Monday, November 09, 2009

Ich bin ein Berliner/International Freedom Day

Monday, 09 Nov 09

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet one must search for anything other than a mention of it or a slideshow in the U.S. media. How sad. This should be International Freedom Day for the world to celebrate. It was the day that the bell tolled for the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact, and communism in general. It was the day that showed the world that the Iron Curtain rested on a layer of clay. It was a day that brought tears to my eyes.

Allow me a moment to explain and to reminisce. In the mid-80s, I served as an American soldier in Berlin. These were turbulent years as the Cold War was drawing to conclusion tho we didn't know it at the time. The First World nations of the United States, NATO, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand and the Second World nations of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact still faced each other across the globe with the Third World nations, consisting of everyone else, were caught up in the turmoil. During my tour of duty the Pershing missile deployment to counter the Soviet SS-20 missile was still controversial, Major Nicholson was killed, Chernobyl melted down (I remember ducking out of the first rain after Chernobyl ... just in case), Solidarity in Poland was a thorn in the side of the bear, and there was the terrorist attack on La Belle's in Berlin which led to the bombing of Libya (I narrowly missed being there having just gotten off a late shift and declined to join some of my buddies who did go). While the Superpowers exchanged rhetoric, those of us in Berlin quietly kept watch. It was a rich environment for those serving in the intelligence field. There were five Soviet Armies in East Germany and more just across the border in Poland.

Berlin was a unique place at the time. As one walked down the Ku'damm to go to the Irish Pub for drink, it was easy to forget that the city was surrounded and virtually under constant siege. But no matter where you went, the Wall was in the back of your mind. It was about 100 miles of a double-row fence made of reinforced concrete with a no-man's strip in between. Any unauthorized person in this no-man's land could be shot without question. There were several escape attempts that never made the news. Our hearts always sank when the East Germans soldiers or Polizei capture one. We always joked that in case of war, the Soviets would simply put a sign on the wall and call it the West Berlin POW Camp since they already had the Wall and the guard towers built.

It was also unique politically. Few people know that in Berlin, WWII was still a reality. The four powers, the United State, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union each controlled a section of Berlin. Originally France wasn't included but Great Britain feared that the United States would pull out of Berlin and leave Great Britain alone, so a sector was carved out for France. What this meant tho, was that Berlin was still under military occupation. For my service in Berlin, I was awarded the WWII occupation medal instead of the overseas ribbon given to those stationed in the "Zone" (West Germany). I kidded my father that we were veterans of the same war. Indeed, I was eligible and did join the VFW. Under occupation rules the "Allies" had free access to each other's sector. Thus, I could, and did, make trips to the Soviet Sector also known as East Berlin. And since we were the occupying powers, the German guards were not allowed to search or detain us. Seeing East Berlin was educational. It was supposed to be the showcase of communism to counter the glitz of West Berlin. It never even came close.

Still, Berlin was a great place to be. It was ALIVE! It was if everyone knew it could end at any time and were determined to live life to its fullest. I usually rode my bicycle from Andrews Kaserne in Lichterfelde to the Teufelberg site in the Grunewald. I joined Germans and Americans as we met at our weekly Kontakt stammtisch for German-American friendship and it gave me a chance to practice speaking German among friends. Unlike in the Zone where there were often protests and demonstrations against American military bases, most Germans in Berlin were very grateful for our presence. I swam in the lakes and, yes, laid out at the nude beaches there. I met friends for a drink at the Irish Pub while the live band often played Beatles music. Life was on the edge.

However, the Wall, was there, ever present. I sometimes rode the S-bahn line that ducked under the Wall and no-man's land. There were closed stations there. Eerie reminders of times past and the constant tension of the Wall. The station signs that could be scene by the light of the train were printed in the old German letters used during WWII. Stations put out of commission by the Wall.

The sight of these ghostly stations and the Wall itself often brought back the words of President John F. Kennedy:

There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the Free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass' sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.

President Ronald Reagan visited our city 24 years later. He stated, "Es gibt nur ein Berlin" (There is only one Berlin) and challenged the Soviet General Secretary to "tear down this wall!" I remembered that he was ridiculed for that statement at time by those outside of Berlin. Those in Berlin cheered. Who would have guessed that just over two years later, it would start to fall and his statement would come true. There is only one Berlin.

I eventually returned to Memphis, enrolled in Memphis State University (as it was known then), and got on with life. I missed Berlin but had to move my life forward. While I was no longer connected to the intelligence community, I had learned how sift the news for kernels of truth. It was obvious to me and many others that the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact were in trouble and were faltering. I knew things had to come to a crossroads sooner rather than later. Would the hardliners loose the dogs of war?

The day that I watched, on TV, a young lady walk to the middle of no-man's land between the walls and give an East German soldier a flower, I cried and I cheered. Just two years earlier, maybe even a month earlier, she would have, at a minimum, been arrested or possibly even shot. I knew we were close. If the tanks didn't roll out soon, this might be it. As it turned out, the reformers kept the hardliners at bay until it was too late. The Wall began to crumble.

The Soviet Union itself disintegrated two years later. The Cold War was finally over.

Historians and political pundits will debate for years about the causes of the Great Collapse. I normally would offer my view from trenches but today is not the day for that. Today is an international day of freedom. Today is a day of celebration.

Noticed that earlier I wrote, "our city". In the tradition of John F. Kennedy, I consider myself to be a Berliner. I have been to Paris and to Athens. While they are great cities, if I have a "home" in Europe, it is Berlin. I haven't been back for years but I did visit after the Wall fell. Berlin has changed but it is still Berlin.

However, the world has changed but again, this is not the time or place to bemoan the ironic loss of liberty in the United States. It is a day of celebration of the freedom gained in the rest of the world.

If you have never read Kennedy's speech (or listened to it) I would suggest you do. It is one of the greatest speeches of history. Let me close with his words:

Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free. When all are free, then we can look forward to that day when this city will be joined as one and this country and this great Continent of Europe in a peaceful and hopeful globe. When that day finally comes, as it will, the people of West Berlin can take sober satisfaction in the fact that they were in the front lines for almost two decades.

All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words "Ich bin ein Berliner."