeger, an East German border guard, hesitated. With some astonishment, he had watched a Communist official declare on television that East Germans were now free to travel without getting special permission and could do so immediately.
What was going on? Ever since the Berlin Wall went up in the summer of 1961, Jaeger had defended the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart,” as the East German authorities called it. “That wall was my life,” Jaeger recalled in an interview. “I’d defended it for 28 years.”
But shortly after 11 p.m., in the absence of any clear instructions from superiors and in the face of a gathering crowd, Jaeger gave the order to open the gates at his checkpoint. “I did not free Europe, or release my people, or any of that nonsense,” Jaeger insisted. “It was that crowd in front of me and the hopeless confusion of my leadership that opened those gates.”
A LONG STRUGGLE
So began the end of the Cold War, the country of East Germany, the division of Europe and, around the globe, the struggle between capitalism and Communism that defined international affairs between 1945 and 1989. Crowds poured through the opened gates to freedom. The Berlin Wall, a 96-mile barrier dotted with 302 sentry towers, topped with razor wire, set with gun emplacements, flanked by trip-wire alarms, and protected by mines and dogs, had symbolized the division of the world. Once the gates opened, the symbol died.
Before long, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its empire, the United States became the sole global superpower. As Willy Brandt, the former West German Chancellor, said when the Wall was breached, “Nothing will ever be the same again.”
THE IRON CURTAIN
The long Cold War, pitting the U.S. and other capitalist democracies against Communist regimes, began after World War II ended in 1945. During the war, Americans and Soviets fought as Allies against Nazi Germany. By war’s end, Soviet troops occupied most of Eastern Europe, and the following year, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill warned that an “iron curtain” had descended, dividing Eastern and Western Europe.
Behind it, the Soviets helped Communist governments take power in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and elsewhere. Germany was partitioned into democratic West Germany and Communist East Germany.
The city of Berlin was located within East Germany, but because Allied forces had occupied West Berlin in 1945, the city itself was partitioned into non-Communist (West) and Communist (East) halves.
Communist rule was harsh from the outset. But the most violent expression of the coercive nature of Communist governments was the Wall that Walter Ulbricht, the East German leader, ordered constructed to stop the exodus of his citizens to the West.
In the dozen years before 1961, more than 1.6 million East Germans, or about 10 percent of the population, fled. The easiest escape route was from Soviet-run East Berlin to West Berlin, where a subway ride ushered many to freedom. By 1961, more than 10,000 people were fleeing monthly. That ended on August 13, as the Wall divided the two sides of the city, separating families and friends unlucky enough to live on opposite sides.
“I know the Wall is an ugly thing,” Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, said soon after its construction. “But what was I to do? It isn’t hard to work out how long it would have taken for the East German economy to collapse unless we took immediate action against the mass exodus.”
THE FIRST VICTIM
It soon became clear just how ugly the Wall was. Six days after construction began, Rudolf Urban became its first victim, cut down by gunfire as he tried to escape. A year later, on Aug. 17, 1962, Peter Fechter, aged 18, made a dash for the Wall, climbed on top, and was cutting his way through the barbed wire when a guard shot him. He lay there for 50 minutes, crying “help me” as he bled to death. East German guards, who worked in the service of a regime that would have shot them for showing any humanity toward Fechter, stood and watched.
The young man’s death was one of more than 250 at the Wall. Every means was tried to get away, from tunnels to trapezes. (In East Germany as a whole, between 1946 and 1989, at least 1,065 people lost their lives trying to escape. Some drowned in the Baltic Sea; many were killed attempting to escape over less fortified sections of the 860-mile border between East and West Germany.)
So why did the U.S. and its allies allow the Berlin Wall to be built in the first place?
After 1945, the United States had decided to confront Communism through containment rather than risk nuclear war with Moscow. Containment meant patient pressure–military, economic, and moral–and the avoidance of frontal attack. While the Wall imprisoned people and was a particularly odious physical embodiment of the division of Europe, it was not a land grab.
From the start, President John E Kennedy showed his solidarity with West Berliners. On June 26, 1963, standing in front of West Berlin’s City Hall, he declared: “As a free man, I take pride in the words, Ich bin ein Berliner.” (“I am a Berliner.”)
‘TEAR DOWN THIS WALL’
The words made a central point clear: Berlin was the epicenter of the West’s struggle to free Europe. Twenty-four years later, another American President, Ronald Reagan, came to Berlin and admonished the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to “tear down this wall.”
Gorbachev never ordered East German authorities to do that. But by the late 1980’s, the Soviet Union was militarily drained, economically stretched, and morally sapped. As Gorbachev embarked on his program of liberalization, the Soviets no longer had the discipline or conviction to maintain a system based on the threat of violence toward any dissenter.
Beginning in the summer of 1989, thousands of East Germans began escaping through Hungary’s breached border to Austria. Anti-government protests erupted in East Germany, and Erich Honecker, the longtime leader, was ousted in October 1989.
When his replacement, Egon Krenz, visited Moscow on October 31, Gorbachev told him that the Soviet Union opposed the unification of East and West Germany, but also opposed the use of force to stop it from happening. That was tantamount to declaring the division of Europe over.
Krenz later served three years in prison for his role in the deaths of East Germans who tried to escape over the Wall. Trials of border guards proved controversial and caused fierce resentment in the East, where it was argued that the guards had just been obeying orders. But as a judge said in pronouncing sentence in 1992 on the guards responsible for shooting the Wall’s last victim, Chris Gueffroy, 20, in February 1989: “The Nazis showed us that not everything that is legal is right.”
The conflict between East and West over such trials was only one of the difficulties Germans faced in coming together. East and West Germany were formally unified less than a year after the Wall fell, on Oct. 3, 1990, but resentments festered over lost jobs and industries, unequal pay, and a sense that a humiliated East had been taken over by the West.
THE TIDE OF HISTORY
Still, a united Germany with stable borders took its place at the heart of an undivided Europe. One after the other, the Communist states of Central Europe, led by Poland, threw off their Communist shackles and Moscow’s dominion.
Finally, with the resignation of Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet President on Dec. 25, 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist, replaced by the Russian Republic and a loose confederation of independent countries. The Wall had held back the tide of history; once it was breached, change came at a furious pace, sweeping Europe and the world into a new era.
1989: Berlin Wall Falls.
1. Starting in 1945, after World War II, a long period of tensions between the democracies of the West and the Communist countries of the East began. This period was known as the– [two words)
2. The United States became the sole global superpower following
a the war in Vietnam. b the Soviet Union’s exodus from Afghanistan. c the rapid economic growth Of the 1990s. d the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
3. The term “Iron Curtain” refers to
a the Soviet Union’s curbs on freedom of speech and the press. b the countries of Western Europe in the years immediately after World War II. c the dividing line between democratic countries of Western Europe and Communist countries in the East. d the dividing line between industrialized countries and nonindustriatized countries.
4. The name that East German Communists gave to the Berlin Wall implied that
a Communism promoted equality among people. b East Germany was more economically advanced than other Communist countries. c East Germany needed isolation to develop. d it was a defensive barrier against the West.
5. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev defended the Berlin Wall as necessary to
a protect the East German economy from collapse. b ensure East Germany’s loyalty to the Soviet Union. c provide a sense of unity to the people of the Communist nations of Eastern Europe. d demonstrate Communist strength to the West.
6. Rather than risk war over the Berlin Wall, the U.S. pursued a policy of –, meaning patient economic, military, and moral pressure against the Communists.
1. Cold War. 2. (d) the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. 3. (c) the dividing line between democratic countries of Western Europe and Communist countries in the East. 4. (d) it was a defensive barrier against the West. 5. (a) to protect the East German economy from collapse. 6. containment.
Roger Cohen is a foreign affairs columnist and former foreign editor of The New York Times.