Thirty years ago this weekend, perhaps the foremost symbol of the Cold War between East and West was consigned to the rubble of history.
The fall of the Berlin Wall after 28 years of infamy followed a series of radical political changes in the Eastern Bloc, fueled by changes in its authoritarian systems and erosion of political power. On November 9th, 1989, after several weeks of civil unrest, the East German government announced its citizens could visit West Germany and West Berlin.
Former WUWF journalist Danielle Freeman was a freshman in high school in November, 1989 – her father was serving in the U.S. Army in West Germany and the family lived about four hours away from Berlin, in the city of Ansbach.
“I don’t remember there being a lot of talk about it,” said Freeman. “I specifically remember more so when it was close to coming down. You know you’re witnessing history happen, and I don’t think you understand the importance or significance of it until you step back from it.”
After the Wall came down, no school-related trip to Berlin was complete without going to the site.
“We played Berlin High School, and were going to Berlin quite a few times,” said Freeman. “So if you played on the volleyball team, like me, you went for that. Then you had your Humanities (class) field trip, you went back for that. So, we got to see the Wall quite a bit.”
Nobody in the West saw this coming, but maybe they should have. Earlier in 1961, President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s first meeting did not go well. Khrushchev considered Kennedy a lightweight on foreign policy and treated him as such.
“When they came back and the discussion about Berlin came up, it really was, in many ways, a semi-declaration of war that (Khrushchev said) ‘We’re going to take Berlin back,’” said Patrick Moore, a former University of West Florida historian and an expert on the Cold War.
“It seemed like an aggressive move, but it was really a passive move,” said Moore. “As Kennedy argued, this wasn’t a very nice way out of this predicament, but it’s a helluva lot better than war.”
Built to a height of 11 ft. 10 in., the Berlin Wall was topped with barbed wire and monitored by East German soldiers, armed with machine guns and shoot-to-kill orders to stop anyone trying to cross over to the West.
“There were just about a couple of thousand people who managed to get over – or through – the Wall,” said Moore. “It was incredibly effective at what it had to do.”
President Kennedy visited West Berlin in June of 1963, delivering his iconic “Ich bin ein Berliner” address of solidarity with the city’s residents.
After JFK’s assassination five months later, subsequent U.S. presidents – Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter -- had other, more pressing issues. Vietnam, civil rights, Watergate, the economy and the Iranian hostage crisis filled their plates while the Wall did what it did. Fast forward to the 1980s. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premiere Mikhail Gorbachev began that openness -- “Glasnost” in Russian – which led to a bit of thaw in the Cold War. Speaking at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin in June of 1987, Reagan made a request of his Soviet friend – “Tear down this Wall.”
“And there were a lot of other cracks throughout the Iron Curtain elsewhere,” said Moore. “But this was so symbolic; this very poignant statement about the division between East and West. Dividing families, dividing friends, (and) dividing countrymen.”
UWF’s Patrick Moore said the Berlin Wall’s demise began a “domino effect” which led to the fall of the Soviet Union, Eastern Bloc, and communism itself.
Saying the atomic bomb attacks against Japan in 1945 was the beginning of the Cold War, and the fall of the Berlin Wall was the end of it, could be considered an over-simplification, says Moore. But he adds that the wall coming down was a defining point in history. And as a gradual process in reality, it changed the world.