WASHINGTON—Washington is pausing this week to honor and reflect on the meaning of what happened 20 years ago in 1989, when on Nov. 9, after a wave of civil discord, the East German government allowed East Berliners to pass through the wall to West Berlin. In the ensuing weeks, the Berlin Wall, which had divided the city between the free and communist areas for 28 years, began to be demolished, piece by piece.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a speech Nov.3, before a joint session of Congress gave a very personal description, through an interpreter, of what it felt like on the other side the wall when it fell.
“Where there used to be a dark wall, a door suddenly opened, and we all walked through it, out into the streets, into the churches, across borders. Each and everyone was suddenly given the chance to build something new, to help shape things, to dare a new beginning. I, too, sought a new beginning. I left my work as a physicist in the Academy of Science in East Berlin behind me and went into politics, because I was finally able to do something to make a difference, because I had gained the impression now things can be changed; now you can do something.”
Ms. Merkel thanked the people of the United States for supporting democracy and freedom during the Cold War. The fall of the Berlin Wall paved the way for Germany’s reunification on Oct. 3, 1990.
The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission) held a commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nov. 4, the day after Ms. Merkel spoke, at the Newseum, led by Co-Chairman Senator Cardin (D-MD), Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL), U.S. Helsinki Ranking Republican Member Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD). German Ambassador Klaus Scharioth also spoke. The ambassadors of Romania, Slovak Republic and Hungary and others were present as well.
“When [the Wall] came down, it was a powerful symbol,” said Hoyer. Unlike the “Iron Curtain,” it was something tangible. Both Hoyer and Cardin went to Berlin to participate in celebrations and with their own hammers, took a piece of the wall back with them.
German Ambassador Scharioth said, “It was the greatest day of my life.” He was in the West Germany, but his family was split, with members also living in East Germany.
The speakers spoke in front of the largest section of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany, which is housed in the Newseum. Also in the Newseum is a Berlin guard tower, a very tall structure used to lookout over the Wall. East German guards were ordered ‘shoot-to-kill,’ and hundreds were killed trying to escape.
Ms. Merkel, who was born in East Germany—The German Democratic Republic (GDR—spoke from personal experience growing up in a communist country.
“In my wildest dreams, I would not have thought this possible 20 years ago, before the fall of the wall. For at the time, it was beyond my imagination to ever even travel to the United States, let alone stand here before you one day. The land of unlimited opportunity was for me, for a long time, impossible to reach. The wall, barbed wire and the order to shoot, at those who tried to leave, limited my access to the free world.”
‘The Work Did Not End 20 years Ago’
Speakers saw the commemoration as an opportunity to suggest other ‘walls’ that too need to fall away.
Both Cardin and Hastings called upon the Obama administration to put Human Rights on top of the agenda when dealing with regimes that repress freedom and democracy. Hastings expressed his disappointment that the President had yet to nominate an ambassador to the Helsinki Commission, and said, “I expected better.”
“Walls that divide or imprison are not always made of bricks and mortar. The United States must renew its commitment to human rights …,” Chairman Cardin said. “We must strengthen international institutions through more active U.S. engagement, but—whether we are talking about money or militaries, energy or the environment—the central issue of human rights must never be off the table.”
“As we celebrate 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we must also rededicate ourselves to tearing down those walls that remain standing in the new walls of the 21st Century,” said Senator Brownback. He said no wall was more dangerous than oppressive walls against faith, which are “rampant” in authoritarian countries, such as China, North Korea, Vietnam, Iran, Cuba and Saudi Arabia.
Looking to the future, Brownback said “the work did not end 20 years ago.” He underscored the importance of new walls blocking the truth:
“One thing is clear: while physical brutality will always be a tool of oppressors, the tyranny of today and tomorrow will be measured by the extent to which tyrants censor and suppress access to electronic information. As the next generation inherits a globally and instantly connected planet, the struggle for liberty will be waged over fiber optics as much or more than through firepower.”
Both Brownback and Hoyer mentioned Communist China and its “electronic” wall. “Part of this wall is in Beijing, where young students cannot use the Internet to discover what happened at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989,” said Hoyer.
Not every nation is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Epoch Times reported on Sep. 6 that China will not allow its media to report on the celebrations. The propaganda department of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party is censoring the memorializing of the fall of the wall. The article suggests that the Party doesn’t want people to associate the fall of the Berlin Wall with regime change. Also, the year 1989 might remind people of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, when thousands of unarmed protesters were slain by the People’s Liberation Army.