June 14, 2007 

History

“Tear Down This Wall”

David F. Lloyd

On June 12, 1987, during a visit to the divided German city of Berlin, U.S. president Ronald Reagan publicly and memorably challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Reagan’s trip to Berlin coincided with the former German capital’s 750th anniversary.

Visiting the wall 44 years ago in 1963, Kennedy made his famous declaration on June 26, when he said, “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner). Reflecting on that speech, Reagan also said, “Standing before the Brandenburg Gate, every man is a German, separated from his fellow men. Every man is a Berliner, forced to look upon a scar.”

The wall was erected in 1961, ostensibly to keep the fascists out. However, it was in fact built to keep the oppressed people of East Germany in.

Just two years after Reagan delivered his most famous sound byte, the wheels came off the Eastern European communist wagon. Gorbachev had begun to make fundamental changes to Russian policies beginning in 1985. His reforms, dubbed “Perestroika” (restructuring) and “Glasnost” (openness, transparency) were billed as a renewal, not a replacement of the communist system.

The reforms in the Soviet Union soon resonated across the other communist countries, especially in Poland and Hungary. On August 23, 1989, Hungary opened the Iron Curtain to Austria, and East German tourists seized the chance to escape there. During just three days in September 1989, more than 13,000 fled East Germany via Hungary.

Large demonstrations against the government system of East Germany took place over the three months from September through November. On October 18, Erich Honecker, East Germany’s head of state, was compelled to resign.

Subsequently the new East German government prepared a law to lift travel restrictions for citizens. In the early evening of November 9, a member of the new government was asked at a press conference when the revised travel law would come into force. He answered: “Well, as far as I can see . . . straightaway, immediately.”

In response, thousands of East Berliners flocked to the border crossings. At Bornholmer Strasse, people demanded that the border be opened—and it was—at 10:30 p.m. That moment spelled the end of the Berlin Wall. Soon other border-crossing points peacefully opened their gates to the West, and people pulled chunks off the wall not only as souvenirs, but also to symbolize the coming destruction of the entire hated barrier.

On December 22, 1989, the Brandenburg Gate, backdrop to Reagan’s speech, was opened. Less than a year later, on October 3, 1990, the two Germanys were reunited.

Perhaps the most surprising lesson of the cascading events that took place during the 16 months between President Reagan’s speech and the fall of the wall is how quickly the shape of the political landscape can change.