That G*d-D***ed (Berlin) Wall

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

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?


21 comments on “That G*d-D***ed (Berlin) Wall

  1. Safely ensconced in Alaska within my sphere of family and job, I trusted that the world would somehow survive tyranny. Though grateful for the sacrifices of soldiers and their families to protect our liberty over the history of the US and the world, I remained detached and silent, as I knew corruption and hunger for power had tentacles and dealt in secrets I would never know. And danger.

    Two of my three daughters became politically informed, and a friend of my daughter’s was traveling in Europe at the time. She witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall … making the enormity of the event real and personal. Who living in a free world could not be gripped by this beginning of the end of the cold war? Even someone like me, safe in my hidey-hole.

    How and where do people muster the courage to defy tyranny and risk death?

    Thank you Jay, for giving us a factual account of this great day in history, told like history should be told. If history books had made events real and personal like this post, I might not have balked as a student of “social studies.”

  2. J H says:

    Thank you for your kind and thoughtful words Marion.

  3. EllieAnn says:

    I really appreciate this post. I’ve never heard about the wall from a personal point of view. Thanks for sharing.

  4. K.B. Owen says:

    Love this post, Holmes. I’m younger than you and the wall was an ever-present reminder of how fragile freedom can be. I was so happy to see it come down, which was just a few months after I got married. New life!

  5. “Streets and buildings were removed from the east side of the wall to create a killing zone.” That one sentence frightens me because it says that people will do as told, no matter how wrong.

    I was single and living in L.A. at the time the wall came down. I would leave six weeks later for London and it was incredible to me the difference in attention the two places gave the wall. In L.A. they celebrated, albeit tepidly, in London, even weeks after the event, people were talking about it and popping champagne (okay, it was only beer. We were poor back then) and thrilled that Berlin would finally be united as one city. It opened my eyes to the rest of the world and gave me a glimpse into how media controls what we see and how we should react. I was 24 at the time and it totally changed the way I saw the world and myself.

    I wish you could have been there on the wall dancing with those people. At least you got to see a dream realized.

    • J H says:

      Hi Tameri. I’m glad that you got to see the reaction in London. The Berlin wall and the Warsaw Pact weighed heavily on the minds of the British.

      My friends claim that I have the best luck and the best timing. I often happen to be in just the right place at the right time but I missed on this one. It was probably for the best that I had taken a brake on gone home from Washington rather than returning to Europe. I was exhausted when I got to DC and I couldn’t get more than a few hours of sleep at any one time without an interruption. I might easily have stepped in front of a truck in my walking sleep state if I had not taken that break.

  6. Yet again Holmes offers us an excellent history lesson and the reminder, as Thanksgiving approaches, of how we in North America have so very much for which to be thankful!

  7. J H says:

    Hi Patricia. Thank you for your compliment. Thank you also for your article concerning Remembrance Day in Canada and Commonwealth nations tomorrow.

    Many of us in the United states are unaware of the immense sacrifices made by Canadians in World War One and World War Two. Canada lost 67,000 people in World War One and 45,400 people in World War Two. Sadly, many amongst us are unaware that anything called World War One and World War Two ever occurred. I fear that, in our ignorance, we could more easily repeat the same mistakes that caused those wars and that made them so costly in human lives.

  8. Hi Holmes.

    Great article. I grew up in the UK where the wall physically represented the ominous Soviet threat and news of attempted crossings made the TV. It was worrying when Regan made his speech, even though Russia was claiming to change, violent changes in policy weren’t unusual.

    I remember drinking to the fall of the wall for some time afterwards. When the wall came down I had a friend at ESA in Darmstadt. He went straight over to Berlin and returned to the UK with a bag of broken concrete. I still have a lump of that “damn wall!” It isn’t much to look at, but it is a constant reminder of an age that’s thankfully gone.


  9. […] to you for living your lives in secret, doing the things we really don’t need to know about. Piper Bayard‘s writing partner Holmes is one such individual and if you haven’t been to their blog, […]

  10. J Holmes says:

    Hi Nigel. Have you stopped toasting the fall of the wall yet?

    Your article on that crazy Swiss car is very entertaining. When I asked about you publishing a compendium of all those cars I was not being sarcastic. If you ever do publish one I would like an option to purchase the earlyest possible book from your 1st printing. The first one should likely go to your wife, and the next one in series should be for you. Can I get the next one?

  11. educlaytion says:

    Good memories Holmes. I love teaching the Cold War, especially now when so many students really have no concept of a world split between East and West. The events of the 1980s are great to study, from the pressure of Reagan to the movements in places like Hungary and Poland. Lech Walesa came to our university when I was a grad student. Fascinating person, that guy.

    • J H says:

      Hi Clay. I’m glad that you are an enthusiastic teacher. Some students just want the credit hours but some want the education and it helps when the lecturer cares about the topic.

      Ignorance is the greatest threat to freedom.

  12. Not too long ago, my family and I visited the Reagan museum. They have a piece of the Wall there. I remember standing in front of it, trying to explain to my children what it meant to see the Wall coming down on the news and getting all teared up. It was amazing to be able to touch it. On one side, butterflies and flowers were painted. The other side was gray. Such a powerful piece of history.

  13. Kathleen says:

    I traveled to East Berlin in 1988, touring with a dance company. I met a lovely and courageous woman whose great dream in life was to go to Paris. She was our French translator, and was an expert at speaking truthfully when the political officer assigned to us wasn’t looking. I cried watching the wall come down. And know that somehow, our translator has been to Paris.

  14. J Holmes says:

    Hi Kathleen. Your friend didn’t have long to wait. I’m sure that she was able to make it to Paris.

Talk to us. We talk back.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s