By Professor of History Dr. Sander Diamond
Epic-making change rarely comes without conflict. Such was not the case 25 years ago this month when the Berlin Wall opened.
Some people approached 1989 with consternation, subscribing to the vision held out by George Orwell in his bestseller, 1984. In truth, what happened Nov. 9, 1989, set in motion a train of events that would have caught Orwell short. It is a day when nearly all of the legacies of the 20th century began to dissolve, literally overnight, and without conflict.
On that fateful day, one may say that the Cold War ended, the German Question was put to rest with the reunification of the two Germanys the following October and the re-establishment of a long-divided Berlin as its capital, the retreat of the Red Army from Central and Eastern Europe, the creation of democratic nations in place of communist ones, the unimaginable collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 and soon its dismemberment into independent states, and China, drawing lessons from the fate of the USSR, emerging into an economic giant leaving its communist political leadership intact. Just as the outbreak of World War I marked the end of an age, so did the opening of the Berlin Wall.
The history of the Berlin Wall began in 1945 when a defeated Germany was divided into Four Zones of Occupation: one each to the British, French, Americans, and Russians. In 1949, the French, British, and American zones were collapsed into the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). In turn, the Russians created the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Berlin was also divided into four zones and on Aug. 13, 1961, Berliners awakened to find a wall of separation being built and soon it divided the city in two, a small version of the Iron Curtain. Escape was nearly impossible from the Eastern sector. The western occupiers protested; there was talk of war, but soon the Berlin Wall became a fact of life.
However, in the mid-1980s, internal changes in Moscow—with the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev and his policy of Glasnost— set into motion an unexpected tidal wave of changes helped along by the election of a Polish-born Pope and Ronald Reagan’s more aggressive foreign policy. In the late 1980s, the winds of change swept into the shipyards of Gdansk, the former city of Danzig, Hitler’s casus belli for war in 1939; into Budapest; and in 1989, the Lutheran churches of East Germany. In short order, the Houses that Stalin Built in the wake of World War II started to waver on their foundations and the GDR fell off its pedestal. With the Old Guard gone, the GDR’s guards stepped aside as people with pick axes chipped away at the hated wall Nov. 9.
The end of the Berlin Wall opened the path to rebuild a divided nation. Today, Germany is an economic giant and Berlin is again a world-class city with its museums, theaters, off-beat sections, and rebuilt Parliament— the old Reichstag with its glass dome as a symbol of its new transparency.Rarely has a transition from one period to another gone so smoothly.
Only a small section of the Berlin Wall still stands, a tourist attraction, while a bronze line in the pavement reveals where the entire wall stood.
Nearby this last piece of the wall are the former Luftwaffe headquarters; the Brandenburg Gate, a symbol of the Prussians who unified Germany in 1870; the newly built Memorial to the Six Million Murdered Jews of Europe; a memorial to those killed trying to flee East Germany; and below the surface, the Fȕhrerbunker, where Hitler committed suicide.
While unity permitted Germany to move on, it will never escape its past.
Keuka College will mark Veterans Day Monday, Nov. 11, with a 4 p.m. ceremony at the World War II memorial near Lightner Library. (In case of inclement weather, it will be held in Hegeman Hall 109.)
College President Jorge L. Díaz-Herrera will deliver remarks along with Chris Leahy, associate professor of history; Sander Diamond, professor of history; and Linda Park, director of Lightner Library. Rev. Eric Detar, College chaplain, will offer a prayer of remembrance, and members of the Penn Yan VFW Honor Guard are expected to take part.
After the ceremony, refreshments will be served in Lightner Library.
Erected by members of the Political Science and History Club in 2005, the memorial commemorates the 60th anniversary of V-E Day, honors World War II veterans, and recognizes the contributions Keuka College nurses made during the war.
By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history
This year marks the milestone anniversaries of seven events that changed our nation and the world, altering the lives of the witnesses and all that followed.
The Battle of Gettysburg (150 years), Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg (150 years), the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president (80 years), Dr. Martin Luther King’s defining oration in Washington, D.C. (50 years), and the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas (50 years) helped define the American journey and continue to impact our lives. Adolf Hitler’s ascension to power (80 years) and the Battle of Stalingrad (70 years) altered the course of world history in ways that were unimaginable at the time.
On Jan. 31, 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. Within a year, he consolidated his power, the Third Reich was born, and the course of world history was soon to take a different course.
Three months later, FDR stood on the steps of the Capitol and was sworn in as president in the midst of the Great Depression. Unlike Hitler, who told the German people that the depression was caused by a great conspiracy, FDR told our nation that “all we have to fear is fear itself.” FDR led the the nation through the darkest days of the Great Depression and World War II. Rarely has there been a sharper contrast between good and evil, between all that was embodied in FDR and what Der Führer represented.
In the annals of military history, there are battles that turn the tide of warfare. In World War II there were two: D-Day, June 6, 1944 and the Battle of Stalingrad, which came to an end Jan. 31, 1943 with victory by the Red Army. It was after Stalingrad when Hitler acknowledged to his close associates that the war might not end as he imagined.
In World War II, it was Stalingrad and D-Day June 6, 1944. This year we will commemorate the 150th anniversary of a battle that took place in Gettysburg, from July 1-3, 1863. The hilly landscape, with outcroppings of rock and names like Seminary Ridge, Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Ridge, became a killing field. When it ended, 56,000 were dead or wounded, and Lee’s shattered forces retreated to Virginia. The tide of war had turned and when it ended in April 1865, more than 750,000 men had died, according to recent estimates.
The battlefield was dedicated Nov. 19, 1863, with the grave sites still fresh and much of it still littered with pieces of weapons of war. The words delivered by President Lincoln that day transcend what occurred on that blood-soaked battlefield, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.”
One hundred years later, on Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy, the embodiment of youth and vigor, was shot and a few minutes after 1 p.m. the nation and the world were in a state of shock as they listened to the report from Parkland Hospital. After JFK’s death, American politics and foreign policy moved in a different direction. We are left to only speculate what would have happened had he been elected for a second term.
Four months earlier, on Aug. 28, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial overlooking the mall and delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In the shadow of Lincoln, he called upon the nation to complete its work, the promise of equality for all 100 years after Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. The Civil Rights Movement had moved to the top of the nation’s agenda.
We can never forget the evilness of Hitler, but as we stop and commemorate so many defining events this year, we should be thankful that each generation brought forth people like Lincoln, FDR, JFK and King who in word and deed gave us a better world. Their monuments are less in stone than in ourselves.