Last week Gene and I took to trip to South Dakota and decided to do a few things that some visitors may not have time to visit or experience. One of these places was visiting a memorial and piece of the Berlin Wall. It is called Memorial Park and is located on Rapid Creek adjacent to The Monument (formerly known as the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center). The park holds one of America’s largest Berlin Wall exhibits (two large slabs of the wall), Memorial Pond, Flood of 1972 Memorial fountain, several other sculptures, a band shelter, and Legacy Commons. It is a very special and touching exhibit. Along with the wall exhibit, there are many interpretive monument stations explaining why the wall was built, and how it was eventually taken down.
I will share all of the exhibits from each station but will start with a plaque addressing visitors. It says: Here in America’s Heartland Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Ellsworth Air Force Base, remnants of the Berlin Wall are a vivid reminder that vigilance must never give way to complacency where freedom is concerned.
The principles of freedom espoused by Mount Rushmore’s four presidents played a pivotal role in destroying the Berlin Wall, the symbol of Communist tyranny. In 1980 world-renowned Swiss health care lecturer, Dr. Angelo Sargenti, toured Ellsworth’s missile wing and bomb wing. Sargenti said, “Colonel, I want to thank you and your airmen because what you are doing here on the western plains of South Dakota allows my people in our tiny corner of Switzerland to live in freedom.”
A CITY DIVIDED
For 49 years, Berlin former capital of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi, Germany, was occupied by the victorious allies of World War II –the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. For much of that time, an ugly wall divided the city geographically, politically, spiritually, and economically. Until masses of people began dismantling it on November 9, 1989, this wall symbolized the “Cold War” that pitted democratic principles against communism.
In 1945, the four allies divided Berlin into four sectors of occupation. The American, British, and French sectors quickly became known as Free Berlin. The Western Allies undertook political and economic rehabilitation of the war-ravaged by Soviet-held territory – the only democratic community behind the Iron Curtain.
By 1947, Cold War tensions replaced wartime cooperation. Hoping to stop the development of a democratic West German state, the Soviet Union blockaded land access to Berlin in June 1948. The Western Allies initiated the Berlin Airlift, delivering food, fuel, and hope to more than two million courageous West Berliners in 1948 and 1949. The airlift succeeded, but Germany emerged as a nation divided. The Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) developed on democratic principles; the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) became a Communist, centralized and coercive state based on the Soviet Model.
Beginning with the Airlift, Allied Forces protected Berlin against a communist takeover. Disillusioned and persecuted East German citizens fled to the West through West Berlin, where sector borders remained unguarded throughout the 1950s. By 1961, 3.5 million people out of a population of 17 million had left; East Germany stood on the brink of economic ruin.
Because of the Four-Power Agreements, the Allies had insisted upon free access to Berlin at any time. In 1958, Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev of the Soviet Union demanded that the Allies leave West Berlin and Berlin be made a “demilitarized free city.” This would place the entire city under Communist control. Cold War tensions mounted as Khrushchev and President John F Kennedy met on June 3-4, 1961, in Vienna to discuss the German question. Khrushchev gave the Allies a six-month deadline to recognize East Germany’s sovereignty. Kennedy felt agreement to a permanent division of Germany would mean letting down his West German allies. The specter of war was raised.
Events sped to a crisis that summer when Khrushchev made public his deadline and increased the Soviet defense budget. East Germans flooded into Free Berlin at the rate of more than a thousand a day. Speaking frankly about the likelihood of nuclear war, a resolute Kennedy increased draft calls, doubled the active reserve, and requested billions for defense and funds for civil defense. The world felt itself sliding to the brink of war. Kennedy privately put the odds on Armageddon at one to five. People in Georgetown dinner parties talked grimly about nuclear fallout patterns in metropolitan Washington.
On July 30, U.S. Senator William Fulbright suggested that the crisis of the fleeing East German refugees might be eased by closing access to West Berlin. A week later East German leader Walter Ulbricht told Khrushchev about Flubright’s proposal and won Soviet agreement to seal off East Germany and build the Berlin wall. Seven nights later the barrier went up.
The East Germans accounted that only the Friedrichstrasse crossing – “U.S. Army / Checkpoint Charlie” – would open for foreigners and U.S. Military to enter East Berlin. In time, it became clear the Soviet Union was in charge of constructing the wall and restricting traffic.
On October 26, the U.S. Army moved tanks to Checkpoint Charlie to emphasize the right of free access. The next afternoon, Soviet tanks took positions on the eastern side of the sector border. For the next 48 hours, tensions remained high, but American military and diplomatic travelers moved without restriction through the checkpoint while Soviet and American tanks faced one another. Tensions subsided on October 28 when both the Soviet and American forces withdrew.
CONSTRUCTION OF THE WALL
Early on August 13, 1961, the East German Army, with Soviet Support began constructing a barrier of barbed wire, cinder blocks, and mortar between East and West Berlin. The barrier was intended to stop the exodus of citizens fleeing from oppression and dreary living conditions (197,000 left in 1960; 153.000 in the first six months of 1961). Armored vehicles were deployed along the East-West sector border to prevent popular protest. Communications were severed. Trains we stopped. Occupants living on the eastern side of buildings straddling the boundary were compelled to evacuate and the buildings were subsequently razed.
Later, concrete slabs were erected and capped by a wide cylindrical pipe to prevent an easy grip. Behind lay a strip of land approximately 50 meters wide studded with tank traps, barricades, barbed wire, detectors, watchtowers, and guard dogs on long leads. This part of the frontier became known as the “death strip” because East German guards used weapons to thwart escape attempts.
The border snaked its way through the city, respecting neither buildings nor long-established neighborhoods and even cutting through cemeteries. In 1958, a church was demolished because it obstructed the view of the East German border guards. Berliners were deeply troubled that 29 miles of barbed wire and cement block brutally divided their city. The barrier also encircled the city for an additional 70 miles shutting West Berlin off from the East German countryside. Steel and concrete now ringed the hole in the Iron Curtain.
For the first time in history, both a country and a city were divided. To the West, the wall became a symbol of oppression. Historian Martin Walked wrote, “For those left behind in East Germany, their citizenship was now uncomfortably close to imprisonment.
THE CRUEL BORDER
With East Germans forced to kill their own citizens rather than allow them to escape, stories of hardship, tragedy, brutality, and heroism were commonplace along the Berlin Wall. Because it went up suddenly, 53,000 East Berliners lost their jobs in West Berlin. In a once-bustling city, streets were deserted and buildings straddling the wall were sealed.
East German border guards patrolled the greatest concrete all in the world day and night. In the first year, Wet Berliners observed 50 victims shot by these guards. The number killed eventually grew to 190. Freedom was uppermost in the minds of those who jumped from windows to their deaths. Risking everything was a father who threw his son from a window into a rescue net below and East Berliners who wore imitation U.S. Military uniforms to deceive guards. Fifty-seven people fled through a hand-dug tunnel.
Only a hundred yards from Checkpoint Charlie distraught West Berliners witnessed the shooting of Peter Fechter, 18, who tried to climb the wall on August 16, 1962. Mortally wounded in the stomach and back, he was left to die, crying for help. A few feet away in the West no one could cross the border to aid him.
Sometimes East German border guards themselves took advantage of lapses of attention to escape the watch of their colleagues, as Conrad Schumann did by leaping over the barbed wire and fleeing into the West. Most often, however, people attempting to escape were caught, arrested, and incarcerated.
After the wall was reinforced and the “death strip” widened, those despairing of their freedom resorted to cunning to escape. The fortifications became so sophisticated that almost the only way to get from one side to the other was to do it legally. From 1963 until 1989, 34,000 political prisoners were “bought free” by the West German government for a price of $2.5 billion, all of it paid through the German Protestant Church.
While the East Germans never ceased building on the wall, Westerners erected memorials to the dead. The menacing, gray wall provoked would-be and genuine artists to “beautify” it with words, graffiti, or commentary.
THE AMERICAN COMMITMENT
The United States never weaved in its commitment to freedom and democracy in Berlin, a city isolated 100 miles inside East Germany. IN 1948, to assert its influence over Germany, the Soviet Union blockaded land access to Berlin. The Western Allies responded with the 462-day Berlin Airlift.
During the Blockade, grateful Berliners experienced a sense of belonging to the West. They gained a renewed respect for political freedom and developed profound faith in the West’s political order. By 1949, the Berlin Blockade made the city a symbol of freedom.
From the 1950s through the 1980s, American forces protected Berlin, a task made difficult because the German Democratic Republic, with Soviet support, repeatedly tried to absorb West Berlin. Backed by NATO allies, American tanks, and bayonet-ready assault troops faced down the Soviets at Checkpoint Charlie in 1961.
Lyndon B Johnson defined the extent of America’s resolve when he declared to the Berlin House of Representatives that Americans had pledged their lives, possessions, and holy honor as a guarantee of the survival of the city.
Speaking at the Berlin Wall, other American presidents reassured Berliners:
- John F Kennedy, 1963: “… 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.”
- Richard Nixon, 1969: “What you do here is done for free mean everywhere throughout the world.”
- Jimmy Carter, 1978: “The eyes of all people are upon you.”
- Ronald Reagan, 1987: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
- George Bush, 1989: “this brutal wall cuts neighbor from neighbor, a brother from brother. It stands as a monument to the failure of communism. It must come down.”
Said one West Berliner: “Without effective energetic support from the West, West Berlin would not have prevailed against the German Democratic Republic and the Soviet’s effort to absorb West Berlin.
Churches became oases of freedom because they were the only places where East German could legally discuss politics without overt interference. In 1985, Leipzig’s Nikolai Church began Monday “Prayers for Peace” services which, some say, provided the spiritual spark that ignited East Germany’s peaceful revolution. By 1989, reformers gathered in churches in most major East German cities.
The ruthless East German Communist regime was unable to roll back the tide of freedom washing over its people. Between October 27 and November 9, 1989, 3000,000 East Germans fled to the West, mostly through Hungary. Soon, hoping to migrate, East Germans even stormed West German embassies in Prague and Warsaw.
Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev signaled to East Germany on October 6, 1989, that no Soviet troops would come to suppress reform. On October 9, “a spirit of peace and non-violence” prevailed as 70,000, armed only with candles and hymn singing, demonstrated in Leipzig. Because of the crowd’s gentleness, East German guards never received orders to shoot. The night was the turning point. Later Monday eveving, crowds in Leipzig swelled to 300,000. On November 4, 1989, one million people marched in East Berlin silently signaling with their feet that they wanted peaceful change.
On November 9, 1989, to stem the flow of refugees desperate Communist leaders announced amid the chaos that they would issue passports to all East Germans, allowing them to come and go as they please. That evening hundreds of thousands of celebrating East Berliners peacefully swarmed past the Berlin Wall crossing points.
With hammers and chisels, thousands of enthusiastic “wall peckers” – mostly young people” struck the despised wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate until panels were pushed down and sections were broken out. Checkpoint Charlie was swamped by a flood of people. Bewildered East German border guards drifted with the current. Crowds were so large that guards could not process papers. People reaching the western side were welcomed to a huge street party. Jubilation, including Berliners dancing atop the wall, was televised around the world.
Official demolition of the wall began on June 13, 1990. Segments went to depots and were recycled for use in road construction. On June 22 Checkpoint Charlie’s wooden hut was lifted out and carted away.
East and West Germany were reunited on October 3, 1990, and all four occupying forces prepared to withdraw from Berlin after almost half a century of occupation. Berlin became one city again. American forces were completely withdrawn by September 1994.
Author Craig R Whitney, reflecting on the success of the protesters, concluded: “…amplified and made resonant by their courage and idealist, the clarion summons of human rights bought down communism, the Berlin Wall, and finally the Soviet Union itself. The power of the human yearning for freedom, so long and successfully suppressed behind the Iron Curtain, became an insurmountable force.”
As I said earlier, this was a very touching memorial and exhibit. I learned a lot that I had not been aware of during the time. If you are in the area, I would definitely take the time to walk around the park and read all the different plaques. They are very informational. Here is a link to a Wikipedia page with more information if you are interested in learning more about the wall itself.
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