Monday, November 9, 2009

The Berlin Wall...the moral to the story

I was born during the early part of the Vietnam War. This war was part of a larger "East verses West", "Communist /Socialist verses Capitalist" cold war. For me and my generation, this is how it had always been. By the time I was old enough to know much of anything the USSR, The Iron Curtain, Cold War, nuclear missles, Eastern Bloc Countries, and the Berlin Wall were household terms.

"On May 8, 1945, the unconditional surrender of the German armed forces (Wehrmacht) was signed by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel in Berlin, ending World War II for Germany. The German people were suddenly confronted by a situation never before experienced in their history: the entire German territory was occupied by foreign armies, cities and infrastructure were largely reduced to rubble, the country was flooded with millions of refugees from the east, and large portions of the population were suffering from hunger and the loss of their homes. The nation-state founded by Otto von Bismarck in 1871 lay in ruins."

"As Germany surrendered to the Allied Powers, the war in Europe officially ended. The land lay in devastation from the invasion and cities were turned into rubble from the bombing of Germany from the Allies. England, the Soviet Union, France, and the United States tried their hand in saving the destructed Germany. They decided the best way to rebuilt would be to divide Germany into four militarized zones, each one controlled by one of the Allied powers. Berlin was divided similarly. The government of Germany was also divided and each divided section was given the power to set the government they wanted on a ballot for election. Each country did this excluding the Soviet Union, which immediately set up their own communist government."
Think Quest

The three divisions of Germany held by Great Britain, France and the United States united those sections to form one "West" Germany while the division occupied by the Soviet Union (USSR) was kept under Soviet control.

By 1961 it was evident that the economy of the west was vastly superior and robust compared to that of the east or Soviet section of Germany (East Germany). Since the entire city (east and west) of Berlin was inside the borders of East Germany many people from East Germany began to migrate to the western part of Berlin.

So many people had migrated or fled to the other part of Berlin that the Soviet government felt they had to do something to curtail this movement. This was done by erecting a wall that surrounded the western section of Berlin cutting it off from the rest of East Germany.

"The Berlin Wall always was a symbol of the superiority of freedom over oppression and of the free market over a controlled economy. Those two aspects — politics and economics — were as much a part of it as the gray paint on its east side and the colorful and taunting graffiti on its west side."
Deseret News, November 9, 2009

I remember as a child hearing about people risking their lives in attempts to escape from the oppression of the east over that wall. Many people were successful while many others never made it. The wall was heavily guarded and anyone attempting to pass over the wall were shot, no questions asked.

The Berlin Wall and the "Iron Curtain" it represented were as normal to me as rock n roll, apple pie and lemonade. I am sure I was not alone in this thinking. We never imagined that things could change."

I saw life in the East just as the commentor to the Deseret News opinion piece, "My childhood was filled with watching footage of people daring to run for their lives hoping to reach freedom before guards in the towers would notice - rapid fire bullets took their lives again and again as they risked all rather than live under Soviet oppression! Americans how soon we forget - and propaganda covers the horror to modern youth unaware of the past. The dead do not repeat the truth from their history!"

The 1981 movie
"Night Crossing" told the story of two families who attempted to cross the barbed wire-walled East German border where automated machine guns, armed guards, and deadly land mines dotted this "death strip". On September 15, 1979 tired of the Cold War rules that restricted their lives, these two families built their own balloon as an escape vehicle to the West.

I saw that movie not long after its debut. It is a story that has stuck with me ever since.

The Berlin Wall and the "Iron Curtain" it represented were as normal to me as rock n roll, apple pie and lemonade (cliches intended). I am sure I was not alone in this thinking. We never imagined that things could change.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of that wall. I had been married just a few short months when an undercurrent that had been brewing for years exploded to enable a cascade of events to unfold right before our eyes.

  • June 1987: Ronald Regan becomes the second US president to make an historic speech in Berlin, this time in front of the Brandenburg Gate. He echoes Kennedy’s devotion to preserving democracy. His exhortation – “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” – would become a catchphrase.

  • August 1989: The Eastern Bloc shows signs of weakening, with Hungary removing its border bloc with Austria. Thousands of East Germans escape to the West via Austria.

  • September 1989: East Germans begin organizing peaceful “Monday demonstrations” weekly in protest against the GDR government.

  • September-November 1989: Protests agitating for loosened border controls increase in number in the GDR.

  • October 18, 1989: Erich Honecker, who had ruled since 1971, resigns. His departure leaves open the possibility for looser border controls.

  • November 9: The GDR politburo, seeing the impossibility of maintaining a firm hand, agrees to a minor concession allowing limited travel across the border.

    At a press conference announcing the decision, a politburo member who had just learned of the policy mistakenly says that is immediately effective. In fact, it was to take effect the next day, in order to inform the border guards ahead of time.

    Thousands of East Berliners flock to the checkpoints and attempt to cross the border, overwhelming the guards by their numbers.

    People begin picking away at the wall by hand.
France 24 News

Almost over night the world I had grown up in had changed.

"It was a day in which the entire world seemed to exhale after decades of a tense Cold War many felt would last forever. It was, for many, the beginning of the real end to World War II, defined for them by years of war, followed by more than 40 years of oppression and occupation. And it was the beginning of a more chaotic world, defined by ideologies and terrorist threats rather than a superpower standoff."
Deseret News

Yet 20 years later as we observed the anniversary of this incredible day we must remember the lessons of the past. "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." George Santayana

Today our own government seems bent on moving toward greater control over the economy, quite ostensibly in the name of "saving" it.

But if we look to the lessons that can be learned from the history of oppression that was symbolized by that Wall we will remember. We will remember that it was the successes of capitalism that those behind that Iron Curtain risked their lives to reach. It was the oppression of governmental economic control that they were fleeing.

If we remember these lessons and learn from them we will avert a repeat of the past.