News & Views from 465 California Street

The Power of Freedom

Clint Reilly

In a modern entertainment complex in the heart of Berlin – built by Sony in the 1990s – the Berlin Museum of Television and Film has mounted an extraordinary exhibition on the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

It is a collection of memories, news clips, photographs and video vignettes from those who were there.

“We were all Germans that night,” recalled NBC anchor Tom Brokaw in one of many fascinating interviews.

Mikhail Gorbachev kept 350,000 Soviet troops in their German barracks as the GDR – a Soviet puppet regime – issued a simple announcement: that travel between East and West Berlin was now permitted without restriction.

After 28 years, the Berlin Wall collapsed – taking with it the Soviet Union and the Cold War.

The crowds who rushed across the border that night and over the ensuing days overflowed with elation.

The euphoria among average citizens is palpable in every picture and interview.

Germans literally leapt for joy into the arms of loved ones. Saws, hammers and axes leveled huge sections of the wall. People walked through gaping holes, climbed over crumbling blocks of concrete and danced uncontested through unguarded checkpoints.

One of the most famous scenes featured exiled Soviet cellist Mstislav Rostropovich sitting in a simple chair against a graffiti-covered section of the wall below a spray-painted portrait of Mickey Mouse.

The world-renowned musician played an impromptu one-man concert in celebration of freedom.

Within a month, the GDR’s entire government resigned.

At the same time, President George H.W. Bush’s meeting with Gorbachev in Malta signaled an end to the Cold War.

By July of 1990, Germany was reunited.

Berlin has witnessed the atrocities of the Third Reich, the traumatic division of the city by the Wall, Soviet repression and the eventual triumph of democracy.

In the short span of 50 years, Berlin has been oppressor, oppressed and free.

If there is a city in the world with as many skeletons in its closet as Berlin, I don’t know it. A recent visit evoked memories of 20th century history that still make me recoil in disbelief.

The Jewish Memorial by Peter Eisenman is a haunting reminder of the six million Jews killed by Nazi Germany.

A second brilliantly designed landmark, Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum, recalls the holocaust but also chronicles the Jewish journey from the early centuries after Jesus.

If that is not enough, the Berlin Wall is testimony to how far tyranny will stretch to impede human freedom and perpetuate illegitimate power.

Brandenburg Gate, where John F. Kennedy delivered his defiant cry, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” and Ronald Reagan successfully demanded that Gorbachev “Tear down this wall,” is a universal symbol of justice.

It would be difficult for one city to offer more.

But in the Reichstag, Germany’s glass domed version of the U.S. Capitol in Washington DC, there is a moving declaration of national commitment to the ideals of democratic government going forward into the 21st century and beyond.

Berlin is a city that teaches the power of freedom more eloquently than even the words of the Declaration of Independence. Freedom isn’t something we are forced to treasure in America today.

Our heated debates in California about such prosaic issues as term limits and Proposition 13 trivialize the violent antecedents of our American democracy. Berlin reminds the world that freedom comes at a terrible price.

Do human monuments teach timeless truths? Berlin is proof that they can.

Comments (1)

  • Mr. Reilly:

    An inspiring column on Berlin and the inspiration that can be had from remembering the history of that formerly divided city and country. Another notable point regarding Germany and Berlin is that they have a great social welfare system, and it continued even after West Germany absorbed and supported East Germany. Perhaps Californians and Americans need to study the histories of other countries more, or simply get better educated. In Germany college is nearly free for all Germans….

    Posted by: sophie calloway | July 10th, 2009 at 5:20 am

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