By Jay Holmes
On a cold, January day in 1961, in a world chilled by the threat of nuclear Armageddon, I sat near a radio with my family and listened intently to the words of a man that my very young mind idolized. Even as a small child, it was not my nature to easily trust. I would listen to anyone, believe most of what they said, and count on very little of it. I liked nearly everyone and trusted few. I trusted this man and I believed his words. I had inherited the caution that my father and so many of my uncles exhibited. They and my aunts and my older cousins and siblings held great hope for this man. The new President of my country, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, told me that day my freedom did not come from government, but from God.
I was too young to attend school with my older siblings, but I knew who God was. I was certain of His presence, and I understood him completely. A half a century later, I understand far less of God than I did then, but I have never stopped believing what that man told me, and I still hear some of his words in my memory. I can still feel the great excitement and the feeling that I was witness to a monumental occasion.
The new President told me that every nation, whether they wish us well or wish us ill, should know, “. . . that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” I hear those words still.
Few words have influenced my life as those words did. Few words have influenced the world as those words did. Millions of people around the world heard those words. Some found hope and assurance, and some heard them as a challenge to their right to take freedom from others.
Seven months later, the Soviet Union erected a wall between the Soviet-controlled sector of Berlin, and the Western-controlled sector of Berlin. Situated deep inside Soviet-occupied East Germany, West Berlin was a beacon of hope surrounded by a sea of Soviet oppression.
By 1961, nearly four million Germans living under Soviet occupation decided to abandon their homes and seek freedom in West Germany. The easiest place to cross from East Germany to West Germany was Berlin.
One night in August of 1961, the Soviet and East German troops formed a cordon along the dividing line between East and West Berlin. The next day, they began to erect a concrete wall. Streets and buildings were removed from the east side of the wall to create a killing zone.
East Germans, under the control of the Soviet Union, built barbed wire-topped fences and guard towers equipped with machine guns. Like a monster from some cheap science fiction movie, the Wall grew taller and wider over time, as if it were growing fat on the flesh of the nearly two hundred East Germans who were murdered while trying to cross it.
image from userpage.chemie.fu-berlin.de
The Soviets congratulated themselves for the effectiveness of the Wall in stemming the tide of escapees from the Soviet police state. I saw it as a shameful monument and an open admission by the Soviets that, given the opportunity, any sane man or woman would seek freedom over oppression.
During the Cold War, the great central debate between the Soviet (and Maoist) controlled East and the West centered, in theory, on the struggle between communism and capitalism. While some of my generation debated the appeal of “Marxism” vs. “Capitalism,” I avoided those debates. Whatever Marx might have said didn’t matter to me. He was long gone, and his ideas weren’t deciding policy in Moscow. How the Soviets divided their land or ran their economy was of little concern to me. That God-Damned Wall and the men, women, and children who were murdered trying to cross it were all I needed to know about which side of the Wall I preferred to live on.
In the East, the Warsaw Pact had over 3.6 million troops facing west and south. In western and southern Europe, NATO countered that with 3.7 million troops.
Surrounded as it was by East Germany, the view east from West Berlin was much less comforting. In West Berlin, approximately 10,000 allied troops, known in the USA as the Berlin Brigade, were surrounded by 250,000 Warsaw Pact troops. Outnumbered or not, the Berlin Brigade did not intend to ever surrender if war returned to Berlin.
The Berlin Wall remained a symbol of the political dynamic between East and West for 28 years. In June of 1987, Ronald Reagan visited the Brandenburg Gate, and at the same place that John Kennedy had delivered his famous Berlin speech within sight of the Wall, Reagan now delivered a speech. In response to reformist Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s claims that the Soviet Union sought peace and prosperity he challenged Gorbachev to, “Tear down this wall!”
In August of 1989, the unwilling Soviet “ally” Hungary opened its border between Hungary and Austria. Thousands of East Germans and other Eastern Europeans escaped to the West via Hungary. The Soviets pressured Hungary to stop the escaping Eastern Europeans. Hungary pretended to comply, but looked for opportunities to defy their KGB taskmasters.
Protests started occurring in East Germany. East Germans began to chant, “We want to leave.” Each week, the protests grew in strength.
In October, the long time East German President and Soviet boot licker Erik Honecker resigned and was replaced by a slightly less homicidal maniac named Egon Krenz. On the occasion of his retirement, Hoenecker announced to the world that the Berlin Wall would remain for at least another 50 years.
East and West Berliners began to congregate at the Wall as the protests continued to grow. Krenz had been offered up as a reformist, but East Germans recognized him for what he was, a ruthless, self-promoting politician who was, in fact, attempting to crack down on reformers in his own government.
The East German military began to show signs of mutiny. Krenz was quickly becoming a puppet king without a kingdom, and East Germany had over $100 billion in debt with no way to make payments.
Buried under deep layers of its own cynicism and impaired by factional maneuvering, the Soviet Politburo was busy with it’s own internal struggles and felt little inclination to reinforce East Germany with cash or Soviet troops. Krenz was making fast progress on the road to nowhere. His Polish and Czechoslovak allies to the east had slipped the Soviet leash, and he was beginning to understand what the Berlin Brigade must have felt like for so long.
East German protesters changed their chant. “We want to leave,” was replaced with, “We want to stay. YOU leave!”
By November, it was becoming obvious that most of the East German border guards were sympathetic to the protestors. With a possible collapse of the government looming, nobody in the East German government wanted to have to answer for ordering a slaughter of the increasingly brazen protestors.
On November 9, 1989, in an attempt to relieve the social pressure that was threatening to rupture the East German state, the East German government announced that the gates would be opened in the Wall, and that anyone who wished could pass from East to West.
Until late October, I had been in Europe. On my flight back to Washington D.C., I wondered if my dream of seeing a free Eastern Europe was about to materialize. The Soviet steamroller that had kept Eastern Europe’s puppet communist regimes in power for four decades had run out of steam.
On November 9, I returned home from a martial arts class. When I entered the living room, my wife was smiling in a way that I had not seen her smile before. She said, “You got your wish,” and she pointed to the TV.
I felt compelled to get close to the screen, as though I could hug the Berliners who were dancing on top of that God Damned Wall. I wished I had gone back to Berlin. I missed the biggest party in the history of the Cold War.
I was stunned and relieved, and simultaneously filled with joy and sadness. I felt joy for the people of Eastern Europe and for us. In that moment, I couldn’t help but wish that a few people who mattered greatly to me could have remained among us long enough to see that night. They had paid that price. They had borne that burden. It had not been in vain. I never for a second thought that it would be.
Tonight, from the distant, warm, comfortable safety of my home, I offer my humble gratitude to them for never losing their faith, and to the people of Berlin and Eastern Europe for finding their faith and their freedom.
What did the Berlin Wall mean to you?