Among the many thousands who attempted to escape the prison known as East Berlin was a man named Wolfgang Engels, who in 1963 stole a tank and drove it into the wall. Engels’ assault on the imposing barrier splitting his city came just two years after the Soviets and their East German allies built it. Among the soldiers who erected the barbed wire fencing was Wolfgang Engels.
It didn’t take long for East Germans to become disillusioned with the Communist utopia imposed upon them. The Soviets knew that would happen, thus the wall.
The wall was intended to imprison minds as well as bodies, and it achieved both purposes. The shadow of ignorance the wall cast eastward lingers two decades after its fall. Last week, an opinion poll found that 58 percent of Russians said they didn’t know who built the wall. Some thought the people of Berlin built it themselves.
Catherine Hickley, a writer for Bloomberg News, was an English teacher in East Germany in 1989. The English textbook she taught from depicted Britain as a 19th century coal-mining backwater and referenced the United States only in relation to the slave trade, she wrote last week.
For nearly three decades, an entire society was kept trapped in child-like dependence by 103 miles of concrete and barbed wire and the knowledge that any failed escape attempt would earn one a bullet in the back or head.
Two bullets were fired at Engels when he scaled the wall after piercing it with the tank. He was hit once. West Berliners detangled him from the barbed wire, pulled him down, and rushed him to a pub. He said he knew he’d made it to the West when he saw the many brands of schnapps behind the bar.
Twenty years ago today, the wall was brought down by young people in denim jackets, swinging sledgehammers, and with it fell an empire. It was the most momentous political event since the end of World War II, and even the President of the United States sat watching it on television, learning of it at the same time the rest of the world did.
Secretary of State James Baker was lunching with Corazon Aquino when he was told the news. Though he was dining with a head of state, he got up and rushed back to watch the news with President Bush, according to the BBC. Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Berlin in place of President Barack Obama, who has said he simply doesn’t have time to go. He must prepare for his trip to Asia later this week, the White House says.
What must the East Germans who risked their lives to protest their murderous Soviet puppet state think of this snub from the leader of the free world, the world they faced down machine-gun towers in hope of entering?
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was raised in East Germany. Helping her country celebrate its reunification, and with it the bloodless revolution that ended the second-most oppressive, murderous regime in the history of the world, will be British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Lech Walesa. But no Barack Obama. Maybe he’s ashamed to share the stage with a Nobel Peace Prize winner who earned it.
Never mind history. There’s change to be made now. Such as passing a law criminalizing the choice to care for one’s own health without joining an insurance collective.
As the leaders of France, Britain and Germany commemorate the end of the Cold War and the rebirth of freedom throughout the Eastern Bloc, President Obama will be too busy chipping away the freedoms his own people enjoy to attend.
For the rest of America, the anniversary will mean something. It will be a reminder of the evils that spread under the socialist banner, and that this once was a nation whose leaders believed so strongly in freedom and liberty that they determined to, and then did, save the West from socialist domination. At least temporarily.