August 13, 2006, is the 45th “anniversary” of the erection of the Berlin Wall, the totem of the Cold War that came down in 1989, pushing the end of the Cold War. Residents of Berlin awoke on this day in 1961 to find the communist government of East Germany erecting what would become a 96-mile wall around the “western quarters” of the city — not so much to lay siege to the westerners (that had been tried in 1948, frustrated by the Berlin Airlift) as to keep easterners from “defecting” to the West. The Brandenburg Gate was closed on August 14, and all crossing points were closed on August 26.
From 1961 through 1991 1989, teachers could use the Berlin wall as a simple and clear symbol for the differences between the communist Eastern Bloc, the Soviet Union and her satellite states, and the free West, which included most of the land mass of Germany, England, France, Italy, the United States and other free-market nations — the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries. I suspect most high school kids today know very little about the Wall, why it was there, and what its destruction meant, politically.
This era of history is generally neglected in high school. Many courses fail to go past World War II; in many courses the Cold War is in the curriculum sequenced after the ACT, SAT and state graduation examinations, so students and teachers have tuned out.
But the Wall certain had a sense of drama to it that should make for good lessons. When I visited the wall, in early 1988, late at night, there were eight fresh wreaths honoring eight people who had died trying to cross the Wall in the previous few weeks (in some places it was really a series of walls with space in between to make it easier for the East German guards to shoot people trying to escape) — it’s an image I never forget. Within a year after that, East Germans could travel through Hungary to visit the West, and many “forgot” to return. Within 18 months the wall itself was breached.
The Wall was a great backdrop for speeches, too — President John F. Kennedy visited Berlin in June 1963, and expressed his solidarity with the walled-in people of both West and East Berlin, with the memorable phrase, “Ich bin ein Berliner,“ which produced astounding cheers from the tens of thousands who came to hear him. There are a few German-to-English translators who argue that some of the reaction was due to the fact that “Berliner” is also an idiomatic phrase in Berlin for a bakery confection like a jelly doughnut — so Kennedy’s words were a double entendre that could mean either “I am a citizen of Berlin,” or “I am a jelly doughnut.” [Be sure to see the comments below, from Vince Treacy (9/28/2010).] Ronald Reagan went to the same place Kennedy spoke to the Berlin Wall, too, to the Brandenburg Gate, in his famous June 1987 speech which included a plea to the Soviet Union’s Premier Mikhail Gorbachev: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 –photo from University of Utah, by Corey Hatch.
Update November 9, 2009: Notes on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall