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|Tyranny, oppression can be overcome|
Twenty years ago this week, the fractures in the Soviet Union political system manifested in celebrations atop one of the endearing symbols of the Cold War (the Berlin Wall) and then its destruction.
But this was more than a symbol. The wall was a hideous disfigurement of a city that had once been a cultural capital of Europe. It was a daily reminder of the limits placed on Germans, Europe and the world by that Kremlin dictatorship bent on domination. No modern regime had ever found it obligatory to wall up its citizens to keep them from escaping.
The wall, which was euphemistically referred to as the "anti-Fascist Protection Wall," was erected in 1961 under the direction of the Soviet Union's Premier Nikita Khrushchev with East Germany's Walter Ulbricht a smiling, willing accomplice.
Over the years, the costs of maintaining the wall to East Germany and the Soviet Union were steep. In addition to being a monstrous eye-sore, requiring a commitment of security personnel at all times, the wall pushed many smart, young East Germans out into the West never to return. This "brain drain" from East to West would be a reoccurring theme throughout the Cold War. The wall "officially" resulted in almost 200 Germans being killed trying to escape.
Also, the wall would be a flash point between the Superpowers already astride a powder keg on international political intrigue. Phrases like, "Bernauer Strasse", "Potsdamer Platz", and, of course, "Checkpoint Charlie" entered the lexicon of Cold War politics.
There would be much rhetoric and little action over the years by the U.S. But considering the high stakes game of nuclear holocaust between the Soviets and the U.S., there was actually little that could be done. Still, presidents of both parties often took up the task of pressing the system and making demands.
Reminiscent of John F. Kennedy's 1963 speech where he declared "Ich bin ein Berliner" ("I am a Berliner") and thereby pledging American support for West German democracy; Ronald Reagan in 1987 demanded, "Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall!"
Although Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev did not formally break any of the mortar holding the domino like structures in place, his commitment to "perestroika" and "glasnost" persuaded governments from the Baltics to Poland to Hungary to East Germany to relax their authoritarian system and allow their citizens to breathe freedom.
In fact, the cracking of the Berlin Wall was first heard from Budapest when the Hungarian government allowed the defection of 13,000 East Germans just a couple of months earlier in September of 1989. This event, coupled with East German Erich Honecker's resignation a month later paved the way for the unthinkable. The new government announced that new travel laws for East Germans would begin immediately and the flood-gates were open.
Current German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up on the wrong side in East Berlin, was one of those slashing through that wall in 1989. She recalled the event as "an epic moment in history. For me, it was one of the happiest moments of my life."
Bringing the two states of West and East Germany back together has not been without difficulties. But, a united Germany has made a fully realized European Union possible. One of the most telling anthems from this era was the much chanted, "Wir waren das Volk" or "We are the people."
By the end of 1990, the Berlin Wall had been completely torn down, communism in the Soviet Union had collapsed and the Cold War ended. Brandenburg Gate was opened for good.
Today, remnants of the wall adorn museums or outdoor displays. Checkpoint Charlie is a 1970s style exhibition and the old guardhouse is a mere replication. There are a few slabs of concrete and bricks to remind Berliners and the rest of the world of what took place here. Instead of so many soldiers menacingly holding rifles, graffiti and bumper stickers align those parts of the wall still standing while tourists traverse adjacent boulevards.
If there is a lesson in this gloomy period of the Cold War, then it is this: a people committed to freedom and liberty can prevail over the forces of tyranny and oppression because the human spirit longs for liberation and emancipation.
John W. Sutherlin, PhD, is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisiana-Monroe. He also is co-director at the ULM Social Science Research Lab. He can be reached by e-mailing Sutherlin@ulm.edu.