November 8, 2009

Tear down this wall!

In August of 1961, I was on the campus of Midland College in Nebraska, practicing football with a contingent of recent high school graduates from across northern Nebraska. We were preparing for the Shrine Bowl football game, a pretty big deal for us – and a wonderful annual event organized by Shriners to benefit crippled children. Our practicing counted for very little, since later that week we were thoroughly trampled in Lincoln by the south squad – led by star running back Gale Sayers – 32 to 0.

At the time, I was oblivious to events on the other side of the world – events that would radically change the lives of millions of people. The so-called "cold war" had shown little evidence of abating in the early ‘60s, and on August 16th, 1961, East German leader Walter Ulbricht and his German Democratic Party (GDP) government made the cold war decidedly colder. They closed all border crossings and commerce in and out of West Berlin. Within a couple of days, they began erecting a 12-foot high concrete wall that would eventually run more than 87 miles, virtually surrounding West Berlin.

The move seemed a throwback to the late 1940s, when the communists halted all road traffic in and out of West Berlin in an effort to “starve” out the West Berliners. An enormous airlift was launched by Allied forces in January 1949, demonstrating the western commitment to preserving West Berlin, and finally convincing the East Germans and Soviets to halt their blockade.

I suspect that very few Americans thought the Berlin Wall would ever be completed – let alone survive for nearly three decades. Before the wall, there were about 1,000 people passing into West Berlin every day. The wall was a renewed effort to isolate West Berlin and stem the out-migration of citizens from East Germany.

In 1983, my son Brad and I motored across the East German corridor to visit the bustling West German enclave that was West Berlin. Our walk through Checkpoint Charlie (above photo) into East Berlin was an experience we’ll not soon forget. Stoic East German border guards took their jobs very seriously and demonstrated absolutely no sense of humor or cordiality. “Rude” would be a good description, and I suspect they were under orders to avoid being perceived as “friendly.” That simply wasn’t their job.

Fast forward six years to March of 1990 – wife Karen and I were vacationing in West Germany and drove a rental car across the same route into West Berlin. This time, however, it would be a very different experience. Just a few months earlier, the autocratic GDR regime of Erich Honecker was ousted, replaced by a group of younger East German political leaders. They decided that the Berlin Wall served no good purpose. The Russians were having problems of their own and were more inclined to abide by U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s admonishment from a few years earlier that they should “tear down” the wall.

Thousands of East Germans had attempted to escape into West Berlin over the years. Understandably, there are no definitive statistics as to how many succeeded – or lost their lives trying to escape. It’s thought that between 100-200 people died.

The Berlin Wall was still intact when Karen and I decided to hike along its route through a quiet neighborhood of West Berlin. We got a close-up view of graffiti that had been etched on the western side of the wall for decades. We saw the East German watchtowers that loomed over the no-mans-land near the wall, better known as “The Death Strip" (photo above). We also came across a few other hikers, who – like us – were collecting pieces of the wall for posterity.

Perhaps most interesting was our encounter with East German border guards – still on the job, but apparently operating under new orders: be friendly. It was a stark contrast to what Brad and I had encountered just a few years before. You can click on the photo to see a larger image.

All of these memories came flashing back today with media reports about Berlin festivities marking the 20th anniversary of the wall’s demise on November 9, 1989.

It seems we humans learn less from history than we should, so I think it’s likely that other walls will be built in other places for other purposes. And I suspect they’ll find a fate much like the Berlin Wall……a pile of rubble and a footnote in history.

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