Elias Atienza is a history junior and Mustang News columnist. The views expressed in this column do not reflect the viewpoints and editorial coverage of Mustang News.
For the first time in history since it was built, the Berlin Wall has been down longer than it has been up. The Berlin Wall was the symbol of the Cold War, separating East and West Berlin for almost 30 years before it came tumbling down in 1989, uniting West and East Germany into a single country.
What did the Berlin Wall represent? What did this mass of concrete that encircled East Berlin have to do with the rest of the world? With our history? With today?
It represented the Iron Curtain, which was the unofficial name given to the border between East and West Europe. It represented how a single spark could have led to a devastating nuclear war. Luckily for us, it never did. Though the fingers were always on the trigger, waiting.
The wall represented the perils of communism. For more than 70 years, the citizens of Russia and other Eastern European countries lived under the fear of the Soviet regime, with millions dying in events such as the Holodomor and others being sent to the Gulags of Siberia. They were regularly repressed and stripped of basic civil rights and denied the benefits of economic liberalization that has lifted a billion people out of poverty since 1990, according to the World Economic Bank.
Thinking of the wall also reminds us of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan and their commitment to ending the communist threat. Kennedy’s famous 1963 “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech that gave hope to the Western Berliners that the rest of the free world had not given up on them. And even though Kennedy was assassinated later that year, his words continued to be echoed by presidents after him.
Reagan famously demanded that Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall!” at Brandenburg Gate on the 750th anniversary of the founding of Berlin in 1987. He said, “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
But most importantly, the Berlin Wall represented political failure. Hans-Peter Spitzner and his daughter, Peggy, were the last family to escape from East Berlin to the West.
“It’s always to keep someone in, to keep someone out, to keep someone from doing something,” Peggy Spitzner said to CBS News. “So it’s always a bad thing really and it’s always a monument of a problem.”
The Spitzners said that walls represent political failure. The Berlin Wall represented the failure of the East German government to effectively rule their citizens, forcing them to build a wall to keep their own people penned in for almost three decades. It represented their failure to win the Cold War. It represented the failure of communism.
As Margaret Thatcher said in 1982 about the wall, “Every stone represents the moral bankruptcy of the society it encloses.” The Berlin Wall enclosed a society that sought to strip their citizens of human dignity and send them back to the Stone Age. Luckily, the Wall fell and the world is better for it.