At the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan delivered his famous "Tear Down This Wall" speech. Addressing the Soviet leader, President Reagan said, "General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
In an attempt to keep the people of eastern Germany from fleeing to free democratic western Germany, the Communist Soviet government, on August 13, 1961, began constructing what became known as the infamous "Berlin Wall." Unlike other famous walls of history such as the Great Wall of China, this wall was not erected to protect the citizens of the country but to keep them from leaving.
Dying for Freedom
The wall encircled West Berlin extending almost one hundred miles, plus it extended for a thirty mile stretch within the city separating democratic West Berlin from communist-controlled East Berlin. The wall was close to twelve feet high with barbed wire. Along its length were hundreds of watch towers, from where guards with rifles were ordered to shoot anyone trying to escape from the East.
On Aug. 24, 1961, a 24-year-old man named Guenter Litfin became the first victim to be shot while escaping from East Germany. While thousands of East Germans were fortunate enough to escape, about 140 were not so fortunate and like Litfin were shot dead as they sought freedom from Soviet tyranny.
The two Germanys had existed since after the end of World War II; their official titles were the German Democratic Republic in the East, which was Soviet controlled, and the Federal Republic of Germany, which was a free Germany.
Between 1961 and 1989, new wall construction continued with what were called "second-generation," "third-generation," and "fourth-generation" additions. Each addition strengthened the wall's defenses, and on January, 19, 1989, Erich Honecker, leader of East Germany, proudly proclaimed that the wall could endure for at least100 years.
After World War II ended in Europe, heralding the Cold War, Winston Churchill remarked, "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the continent." He was referring to the rise of the communist Soviet Union which dominated Eastern Europe. The Cold War was given a symbol and that metaphorical "iron curtain" became literal with the construction of the Berlin Wall, which endured for 28 years.
The fall of the wall is synonymous with the fall of communism in the Soviet Union. The tired, unworkable ideology of total government control of the lives of a nation's citizens simply collapsed under the weight of its irrelevance. While Gorbachev had allowed some loosening of restrictions in some areas such as greater freedom of speech, he did not intend to convert Russia to a democracy; he simply thought a more moderate communism was possible. But freedom of speech for citizens is a dangerous thing for dictators, which is why totalitarian leaders will insist on tight control of the media.
With the encouragement of Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan, the people of Eastern Europe and communist Russia became emboldened to take back their country from tyranny, and the fall began in earnest when in early November 1989, the citizens of East Berlin began to literally take apart the wall.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was an East German chemist twenty years ago, proclaimed in a joint session of the U.S. congress, "I know, we Germans know, how much we owe to you, our American friends. And we shall never -- I personally shall never -- ever forget this."
And, of course, much of gratitude goes to that great U. S. Republican, President Ronald Reagan.
The History Place: Ronald Reagan: "Tear Down this Wall"
Key Facts About the Berlin Wall
Merkel urges US, Europe to "tear down today's walls"