In light of The Empty Suit's refusal to attend the festivities in Berlin marking the breaching of The Wall, any number of pundits have suddenly brought a great deal of unintended attention to the celebration, leading many to ask the question of "Where were you when The Wall opened?".
A bit of background is in order. In the summer of 1927, my father left his home in Falkenstein im Vogtland, sailing from Hamburg to New York. After traveling thru 47 of the then 48 States, he finally settled in Baltimore, where I was born many years later. Due to the division of Germany after the war, his sole surviving brother (Hellmuth) never knew that there was an addition to the family.
At the end of July 1961, my Uncle Hellmuth rode the train from Berlin to Frankfurt, then traveled farther south to Augsburg, intending for his wife and young daughter to follow. Unfortunately, during the night from 12 - 13 August, the Soviets and their eastern German collaborators -- under the direction of Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker -- sealed the east-west border and erected what came to be known as simply "The Wall", a scar across the face of Berlin.
Ostensibly, this border between East and West -- as well as the encirlement of Berlin -- was built as a defense against an imaginary invasion by forces of the West. But the only conclusion reached by any intelligent and honest observer is that it was built to imprison those in the Soviet-occupied zone. This intra-German border was what Churchill referred to as the "Iron Curtain". Almost 800 people died trying to make that crossing from East to West.
There were many who despaired of ever seeing that hideous scar erased. There were some -- such as Willi Brandt -- who legitimized it in an effort to "accomodate" the East and "reduce tension".
But there were some who never really accepted it. One was Ronald Reagan, arguably the greatest President of the 20th century. Here was a man who truly believed in freedom. His was not the only voice calling for the removal of that most visible of symbols of the failure of totalitarianism. Yours Truly had the opportunity of doing an editorial piece on a local TV station, remarking that if that darling of the Left, Mikhail Gorbachev, truly wanted peace, he'd tear down that Wall. Pres. Reagan was far more eloquent. Ignoring even his own Secretary of State, he insisted on uttering the four words that Kennedy should have said (instead of pandering to the crowd with his deliberately ungrammatical "Ich bin ein Berliner!" -- literally, "I am a jelly donut!"). "Tear down this Wall!" became the rallying cry for those who truly believe in freedom.
During the summer of 1989, I was performing temporary duty at HQ USAFE at Ramstein AB, south of Kaiserslautern. I quickly discovered that there was a local station right next to Armed Forces Network (AFN) on the radio dial. The local station carried news on the hour, right after AFN news. The guys I was working with allowed me to re-tune the radio after AFN news and translate for them. One after noon in late July, after listening to still more reports about the growing tensions inside the "DDR", I remarked that in five years, Germany would be reunited or the East would go the same way as Poland -- right down the tubes. My colleagues were too polite to give utterance to what they were thinking ("This guy's been out in the sun too long without a hat.").
On 9 September, I flew down to Berlin and made the crossing at the infamous Checkpoint Charlie and spent the day with my cousin and her family, gaining a first-hand look at exactly what conditions were like. The one experience of the day that stands out most in my mind was our attempt to get some lunch. Three times, Erwin (my cousin's husband) checked restaurants to see if we could get in (some restaurants were open only to foreigners). It was only on the fourth try that he was successful, and I found out what the problem had been. The other three restaurants were out of food. Not just out of the special of the day -- out of food, period.
On the flight back up to Frankfurt, and the bus ride to Ramstein, I thought about the day's events. The next day, I left Church early and went back to my quarters to take a nap. That evening, I was watching something on local TV (not AFN!), when the programming was interrupted by a broadcast from the German Embassy in Budapest. At that time, there were 7,200 refugess from the DDR holed up there, hoping for permission to cross into Austria instead of being required to go back home. Since the Hungarians were signatories to both the Warsaw Pact and the Helsinki Accords, this posed a dilemma for them. Should they follow the Warsaw Pact and force those people to go back to their home country, or should they follow the Helsinki Accords, which provided that any person had the right to leave any country -- even their own -- and travel to any country that would permit them entry? The Hungarians had made their choice, and the Foreign Minister made the announcement to the crowd.
"Stunned" hardly begins to sum up the reaction. That night, 4,500 refugees crossed over into Austria and their into the reception centers set up just inside Germany. The rest followed over the next two or three days.
On Monday, the office was abuzz with the news. During a lull in the conversation, I reminded my colleagues of what I had said in July. "Remember what I said about this country being reunited in five years? Forget it. Two years." Once again, they were too polite to say what they were thinking.
On the afternoon of 9 November, I was back home in Albuquerque, having lunch and watching TV. Whatever I was watching went off at 2 and I turned off the TV and took my dishes out to the kitchen and put them in the sink. This little voice -- which I try very hard to heed -- said "Go turn the TV back on". What a ridiculous thought! There's nothing on TV at 2 in the afternoon! Again, with more urgency, came the voice: "Go turn the TV back on!"
. So I did.
For the first few minutes, I watched as Pres. Bush droned on about who-knows-what (I'm not fluent in politic; it's a strange language). Finally, things went back to the network newsroom, where the announcement I had originally missed was repeated: The Wall had been opened. People were being allowed to cross freely back and forth between the two sides of Berlin. I sat there in my recliner, speechless and unable to move. When my roommate got home, I filled him in on what had happened. I sat there in that recliner until somewhere around 10:30 that night, until I was so tired I couldn't keep my eyes open anymore.
The next morning, I got up, convinced that I had dreamed the whole thing. The morning paper convinced me otherwise. The Wall had indeed been breached. I told Terry that when they opened The Wall for both vehicles and pedestrians at the Brandenburg Gate, that would be the tipping point -- there would be no turning back. Over the ensuing months, East and West negotiated over terms of reunification and on 3 October 1990, the country was reunified -- just over half the time I had predicted.
The political reunification was the easy part. The psychological part has been a bit more problematic. But at least now, Pres. Reagan's four famous words can be replaced by another five-word phrase uttered by so many during the 28 years of division: "Es gibt nur ein Berlin!" ("There is only one Berlin!").