THE BERLIN WALL
The Berlin Wall
Running time: 7:26
Hi everybody! Do you remember the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989? If you're like me, you weren't even born yet. But you probably remember what your teachers told you about the collapse of communism? Right? Recently, I read a lot of textbooks, and here's the story I got:
"Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
That's the gist of it, but do you feel like something might be missing? I did. I wondered, who actually brought the Wall down? Let’s backtrack for a second. I did some research, spoke with experts, listened to witnesses, and a new story unfolded. The story about the people who took to the streets and how they made a revolution happen in October 1989. It turns out, the Soviet Head of State, Mikhail Gorbachev, was actually something of a folk hero for many East Germans. He stood for a vision of democratic socialism. And thanks to him, protestors in the Eastern Bloc States were no longer greeted by Soviet tanks in the streets. Clearly the people still had a long way to go to gain their freedom. Starting in the 1970s churches became important gathering places and provided integral support for the burgeoning resistance movement.
For their activities, civil rights activists were monitored and pursued, and thousands were arrested. In May 1989, civil rights groups discovered and disseminated faked election results, sparking massive public outrage. The courage and determination of the civil rights activists loosened the tongues of many more GDR citizens. People started to speak out now. Many of them wanted a better world beyond capitalism and socialism, and hoped for a true grassroots democracy. Some other people, especially young people, were so fed up with socialism, that all they wanted was to leave their country and embrace the freedoms of the West. In the summer of 1989 Hungary opened the border to Austria, the first hole in the Iron Curtain! Later escape was also possible through Czechoslovakia. More than 200,000 GDR citizens fled in 1989 and were hailed as heroes of freedom by West German media.
Those who stayed in the GDR became sad, angry, and ashamed. But the escape of others challenged and empowered them. Finally, they too raised their voices. We're staying here!“ – that was a patriotic threat against the old GDR! They pledged to reform their government to embody democratic ideals and protect civil liberties. In Leipzig, beginning in September, every Monday more and more people took to the streets in the famous Monday demonstrations. The East German police, the so-called people's police, reacted violently towards the peaceful demonstrators. The government was unsettled, and branded the people as "Rowdies." "No!" the outraged citizens cried out to "their" police. "We are not rowdies!" "We are the people."
October 9, 1989 was a very important day. There were rumors in Leipzig that the police would shoot protestors at the next Monday demonstration and violently put down the protest. Everyone was afraid and many recalled the horrors of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Now who would dare take to the streets? But more showed up than ever before, up to 70,000 people! They demonstrated only with their bodies and voices and cried imploringly, "No violence!" and to the police they appealed, "change your clothes and fall in line!" The police commander would not authorize shooting. The people, but also the police, prevented a massacre that October 9th. That Leipzig demonstration became legendary and was a crucial victory for the people. All this encouraged many other citizens in towns across the GDR, and eventually one in ten East Germans took to the streets to demand reform. This drastically increased the pressure on the government, and it attempted to save its waning power through a new travel law that would allow citizens to apply for exit visas.
On November 9th, 1989 – exactly one month after the famous Leipzig Monday demonstration – the GDR Government held a press conference to announce the new travel law. A journalist asked “When will this new law take effect?” A communist functionary, confused by the memo he was instructed to read, mistakenly replied, “Effective immediately.” The East Germans could not believe their ears: Could it be true? But even the West German News now declared that the gates would be opened! Let’s take to the streets again and check it out, they thought, and they went to the checkpoints… All of which were still closed (…)
Soon though, the people were 10,000 strong and began to chant "Open!" ... until individual border officers were overwhelmed, and, without authorization, decided to open the barrier. With the opening of the borders, the long sought-after freedom to leave was won.
It's important to remember that most civil rights activists did not take to the streets for capitalism or German reunification, but rather for a reformed GDR - their aim was not to win power or money, but to champion human rights, freedom, and democracy. They courageously orchestrated this peaceful revolution under the banner "We are the people,” and without them, the communist hardliners would not have allowed reforms or opened the borders.
It's a shame that our history textbooks often neglect to emphasize the most important part of this story: the people. These were people just like you and me, people who liked to listen to their favorite music, voice their opinions, and occasionally visit family and friends in another state - simple freedoms that we take for granted. But when they were denied these freedoms they did something extraordinary. Hundreds of thousands of people came together, raised their voices, risked their lives, and won their freedom. And as we in the US proudly recall victories for liberty in our own nation's history (pause), and celebrate world-changing movements like the Arab Spring (pause for Obama quote), why not also honor the East German people, whose sacrifices remind us to cherish and protect our own freedom, and whose success showed us the true power of the people.