Categorized | Europe, Germany, US, World

Berlin, 1989 by Michael Penhallow

Ronald Reagan did not bring the Berlin Wall down, not even close.

How do I know? Because I was there. I remember his speech at the wall, right in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

It was June 12, 1987 and despite the media reports to the contrary there were relatively few in attendance. We stood alone in the sun, a few government types in the background, with Tom Brokaw reporting for NBC. The reason the crowds were far smaller than expected was that the U.S. embassy had sent out warnings for all American citizens to avoid his speech since they had ‘inside information’ that violence was expected. Nothing happened, the politicians went home and the wall stood for a few more years.

And I was there when it finally did fall almost two and a half years later.

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Did Ronald Reagan really have anything to do with it?

Could Mikhail Gorbachev, who brought in glasnost and perestroika to his fellow Soviets, be partially responsible? Maybe. Or Saudi Arabia for independently lowering the price of oil to force the Soviet economy into recession in retaliation for Moscow’s disastrous invasion of Afghanistan? Both of them have to be high up on the list. And what about Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II? Surely they played a pivotal role when they constantly preached democracy in their native Poland?

And shouldn’t ‘the Boss’ get part of the credit?

On 19 July 1988, 16 months before the wall came down, Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band played a live concert in East Berlin attended by 300,000 people. Springsteen spoke to the crowd in German, saying: “I’ve come to play rock ‘n’ roll for you in the hope that one day this barrier will be torn down.” There was a huge cheer that could be heard right up Unter der Linden.

Or was it J.F.K after his June 1963 ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech in which he declared his never-ending support for West Germany and the people of West Berlin?

And then there was John Runnings from Seattle, known as “the Wall Walker”. He made it his own personal mission to bring down the wall. For more than 20 years he put his life on the line by climbing the wall in protest and was eventually jailed by the East Germans. They let him go after 3 months after they learnt that he was harmless and more of a pest than a political threat. He returned to his own individual act of protest by climbing the wall again. Inevitably the order came to ignore him.

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Image courtesy of annalisa coelin

Maybe Hungary should be given some credit. They opened their border with Austria on 19 August 1989 and eventually more than 13,000 East Germans escaped into Austria. This set up a chain of events. These East Germans flooded the West German embassy and refused to return home.

Or was it Conrad Schumann? He along with similar brave East German souls simply took off on their own accord decades before Reagan ever visited the wall.

Demonstrations broke out all over East Germany in September 1989. Initially, protesters were mostly people wanting to leave to the West, chanting “Wir wollen raus!” (“We want out!”). But then they began to chant “Wir bleiben hier”, (“We’re staying here!”). It was the start of what became known as the Peaceful Revolution of 1989.

Less than a year after predicting that the  wall would stand for 50 or 100 years more, longtime East German leader Eric Honecker was forced to resign.

It is a mystery to me why so many still believe that Ronald Reagan had anything to do with the wall coming down. After all, it took another two and a half years to actually show any signs of cracks. Sure, his speech played a small role but there were numerous other characters, both political and civilian, who played pivotal roles in the fall of the Berlin Wall. Some of them paid for it with their lives.

November, 1989. I was walking just south of the Brandenburg Gate when crowds started to form around the main gate at Leipziger Strasse.

It was cold and grey, typical Berliner weather. I was wearing a green Barbour coat and my little dachshund Trixie was tucked inside, her head just visible. We had searched everywhere for wire-haired dachshunds and found one only a few months before. Now, here we were with our new puppy in front of the Berlin Wall. Given that she was a dachshund, several photographers had me pose for photos in front of the wall. I think it made for a good photo shoot. What I wouldn’t give to have a copy of that photo now.

We followed the path towards the crowds, passing a huge scaffolding of lights that held Tom Brokaw and his NBC crew reporting live above the masses. It felt a little strange that they needed to be high up in the security of the sky and not mingling with the thralls of crowds that were growing by the minute down on the ground.

We saw people hacking through the concrete wall and being urged on by spectators. Couples sat at the top of the 4 meter concrete blocks, drinks in hand. And East German security guards mingled in the crowds, stunned by what they were seeing.

Annie had a Polaroid camera and was taking portraits of the ‘Ossies’ or Easterners as they came through the hole in the Leipziger Strasse crossing. She passed these out freely. Most looked in shock as the photos developed before their eyes. Of course they had never seen a Polaroid camera before. This was the first of many new experiences they were about to encounter.

Annie carried a flag made by the Colombian born Matias Jaramillo who was one of her favorite artists and whose family was German. He had asked her to plant it in a crack in the wall. She found the perfect place and I snapped a shot. That photo is ingrained in my memory like an Ektachrome negative.

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The flag bore the following slogan:

“Peace is worth more than a pound of potatoes”.

From its construction in 1961 to its destruction in 1989, the Berlin Wall signified the most compelling symbol of communism’s moral bankruptcy. However, as the jubilant crowds moved west, there were some who headed east with everything they owned. They knew that all they had worked towards had been destroyed. One of them was a young Vladimir Putin who had piled his German dishwasher and American refrigerator on top of his East German Trabant. Putin was a senior KGB officer stationed in Dresden at the time.

Putin and his fellow senior officers are still very much in control of modern Russia. The rest of the Russian elite are members of President Yeltsin’s infamous table meeting where the wealth of Russia was divided up between them. These men came in the room as penniless ‘communists’ and left as billionaires.

They now feel that their identity is still threatened by the existence of freedom loving democracies on their immediate doorstep. Is it so surprising that Putin and his cronies think of the world in more or less the same terms as they did in their late thirties?

“Peace is worth more than a pound of potatoes”.

In some ways, these words carry far more significance than Reagan’s ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall’.  This is because Reagan had little idea or plan for what would replace the wall or where an eventual united Germany would sit in a rapidly changing world order.

The words spelled out the dilemma exactly: freedom comes at a price. Are we willing to pay that price? That is the question that we are still left pondering 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Michael Penhallow

About Michael Penhallow

Michael Penhallow is a U.S/U.K. dual national novelist and screenwriter who splits his time between San Francisco, Buenos Aires and New York. His awards include Oshun55 (Finalist) 2003, Nicholl Fellowship Finalist, Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Screenwriting Awards Finalist 2009. His work has appeared at the Telluride Film Festival, New York Film Festival, Palm Springs Film Festival and his first novel The Argentine Job was just published by Aisle Seat Books.

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