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by William H. Benson

June 23, 2011

     On March 5, 1946, less than a year after the conclusion of World War II, Winston Churchill spoke at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri and said, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. This is certainly not the liberated Europe we fought to build up. Nor is it one which contains the essentials of permanent peace.”

     Europe was split between the the East and the West, between the Soviets with their communist governments installed across all of the eastern European states, and the democratic republics in the western European nations. Relations deteriorated. World War III hovered as a possibility.

     Once hostilities in Germany ended in May of 1945, Germany had been divided into four zones: American, British, and French-controlled zones in the west, which became West Germany, and the Soviet-controlled zone in the west, which became East Germany.

      Berlin, Germany’s capital, was also split into the same four zones. The American, British, and French-controlled zones in Berlin’s western districts became West Berlin, and the Soviet-controlled zone in Berlin’s eastern district became known as East Berlin. It was a workable solution, except for one fact: West Berlin, a free city, was stuck one hundred miles within communist East Germany.

     Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union’s ruthless dictator, saw his opportunity: on June 24, 1948, he blockaded West Berlin, denying all ground transportation. The Americans responded with “Operation Vittles,” the Berlin Airlift, in which U.S. army and navy pilots flew 8,000 tons of supplies every day to the two million people stranded inside West Berlin. After eleven months, on May 12, 1949, Stalin relented and opened the roads and railroads.

     A decade later Stalin was dead, and a new blustering Soviet leader, Nikita Krushchev, stomped about threatening, “We will bury you!” His style was called “diplomacy by tantrum.” In November of 1958, he said that West Berlin was “a bone in my throat,” and he gave the Western powers six months to clear out of the city. The deadline arrived, and nothing happened.

     In January of 1961, a new U.S. President was inaugurated, John F. Kennedy, and in June he met Krushchev at a summit in Vienna. When the Soviet leader ranted about a possible war over Berlin, Kennedy tried to interject his own thoughts. Krushchev came away convinced he could bully Kennedy.

     On August 13, 1961, the East Germans began building a wall, not of iron, but of concrete and barbed wire around West Berlin. When an older East Berlin woman asked a policeman what time was the next train for West Berlin, he told her, “That is all over. You are all sitting in a mousetrap now.”

     Countless numbers of people tried to escape their stultifying lives in communist East Germany by either burrowing their way under the Berlin wall or pole vaulting or flying over it by kite. All those who dared to attempt to escape to freedom were summarily shot. In the cold war between west and east, the Berlin wall was the flashpoint.

     Kennedy’s political opponents condemned him for not ordering the wall knocked down, but he said, “It’s not a very nice solution, but a wall is a lot better than a war.”

     Years passed, and a new President visited West Berlin, and there at Brandenburg Gate, very near the wall, on June 12, 1987, Ronald Reagan addressed the new Soviet leader, “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

     Two years later, an East Berlin official, quite by mistake, announced that travel to the West would be lifted immediately. So, on that evening of November 9, 1989, a throng of thrilled people gathered at Checkpoint Charlie, expecting to cross into West Berlin, into freedom. The captain at the gate tried repeatedly to call his superiors for confirmation of the request, but there was no answer.

     He put the phone down, pondering. Michael Meyer of Newsweek wrote later of that moment. “Perhaps he came to his own decision. Whatever the case, at 11:17 p.m. precisely, he shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, ‘Why not?’ . . . ‘Alles auf!‘ he ordered. ‘Open ’em up,’ and the gates swung wide.” The author Adam Goodheart has called it “the shrug that made history. . . . Earthshaking events are sometimes set in motion by small decisions.”


     It all unraveled. The Berlin Wall came tumbling down. The two Germany’s became one. The eastern European nations denounced communism and formed their own independent democratic republican governments. The Soviet Union’s republics split away from what had been the Soviet Union, and Russia itself renounced the Communist Party. The Iron Curtain dissolved into a pile of rust.