On August 4, 1961, just days before the Berlin Wall's construction would begin, UPI President Frank Bartholomew spoke to The Commonwealth Club about the dilemma Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev faced with his post-war empire in Eastern Europe.
In Berlin this July, I was able to understand Khrushchev's attitude toward Berlin and why he created the crisis. From his viewpoint, it is completely logical. ... Berlin is cracking the Iron Curtain. It's a showplace of Western prosperity 124 miles inside the Communist zone, and it has become absolutely intolerable to him. ... The billboards in East Berlin extol the benefits of Communism as against the slavery of the West, but 40,000 East Berliners go West each day for their employment. ... The defections are depleting the population of East Germany. Three weeks ago, defections were 4,000 a week. Now reports say they have stepped up to 1,500 daily. ... Khrushchev faces 100 million enemies in the Iron Curtain countries and is making no progress at persuading them to the Russian way of thinking.
Today, Germany is hosting celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. Leaders from across the European Union -- nations that were locked in a fight to the death 65 years ago, and that were divided by a lethal iron curtain for about 45 years after that -- gathered to commemorate the event that, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted, was part of the continental struggle to lift off the repression of a number of communist regimes. Those leaders have been joined by some other significant leaders, including Russian President Medvedev, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former Polish President Lech Walesa, who arguably established the first crack in the Iron Curtain when he led the shipyard strikes against Poland's communist government almost a decade before the Wall fell. In her comments right before a re-enactment of the crossing of the border, Merkel noted the "incredible encouragement" East Germans got from Poland's Solidarity movement.
When Walesa spoke at The Commonwealth Club in 2004, after receiving The Club's Medallion award, he downplayed the role played by Gorbachev and suggested that it was the late Russian President Boris Yeltsin who really made the changes of 1989 stick:
The process could have been reversed, and at this point we were lucky to have Yeltsin - not Gorbachev, but Yeltsin. Because Gorbachev, when he realized what was happening, made this attempt to reform communism. Perestroika and glasnost are nothing but a reform of communism. .... This is precisely what he admitted in the presence of President George Bush Sr., [German] Chancellor Kohl, [Czech] President Havel and others. But that was a time when Yeltsin was antagonistic with Gorbachev. As you may remember, the majority of you supported Gorbachev at that time; however, this antagonism allowed Yeltsin to prepare Russia and then withdraw her from the Soviet Union, which he actually did. I'm not sure whether he did it when sober or when drunk, but he did it. Had he not done it, I am sure that I myself, and Chancellor Kohl, would be rebuilding the Berlin Wall even faster than we had pulled it down sometime before, with strong encouragement from the United States. [Listen to complete Walesa audio.]Yeltsin, of course, is unable to attend today's festivities, but Walesa's views do not seem to have moderated in the last five years. He recently told German newsweekly Der Spiegel that "the first wall to fall was pushed over in 1980 in the Polish shipyards. Later, other symbolic walls came down, and the Germans, of course, tore down the literal wall in Berlin. The fall of the Berlin Wall makes for nice pictures. But it all started in the shipyards."
In his own speech to The Commonwealth Club on the 15th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Czech President Vaclav Klaus noted that the revolutionary events of the end of communism in eastern Europe had given way to a changed landscape that required continued -- but not revolutionary -- change: "The Czech Republic has become already -- structurally -- a standard, which means normal, European country, and as a result of this it has typical European problems, if not to say European diseases. They cannot be solved by means of another revolution, because we are already in the middle of the process of a spontaneous evolution of basic social structures. This evolutionary era, of course, is less radical, less dramatic, less headlines-creating, but -- paradoxically -- more controversial and even more ideological." [Listen to Klaus event audio.]
Tear Down This WallAnother important figure who was not able to make it to this year's celebrations is the late U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who famously sparred with the Soviets during his first term in office, only to forge a partnership with Gorbachev. Reagan is often quoted for his challenge to Gorbachev, delivered at the Brandenburg Gate along the Wall, to "tear down this wall."
The writer of that speech, Peter Robinson, told The Club in 2004 that he had a conversation with President Reagan before the speech, in which Robinson tried to get feedback from the president that would help him formulate a strong speech.
I said, "Mr. President, I learned when I was in Berlin that they'll be able to hear the speech on the other side of the Wall, by radio – and if the weather conditions are just right, I was told, they'll be able to pick up the speech as far east as Moscow itself. Is there anything in particular that you'd like to say to people on the other side of the Wall?" And Ronald Reagan thought for a moment and then said, "Well, there's that passage [in the draft of the speech] about tearing down the Wall – that's what I'd like to say to them: that wall has to come down." [Listen to complete Robinson audio.]
Today, "Berlin Wall" is a "trending topic" on Twitter, which means that it's one of the phrases used most often on that social media service. Thousands of "tweets" are noting the anniversary, sharing memories, and pointing to news stories on the celebrations in Berlin. One person tweeted the question, "What would it have been like if Twitter had existed when the Berlin Wall fell?" Probably not much different would have happened, but it might have given an answer to the other person -- a teenager, judging from his profile photo -- who tweeted, "Who cares about the Berlin Wall?"
The crowds who accompanied Merkel, Walesa, and Gorbachev across the bridge in their re-enactment of the first East German crowds to surge across the border in 1989 care, that's who. And they are making another point about how what people on the ground can do to make history, or at least to push their leaders in the direction they want to go. The New York Times reports that, as Merkel noted the large crowd that turned out for the crossing today, despite rainfall, she appreciated the milieu:
“It’s perhaps as chaotic as it was in 1989,” Mrs. Merkel said of the crowd thronging around the leaders so that it was sometimes barely possible to distinguish the politicians from the people. “I’m very happy that so many people turned up. ... Everyone who is present here today has a story to tell,” she said. “They are part of freedom.”