The Wall Came Tumbling DownPosted July 7th, 2011
by Erich Baumgartner
I still can remember coming home that evening in 1989 and finding my family glued to the TV. On the screen appeared live images of an unfolding event that would prove all “realists” wrong. It was the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Only months earlier, Erich Honecker, party chief of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) had predicted that The Wall would stand another fifty or a hundred years. The press and most leaders of the western world accepted this predicament as political reality. Almost no one expected the communist world to fall apart suddenly. But on November 9, 1989, we watched in disbelief as ordinary citizens ushered in what President George H.W. Bush would later call a New World Order.
That evening, I sat on the floor in front of the TV, staring in disbelief at people on top of The Wall embracing each other in tearful joy! One of the most hated symbols of oppression had come down. If it was not literally down at that moment, for all practical purposes this was the new reality.
To Stem the Flood
The Wall had been erected to stem the flood of East Germans pouring into West Berlin by the thousands in the years following World War II. By 1960, East Germany had lost some twenty percent of its population—including many of its educated professionals. It was headed for an economic disaster that the regime thought could only be stopped by locking people in.
So fifty years ago, shortly after midnight on August 13, 1961, Honecker, at that time serving as secretary for security matters, started to divide Berlin. At first it was just a barbed wire barrier. Soon the temporary obstacle was replaced by a block wall snaking through the city.
“The Wall” eventually grew into a staggered system of barriers consisting of twelve-foot-high concrete segments with a wide tube on top to frustrate the grip of would-be fugitives.
Electrical wire-mesh fencing stood between the concrete wall and a wide strip of no-man’s land that provided a clear line of fire at anyone attempting to flee. This was popularly known as the “death strip.” It was followed by an anti-vehicle trench. Then there was the patrolling track where guards worked the border with their dogs, supported by watch towers, bunkers, and a second wall.
The Wall was not intended to keep intruders out. Its purpose was to prevent people from getting out. However, it proved powerless to win the hearts of the citizens it was designed to “protect.”
East German leaders called The Wall the “Democratic Anti-Fascist Protection Wall,” but for Berliners—on both sides—it was simply the “Schandmauer”—the Wall of Shame. For those in East Berlin, it was a hideous prison wall that kept them separated from friends and family. Week after week, people tried to escape. Nearly all paid with their lives. This led Time magazine to report in August 1962:
Seldom in history have blocks and mortar been so malevolently employed or so richly hated in return. One year old this month, the Wall of Shame, as it is often called, cleaves Berlin’s war-scarred face like an unhealed wound; its hideousness offends the eye as its inhumanity hurts the heart. For 27 miles it coils through the city, amputating proud squares and busy thoroughfares, marching insolently across graveyards and gardens, dividing families and friends, transforming whole street-fronts into bricked-up blankness. “The Wall,” muses a Berlin policeman, “is not just sad. It is not just ridiculous. It is schizophrenic.”
Free After 28 Years
So then, on that weekend in November 1989, when The Wall fell, an estimated two million East Germans poured into West Berlin—free for the first time in more than twenty-eight years. They came by foot and in their “Trabis” (the infamous East German Trabant car), and they were welcomed by their fellow Berliners with hugs, tears, and champagne in what some have called “the greatest street party in the history of the world.” Who can forget the scenes from that historic day!
Only a few weeks before The Wall fell, I had ventured into East Berlin while on a research trip from the United States to West Germany. I had decided to take a day trip to see the famous Pergamon Museum with its splendid collection of artifacts from ancient Babylon. Going through the checkpoint was a strange experience for a Westerner. The stone-faced border guards checked my passport carefully and finally waved me through. I watched others being scrutinized more closely. I carried only my camera and some money to buy something to eat.
As I started my walk through the city to the museum, I thought of my grandfather who had been drafted during World War II to serve as a factory administrator in Dresden—a city also located in the GDR at the time I was visiting. Through God’s mysterious timing he and my mother had left the city the day before Dresden was destroyed by one of the most horrific fire bombing raids in history. A 2008 study commissioned by the city of Dresden determined that between eighteen and twenty-five thousand residents died in the bombings, in which jelled gasoline was dropped on the city, followed by incendiary bombs.
Deep in my own thoughts, I reached the museum that houses one of the most breathtaking archeological treasures from the Ancient Near East. There was the imposing blue-brick processional way lined with striding golden lions in glazed brick, their mouths open in a threatening roar. This led to the Ishtar Gate of the royal palace of Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar II. I could not but note the irony of this gigantic authentic artifact from Bible times confirming the faith of those who put their trust in God’s Word even as they were denounced by communist henchmen as backward superstitious underlings.
The struggle of atheistic communism against the West—so typical of conflicts between faith and ideology—harkened back to Daniel, the Old Testament prophet, who had proclaimed to a stunned King Nebuchadnezzar, “There is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries” and who will “set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed” Daniel 2:28, 44.
I wondered what the East German authorities—sworn to a militant, atheistic worldview—thought of such evidence right in the center of their power?
A few years earlier, my own denomination, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, had organized a Bible Conference in Friedensau, also in the GDR. Passing through the border that time had been a harrowing experience because we were loaded with suitcases full of theological books we hoped would escape the watchful eyes of the border guards.
Then it happened right in front of us: Other travelers harassed by guards going through suitcases searching for Western magazines and Bibles.
God kept us safe and we got through without problems. Only on the return trip, one of our too-bold colleagues was caught taking a picture of a watchtower, in plain view of the guards. He spent seven hours waiting on the sidelines only to have the film ripped out of his camera before it was returned to him.
During that Bible Conference, we traveled to Wittenberg to see the Schlosskirche where Luther had nailed his 95 theses on October 31, 1517, sparking the Protestant Reformation. One of my most vivid memories stems from a brief detour behind the facades of the “recently renovated” houses near the Luther memorial. We discovered, to our great surprise, that the backsides of most of these seemingly renovated houses were literally falling apart. They were ruins with a painted face. Our East German friends only smiled knowingly. These pictures came back to my mind in 1989 as I watched the ruins of communism literally crumbling in front of our eyes on the TV screen.
The Power of a Question
It took many years to bring The Wall and its communist guardians down. For 28 years The Wall stood as a symbol of the power of coercion and dictatorship fuelled by an ideology that demanded nothing less than “the abdication of one’s reason, conscience, and responsibility” to a quasi-religious system. (1)
During that long period of political repression, dissidents such as Vaclav Havel, later the first post-Communist president in Eastern Europe, began to reflect on the seemingly powerless condition of those caught in the system. Rather than deploring its cruelty, Havel wondered if this situation was not due to the willingness of average people to be accomplices in living a lie by pretending to go along with a system everybody knew to be a farce. What, he asked, would happen if the average citizen was tired of pretending that everything was fine, and acted in harmony with his conscience to support those opposing the lie and thus “living in truth”? (2)
The question cost Havel dearly—resulting in years of imprisonment. But prison walls could not silence the power of his question.
Eventually people did stand up by the hundreds, then by the thousands, finally by hundreds of thousands, challenging the system. And then, like dominoes, all the walls came down. One by one, the regimes behind the Iron Curtain disintegrated.
Now, more than twenty years later, we realize that Havel’s reflections on the condition of humanity were spot on. The courage of even one person can spark a revolution because there is something in the human soul that knows that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
1. T. G. Ash, The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague. New York: Vintage. 1990.
2. V. Havel, Living in Truth. London: Faber & Faber. 1986.
A native of Austria, Erich Baumgartner is professor of leadership and intercultural communication at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.