The Federal Republic of Germany turns eighteen today — at least in its reunified form. On October 3, 1990 the official Reunification of a country divided for 45 years by what seemed an insurmountable geopolitical estrangement took place in Berlin, the besieged city at the very heart of the Cold War. The scene played out on the steps of the famous Reichstag building upon which the words in the title of this post are inscribed just below the pediment: DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE — “To the German people”.
Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire: your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers (Isaiah 1:7).
In the early 1990s there was a display in the bombed out ruins of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedächtnis Kirche — a cathedral located on the popular Ku’Damm street in the heart of West Berlin that was destroyed in cataclysmic bombings of the city in 1943 — that conveyed a powerful and sobering message. The verse from Isaiah quoted above was placed in the caption under a panoramic picture of a completely bombed out Berlin. (For comparative translations of this verse, see here.) The picture above looks out from what was left of Dresden’s Frauenkirche over the ruins of Dresden after allied bombing raids at the close of World War II. Many other German cities had experienced similar devastation and destruction.
Berlin, however, had not only been the target of brutal bombing raids. It was also the scene of brutal street to street fighting during Russia’s 1945 Assault on Berlin as the Red Army pounded at the last defenses of Hitler’s crumbled dictatorship. After the boys and old men defending the city surrendered, the Red Army raped tens of thousands of German women trapped in Berlin as the Russians sought to establish their domination through unleashing the brutality of conscripts drafted from Russia’s vast expanse of client nations. The ultimate result of Hitler’s Napoleonic delusions in Europe was the entire destruction of the German economy and many of Germany’s major cities, as well as the death of millions across Europe and particularly in Germany. The stage was also set for 45 years of continued oppression of Germans who had ended up in what became East Germany as families were divided when half the country fell behind the “Iron Curtain”.
In 1948, as the writing on the wall had become clear based on the Soviet blockade of Berlin and the draconian measures adopted in the Russian zone of Berlin, West Berlin’s mayor Ernst Reuter stood at the destroyed Reichstag building and famously declared in biblical overtones, “Ihr Völker der Welt, schaut auf diese Stadt!” (“People of the world, behold this city!”). The world looked, as it had been looking, and saw Soviet intentions unveiled. The Cold War was inevitable as allied forces shored up the line dividing East and West against Stalin’s aggression.
Berlin was still on center stage of the Cold War in 1963 when U.S. President John F. Kennedy, just five months before he was assassinated in Dallas, stood in Berlin and gave a speech in which he made the following rousing statement which he had devised right before delivering the speech:
Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was civis Romanus sum [I am a Roman citizen]. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’. . . . 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!’
As a single city “divided” by an atrocious wall built by the Soviet client-state of East Germany (cynically called the “anti-fascist protective wall” by the East German government that erected it), Berlin was the very symbol of the Cold War. John F. Kennedy had presciently captured the spirit of the age with his impromptu statement. All free peoples had an interest in the well-being of West Berlin. West Berlin was the very symbol of the Cold War because the city itself was located as an island right in the middle of the country of East Germany — West Berliners were essentially in a stockade vigorously defended by American weapons of war against the threat of being subsumed by the hostile state surrounding it. In truth, the Berlin Wall was not an “anti-fascist protective wall” but an act of oppression perpetrated by a government on its own people: the Berlin Wall actually encircled West Berlin to keep East Germans from escaping the totalitarian regime in East Germany through West Berlin.
By the end of the 1980s, the Berlin Wall was as indelibly etched in the mind of millions of people around the West as the massive caption DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE was above the pock-marked facade of West Berlin’s imposing Reichstag building. A few hundred meters away from the Reichstag stands the Brandenburg Gate — one of the most recognizable Cold War symbols of all. In 1987, just two years before the unanticipated “fall” of the Berlin Wall, U.S. President Ronald Reagan stood in front of the Brandenburg gate and made the following controversial but now famous statement:
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. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
Even though the leader of East Germany Erich Honecker stated in January of 1989 that the Wall would stand for another 100 years, events that took place that year (as the culmination of 45 years of repression in East Germany) lead to an occurence that virtually no one had thought was possible — the opening of the border between East and West Berlin, more dramatically known as the fall of the Berlin Wall. Video images of Germans standing on top of the wall and streaming over it and through breaches in it will remain with anyone who has seen them as an outpouring of humanity’s desire for freedom and unity.
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In 1945 a new republic was born on the ruins of Hitler’s Germany. But it would not be until October 3, 1990 (apart from the brief interlude of the Weimar Republic preceding Hitler’s rise to power) that the words inscribed on the Reichstag building in 1916 would finally be realized in a lasting republic: DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE. Though my endorsement means nothing, I salute Germany today on this Day of Reunification.
Cross-posted at BCC