Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Walls (Part 3)

…(continued from previous post)…

The Berlin Wall went through several transformations. The most well-known version, and the one shown in most of the surviving photographs, are the twelve-foot high reinforced concrete wall sections, along with a “Death Strip” of gravel leading up to the wall from the East German side - to make it easy for border guards to shoot any defectors trying to cross to the West. While the Wall was up, there were as many as 5,000 successful escapes made to the West. In the first three days of the order to divide the city, a famous photo was taken of Conrad Schumann (an East German border soldier), which showed him leaping the barbed wire to safety. In a famous, non-successful attempt, an eighteen-year-old East German bricklayer named Peter Fechter tried to leap the six-foot wall, but was shot by East German guards. He fell back to the East German side. Both sides were afraid to help him, for fear of being shot as well, and Fechter bled to death over the course of an hour – in full view of cameras and passers-by.

The Wall was built on order of the Soviet government, with the purpose of preventing people from escaping or being able to compare socialism and democracy. But it became a symbol of oppression, despised by all those who treasure freedom. When the Wall was up, the side facing democracy was painted and made colorful by graffiti. The side facing Communism was gray and untouched - guarded by soldiers with orders to shoot anyone who approached it.

In June of 1987, to commemorate Berlin’s 750th anniversary, Ronald Reagan visited Berlin’s Brandenburg gate and uttered these now-famous words:

“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!”
Two years later, the Berlin Wall came down, but not before a strange sequence of events occurred. Eastern-bloc Hungary decided to open its border to Western-minded Austria. Thousands of East Germans fled there. Other East Germans already in Hungary crowded the West German embassy and announced that they would not return to their country. This triggered protests in East Germany against their own government. A revolution was well underway.

Under pressure, the East German government issued an edict allowing refugees and private travelers to exit the East for the West. Television stations and announcers, confused by the text, announced that East Germany was opening its borders to everyone (which was not really the intent). On November 9, 1989, people began gathering at the wall and demanding the guards to let them through. The guards, also confused, called their superiors but found that no one on the other end of the phone was willing to direct them to use force to preserve the borders. The guards simply opened the gates and let people pass freely. People began to systematically chip at the concrete wall. Small tools turned into sledgehammers over the next few days, and the Wall began to come away in large pieces. By mid 1990, the German military began tearing down large sections of the wall. Germany was formally reunified on October 3, 1990.

Unlike the French Maginot Line, which was designed to keep people out, the Berlin Wall was primarily erected to keep people in. But is one purpose more noble than the other? Keep reading the series…

1 comment:

Joshua said...

Where were you?...

I was driving a tractor in a field in Kansas pulling a disc. The news came over the radio. I stopped the tractor for a second, recognizing that something important had happened. Not bad for a kid just starting eigth grade.