Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

November 6, 2009

Why Berlin matters

Filed under: Op-eds,Politics,Social Science & History — Tags: , — Stephen W. Browne @ 4:11 am

Note: This is my weekend op-ed.

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” President Ronald Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, 1987.

This Monday, Nov. 9, Berlin will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with a “Festival of Freedom” at the Brandenburg Gate. Hundreds of thousands are expected to attend the gigantic street party.

Attending the ceremonies will be German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan, former leader of the Solidarity movement and first president of free Poland Lech Walesa, and Mikhail Gorbachev, last leader of the Soviet Union.

Significantly, the Chinese government has blocked a German website celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall because Chinese bloggers were using it to talk about human rights in their own country.

Conspicuous by his absence will be US President Barack Obama. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will stand in for him at the celebrations.

Obama, who found time to jet to Copenhagen to lobby the Olympic Committee on behalf of Chicago, is apparently too busy to attend.

I think by now it is becoming increasingly evident both to those of us who like Obama, those who don’t like him, and those who would like to like him if we could only understand his thinking, that our president is being very badly served by his advisors.

It seems not a single person in the president’s inner circle sees this could be the defining moment of his administration, an occasion to use his considerable rhetorical gifts to speak words that would go down in history alongside Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall!” and John F. Kennedy’s “I am a Berliner.”

Why Obama himself does not see this is mystifying.

The communists in East Germany started building the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961.

At first it was just a high wall. In time hundreds of miles of barbed wire were added, guard towers with searchlights and machine guns, a wide strip of concrete with embedded metal spikes, tank traps to prevent vehicles from ramming the barriers, and buried microphones to detect tunnels. Guards always patrolled in pairs, and partners changed frequently to prevent them from conspiring to escape together.

Nonetheless thousands escaped. But not without cost.

The Potsdam Center for Historical Research has determined at least 136 escapees were killed at the Berlin Wall during the 28 years it divided Berlin. Among them were 98 who were shot, killed in accidents or took their own lives while trying to get over the wall. Most were young men between the ages of 16 and 30. Eight were women. Eight children died in escape attempts, five of whom were preschoolers or elementary students who drowned in the waters at the border. One baby, whose parents escaped successfully, was smothered. These figures are almost certainly low.

Then in 1989 the wall fell, marking the end of an empire that between 1917 and1987 murdered an estimated 61,911,000 of their own people.

And miraculously, the casualties during the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states were in the low hundreds.

Chancellor Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, recently said, “… I wanted to use this opportunity today also to express our gratitude, my gratitude, to the American people for the support that the American people have given us throughout the process leading up to German reunification, and I think it something that I would like to later on say it very clearly also in my speech to both houses of Congress. And let me tell you that this is something that we, the Germans, shall never forget.”

The question remains, have we forgotten?

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