After The Wall

Two decades ago, the Berlin Wall crumbled and America looked invincible

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It was built in darkness -- and destroyed in sunlight. It separated Berlin -- and united much of Europe. It provided the backdrop for perhaps the most stirring speech ever given by a young Democratic president -- and by an old Republican president. It was constructed of concrete and metal -- but above all it was emblem and metaphor.

Through the reign of seven American presidents and five Soviet leaders -- from John F. Kennedy and Nikita S. Khrushchev to George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev -- the Berlin Wall was a symbol of all that divided East and West. It seemed impregnable and permanent. And then it fell.

The world already had a rich folklore of walls tumbling down, rooted in Jericho, and there seemed something almost Biblical about the fall of the Berlin Wall. But in fact The Wall didn't exactly fall -- it was destroyed blow by blow (and this is no metaphor, it is the literal truth) by men and women who displayed the power of freedom by exercising the power of their own hands and arms. These were quite literally hammer blows for freedom.

Then it was gone. The Wall, and the barriers it stood for, was destroyed, and today there are hardly any signs at all of something that once seemed so enduring a part of Europe. It was almost certainly the most momentous event to occur in Europe since the collapse of the Nazi empire and the death of Adolf Hitler.

The Wall's demise began 20 years ago this month, when soldiers of a once-Communist regime wearing drab olive uniforms and using giant tools cut 150 miles of barbed wire separating Hungary from Austria, one of the great pincer movements of all of history. By the end of May 1989 the Goddess of Democracy statue, modeled unmistakably after the Statue of Liberty, was unveiled a continent away in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. This was freedom's spring, more enduring than the Prague Spring of 1968. We feel its breezes still.

And now it also stands as a stunning example -- a symbol, again -- of global climate change.

In 1989 it was possible to speak of the "peace dividend," when, according to the tenets of the New World Order, all the money that once had gone into military spending could suddenly be plowed into social spending or devoted to reducing the budget deficit that had bedeviled Washington for a generation. Two decades on, and the United States is involved in two wars far from Berlin and struggling with budget deficits that no longer can be expressed merely in billions, but in trillions.

The Wall came tumbling down in the first year of the first President Bush's administration. Consider two events that bracketed Mr. Bush's inauguration by a fortnight. One was the vote by the Communist Party of Poland to legalize Solidarity, the independent trade union that spawned a huge social movement. The second was the final withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan at the end of nine years of Communist occupation.

In that environment, Mr. Bush gave an inaugural address that was both poignant and prescient.

"I come before you and assume the presidency at a moment rich with promise," he said. "For a new breeze is blowing, and a world refreshed by freedom seems reborn; for in man's heart, if not in fact, the day of the dictator is over. The totalitarian era is passing, its old ideas blown away like leaves from an ancient, lifeless tree."

An old era was ending, a new one beginning. The old one was marked by superpower tensions across the globe and small dramas around The Wall, when brave and hopeful men and women, in a tacit acknowledgement of their hopeless fate behind the Iron Curtain, made fateful and sometimes fatal dashes from East to West.

It was marked by two men of the World War II generation with a genius for symbolism and syntax. Standing before The Wall in June 1963, John F. Kennedy shook the world when he said: "All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words 'Ich bin ein Berliner!' "

So, too, did Ronald Reagan two dozen years later, when he cried: "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!"

Now, in a different era, we face the challenge of remembering, and of commemorating. How shall we mark the 20th anniversary of the demise of one of the great symbols of tyranny?

Berlin is conducting a "year of remembrance," the theme being a celebration of those who helped tear it down. Berlin city fathers are planning to erect a huge row of dominoes that will tumble, one by one, symbolizing the events that led to the fall of The Wall.

But to those of us with a Cold War sensibility, or an ear for Cold-War symbolism, dominoes are a discordant gesture, with their ominous overtones of the Truman-Eisenhower theory that the collapse of one nation to Communism would inevitably lead to the collapse of another. Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, acknowledges the difficulty of conveying to a new generation what he calls "the horror of The Wall, this system of terror with its mines, its dogs and the orders to shoot."

Even so, German artists have set out to restore the huge murals, painted by 118 artists from 21 countries, that spread across the scant remaining portions of the Wall in 1990. The Ritz Carlton in Berlin is offering a "Remember The Wall" package, including breakfast, two tickets to The Wall museum, a chocolate amenity, a bottle of champagne produced in what we used to call East Germany, a DVD on the fall of The Wall and a souvenir piece of The Wall itself. Cost: about $443 a night.

But these commemorations are, respectively, cosmetic and confectionery. There was nothing cosmetic or confectionery about the Berlin Wall.

So we are left to ponder how we might mark this occasion. The politicians, Barack Obama perhaps among them, will surely give speeches. Those who pierced the wall, heroes all, will surely share their remembrances.

For our part, we can take a moment to reflect on the gift of freedom and the price that has been extracted for it. Remembering, by most measures, is pretty cheap. Forgetting is far more expensive.


David M. Shribman is the executive editor of the Post-Gazette ( dshribman@post-gazette.com , 412 263-1890).


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