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Der Schicksalstag: November 9th, Germany’s Day of Fate

Hitler-Putsch, M¸nchen, Marienplatz

Schicksalstag: The Fateful Day

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

There are some days in history that are crammed full world changing events, and sometimes those events occur, for good or bad and sometimes good and bad in different countries. In the United States July 4th is not only Independence Day, but eighty-seven years later marked the surrender of Vicksburg and the retreat of Robert E. Lee’s army from Gettysburg. Likewise it was the day that the Louisiana Purchase was announced in 1803 and that in 1826 the Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died.

Since 1918 November 9th has been a day in German history that has impacted both Germany and the world in many ways. In a sense it is almost hard to believe that so much occurred on that day. It is known by many as Der Schicksalstag (the fateful day).

robert-blum-03

Robert Blum

In 1848 a member of the Frankfurt Parliament, Robert Blum was arrested and executed executed for traveling to Vienna to support the 1848 democracy uprising there. A liberal, humanist and democrat Blum advocated German unification without Prussian dominance, protested Prussian oppression of Poles, stood against anti-Semitism and for the rights of Catholics in heavily Protestant German kingdoms. Blum’s dream remained unfulfilled for over a century after his death. Many of the men and women who took part in the failed revolution of 1848 would come to the United States where during the American Civil War they would fight for the emancipation of slaves and later the Civil rights of freed blacks. Among them was Carl Schurz.

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Aufnahmedatum: 10.11.1918
Systematik:
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(Aufnahme eines unbekannten holländischen Studenten)
Aufnahmedatum: 10.11.1918
Systematik:
Geschichte / Deutschland / 20. Jh. / Weimarer Republik / 8./9.November 1918 / Abdankung Wilhelms II.

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Kaiser Wilhelm II Crosses the Dutch Border Following his Abdication

November 9th, 1918 was gloomy day at the military headquarters of Kaiser Wilhelm II. General Wilhelm Groener, Quartermaster General of the Army looked his sovereign in the eye and told Kaiser Wilhelm that the war was lost, and that he no longer had the support of the Army. The Kaiser, reeling from battlefield defeats and the mutiny of his precious High Seas Fleet, was stunned. Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, who had for all practical intents had headed a military dictatorship with General Erich Ludendorff since 1916, meekly nodded his concurrence with Groener. The Kaiser abdicated the throne and departed in his private train to the Netherlands the next day.

ausrufung-der-republik-in-berlin-preview-image_900x510

Phillip Scheidemann Proclaims the Republic 

Meanwhile in Berlin, Majority Socialist parliament member Philip Scheidemann proclaimed the Republic to prevent a Soviet takeover. Unfortunately, Scheidemann’s bold move upset a plan for a smooth transition of power between Friedrich Ebert and the outgoing Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg. Chaos ensued and the Republic, known as the Weimar Republic struggled for its existence in the face of a Soviet Revolution and Conservative reaction.

However, the promise of democracy was soured by events that the leaders of the Republic were blamed: a continued allied blockade, a humiliating peace treaty, the loss of territory, the occupation of the industrial areas of the Ruhr and Saar by France and Belgium, heavy war reparations, and the war guilt clause of the Treaty of Versailles. This was compounded by civil war between various right and left wing factions and major economic problems including massive hyper-inflation of 1920-21 and the Great Depression doomed the young Republic.

Beer Hall Putsch

Five years to the day following Scheidemann’s proclamation a charismatic Austrian in Munich who had fought and been wounded fighting for Germany in the First World War gathered with his political sympathizes and para-military street thugs to attempt a putsch. The man was Adolf Hitler, the head of the small and radical National Socialist Deutches Arbeiter Partei, or National Socialist German Workers Party. Hitler hoped that his putsch would result in a popular uprising against the German government in Berlin. The putsch was a failure and ended in bloodshed at the Feldherrnhalle monument on Munich’s Odeonsplatz.

Hitler fled the scene but arrested and put on trial. The case was tried in Munich rather than Berlin and convicted of treason. He was given a light sentence and jailed for nine months at the Landesberg prison where he wrote his book Mein Kampf. In prison he continued to recruit others to his cause. Less than ten years later Hitler was appointed Chancellor by President Hindenburg. Hitler quickly banned political opposition and began his persecution of Jews and others that he believed to be sub-human and upon Hindenburg’s death in 1934 merged the office of Chancellor and President become the leader of Nazi Germany.

In November 1938 Hitler and his henchmen were looking for a reason to openly begin persecuting the Jews. They had been doing so since the seizure of power, but 1938 marked a turning point. Instead of unofficial pogroms launched by his undisciplined Stormtroopers, this was orchestrated by the top men in the Nazi regime.

One of the chief reasons for this was to seize the property and financial resources of German Jews. This coincided with the expulsion of Polish Jews from Germany. A reason for the action was furnished when a young Polish man, Herschel Grynszpan, whose parents were expelled from Germany on November 3rd went to the German embassy in Paris and shot and mortally wounded Ernst von Rath, a young diplomat, who reportedly had some anti-Nazi sentiments. When Von Rath died the the Nazis unleashed their fury.

kristallnacht1

Joseph Goebbels unleashed the storm troopers and others in civilian clothes on the night of November 9th. They were supposedly spontaneous demonstrations, but the Police and Fire Departments were ordered not to intervene except to save German property. Stormtroopers ransacked Jewish businesses, homes and synagogues causing hundreds of millions of Reichsmarks in damage, destroying over 200 synagogues and 7000 businesses. About 100 Jews were killed during the rampage, which went unchecked by police. Another 2000-3000 subsequently died either by suicide or in concentration camps in which 30,000 Jewish men were incarcerated.

To add to the insult to injury Jews were charged for the damage done to their property and insurance payments that should have gone to them were collected by the state. The night became known as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass and marked a major turn in the open Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany, which would extend throughout Europe and end in the Final Solution and the systematic murder of nearly six million Jews. World War Two ended with the total defeat of Germany and the Nazi regime.

berlin_wall_02

Following Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, it was occupied by the Allied powers. Germany was split in two, the East under the domination of the Soviet Union which became the German Democratic Republic, and the West which supported by the United States and Britain became the Federal Republic of Germany.

The divided country became the focal point of what became the Cold War, the fortified border became infamous as the Iron Curtain. The Berlin was blockaded by the Soviets in 1948 and the subsequent airlift kept West Berlin Free. However in August 1961 as the Cold War escalated the leaders of East Germany erected a fence which became the Berlin Wall, a wall which was effectively a means to imprison the population. It seemed to be a fixture that would never come down.

berlin-wall_1412605c

But in the late 1980s the Cold War began to thaw. Mikhail Gorbachev took power in the economically strapped Soviet Union which was bogged down in a costly war in Afghanistan, and a struggle against a Polish democratic movement. Premier Gorbachev sought to relieve the situation with a policy of openness. It backfired, and throughout Eastern Europe, pro-democracy and pro-freedom groups began to protest the status quo.

The once feared Warsaw Pact began to disintegrate. As borders were opened hundreds of thousands of Eastern Europeans including thousands of East Germans went west through Hungary and Czechoslovakia. East Germans began to gather at the Berlin Wall and on November 9th 1989 the tottering East German government decided to open border crossing points with restrictions. On hearing the news hundreds of thousands of people gathered at the six crossings demanding to be let through, and finally, ignoring orders, Stasi Lieutenant Colonel Harald Jäger who commanded the Bornholmer Strasse crossing opened the gates. The Berlin Wall had fallen and 339 days later East Germany was dissolved. On October 3rd 1990, Germany was reunited.

The new Germany is the economic heart of the European Union and has become a champion of human rights and social progress. But that could be in danger with the splintering of the major political parties that guided Germany to its position and the rise of a new nationalistic, racist, and anti-Semitic movement built around the AfD, or Alternative for Germany Party. Some leaders and members of this party express admiration for the Third Reich.

It has now been twenty-nine years since the Berlin Wall fell, eighty years since Kristallnacht, ninety-five years since the Beer Hall Putsch, and one hundred years since the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

These are all important events, and our challenge as citizens of the world is never to forget just how important and fateful each was, and why November 9th is indeed the “fateful day.” One wonders if a future November 9th will become another Schicksalstag that will again shake Germany to its foundations.

But then, maybe what is going on in the United States is much more threatening than anything going on in Germany.

Peace,

Padre Steve

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Filed under History, holocaust, nazi germany

Nuclear Giants and Ethical Infants: Do Dodging the Hard Alternatives

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

General Omar Bradley once said: “Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war that we know about peace, more about killing that we know about living.”

As I hear President Trump rattling the saber in Asia and the Middle East, as I look at his incoherent and dangerous policy of “America First,” and his almost total disregard for the importance of diplomacy and soft power I began to think about the possibility of nuclear, chemical, or biological war. While the Sword of Damocles represented by the massive stocks of already existing nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, has hung over our heads for decades, the current era seems more dangerous.

We have seen the persistent use of chemical weapons, including Sarin nerve agent in Syria by the regime of Bashir Al Assad, and the growing advancement of nuclear weapons technology, combined with bellicose rhetoric threatening the use of such weapons coming from North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un.

The problem is with both of these situations is that there are no easy or even good answers. The branches and sequels to any military action, the possibilities of a limited military action escalating into a regional or even worldwide conflict are all too real. It is in times like these that one wishes for cool heads and steady leadership, especially among the great powers. But I fear that that might not be the case today. The saber rattling, and the quest for regional dominance by Russia in Eastern Europe, and China in Asia are unnerving their neighbors, and becoming more dangerous with every passing year. But even more important is the dangerous attitude of the Russians in backing the Assad regime and the Chinese not doing much to control North Korea that are very concerning, not to mention the Trump administration’s lack of any coherent foreign policy or military strategy.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963 President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were able to pull back from the brink of nuclear war. During the height of the Cold War President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev were able to begin the process of reducing nuclear weapons and the numbers of intermediate range nuclear missiles.

I don’t know if President Trump, President Putin, or Chinese President Xi Jinping are able to curb their own sense of nationalism, nor the actors using or threatening to use these terrible weapons. There are hard choices to be made, but all too often leaders throughout history have shown a decided inability to make them. As Barbara Tuchman noted:  “One constant among the elements of 1914—as of any era—was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.” 

It feels as if we are sliding into an abyss, I just hope that one or all of these leaders acts with a measure of prudence and wisdom to keep us from sliding in to it.

The President’s decision to remove Steve Bannon from the NSC was a good start, and hopefully men like General McMasters and Secretary of Defense Mattis prove to be men like George C. Marshall, Omar Bradley, and Dwight Eisenhower, men who understand the precious nature of peace and the tragedy of war.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Der Schicksaltag: An Execution, an Abdication, a Beer Hall Putsch, Kristallnacht, and the Fall of the Wall

Hitler-Putsch, M¸nchen, Marienplatz

Schicksaltag: The Fateful Day and the Beer Hall Putsch November 9th 1923

There are some days in history that are crammed full world changing events, and sometimes those events occur, for good or bad and sometimes good and bad in different countries. In the United States July 4th is not only Independence Day, but eighty-seven years later marked the surrender of Vicksburg and the retreat of Robert E. Lee’s army from Gettysburg. Likewise it was the day that the Louisiana Purchase was announced in 1803 and that in 1826 the Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died. In Russia however it was on July 4th 1918 that Czar Nicholas and his family were killed by the Bolsheviks.

Since 1918 November 9th has been a day in German history that has impacted both Germany and the world in many ways. In a sense it is almost hard to believe that so much occurred on that day. It is known by many as Der Schicksaltag (the fateful day).

robert-blum-03

 

Robert Blum

In 1848 a member of the Frankfurt Parliament, Robert Blum was arrested and executed executed for traveling to Vienna to support the 1848 democracy uprising there. A liberal, humanist and democrat Blum advocated German unification without Prussian dominance, protested Prussian oppression of Poles, stood against anti-Semitism and for the rights of Catholics in heavily Protestant German kingdoms. Blum’s dream remained unfulfilled for over a century after his death.

Wilhelm II. (4.v.l.) geht am Tag der Unterzeichnung seiner Abdankung über die Grenze in das holländische Exil

 

Kaiser Wilhelm II Cross the Dutch Border Following his Abdication

It was a gloomy day at the military headquarters of Kaiser Wilhelm II on November 9th 1918 when General Wilhelm Groener looked his sovereign in the eye and told Kaiser Wilhelm that the war was lost, and that he no longer had the support of the Army. The Kaiser, reeling from battlefield defeats and the mutiny of the High Seas Fleet was stunned, and Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, who had for all practical intents directed the war effort meekly nodded his concurrence with Groener. The Kaiser abdicated the throne and departed in his private train to the Netherlands the next day.

ausrufung-der-republik-in-berlin-preview-image_900x510

 

Phillip Scheidemann Proclaims the Republic 

In Berlin Majority Socialist parliament member Philip Scheidemann proclaimed the Republic, in part to prevent a Soviet takeover, which became known as the Weimar Republic. However, the promise of democracy was soured by a continued allied blockade, a humiliating peace treaty, loss of territory, and occupation of the industrial areas of the Ruhr and Saar by France and Belgium, heavy reparations, and war guilt; compounded by civil war between various right and left wing factions and major economic problems including massive hyper-inflation doomed the young republic.

Beer Hall Putsch

 

Beer Hall Putsch

Five years later an Austrian in Munich who had fought and been wounded fighting for Germany in the First World War gathered with his political sympathizes and para-military street thugs and attempted a putsch. The man was Adolf Hitler, the head of the small and radical National Socialist Deutches Arbeiter Partei, or National Socialist German Workers Party, which he hoped that his putsch would result in a popular uprising against the German government in Berlin. The putsch was a failure and ended in bloodshed at the Feldherrnhalle on Munich’s Odeonsplatz.

Hitler was wounded, convicted of treason and jailed for nine months at the Landesberg prison where he wrote his book Mein Kampf and continued to recruit others to his cause. Under ten years later Hitler was appointed Chancellor by President Hindenburg. He quickly banned political opposition and began his persecution of Jews and others that he believed to be sub human and on Hindenburg’s death in 1934 merged the office of Chancellor and President become the leader of Nazi Germany.

In November 1938 Hitler’s and his henchmen were looking for a reason to openly begin persecuting the Jews, something that they had already been doing since the seizure of power. One of the chief reasons for this was to seize the property and financial resources of German Jews, which coincided with the expulsion of Polish Jews from Germany. A reason was furnished when a young Polish man, Herschel Grynszpan, whose parents were expelled from Germany on November 3rd went to the German embassy in Paris and shot and mortally wounded Ernst von Rath, a young diplomat, who reportedly had some anti-Nazi sentiments.

kristallnacht1

 

The murder was what Josef Goebbels needed and on the night of November 9th Nazi storm troopers ransacked Jewish businesses, homes and synagogues causing hundreds of millions of Reichsmarks in damage, destroying over 200 synagogues and 7000 businesses. About 100 Jews were killed during the rampage, which went unchecked by police. Another 2000-3000 subsequently died either by suicide or in concentration camps. About 30,000 Jewish men were incarcerated. To add to the insult to injury Jews were charged for the damage done to their property and insurance payments that should have gone to them were collected by the state. The night became known as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass and marked a major turn in the open Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany, which would extend throughout Europe and end in the Final Solution and the systematic murder of nearly six million Jews. World War Two ended with the total defeat of Germany and the Nazi regime.

berlin_wall_02

 

Occupied by the allied powers Germany was split in two, the East under the domination of the Soviet Union which became the German Democratic Republic, and the West which supported by the United States and Britain became the Federal Republic of Germany. The divided country became the focal point of what became the Cold War, the fortified border became infamous as the Iron Curtain. The divided Berlin was blockaded by the Soviets in 1948 and the subsequent airlift kept West Berlin Free. However in August 1961 as the Cold War escalated the leaders of East Germany erected a fence which became the Berlin Wall, a wall which was effectively a means to imprison the population. It seemed to be a fixture that would never come down.

berlin-wall_1412605c

But in the 1980s the Cold War began to thaw, the economically strapped Soviet Union was bogged down in a costly war in Afghanistan, and a struggle against a Polish democratic movement; Premier Gorbachev sought to relieve the situation with a policy of openness. It backfired, throughout Eastern Europe, pro-democracy and pro-freedom groups began to protest the status quo, and as borders were opened hundreds of thousands of Eastern Europeans including thousands of East Germans went west through Hungary and Czechoslovakia. East Germans began to gather at the wall and on November 9th 1989 a tottering East German government decided to open border crossing points, but on hearing the news hundreds of thousands of people gathered at the six crossings demanding to be let through, finally, ignoring orders, Stasi Lieutenant Colonel Harald Jäger who commanded the Bornholmer Strasse crossing opened the gates. The wall had fallen and 339 days later East Germany was dissolved and Germany reunited.

The new Germany is the economic heart of the European Union and has become a champion of human rights and social progress. It has now been twenty five years since the Wall fell, seventy-six years since Kristallnacht, eighty-nine years since the Beer Hall Putsch and ninety-six years since the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II. These are all important events, and our challenge as citizens of the world is never to forget just how important and fateful each was, and why November 9th is indeed the “fateful day.”

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Remembering the Killing of Osama Bin Laden While Realistically Looking at Afghanistan and Pakistan

A year ago US Navy SEALs from SEAL Team Six and other Special Operations Forces made a daring night raid into Pakistan to kill Osama Bin Laden.  Bin Laden had orchestrated the Al Qaeda attacks on September 11th 2001 which killed over 3000 Americans, the near sinking of the US Navy Destroyer USS Cole, the Luxor Massacre of 1997 and the bombings of the US Embassies in Dar es Salaam Tanzania and Nairobi Kenya in 1998 and numerous other terror attacks throughout the Middle East. Bin Laden was the sworn enemy of the United States. The killing of Bin Laden was a victory, perhaps the biggest victory that we have achieved in over 10 years of war. In fact Bin Laden was the reason we went to war, the reason that we became embroiled in Afghanistan.

Bin Laden had been the “guest” of the Afghan Taliban government and used Afghanistan as his base of operations to train his fighters and plan his operations. After September 11th the United States attacked Afghanistan, toppled the Taliban and put Bin Laden on the run. Pakistan which had supported the Taliban government following the fall of the former Soviet supported Republic of Afghanistan and subsequent civil war which brought the Taliban to power. Pakistan’s President Musharraf quickly allied his country with the United States.  However over the course of the 10 year war in Afghanistan the government and certain elements of its security and intelligence services gave tacit support to the Taliban as well as Al Qaeda. The most damning was the fact that Bin Laden had resided in the Pakistani military town of Abbottabad with a significant amount of his family for five years.

President Obama gave the order for the SEAL team to kill Bin Laden over the objections of his Vice President and Secretary of Defense. It was a ballsy move. If it had gone wrong which it easily could have many US troops could have been killed, captured and placed on display by the Pakistani government.  The credit to the planning and execution of the operation has to go to the SEALs and Special Operations Command, but credit for the order to do it needs to be given to the President.  If President Bush had succeeded in killing Bin Laden I would feel the same way.

The fact is that President Obama has been successfully waging war against Al Qaeda, not only killing Bin Laden but other top leaders. Even Bin Laden before his death was concerned about the toll being taken on his organization by the reinvigorated US campaign.  The Pakistanis enraged by the United States taking the war against Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies inside Afghanistan, something that it should have been doing but had not despite Jihadist terrorist attacks on it cut the supply lines to US and NATO forces running through it months ago and have not reopened them. Some ally.

But that is not surprising. As far back as November 1979, before the Soviets intervened in Afghanistan the US Embassy was ransacked and burned by Pakistani mobs, an attack which killed a US Marine. The Pakistanis only began to reluctantly cooperate with the United States in supporting some of the Afghan Pashtun Mujahideen fighters.  After the Soviets left Afghanistan it continued to support its Pashtuns against Uzbek and Tajik Afghans, support which eventually allowed the Taliban to take over the country. Despite US protests in the 1990s the Pakistanis did little to nothing to hinder Bin Laden, Al Qaeda or the Taliban regime. While it quickly and officially “supported” the US under former President Musharraf factions within its ISI intelligence service are believed to have continued to support Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters and encouraged attacks on US, Afghan and  NATO troops.

Pakistan itself teeters on the edge of collapse. Its economy is in shambles, it cannot control its borders, its intelligence service is often at odds with the government while extremist groups gain more power every day. It is a rapidly failing state with nuclear weapons. Every day it grows more antagonistic towards the United States which under the Obama Administration had been persistent in using arial drones to attack suspected terrorists in Pakistan. The relationship between the United States and Pakistan is as bad or worse as it was in 1979.

In the mean time our former nemesis the Russian Federation, the former Soviet Union has been stalwart in allowing our troops and supplies to flow through their country and the neighboring Central Asian Republics into Afghanistan. The Russians having experienced the agony of Afghanistan and the reality of Jihadist terrorism emanating from it as well as Chechnya do not want the US and NATO mission to stabilize Afghanistan to fail.  Currently without the support of the Russians we would be unable to supply our troops in Afghanistan.

Today President Obama travelled to Afghanistan and announced the signing of a long term security and cooperation agreement with the Afghan government. The agreement will take effect after the current plan to withdraw most US and NATO troops by 2014. We have no idea how well this will turn out and despite all the good intentions on our part I doubt that the agreement stands the test of time because of the nature of Afghanistan and its competing ethnic, religious, political and tribal divisions. It is my belief that we will be lucky to get out as well as the Soviets did in 1989 because I do not see a truly united Afghanistan coming out of this and it is more than likely that Pakistan will descend into chaos making our presence in Afghanistan even more problematic.

The mission started to get Bin Laden after 9-11. In the process it became something different as we attempted to transform Afghanistan. A year ago we finally succeeded in killing Bin Laden and have significantly degraded Al Qaeda.  That is why we went to war.  That is probably the best it will get.

At some point President Obama or his successor will likely have to decide to withdraw completely from Afghanistan and like former Soviet Premier Gorbachev admit that “We are not going to save the regime. We’ve already transformed it.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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20 Years: The Fall of the Berlin Wall and the End of the Cold War

Berlin Wall 4Berlin  Wall Being Built 1961

For those that did not get to experience the “other” side of the Iron Curtain and only know the Berlin Wall from history the 9th of November may not mean a lot.  However as someone who spent three years commanding troops preparing for the day that the Soviet Union would strike across the Fulda Gap and across the North German Plain the fall of the Berlin Wall was an amazing event.  The wall had been built in 1961 and in the succeeding years increased in complexity and many East Berliners lost their lives trying to escape at the hands of the East German Grenzschützen and Stasi agents.

Berlin-Wall 5Berlin Wall Death Zone

For those of us who grew up during the Cold War under the threat of “Mutual Assured Destruction” proxy wars in the Middle East, Asia and Africa and tense confrontations between U.S., NATO and Soviet forces at sea, in the air and at various flash points the Wall seemed like it would be there for the rest of our lives.

The initial cracks in the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe began in Poland as an obscure shipyard worker named Lech Walesa along with others who had been active in strike movements in the 1970s which were legalized in 1980 as Solidarity.  This movement would help encourage those in other Eastern European, or Warsaw Pact nations to begin their own resistance movements.  This in every case was a risky undertaking.  Anti-Soviet movements in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and been crushed by Soviet and other Warsaw Pact nations in 1956 and 1968.  Encouraged by support from U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II these movements in Poland and elsewhere continued to grow.

RonaldReagan at wallPresident Reagan at the Wall 1987

When Reagan gave his “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech on June 27th 1987 it was greeted with derision by many but in less than three years would become a reality as the Soviet system suddenly and unexpectedly came apart in September and October of 1989.  That speech contained these immortal words:

“We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. 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.”

berlin wallPadre Steve at Berlin Wall in November 1986

At the time President Reagan made that speech I was an Army Captain at Fort Sam Houston Texas in San Antonio.  The Abbess and I had just returned from a three year assignment in Germany.  My unit, the 557th Medical Company (Ambulance)  where I served as a platoon leader, executive officer and later company commander was part of the 68th Medical Group. Our mission in the event of a war with the Soviet Union was to provide casualty evacuation in V Corps area of operations and assist in the reconstitution of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment which was expected if war occurred to have a 90% casualty rate.  Our preparations went on every day, site visits to locations we would occupy, REFORGER exercises and several alerts a month where we were expected to be ready to move to our GDP (General Deployment Positions) locations in 4 hours or less.  This meant ready to go to war.  Additionally there was the very real threat of terrorist directed at U.S. and German soldiers, officials and public locations such as the Frankfurt International Airport and the U.S. PX at Frankfurt which were both bombed by the Red Brigades.  In fact the Abbess and I were on the road to the Frankfurt PX when she told me to turn around because she was not feeling well.  Had we continued on there is a good chance that we would have been at or near where the blast occurred.

We visited Berlin in November of 1986 driving my 1985 bright red Opel Kadett through the Helmstedt-Berlin corridor to Berlin.  That was an interesting trip.  Paperwork had to be completed well in advance and approved before the trip.  Because the trip involved going through East Germany it was required that we first stop at the NATO border checkpoint followed by the Soviet Checkpoint.  The trip was 110 miles to Berlin and we had to repeat the process first with the Soviets then at NATO.  There was to be no deviation from the route and the trip had to be made in a certain amount of time.  Too fast, you got a ticket, too slow, you got investigated.  Since we did not recognize the authority of the East German government all dealings were to be with the Soviets.

The trip was interesting, Soviet and East German troop convoys on the road with us, East German Polizei monitoring our progress and the dreariness of the East German towns and cities that we passed.  It was like driving through a time warp back to the 1950s.  It was a radical difference from what we knew in West Germany.

Cars were different; they were Soviet built Ladas, actually Fiats made under license in the Soviet Union, East German Traubis, and Czech build Skoda automobiles.  All were antiquated by western standards and at best were products of 1950s and 1960s technology.  My Opel was an economy car in the west but as the European Car of the Year in 1985 was a masterpiece of technology in comparison to anything built in the Eastern bloc.

We remained in West Berlin our first night and in the morning made the trip into the East.  Going through Checkpoint Charlie was a surreal experience as we watched East German Border Police take our photos from their control point.   We eventually found some parking in the Alexanderplatz, did some shopping, sightseeing, had a small bite to eat and a beer, the beer being quite bad, obviously the product of the Communist system, you could not believe that it had been brewed in Germany it was so bad.  It was so bad it made any cheap American beer taste good by comparison.  We went to the East Side of the Brandenburg Gate, visited a number of other sites, including the East German War memorial where as I lined up a photo was nearly kicked in the balls by an East German soldier as he goose stepped during the changing of the guard ceremony.  So members of a Scottish Regiment of the British Army got a “kick” out of this and I had no idea how close to disaster I had come until Judy told me later.  That would have been worth the price of admission for all who saw it had the boot landed.  When we finished in the east we went over to the Reichstag and the western side of the wall.   When we returned to our hotel I discovered that I had no film in the camera and so the next morning we made the trek to East Berlin once again.  This time I was able to get photos.

berlin wall 3The Wall Falls November

The Soviet System began to come apart in the summer of 1989.  Strikes, riots and refugee crisis enveloped much of the Warsaw Pact.  Hungary opened its border with Austria in August allowing thousands of East Germans into the west followed by Czechoslovakia.  Gorbachev had decided as early as 1986 that he would not use force to quell trouble in the Warsaw pact nations.  As the turmoil built throughout the Warsaw Pact the situation in East Germany became critical as thousands of East Germans gathered at border crossing points on the night of November 9th.  Later in the evening the wall would be breached.  It was the beginning of the end for the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.  In country after county Communist governments fell, most peacefully but in cases like Romania in a violent manner.  On December 31st 1990 the Hammer and Sickle was taken down from Red Square in Moscow signaling the end of the Soviet Union as on Republic after another declared their independence ushering in a period of uncertainty, change and confusion in the former Soviet Union.

gorbachev and reaganMikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in 1987, in 1986 Gorbachev Decided that He would Not Use Force to put down Revolts in Eastern Europe

Gorbachev’s foreign affairs adviser, Anatoly Chernyaev, recorded the moment of the collapse of the Berlin Wall in his diary.

“The Berlin Wall has collapsed. This entire era in the history of the socialist system is over,” he wrote. “Today we received messages about the retirement of [China’s] Deng Xiaopeng and [Bulgaria’s] Todor Zhivkov. Only our ‘best friends’ Castro, [Romania’s Nicolae] Ceausescu, and [North Korea’s] Kim Il Sung are still around — people who hate our guts.”

Looking back 20 years it is still hard to believe that the event occurred. As a former Cold Warrior I pray that the West and the Russian Republic will not return to a Cold War mentality and begin to cooperate in ways that are beneficial to peace, security and economic stability.  In the current world situation we have more shared concerns, especially in relationship to radical Islam and terrorism which affect both the West and the Russians in a similar manner.  Economic, military and diplomatic cooperation between the West and the Russians is more important than ever.

The rest is history and the future is yet to be written.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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