Twenty years ago, the Berlin Wall fell

Here in America, we’ve sometimes been insulated by the walls of oceans and distance, and our strong military. When the U.S. became a true world power after World War II, the Cold War was a symbol of the way that security and separation was changing, especially with the U.S and U.S.S.R. having ICBMs capable of delivering nuclear payloads across the seas.

The Berlin Wall was perhaps the greatest symbol of the division of the Cold War. Many people probably don’t know why it was created. This paragraph tells an important part of why the Berlin Wall was created:

“East Germans, stirred by the [current] crisis, fled to West Berlin in increasing numbers… (All told it has been estimated that between 1949 and 1961, about 2.5 million East Germans had fled from East to West).  The stead loss of skilled workers, professionals and intellectuals threatened to destroy the economic viability of the East German state. Suddenly, on the night of 12-13 August 1961, the Soviets began to erect a wall (the Berliner Mauer) between the east and west sectors of Berlin, forcibly sealing off the inhabitants of East Germany.”

The U.S. government had a slightly more nuanced take on it:

“On August 13, [1961] East German authorities put into effect several measures regulating movement at the boundary of the western sectors and the Soviet sector of the city of Berlin. These measures have the effect of limiting, to a degree approaching complete prohibition, passage from the Soviet sector to the western sectors of the city. These measures were accompanied by the closing of the sector boundary by a sizable deployment of police forces and by military detachments brought into Berlin for this purpose.”

– United States Note To The USSR On Berlin, August 17, 1961

So it was now twenty years ago that the Wall fell. My mother and I were visiting family in Kansas City at the time, and I remember watching in amazement as people on either side of the wall climbed atop it and saw for the first time what was on the other side. That the police state of East Germany was doing nothing to stop it from happening seemed even more amazing. It was a sign that something huge had changed within the Warsaw Pact states, a sign that the Cold War was coming to an end.

The “Wall Stories” page from the American Overseas Schools Historical Society provides personal accounts of life around the wall and the impact of its fall. I particularly liked Joe Vandervest’s story about the reciprocal watching of border guards by binoculars:

“It was 1972. Armed with my dad’s binoculars I humped through the woods behind the army apts. in Dueppel. The woods gave way to a small clearing and then the wall. One of those observation platforms was there – not too far away from the guard tower. We kids used to play army (US vs. Soviets) in those woods and we knew our way around pretty well. We’d frequently go to the wall and peer over.

Anyway – so there I was on the tower. Already under observation from the guard tower. You know – you did it too – your binocs looking up at them, they looking back at you across the no man’s land of death.

So I’m peering up. The vopo and the russian were peering back at me through their binocs. We looked at each other for a bit and I flashed a peace sign up at them. (Hey – it was the 70’s!). What amazed me was first how they just looked back – expressionless. then the fun part..

The vopo got bored and looked away, putting his binocs down around his neck. The russian (amazing how military kids learn to tell uniforms)…kept watching. then he looked away to check on the vopo – and on the side of his body away from the vopo – he very quickly flashed a peace sign back at me.

As a young person, that was one of those human moments when I started to realize – hey – people are just like us…..it was a bold and risky thing for the soldier to do…but he totally made my day and gave me a memory to last a life time….

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Author: Jason Haas

Jason is an elected member of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, occasionally moonlights as an amateur gardener, and is a proud father of two, or three, depending on how you do the math.