Fall of the Wall

The fall of the Berlin wall is probably one of the 3-4 "Where-were-you-when..." events that I remember in my lifetime.  I remember turning on the TV and seeing people dancing on top of the wall and being struck with a strong sense of cognitive dissonance, wondering if I was watching some war-of-the-worlds style fiction.  I don't remember even today if this was a surprising event to the whole world, of if it was just I who was holed up in some ignore-the-outside-world zone, but it certainly was a stunning surprise to me.

It was truly a great day, in my mind more great than 9/11 was bad, so it is kind of amazing to me how much it is already almost forgotten.  In the late 1970's, I had the opportunity to take the East Berlin tour through Checkpoint Charlie to see the wrong side of the wall.   Many Americans I have talked to had the same reaction to this tour -- that it was meant to be one long propaganda spiel for communist East Germany but in fact was pathetically self-mocking.  The propaganda failed because even the writers of the propaganda could not conceive of how wealthy the west was compared to the East.  So when they bragged that 70% of the residents had running water or that "almost" all of the city had been rebuilt from the war 30 years later, Westerners were unimpressed.

Update: Remembering the victims of communism.

  • Doug

    "So when they bragged that 70% of the residents had running water or that 'almost” all of the city had been rebuilt from the war 30 years later,' Westerners were unimpressed."

    Are you sure you're not talking about the Obama-ites?

  • Methinks

    Communism did not fall in 1989. It fell after a couple of weeks in 1917. The Soviet Union was a socialist country - as were all of its satellites. That said...

    Socialism didn't fall in 1989 either. It moved to the United States.

  • Link

    I never thought The Wall would fall in my lifetime, but the better angels in our humanity prevailed.

    I had a Berlin friend who I popped over to visit for a weekend in 1985 while I was working in London -- it was the same weekend Reagan spoke at Bitburg, coincidentally. Arnold was a decade older than I, had lost both parents in WWII and was raised by grandparents in West Berlin.

    The Wall took an often silly zig-zag course through Berlin -- like a gerrymandered election district. During my stay, Arnold purposefully set out to show me its absurdity. He drove me to a remote corner of West Berlin where the Wall almost met on both sides -- it was 50 yards apart for nearly half a mile, until it opened into a large cul-de-sac. There were ten or so very large homes in this cul-de-sac -- each on an acre or two or three of land ... The Wall was in their backyard ... complete with guard towers staffed by East German soldiers with machine guns, 24 x 7.

    I'm sure the West Berliners in their fancy estates learned to tune out the East German guards, but it'd be hard duty to look down on fancy backyards each day only to go home to cramped East Berlin quarters ... all in the name of protecting the State against the virus of capitalism.

    If you haven't see it, I recommend the flick "The Lives of Others" which speaks to this. It won the Best Foreign Picture Oscar for 2006, managing to beat Pan's Labyrinth which I thought was a bet-the-house lock.

  • http://togetrichisglorious.blogspot.com Colin

    Nice post. I found some pics from East Berlin and posted them on my blog here:

    http://togetrichisglorious.blogspot.com/2009/11/berlin.html

    When I visited in 1990 East Berlin was a dreary place with cheap food, plastic feeling money and nothing worth buying in the stores. And it was the showcase of communist society!

  • http://devilish-details.blogspot.com/ Mesa Econoguy

    Many Americans I have talked to had the same reaction to this tour — that it was meant to be one long propaganda spiel for communist East Germany but in fact was pathetically self-mocking. The propaganda failed because even the writers of the propaganda could not conceive of how wealthy the west was compared to the East.

    That is exactly my reaction from my visit in 1988. The East Germans even had their own mini-Kaiser Wilhelm Gedaechtniskirche (the big, bombed-out one), which looked pathetic compared to the real thing on the Kudamm.

    The funniest/most pathetic part was when the state tour guide quickly directed our attention from a meat line stretching around the corner.

  • Methinks

    The funniest/most pathetic part was when the state tour guide quickly directed our attention from a meat line stretching around the corner.

    There was meat?

  • spiro

    "There was meat?"

    Well, it was cheaper than burying the dissidents.

  • bill steigerwald

    The Commies were hilariously/tragically hapless when it came to PR -- which i guess they couldn't figure out how to differentiate between propaganda. Here's something I wrote about a soviet exhibition in L.A. in 1977; I lived under communism for about seven hours in 1988, when i crossed through checkpoint charlie.

    Bill Steigerwald -- former libertarian journalist now trying to write books

    When the Cold War Came to Los Angeles
    by Bill Steigerwald

    No military battles in the Cold War took place on American soil. But 30 years ago, the clashing civilizations of capitalism and communism slugged it out for 18 days in -- of all places -- downtown Los Angeles.

    The bloodless 1977 skirmish started when the Soviet Union sent 200 bureaucrats and KGB agents to the Los Angeles Convention Center to put on a gigantic communist propaganda show called the “Soviet National Exhibition.” The Soviets hoped to impress Americans with the glorious scientific, industrial and cultural achievements of 60 years of Communist Party rule.

    But the rare exhibit, which ran Nov. 12-29 and attracted 310,000 visitors and hundreds of anti-communist protestors from the U.S.S.R.’s many captive republics, hurt the Soviet image more than it helped.

    No doubt many children, movie actors and devout socialists were impressed by the government flea market of shiny Soyuz spacecraft, Armenian micro-art and 100-pound reel-to-reel tape decks. They'd have agreed with the Los Angeles Times, which called the exhibit “splashy” and “seductive.”

    But to any red-blooded capitalist who looked at the exhibit with a critical or malicious eye -- as I did during six visits -- words like "boring," "clueless" and "unintentionally hilarious" came to mind.

    The show’s 10 ceiling-to-floor propaganda banners and huge silk-screened panels celebrating great moments in Communist history were dumb enough. But what fool at the Ministry of Marketing thought ordinary Americans -- in hip, happening L.A.! -- were going to be interested in viewing large-scale models of things like hydroelectric dams and BN-600 fast-neutron reactors?

    The official Soviet pamphlets and brochures were pitiful. Printed on cheap paper and dully written, they were rife with government statistics about electric power capacities, rolled ferrous-metal output and 10-year-plan goals.

    And Orwell would have loved the print up of a translation of a speech Leonid Brezhnev gave to mark the 60th anniversary of the “Great October Socialist Revolution.”

    Delivering perhaps the Cold War’s greatest series of 180-degree-wrong predictions, Brezhnev droned on for 32 pages about the Communist Party’s heroic past, capitalism’s imminent demise and the inevitable triumph of socialism. His ringing final line -- “Onward, to the victory of communism!” -- was followed by this parenthetical and unintended punch line:

    “L.I. Brezhnev’s report was heard with great attention and punctuated with prolonged stormy applause.”

    The Soviets also made another marketing mistake by scattering guest books around for Joe Six-pack to scribble such comments as “This is almost as impressive as the Berlin Wall,” “No toaster, no microwave?” and “P.S.: Lenin needs a hair transplant.”

    Few of these quipsters probably realized that the Soviets' hapless PR road show -- which naturally was slobbered over by L.A.'s media and civic booster elites -- was a perfect microcosm of the Soviet Union.

    Totally controlled by government, saturated with propaganda and devoid of consumer goods, the exhibit was manned by overworked employees who during off-hours were imprisoned in their motel and forbidden to go anywhere alone.

    In 1977, many experts who should have known better were saying the Soviets were winning the Cold War. But if those "experts" had looked behind the smoke and shiny Soyuzes at the Soviet exhibition, they would have seen many hints that, at age 60, the fearsome Evil Empire was a clumsy, senile and sickly superpower.

    Mr. Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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