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The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Introduction

People report the occurrence of events differently based on various underlying factors, such as bias or lack of enough information among other related elements. In some cases, individuals distort information deliberately to achieve certain objectives or out of sensationalism. Therefore, one event could have many versions depending on who is writing the story. As time passes, these reports are archived, and it becomes difficult, to tell the truth from propaganda when reading about an event that occurred decades ago. As such, historians are expected to analyze and interpret facts of history by contextualizing the available information. This paper presents President Reagan’s famous speech calling for the demolition of the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987, by analyzing how three primary sources reported on the incident and the underlying contexts of such reporting. The paper also highlights how Reagan’s speech and its reporting relate to American life today.

Reagan’s Speech

On June 12, 1987, President Reagan, standing before the Berlin Wall in West Berlin, delivered the famous speech, “Tear Down This Wall.” The speech was a call to Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, to remove the physical barrier that had stood between East and West Berlin since 1961. On June 13, 1987, different news outlets carried stories reporting about the speech. President Reagan argued that he spoke out of duty, as an American president, to uphold freedom. He wanted people in Germany to be given the liberty to move anywhere in the country. He also talked about ending totalitarianism in Germany and the larger communist regions and replacing it with democracy. The president reiterated the need for the Soviet Union to destroy SS-20 nuclear missiles as agreed earlier in a meeting in Geneva. He called on Gorbachev to deter Soviet aggression and indicated that the U.S., together with its allies, was pursuing the Strategic Defense Initiative to counter any form of threat from communism.

The Fall of Berlin Wall in News

On November 9, 1989, the world marked a historical event when a top East Germany government spokesperson, Gunter Schabowski, gave an hour-long press conference announcing the opening of the Berlin Wall, allowing free movement between East and West Berlin. As the news broke out, different correspondents wrote reports on the incident, and three news articles have been selected for this assignment as primary sources of information.

On November 10, 1989, The New York Times ran a story by Serge Schmemann titled, “Clamor in the East; East Germany Opens Frontier to The West for Migration or Travel; Thousands Cross.” The reporter noted that East Germany had lifted its restrictions on travel to West Berlin, and this announcement was followed by massive crowds from both East and West crossing the Berlin Wall in a boisterous celebration. Border guards at different crossing points stopped checking travel credentials even though rules required East Germans to carry passports and permission to be allowed to cross to the other side.

According to Schmemann (1989), “Some guards smiled and took snapshots, assuring passers-by that they were just recording a historic event” (para. 2). The opening of the wall symbolized the fall of Stalinist oppression and deep-rooted divisions in Germany and Europe at large. Schmemann (1989) noted that one of the immediate reasons for this decision by the East was due to embattled authorities’ recognition that they could not prevent the outward tide and pressure from within. As such, opening the wall was a sign of commitment by the government to bring change to the region. Additionally, East Germany had a new leader, Egon Krenz, and he was determined to establish democracy in the region.

Similarly, on November 10, 1989, The Guardian carried a story on the fall titled, “Communists Open Berlin Wall: Exchanges Jam in Clamor of Exit Inquiries,” by Anna Tomforde. The reporter started by noting that the “extraordinary announcement represents the single most dramatic transformation of the political map of post-war Europe” (Tomforde, 1989, para. 1). According to this article, the decision to open the wall was reached following long-drawn opposition to communism in East Berlin, entire Germany, Europe, and the World at large. During the celebrations and crossing between the two sides, people were heard chanting calls for free elections and liberalized travel. The Soviet Union was ready to accept the establishment of the non-communist government in East Germany, the same way it had allowed Poland to form a democratic government. According to Tomforde (1989), the East decided to open the wall partly due to the acute labor shortage caused by thousands of workers fleeing to the West forcing the authorities to call police officers and members of the secret police to help in hospitals, public transport, and other services.

The Houston Chronicle also included a story in its news on November 10, 1989, titled, “East Germany Opens Borders.” This article highlighted the announcement to open the Berlin Wall, allowing free movement of people for travel or relocation. According to this story, “Communist authorities had opened the borders Thursday in a desperate attempt to stem the flow of people fleeing to the West and quell the growing demonstrations that have spread to several cities” (Houston Chronicle, 1989, para. 6). In addition, the report indicated that the decision to open the wall depended largely on Egon Krenz’s reform agenda as a new leader in the East. The article also included President Bush’s sentiments about the opening of the wall, saying it was long overdue and urging East Germans to stay in the region to initiate political change. British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, applauded the move to create freedom in Germany and thanked President Mikhail Gorbachev for enabling the change process. The article also included reactions from Harri Holkeri, Finnish Prime Minister, and Gennady I. Gerasimov, Soviet Foreign Minister in Moscow.

Immediate Reactions and Consequences

Within hours after Gunter Schabowski’s announcement that the Berlin Wall was officially opened to allow free movement between East and West Germany, thousands of people thronged the different crossing points. Some individuals wanted to see how the other side of the wall looked like, while others were relocating permanently from East to West Germany. Relatives, who had been separated since 1961 when the wall was built, moved with speed to reunite. Commotion and confusion characterized the cross points as guards tried to verify and stamp travel documents for East Germans. However, the crowds kept on growing big, guards were overwhelmed, and they allowed anyone willing to cross to pass without restrictions. Additionally, the demolition of the wall started immediately.

The consequences of the fall of the Berlin Wall included the reunification of East and West Germany. Those in the East voted, for the first time, in a free and fair election and decided that the two sides should be reunited. West Germany then started the takeover of the East, but this process faced numerous challenges. In East Germany, economic problems heightened with increasing unemployment and the high cost of food items. The two countries had different flags, laws, education and healthcare systems, and armed forces, and this aspect presented a logistical challenge to the unification efforts. However, with time, the two sides came together and worked on the necessary systems to have one nation.

Context

Berlin Wall fell due to several reasons including a change of leadership in East Germany with Egon Krenz taking over the helm, calls to end communism, and other related factors. According to Schmemann (1989), authorities in East Germany were embattled due to the huge numbers of people fleeing from the region. Even though the leadership had promised to initiate widespread change, individuals were not convinced of such assurance, and they wanted to join other neighboring countries where democracy was taking root. Tomforde (1989) supports the theory of falling communism as the reason for the opening of the wall, as people wanted democracy to enjoy the freedom of movement, voting, and press. The issue of the declining labor force also arises as workers in the East had fled to the West and other neighboring regions, leaving a deficit in public service that had to be filled by police officers (Houston Chronicle, 1989). However, the three primary articles focus on the need to end communism as the main reason behind the fall of the wall.

Therefore, the fall of the Berlin Wall was a victory for democracy over communism. East Germany fell under the Soviet Union after World War II, and communism was the governing principle. However, people were scared of this form of governance, which explains why the government built the wall in 1961 to prevent residents from fleeing to West Germany. Without freedom of the press and observance of basic human rights, the majority of people could not tolerate communism in the region. As such, despite the wall being in place, thousands of individuals crossed to the neighboring countries. Additionally, the international community, especially the US, France, and the U.K., were opposed to communism, and President Reagan’s visit to Berlin two years earlier was a show of support for democracy. He stated the same in his speech calling Gorbachev to bring down the wall. Therefore, it suffices to conclude that democracy won over communism with the fall of the wall and the ultimate takeover of East by West Germany, and the three primary sources insinuate the same opinion.

Berlin Wall had divided East and West Germany, both physically and ideologically. Once the wall was completed, people could not travel freely between the two countries, and thus families were separated, and individuals lost jobs. Additionally, before the closure, cases of brain drain from the West to the East were on the rise, with professionals in different fields choosing to work in a democratic and capitalistic environment. However, on the flipside, initially, the U.S. and the U.K. were silent about the construction of the wall because it would prevent the Soviet Union from taking over the entire Berlin. Therefore, the division contributed significantly to the geopolitics of the region as the Soviets could not continue with their aggression in West Germany.

When the wall fell, people in East Germany expected various benefits. First, those separated from their families would reunite and live together. Second, the acute shortage of workforce in West Germany would be resolved with free movement between the two sides. Third, communism was failing, and it was expected that East Germans would, for the first time, participate in free and fair elections and enjoy some of the benefits that came with democracy. All the primary sources selected for this assignment support these sentiments, and I think they were written in a certain way to specifically discredit communism and encourage democracy. The article in Houston Chronicle openly promoted this idea by including reactions from leaders in democratic nations, such as the U.S., the UK, France, and Finland.

The Issue Today

The relations between the U.S. and communist countries, such as China, Russia, and Cuba, have been strained since the fall of the Berlin Wall. According to Hart (2011), over two decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. and Russia do not trust each other in their diplomatic and commercial engagements. The Cold War scarred the bilateral association between the two countries, and they are yet to resolve their differences and participate in shared global leadership. Similarly, the China-US relations are also agonistic, with the two sides coming together only when convenient. The Trump administration is only interested in China for two strategic reasons – trade and South Korea.

Currently, there continues to be “confused and conflicting messages from different quarters of the United States government on China, disagreement, and sloppiness on proper sequencing of actions, and limits to our ability to elicit Chinese cooperation, as Beijing hesitates to commit to U.S. initiatives” (Bader, Dollar, & Hass, 2017, para. 3). Cuba-US relations also suffer from the same problems with President Trump issuing new trade and travel sanctions against the county (Felter & Renwick, 2018). Therefore, the relationship between the U.S. and communistic countries has not improved since 1992 when the Soviet Union fell.

The Cold War is not over; it has changed with time, as witnessed in contemporary times. For instance, during the 2016 presidential elections in the U.S. were marred with accusations of interference from Russia. Similarly, the current outbreak and spread of the Coronavirus disease (Covid-19), which started in China, has seen the two sides accuse each other. President Trump has been on record referring to the outbreak as the “Wuhan virus” and insinuating that China was responsible for the outbreak. These tactics are a clear indication that the Cold War has evolved, but it never ended.

Conclusion

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was a historic world event that led to the unification of East and West Germany. International leaders, such as President Reagan, had expressed their concerns about the inappropriateness of the wall and the need for its demolition. When the wall finally opened on November 9, 1989, thousands of jubilant Germans from both sides crossed from East to West and vice versa, and with time, communism faded from the region after being replaced with democracy. However, the relations between the U.S. and communist countries remain strained even after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992. Nevertheless, the Cold War continues, albeit in different forms, as explained in this paper.

References

Bader, J., Dollar, D., & Hass, R. (2017). U.S.-China Relations, 6 months into the Trump Presidency. The Brookings Institute. Web.

Felter, C., & Renwick, D. (2018). U.S. – Cuba relations. Council on Foreign Relations. Web.

Hart, G. (2011). Russia and the United States in the 21st Century. The Atlantic. Web.

Houston Chronicle. (1989). East German opens border. Web.

Schmemann, S. (1989). Clamor in the East; East Germany opens frontier to the West for migration or travel; Thousands cross. The New York Post. Web.

Tomforde, A. (1989). Communists open Berlin Wall: exchanges jam in clamor of exit inquiries. The Guardian. Web.

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