The Fall of the Berlin Wall

November 9th, 2009

By Tom Carter

BerlinWall1Today is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The event has special meaning for me since I was living and working in Berlin when it happened.  I had been there for over a year when The Wall came down, and I stayed for almost a year afterward.

This photo shows a portion of The Wall that stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate.  I was at that exact place many times before November 9, 1989 both on personal time roaming around the city and while escorting official visitors.  In the days and weeks after November 9, I stood on top of The Wall at that location numerous times.  It was somehow significant to be able to do that without the risk of almost certainly being shot at.

I won’t belabor the historical details of what happened and how it happened.  That’s voluminously documented and readily available to anyone who’s interested.  Beyond all that, the event is personally very important to me because of where I was and what I was doing at the time.

Because of post-war international arrangements, members of all four Allied powers had free access to all parts of the city.  That meant that American, British, and French soldiers, official civilians, and their documented dependents could cross into East Berlin and travel freely anywhere within the city limits.  Crossing the city limits and thereby entering East Germany, however, would result in being detained and causing an international incident.

Aside from a limited number of crossings into West Berlin by Soviet military personnel, often including a visit to our PX for a little shopping, there was very little official traffic coming into West Berlin from East Berlin. Seems the authorities over there were a bit concerned that the number of crossings into the West would exceed the number of return crossings back into the East.

American, British, and French military personnel and their families were encouraged to cross into East Berlin as often as they wished in order to continually exercise the right to do so.  The only requirement was for military personnel to be in uniform.  The only crossing point we could use was Checkpoint Charlie, and while we had to stop at the East German entry point, they weren’t allowed to prevent us from entering or take our documents.  We went frequently for dinner in the evening (there were actually a couple of good restaurants), for shopping, and for just driving around and seeing things.  The contrast between life on our side of The Wall and life on the other side was striking, to say the least.

BerlinWall2This photo is of the formal ceremony in which the Checkpoint Charlie building was lifted off the street and removed, following speeches by high-ranking dignitaries.  I was an official guest, on the left side of the center aisle in the second row, about three people in from the aisle, standing in front of a French officer wearing a flat-topped kepi.  You could see the back of my head if it hadn’t been covered by a uniform hat. 

I had many opportunities to meet and talk to both officials and average people in the East.  Almost without exception, the average East Berliners I talked to wanted desperately to have the freedom and advantages of living in the West.  Even officials, East German and Soviet, were not happy with their lives compared to what they could see across The Wall.

I was one of those responsible for anticipating something as significant as The Wall coming down.  I can say for certain that none of us saw it coming, although we watched events in the eastern countries as they developed, particularly including the visit of Gorbachev to East Berlin in October 1989 and the comments he made at the time.  Anyone — government official, journalist, or whoever — who says he anticipated the fall of The Wall is taking extreme liberties with the truth.

I’ve always regretted that I was out of town on a business trip the day it happened.  I watched the events unfold on TV in a hotel room in Washington, kicking myself for not being there personally.  I got back on November 11, and in the days that followed I personally hammered many pieces off The Wall.  I went home with a box containing about 30 or 40 pieces, most of which I gave away; the rest I’ll keep forever.  I even scored big points when I was in Saudi Arabia by having a piece of The Wall sent to me and presenting it to my counterpart, who was a Saudi general.

The discussion about what caused the collapse of the Soviet empire, symbolized by the fall of The Wall in Berlin, will go on for a long time.  Leftists will forever deny that Ronald Reagan had any significant part in it, giving most or all of the credit to Mikhail Gorbachev.  Those on the right will claim the major credit for Reagan, acknowledging the contributions of Gorbachev.  Personally, I don’t much care.  The important fact is that ugly barrier between freedom and totalitarianism collapsed, and most of the world is better off as a result.

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11 Responses to “The Fall of the Berlin Wall”

  1. Kevin |

    I don’t see how it could have happened when it did without Mikhail Gorbachev. Nor do I think it could have happened when it did without Ronald Reagan.

    To give one or the other major credit for it seems to me to defy reality. Both men played important roles but when the camel’s back finally broke it was all about Germans (both East and West). Take the Germans out of the picture and the wall would still be standing there today. Thus I would only give the majority credit to the Germans themselves, with significant contributing roles to both Gorbachev and Reagan.

    That said… as you know, I know a few leftists. I don’t know a single one who would deny Reagan any significant part in it as you claim. That doesn’t mean you’re necessarily wrong about that. I surely don’t know more than a minute fraction of all the millions of leftists out there. But I would think that if your claim is legit – as you framed it – then most or at least some of the leftists I know would deny Reagan any meaningful credit.

    Perhaps by some statistically impossible set of circumstances the only leftists I know (there’s quite a few of ’em) happen to all be among the tiny fraction of leftists who would deny Reagan any significant credit?

  2. Brianna |

    I was in Berlin as a tourist once, during a semester abroad in Britain. I went to see the Wall, and it was one of the more bizarre experiences of my life, realizing that anyone in that city over the age of 20 or so (this was March 06) could remember a time when their city had been divided in half.

    I admit to not being terribly up on the details of how the Wall came down (US history classes don’t do a terribly good job of teaching 20th century history; if it’s not WWI, the Depression, WWII, McCarthyism or the Civil Rights movement, then it didn’t happen). To me, the fact that the wall existed at all is one of the most damning things about Communism in particular and Progressivism in general. When I see people putting up posters with “Capitalism has failed us; Workers of the World, Unite!” (for example, last week) I just want to take them by the hand, show them a picture of the Wall complete with crosses marking the places where some poor East German schmuck got shot for trying to run for it, and tell them, “This is what happened the last time someone said that. So stop trying to tell me it’s just never been done right, and get a job.”

  3. Tom |

    Kevin, there is, in fact, a left-right divide over the relative significance of Reagan and Gorbachev to the fall of the Soviet Union. Read commentary from both sides on the issue, and the difference in views is evident and always has been. In any case, that wasn’t the point of the article at all; I referred to it only to make the point that I don’t care either way, and neither does the multitude of people who benefited.

    There’s no question the Germans, East and West, played a major role in all this, but there are strong interconnections between things that were happening all over Eastern Europe. It began in Poland, with a significant role be played by Pope John Paul II, and it spread from there. Before The Wall came down, the Hungarians played a major role in the process by opening their border so East Germans could enter, then travel to Austria and West Germany. And on and on. Here’s an interesting article about it.

  4. Kevin |

    Brianna, Communism is and was the antethesis of Progressivism, particularly in the decades leading up to the Berlin Wall coming down.

    Educate yourself, if you can.

  5. Tom |

    Well, we can fling links around all day long and not get very far. Here’s a link for you:

    If progressivism was at the outset more experimental than liberalism, it’s probably fair to say it was at the outset more to the left than liberalism, and so, we can probably say, it remained. Which is to say, even though liberalism triumphed, progressives didn’t go away. And in liberalism’s recent weakness, you can see some leftish yearnings for a return to progressivism.

    I prefer the common-sense concept that what looks, waddles, and quacks like a duck is, in all probability, a duck.

    The bigger question is why we feel the need to hurl gratuitous insults at people we disagree with.

  6. Brianna |

    “Communism is and was the antethesis of Progressivism, particularly in the decades leading up to the Berlin Wall coming down.”

    Riiiight… let’s check that assertion:

    “Those called ‘progressives’ of the late 19th and early 20th century, including such figures as presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, were renowned for checking the rise of corporate power and abuses and expanding democratic rights domestically.”

    Woodrow Wilson, who established the Fed and the income tax, both of which have absolutely nothing to do with Communism, which advocates progressive taxation and government control of the money supply. Woodrow Wilson of the War Industries Board, which engaged in massive government planning in the economy during WWI. Teddy Roosevelt, who valued environmental conservation and bragged about curbing the power of corporations, neither of which are progressive values. Teddy Roosevelt, who was the first person to propose national health care.

    “Later, leaders who followed the progressive line on foreign policy created an American nation that was an international leader in an economic, military, and moral sense.”

    Leaders like Kennedy and LBJ, whose massive spending on Vietnam and fighting poverty caused us to inflate the money supply in the 70’s to pay off our debts? Leaders like FDR, who destroyed food when people were starving and made owning gold illegal (hint, you want to learn about FDR, school is a bad place to try).

    “progressivism is a non-ideological, pragmatic system of thought grounded in solving problems and maintaining strong values within society”

    Because Communism never billed itself as a practical, scientific system that would be the world’s final and inevitable state.

    “Progressives aren’t simply liberals; progressives see the world for what it is, accept it as ever-changing and dynamic, and choose the best course of action in line with decidedly American values.”

    What’s ever-changing and dynamic? That human beings need to produce in order to live? That property rights and freedom of speech are essential to a free society? That a coherent, consistent ideology in accordance with reality is essential to staying alive? Communists were pretty ever-changing and dynamic too. One rule one day, another rule the next. Regulate here, slap an extra tax on the bourgeois private traders there, if one five-year plan doesn’t work try another… and another…. When someone tells you they have no ideology, what that really means is that they don’t know what their ideology is, because they never bothered to do the work necessary to figure it out. The world may be ever-changing and dynamic in that continents move, technology advances, society progresses, but the values needed to stay alive and free are not. And I don’t know a single left-of-center viewpoint that recognizes that, save the old traditional liberalism which progressivism, according to your article, is not.

    “Progressives [understand] that government can be used as a force for good.”

    Oh no, Communists would never agree with this sentiment.

    “But progressives don’t simply ask ‘How can government help this situation,’ but ‘with the tools we have, both public and private, how can we solve this problem?'”

    This is a difference of degree, not of type. “Oh, we’re not out to get the capitalist system, we just think it has a few flaws and want to use government to fix it.” Riiiight….

    “CAP intern Andrew Fong puts it this way: ‘Progressives believe in maximizing human freedom and helping society (and its individual members) achieve their full potential.’ Fong reminds us that ‘power, wealth, and information must flow freely rather than be concentrated in the hands of a few so that all citizens have the means to contribute.'”

    Power, wealth and information must flow freely rather than be concentrated in the hands of a few in the name of helping society achieve its full potential… hmm… what ideology does that remind me of?

    “Progressivism is about pragmatism and fairness, two ideas that couldn’t be more American.”

    What is pragmatic about the founding values of this country? The Constitution? The Bill of Rights? The Declaration? Liberty and individual rights? Sure they’re pragmatic in the sense that they work, but are they pragmatic in the sense of being flexible and open to debate? Heck no. As for fairness, I’m willing to bet that the Progressive view of it is a lot closer to “social justice” than it is to a blindfolded marble statue.

    “The dynamic outlook of progressives also is inherently democratic, a call for participation and leadership for today’s young America.”

    Because Communism didn’t deliberately target the young at all.

    “Progressivism is uniquely American and entirely yours.”

    Progressivism is the same old socialist/marxist/communist principles dressed up in new clothes and hoping that we will not notice that underneath is the same old worn out, disproved ideology that brought down every single country which tried it. It ain’t mine, I don’t want it, and anyone who takes it deserves what they get.

  7. Tom |

    Brianna, if you listen closely, you might hear me rapping my knuckles on the desk in approval. I don’t necessarily agree with every single word, but I applaud the gusto!

  8. Brianna |

    Well, you’re free to debate it. So is Kevin. I, on the other hand, am going to bed.

  9. Tim Seretis |


    People were celebrating, politicians giving praises, and all were happy. Sadly the disrespect towards one person that was the main reason the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, President Ronald Reagan, was the loudest of all. If not for President Reagan to state “TEAR DOWN THIS WALL” things would be a little different today. Germany might still be divided, and the European Union would not be swallowing up nations soverign rights, as it is doing now.

    It was also a slap in the face for our nation, the U.S.A. The European Union is slowly and quietly changing history as there is little or no mention in various history books about the United State’s role in World War II, and how if not for the U.S, the landscape of Europe would now be different.

    If the Europeans are so arrogant why then do we bother in giving them aid and support?

  10. Kevin |

    What is pragmatic about the founding values of this country? The Constitution? The Bill of Rights? The Declaration? Liberty and individual rights? Sure they’re pragmatic in the sense that they work, but are they pragmatic in the sense of being flexible and open to debate? Heck no.

    Riiiight… Federalists (aka conservative capitalists) were not only okay with slavery but actively defended it (see federalist #54 for a classic example). And their ideology formed much of the philosophical basis of the Jim Crow South.

    Progressives are why those initial lofty ideals eventually ended up getting applied. Heck, it’s why those initial lofty ideals ever made it off the drawing board and into rebellion against Britain in the first place. Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Progressives actively debated against the elitist arguments of conservative capitalists who cared only for their own privileges and enrichment.

    The American revolution was inherently Progressive. What Abraham Lincoln accomplished was inherently Progressive. The Confederated States against which Lincoln fought were inherently about, by and for conservative capitalists who thought that they should be free to run their economy (ie. market) – ie. “free market” – as they wished.

    Capitalism unfettered by Progressivism is essentially Social Darwinism. It is not by chance that Nazism (and the related Fascism) finds it’s most fertile ground in present day America among conservative white males – the EXACT same class that mouthed pretty-sounding words about inalienable rights while practicing slavery, indentured servitude of children and the view of women as the property of their husbands/fathers… until Progressives forced the nation to live up to it’s own ideals.

  11. Brianna |

    Kevin, if you actually look at the history of this country, you’ll find that the essential reason the founding fathers didn’t make any fundamental assaults on slavery while they lived was because they figured they should stick to fighting one war at a time. Thomas Jefferson tried to write slavery in as one of the abuses in the Declaration, and Washington freed his slaves upon his death. It was the fact that this country was founded on the right premises that eventually allowed these things to be fought and repealed. Also, trying to tar current conservatives with a brush held by 19th century conservatives simply doesn’t work, as Liberal and Conservative both meant quite different things in the 18th and 19th centuries than they do now. Liberals back then were people who held to the ideals in the Constitution, whereas conservatives were people who held to tradition. And yes, conservatives still tend to hold more to tradition, but since these traditions now include formerly liberal principles such as limited government and an individual’s right to self-determination, it’s not quite the same game as it used to be. In fact, the main problem with politics today is that although conservatives have good ideas about government and economics, they tend to ruin it by pulling other “traditioanl values” such as religion into the mix. And while modern liberals usually manage to escape this trap, their ideas about economic policy and the proper function of government are horrible.

    As for the Nazis, Fascism at it’s most basic level is a form of collectivism based on nation and/or race. That it is a collectivist policy is evident from the history of the word, which originates from the Latin word fasces; a fasces was a bundle of sticks used to symbolize power through unity. Nazis were actually quite liberal and progressive in their policies, which is why they called themselves the “National Socialist Party”. if you don’t believe me, just look at their policies and tell me, once you take out the racist bs, just which part you don’t agree with. Some highlights from the Nazi Party Platform:


    “We demand that the State make it its duty to provide opportunities of employment first of all for its own Citizens.”

    “It must be the first duty of every Citizen to carry out intellectual or physical work. Individual activity must not be harmful to the public interest and must be pursued within the framework of the community and for the general good.”

    “We demand the nationalization of all enterprises (already) converted into corporations (trusts).”

    “We demand profit-sharing in large enterprises.”

    “We demand the large-scale development of old-age pension schemes.”

    “We demand the creation and maintenance of a sound middle class; the immediate communalization of the large department stores, which are to be leased at low rates to small tradesmen. We demand the most careful consideration for the owners of small businesses in orders placed by national, state, or community authorities.”

    “We demand ruthless battle against those who harm the common good by their activities. Persons committing base crimes against the People, usurers, profiteers, etc., are to be punished… without regard of religion or race.”

    “In order to make higher education—and thereby entry into leading positions—available to every able and industrious German, the State must provide a thorough restructuring of our entire public educational system. The courses of study at all educational institutions are to be adjusted to meet the requirements of practical life. Understanding of the concept of the State must be achieved through the schools (teaching of civics) at the earliest age at which it can be grasped. We demand the education at the public expense of specially gifted children of poor parents, without regard to the latter’s position or occupation.”

    “The State must raise the level of national health by means of mother-and-child care, the banning of juvenile labor, achievement of physical fitness through legislation for compulsory gymnastics and sports, and maximum support for all organizations providing physical training for young people.”

    “We demand laws to fight against deliberate political lies and their dissemination by the press.”

    “The Party… fights against the Jewish-materialistic spirit within and around us, and is convinced that a permanent revival of our Nation can be achieved only from within, on the basis of:
    Public Interest before Private Interest.”

    If you want to see the rest:

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