The month of November is on the whole a gold mine of interesting events to a web blog that loves history as this one does, and no more stirring day exists to defenders of the ramparts of civilization than does November 9th. I never thought growing up I would ever see the epic events of 1989, events that occurred with such spectacular suddenness, and with overwhelming affirmation of the human spirit. No one not alive during the certainty of the eternal collision of communism and capitalist democracies can possibly relate to the awe and spectacle of that very special summer and fall. The day of days was November 9th, 1989, when the East German government bureaucratically tried to reduce the enormous pressure of its population’s demand for free transit to West Berlin by suggesting limited access to be available over time. No longer willing to accede to paternal restrictions of a stone deaf governmental dictatorship, the people of East Germany simply refused to be held back any longer. By the night of the 9th, thousands pressed the entrances to West Berlin and eventually overwhelmed the pathetic efforts to hold them back. History was changed for ever when the psychological as well as physical wall constricting west Berlin was perforated, eroded, and finally destroyed.
What was the Berlin Wall? Built in 1961 by the Communists to stop the uncontrolled flow of eastern Europeans unsatisfied by the communist alternative to western capitalist recovery after World War II, the wall quickly became the singular physical symbol of the communist challenge to individual freedom. No transit between east and west would be tolerated; not in culture, not in interaction, not in economics. The east would go a different way and it would be willing to enforce this difference with bricks, mortar, and sharpshooters. Eventually 192 East Germans died at the hands of rifle bullets stopping their attempts at experiencing western freedom, and thousands more were incarcerated. The wall had been up several years when President Kennedy articulated the response of the free world to the draconian construction of the wall, declaring “Ich bin ein Berliner” as the appropriate retort of all free peoples. The West and the people of Eastern Europe never gave in to the Stalinist effort to colonize – beginning with the Berlin air-lift of 1948, the intense moments of the East German revolt of 1953, the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the Prague Spring for 1968, and the Solidarity demonstrations of 1981, the tense events at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, the cold war cat and mouse fights in surrogate countries, submarine exploits, and spy agencies. No one noting the aggressive ascendancy of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s could have imagined the precipitous downfall of this massively powerful dictatorship with world wide reach. The power of the individual proved devastating to the state hegemony and the names ring like celestial bells – Andrei Sakarov, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, and, the champion of freedom, Ronald Reagan.
The push came from Reagan in his outing of the Communist Soviet Union as an “evil empire” to the aspirations of free people, and the focus from Reagan in his speech at the Berlin Wall. He spoke to the final destruction of the artificial edifice of communist “separateness”, with the challenge to the Russian comissar to act; “Open these Gates; Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” The groundswell built in Poland and Hugary that summer, spread to the Baltic republics, the Czech republic, the Romanian dictatorship, and finally Germany itself. It was as if for once undeniable evidence was present that good could ultimately triumph when for generations it had been preached that triumph over evil was impossible. It was gripping television, at a time when people still got their news on television , and the real time miracles occured one after another in front of our eyes. Unforgettable, inspirational, and majestic, the summer and fall of 1989 stand as a monumental time in the logs of the defenders of the ramparts of western civilization and human freedom.