Berlin 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 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.
President 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.”
Padre 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.
The 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.
Mikhail 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.