Twenty years ago, at 6:53 PM on November 9, 1989, a spokesman for the East German government announced the Politburo’s long overdue decision to allow unrestricted travel between East and West Germany. Within hours, thousands of East Germans converged on Checkpoint Charlie and the Brandenburg Gate. By midnight, they were pulling one another over the twelve-foot-high reinforced concrete slabs, joining loved ones from the West whose embrace they had been denied for more than forty years of Stalinist totalitarian isolation.
The world watched in astonishment the night the wall began to crumble. Many of us knew it would fall in time, but none of us thought it would fall so soon. Just earlier that day, things were normal — or as normal as things could be while 87 miles of Soviet barbed wire was strangling freedom and democracy. But as the sledgehammers began to bust the wall and the pickaxes began to chip away its graffiti-covered face, the world changed. That Soviet dreams were demolished with the swing of a hammer is poetic indeed.
President Reagan knew the wall would crumble because he understood, in the uncompromised core of his soul, that communism was destined for the ash heap of history. He knew that freedom was the birthright of every human being, and that eventually a generation of Germans would see the dawn break at last over a free and reunited Berlin. Today, five years after his death, it is a reminder of God’s eternal justice that President Reagan was granted the blessing to behold the fall with an undimmed eye.
My fear, however, is that too many of us have begun to forget the world that existed behind the Iron Curtain. In 1989, entire generations had lived and died under Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev. They’d heard the firsthand accounts of the Soviet gulags from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. They’d known of Andrei Sakharov, Natan Sharansky, Vaclav Havel and other dissidents and exiles. They’d seen the Red Army marching through Budapest and Prague. They’d lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis. And they’d watched as the bodies of American troops returned home, shot through with bullets supplied to the North Vietnamese by the Soviet Union.
Yet today the menacing threat of Marxist ideology seems increasingly distant. Fewer and fewer college students can identify the road to serfdom, or even recognize the reference. There exists a growing degree of naïveté about the evils of communism and ignorance about the victims who suffered its full force. In fact, some were naïve about the Soviet threat even when it was credible and constant.
One is left wondering, for instance, how different the world’s course might have been had Jimmy Carter won re-election in 1980 and Ronald Reagan not arisen to inspire American confidence in the goodness and rightness of our system of government. There is little doubt that communism was rotting from within and preparing to collapse under its own weight, but there is even less doubt that President Reagan’s firm refusal to weaken our defenses or negotiate away our national security applied the necessary pressure.
When President Reagan stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate in 1987 and instructed Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” the Soviets knew that the President’s resolve was equal to his rhetoric. They knew that he would negotiate when possible, but never capitulate. Some Americans, on the other hand, thought the President was crazy, and others thought he was reckless.
On this side of 1989, however, the voices of Reagan’s critics have grown silent.
The twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is a tremendous opportunity to remember that the enemies of freedom are never permanently vanquished. It’s an opportunity to reflect on the kind of Reaganesque leadership that refuses to cede moral equivalence to terrorist regimes with global aspirations. And it’s an opportunity to honor the sacrifice made by millions of freedom-loving dissidents whose blood was shed for the liberty of successive generations.