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The wall I thought would never fall

I left the then-Federal Republic of Germany with my wife and three young children in the summer of 1969 firmly convinced that the 87-mile wall that encircled West Berlin, separating it from East Berlin and all of Germany, would be with us for the rest of our lives.

It’s still hard to believe that today is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. For me, the wall with its guard towers, barbed wire and police dogs graphically represented why the U.S. State Department posted me at the American Embassy in Bonn from 1966 to 1969. In buildings on the other side of the wall, East German secret police and their Soviet advisers plotted against the American embassy, U.S. consulates in West Germany and the U.S. mission in West Berlin. My job was to keep them from getting their hands on what they wanted most: U.S. secrets or, failing that, someone on the inside who could be recruited to surreptitiously bring those secrets out.

There was hardly a time when I flew into West Berlin on official business that I didn’t find time to visit the area of Friedrichstrasse and Zimmerstrasse, the location of Checkpoint Charlie, where foreigners and Westerners were allowed to cross into East Berlin. It was where East and West unsmilingly came face to face.

I also traveled, with my wife, Gwen, on the duty train that ran from Frankfurt through East Germany and into West Berlin. The operation was intended to demonstrate the West’s right to travel through the region. Even so, the train could run only at night, and we were asked to keep the blinds closed.

I thought President Reagan’s June 12, 1987, call, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” was a stirring challenge to the Soviet regime and a memorable rendition of "Cold War" rhetoric. But secretly, I believed that the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic and, most of all, the Berlin wall would always be with us.

And to think, a piece of that infamous wall is here in Washington on display at the Newseum.

By Colbert King  | November 9, 2009; 12:00 AM ET
Categories:  King  | Tags:  Colbert King  
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Next: Why the Berlin Wall endured

Comments

Gee whippee, you are amazed that something happened. Why don't you give credit to someone like Reagan, for causing the wall to come down. This would be a big change from the hateful diatribes you usually do against Republicans.

Posted by: steven7753 | November 9, 2009 6:44 AM | Report abuse

"I also traveled, with my wife, Gwen, on the duty train that ran from Frankfurt through East Germany and into West Berlin. The operation was intended to demonstrate the West’s right to travel through the region. Even so, the train could run only at night, and we were asked to keep the blinds closed."

And who knew, as you sped on through the darkness....what were you thinking then? I like to imagine you telegraphing thoughts to the folks on the other side of the blinds, and the powers keeping them imprisoned there. And your thought would have been something like the song your words evoked:

"Don't you know you're sleeping in a spotlight
And all your dreams that you keep inside
You're telling me the secrets that you just can't hide"

Of course, that would be an anachronism, since the "Romantics" number hadn't been recorded yet. But your writer's brain was keeping track of moments for a reader audience to come---and many of those readers hadn't even been born yet.

Mr.King, much as I enjoy reading your weekly columns for their fire and tight writing, this is the sort of writing that gets me where I live. I wish you'd do more of it, and I hope you're writing your memoirs. Either way, this reader always be in your audience.

You're a national treasure, Mr. King.

Posted by: martymar123 | November 9, 2009 7:51 AM | Report abuse

I have a little chunk of that Wall somewhere around here. What I remember most was midnight when the reunification of the two Germanys took place. I went through the Brandenburg Gate at 12;05 or so. There was a stark contrast between the people on the East side, somber and perhaps hopeful, while streaming from the west were smiles, cheers and exhilaration. We took a boat ride to the Gate and one side was dark, expectant, the other full of light and celebration. It is taking generations to bridge that divide.

Posted by: sbcpoet | November 9, 2009 8:49 AM | Report abuse

I think the real question to be asked is whether you had any actual hope that the Wall would fall, and why and for what reason. Did you just think that "East versus West" was the way it was always meant to be and would always remain? Was there no reason to think that the Communists were violators of basic, fundamental human rights to freedom and liberty, an inhumane regime that had to falter eventually? Was not Reagan absolutely right to call for the Wall's fall? Why is it Reagan and his ilk had such visions, but not the American political "left"?

Posted by: LNER4472 | November 9, 2009 10:51 AM | Report abuse

steven7753 thinks Colbert King should give Reagan kudos for causing the wall to come down. Don't stop there, Colbert, give Reagan kudos for making it rain during seasons of drought and causing the sun to rise in the east as well. Come on, Steven!!! What are you? A nut?

Posted by: chert | November 9, 2009 10:53 AM | Report abuse

Typical liberal insult by chert: insult a person's intelligence for ever giving gratitude to a Republican. Reagan fought the Soviet Union with the advent of Star Wars and his own useful propaganda against them (e.g. calling them the "evil empire") Reagan helped bring about the fall of the Soviet empire. The Soviets knew they couldn't keep up with the US in military technology, and with Reagan's propaganda against them they lost the insulation from criticism that leftists would give, and with Reagan's go ahead to give the Muhahdeen stingers - the Soviets lost their first war. This combination of factors opened the door to change with Gorbachev. I would advise chert to read some history - even President Clinton gave credit to Reagan for defeating the Soviet Union.

Posted by: steven7753 | November 9, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse

I really think people like chert who feel that they can call someone else a "nut" for simply stating observations that they read in the newspaper and then drawing logical conclusions should be excluded from making commentary in an adult newspaper. Typically someone with that insight belongs to an educational level that I would see as more youthful.

Posted by: steven7753 | November 9, 2009 12:08 PM | Report abuse

Colber I. King: Your observations are a little lacking. We should be honoring the work of President Reagan, Margaret Thacher, Pope John Paul II and the Solidarity Movement. Instead, we are reminiscing about your lame reaction to world events as they unfolded all about you. No wonder you worked at the State Department for quite apart from possessing poor judgment you appear to have none at all. This is brain vomit, and it stinks.

Posted by: ktp70 | November 9, 2009 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Reagan believed in miracles and so do I. I think God should get the credit for the wall coming down without a WWIII.

Posted by: Georgetowner1 | November 9, 2009 1:21 PM | Report abuse

Georgetowner1:
"Reagan believed in miracles and so do I. I think God should get the credit for the wall coming down without a WWIII."

It had more to do with a confused old man (Günter Schabowski) misreading a note handed to him than it did with Reagan or God.

Posted by: presto668 | November 9, 2009 3:49 PM | Report abuse

Reagan did a good job dealing with communism & the cold war. He gets deserved credit for that, but he was no prince domestically. If we're going exhume him for a new act ever time the wall is mentioned we might as well talk about some of the things the Gipper did not do too well. Personally I always wondered if he'd regretted cutting funding for Alzheimers research, talk about shooting yourself in the foot... The man had some weird karma that's for sure.

Posted by: Nymous | November 9, 2009 10:24 PM | Report abuse

Obama's mention of his "African roots" was odd in the context of the fall of the Berlin wall.

Can he really be that self centered? Combined with the strange speech the day after the shootings in Ft Hood, I'm a little worried about the guy. Is the pressure getting to him?

Posted by: alstl | November 9, 2009 11:09 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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