Wednesday, November 11, 2009
The Berlin Wall
Germans and many other people are celebrating this week! It is now twenty years since November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall - sometimes known as the Iron Curtain - came down. In 1945, at the end of World War II, victorious Allies took over Berlin and divided the city into four sectors. Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States each occupied one sector. Germany was also divided into four zones controlled by the same countries. Berlin is located deep within the area occupied by the Soviets, but the Allies expected to be granted access to the city. In June 1948 the Soviet Union blocked all rail, water, and highway routes through the Soviet territory to the Western sectors. The Soviets hoped the blockade would drive the Western troops out of Berlin, but the Western nations had other ideas. They organized a project called the Berlin airlift to bring the needed supplies to West Berliners. At the height of this project aircraft were landing into West Berlin at the rate of one airplane every couple of minutes. The Soviets ended the blockade in May 1949, but the airlift continued until the following September. Starting sometime toward the end of 1948, East and West Berlin had separate governments, police forces, currency and utility systems. In 1949, the Britain, France, and United States zones were combined into West Germany, and the Soviet zone became East Germany. Roads between East Berlin and West Berlin were unrestricted during the 1950s, allowing thousands of East Germans to flee Communism. By 1961 more than a thousand East Germans were fleeing to West Berlin every day. On August 13, 1961, a wall was begun to divide the two sections of Berlin. The wall was made of concrete slabs 12 to 15 feet tall with pipes, barbed wire, and other obstacles on top of the wall. The wall was about 26 miles long in the Berlin area with a total length of the walls and other barriers about 110 miles long. The wall stood for 28 years, two months, and 27 days. During that time, many East Germans tried to escape to West Berlin. Some of them were successful, but somewhere between 170 and 753 people lost their lives trying to break through this border. Most of them were shot by the East German border guards, but some were blown apart by mines and automatic guns. Others drowned while trying to escape by a sea route. Those escapees caught alive were jailed. There were attempts to break the Communist strangle hold: Hungarians in 1956, the Czechs in 1968, and the Polish shipyards in 1980. In 1989, many East Germans fled to West Germany through Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. Finally, on November 9, 1989, the East German government ended all travel and immigration restrictions on their people. Americans like to think that the fall of the Berlin Wall came about because Ronald Reagan made a speech on June 12, 1987 while standing at the Brandenburg Gate: "We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WjWDrTXMgF8&] Pressure from Western countries was one reason the Communists backed down, but there are also other reasons given for the fall of Communism. I watched a program on television last evening which credited the music from the Beatles - brought into Russia illegally and wildly popular with the young people - with destroying the control of the Communists. Russians say it happened because of perestroika - restructuring of the Soviet society, especially its economic policy. Lech Walesa, who led the revolution for Polish freedom, said that the communists were beaten back because the masses of people organized and demanded change. I assume that it was a combination of all these reasons. Life under Communism was very difficult. One visitor to Russia wrote in 1982, "If it is hard to describe the economic wasteland of Russia to someone who hasn't been there, it is even harder to describe what their totalitarian system has done to the human spirit…. It isn't just the drabness and grayness one sees everywhere. Or the rudeness and surliness one encounters so often. It's that you virtually never see people laughing, smiling, or just seeming to enjoy themselves. People seem to walk slightly bent over, their eyes always averting a stranger. There is an overwhelming sense of oppression and depression." Allen Hall retells the experience of Alfred and Renate Kostbade, with their two teenagers, escaping from East Germany on October 13, 1988. They chose to make their escape in a small rubber boat in the dark and then spent twelve hours on the Baltic Sea before arriving in West Germany. The fact remains that human beings want to be free, and many will risk everything including life itself to obtain freedom. As I've said before, freedom is not free! We must not take our liberty for granted. If we lose our freedom, it will be very difficult to regain it. We must protect our freedom, not only for ourselves but because maintaining our freedom gives courage and hope to freedom-lovers all over the world. Many of the facts for this post came from articles written by either Lutz Holzner or Melvin Croan, World Book Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, p 265-267.