Twenty years ago I was there; I was living in Munich, Germany. Leading up to the axe-picking and crumbling, and the images and flashes of cameras, there was a hush and an unspoken, indescribable buzz. On an afternoon around early November, when I asked a woman on the street, she told me that East Germans were pouring into the West through places like Hungary and Austria. Nobody expected it. She exclaimed that East Germany was crumbling. She was ecstatic and she was right.
Germans, even those right there in the thick of it all, were completely stunned. I was looking to them for some indication as to how I should feel — whether this was really happening.
The East Germans who made their way across the border and into Western Germany were simply gleeful. They were like kids in a candy store. Their flimsy and shiny East German Deutsch Marks and Pfennigs, they were handing out to people left and right — “take it, it’s worthless!” one man told me. Holding the coins in my hand, they felt light, flimsy, and artificial. Soon, they were history, too.
In the days that ensued, I watched the East Germans attempt to assimilate to these new surroundings much like a child who just entered the fantastical gates of Disneyland. It was as if they didn’t know whether it was real, either. They didn’t know what they were in for but they new that their lives had changed, at least temporarily. Many East Germans just came over to the West for a few days, were given small tokens of Western money, and enjoyed their new-found celebrity. Within days and weeks, they became aware of the harsh realities of what the years behind an Iron Curtain had done to Communist “progress.” The cars, the wealth, the clothes, the food, and the sparkle of West Germany was almost blinding. In time, most of them returned to East Germany or East Berlin — back to their lives and back to their square buildings and gray surroundings — to eradicate the political walls that stood in the place of the crumbling concrete and rusted barbed-wire.
During those early days of November, the feeling of patriotism — for my country and its contribution to this event — was and still is a very precious memory. The feelings of Freude I felt on behalf of the unifying Germans is something I’ll never forget.
It would still be some time before the two countries would become one, but eventually it came.
Years later, I went back to Germany, and drove through the West and into Dresden, the former “Paris” of Eastern Europe. It was 1997 and Dresden was still dark, scarred, rebuilding and un-crumbling. In all the decades of Communist rule, the city had never bothered to put itself back together. But in 1997, seven years after reunification, it was a landscape of cranes and rebuilding. I drove to Berlin and searched for the remnants of the former Wall. It had been dissembled and it had largely disappeared. I asked a German police officer about its condition and he told me that much had been removed and those portions that remained were now no longer a wall, they were “Kunst” — they were art.
I will never forget the meaning of 20 years ago today. It was the realization of hopes, and dreams, and prayers. It was a moment of European euphoria. There was also fear. The East Germans would yet endure the pains of catching up to the West, while the West Germans would endure the costs of pulling the East Germans out of the economic and intellectual darkness.
What it meant was a victory for the West. It led to the opening up of liberty and freedom throughout Eastern Europe and into the minds of those who were trapped in the musings of Communism’s virtues.
The bigger picture, however, is that there is a bigger picture. This was almost as big a day for America as it was for the people of East Germany. We Americans had been the primary proponents of a determined stance against the expansion of Communism in the West. We had been instrumental in airlifting food and supplies to our former enemy, and to the chagrin of the Communist leaders. We had led and we had bled for the cause of freedom in this part of the world. This was a victory for us, too. This day, 20 years ago was a victory for the same principles of July 4, 1776. Tyranny cannot stand — in any form. That notion is celebrated in America and it should have been celebrated by America’s highest official 20 years later — in Berlin.
That our Leader in Chief felt it unnecessary to honor the moment with a personal visit and tribute to the superior ideals that brought the Wall down is curious and it is disheartening. Maybe the victory wasn’t as enduring as some of us had hoped.