It’s one of those events for which you remember where you were, like 9/11 or the Challenger disaster. You remember seeing it on TV and experiencing remarkable thoughts and emotions for days, like the terrible assassinations of the late 1960s or Hurricane Katrina hitting the Gulf coast. Where were you when the Berlin Wall came down?
I was on watch in a fleet intelligence center in Norfolk, Virginia. My section had the mid-watch – the overnight watch – and as we had driven in to work, some of us had heard on the radio about something big going on in Berlin. Big crowds of protesters. We had been following the events of the previous months with great interest, of course. What would it all mean for the military posture of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, analysis of which was our principal daily job? The Soviet armed forces had had a surprisingly small spring exercise in 1989. Soviet military activity in general had been on the decline, and little or nothing was going on in the East European nations of the Warsaw Pact. The military reactions we had looked for when Poland essentially declared her independence from Moscow, and when Austria opened her border to East Germany and the emigrants began to pour across it, never materialized.
We had watched the crowds of protesters in previous weeks during the “East German Monday” demonstrations that started in September. We had watched as Erich Honecker, builder of the Berlin Wall and a long-time face of the Cold War, was replaced in October by the East German politburo. The West recognized it then as something of a desperation move, but there were few who understood the magnitude of what was happening. As my watch section drove to work that evening, we understood that there was a mass of people out in both East and West Berlin, but we had been asleep all day; it was when we got to work and saw our intelligence traffic that we realized East Germany had issued the authorization that day, 9 November 1989, for its restive people to freely visit West Germany.
CNN ran 24/7 in our watch center, and we stood and watched it that evening as Germans from both sides of the Wall began tearing it down with their own hands. For most of us, the Wall had been there our entire lives, the symbol of Marxist oppression and totalitarianism. It seemed fitting – inspiring – amazing – to see the people themselves pulling it apart and climbing over it. I don’t think there was a dry eye on our watch floor. This was it. The Wall was coming down, removed in pieces, like a pile of garbage, like a big clean-up operation, by a determined people. The oldest person on our watch floor was a crusty first-class petty officer, a Russian linguist, in his forties, and even his eyes were suspiciously moist. “Guess I’m out of a job,” he said with a watery chuckle.
The Berlin Wall that had been there since before we had sentient memories was coming down. The West had won. It was very hard to concentrate that evening. The defense “internet” was hardly past the toddler stage, in 1989, but using the inefficient procedures of the time we were all asking each other, across the country and around the world, “Are you seeing this???” Someone out there, from the Air Force, I think, asked “Can we go home yet?” The CNN reporters kept saying “I can’t believe I’m seeing this,” and trying to balance sober commentary and historical perspective with the sheer, unadulterated sentiment of “YEEEEEE-HAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Never again would Berlin be the Soviet Union’s hostage, a geopolitical football, the human guarantee of the West’s behavior. What was broken was not the “Germans,” or the “Russians,” or any other people out there: what was broken was the back of predatory Soviet Marxism, that which had held people enslaved, imprisoned, silent, and terrified, and had perennially sought new territory over which to extend its brutal control. Berlin was one of the oldest pressure points of the Cold War, her status hammered out through decades of armed posturing and painful uncertainty – and now she was free. This was it. We dared to say it to ourselves that night, marveling and barely comprehending the import of it: “The Cold War is over.”
Reagan had gone to Berlin and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” – and here it was, coming down. Of course, he prepared his battlespace before making that demand; it was not only the words that mattered. But the words did matter. No American president had uttered them before. American leadership was crucial in the liberation of Berlin in 1989, and the restoration of Germany in the following years. It was the NATO alliance that made it possible, and American leadership that made NATO viable and effective.
Maybe you had to be in the US armed forces back then, to have the powerful memories of life in that bipolar world of competing superpowers, blocs, and thousands of nuclear warheads at the ready 24/365. Or maybe you had to be in the armed forces to recognize the fall of the Berlin Wall as such a watershed. However it is, I am just about the contemporary of President Obama, and I find I don’t understand at all his decision to not attend Germany’s commemoration next month of the twentieth anniversary of the Wall coming down. It’s one of the biggest, most important global events in my lifetime – if I could, I’d go to Berlin myself and put on a uniform and march in a parade.
Yet for Obama it seems not to matter much at all. Oddly enough, he was born only a few days before East Germany began building the wall, on the night of 13 August 1961. He did spend the 1980s in a different way, dabbling in the Nuclear Freeze movement while he was at Columbia, going to Harvard Law, and becoming a community activist in Chicago. Perhaps the liberation of Eastern Europe from the Soviet yoke does mean less to him than it does to many of us. It’s entirely possible, in light of his many criticisms of the United States, that he believes we were at fault for whatever was going wrong in Europe between 1945 and 1989 anyway. Perhaps his view is, as the more left-leaning of Western leftists argued in the 1970s and ‘80s, that the Berlin Wall was erected because we were too bellicose and threatening, and gave the Communists of East Germany no choice.
Obama may also be solicitous of Russian feelings. Russia’s leadership, at least, has not repudiated the evils of the Soviet era to the extent that it bears up well under criticism from Eastern Europe. East Europeans in an OSCE forum this summer got a resolution passed to commemorate the victims of Nazism and Stalinism on the same day – 23 August – and Moscow reacted badly to that. (The Russians, in fact, accused the Europeans in OSCE of denying the USSR’s role in defeating Hitler, and went so far as to get Israel to make a joint declaration decrying any such denial as being equivalent with Holocaust denial.) Obama may view it as offensive to Russia to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall – accepting, in other words, Vladimir Putin’s view of the matter.
Obama’s distinctive air of isolation from the memories and sentiments normal to average Americans seems to be thrown into particular relief here. Having staged a jarringly Riefenstahl-esque speech in Berlin during his campaign, he now eschews the commemoration there of an event that vindicated the tenets of true Western liberalism. 1989 eclipsed 1917, 1933, and even 1945, and it is troubling indeed that Obama doesn’t have the visceral sense that it merits commemoration, for its own sake, regardless of any other consideration.
I for one would like the people of Germany, and of Europe in general, to know that this casual dismissal of a watershed anniversary is not representative of American sentiment. 9 November 1989 did matter, tremendously, and it still does. An American president should be there to join the celebration. There are plenty of us over here who believe that.