On November 9, 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated the throne and two days later World War I was over. Some seventy one years later, Berlin would again be the center of the world’s attention. In November of 1989 East Germany began allowing travel between East and West Berlin. Over the course of the next few months, the symbol of tyranny, oppression, and communism slowly was disassembled. Within two years, the Soviet Union imploded and Europe was free for the time being.
For the past five years, every eighth grade student I have taught was born after the fall of the wall. At times, it is hard to teach them about the Cold War and how bad Communism was in Europe. I have to piece the Cold War together slowly through a mixture of letters, declassified documents, speeches, images, snippets of video, and my own personal recollection. But in the end, all students want to know is what brought down the wall and communism in Eastern Europe. Was it Reagan? Was it Gorbachev? Was it SDI and economics? Or was it as Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones claims: blue jeans and rock and roll? For my students, the dilemma of these questions and their possible answers is never an easy one. For them to be good detectives, they have to examine any possible evidence. My students never can come to a consensus as to what caused it to fall. Maybe it wasn’t one thing. Most likely, it was an amalgam of factors.
The first video which they have trouble getting the hang of is John F. Kennedy’s Speech in June of 1963.
In and of itself, the speech is a moment in time which encapsulates the German’s adoration of JFK but also for the need and want for Democracy in the region. When we return to the history of the wall in the 1980s, Reagan’s speech shows not only the hope for freedom, but also the anger and frustration of Reagan and the US but there is also a firmness in his tone.
But when it is all said and done, my students struggle with it all and have a hard time believing it happened. Much as they do with any Cold War topic, to them Terrorism is all they know about an enemy. It is hard for them to comprehend the oppression of Communist Europe. As I look back at the era of the wall three things stand out that most historians don’t talk about. While the writers of history talk about leaders and their shaping of history, I argue the fall of the Berlin Wall was all about the rising of the masses.
1. The Black Market
The Black Market thrived in Communism and its number one products were blue jeans and rock and roll. It cannot be underestimated how much this influenced the masses of Eastern Europe. I can recall many a video after the fall of Eastern Europeans sitting around playing Beatles and John Lennon songs. Music knows no language and apparently it can go through iron curtains.
2. The Role of Television.
Like it not, Radio Free Europe was not the boon to those along the border to clamor for freedom that television was. When the wall was built and rebuilt four times along with moving building and stopping sewers, the communists could do nothing to stop the airwaves of television of the “decadent” west.
Life got old quickly for those in Communism. While one always had a job, free education, and medical care, it did not allow for variety in the stores. Many Germans often have been quoted about the fact the biggest problem they had converting to democracy was the concept of choice. Regardless of whether the government is right or wrong in making their choices for them, people got tired of it. At some point, you want to run your own life. Whether you are 18 or 65, you do not want the government making every decision for you.
I think Keith Richards was right but most likely it was, in all reality, a combination of a myriad number of factors.
For Further Viewing
The Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall from the History Channel International
I really like this video for the people that it interviews. It interviews Daniel Schorr, George W. Bush, Gorbachev, and James Baker. Their candidness about the events is refreshing and Bush’s measured approach the whole fall is an example of modern leadership.
There is currently a 2 hour show on the History Channel right now.