Words and a Wall: Remembering the fall of the Berlin Wall

By Thomas F. Schwartz

A piece of the Berlin Wall on display at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.
A piece of the Berlin Wall on display at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.

A number of remembrances took place on November 9, 2019, marking the 30th anniversary of the opening of travel between East and West Berlin and an end to the border wall of separation.  The end of a divided Berlin was the culmination of public protests in East Germany and a wave of refugees fleeing East Germany for the West through Hungary or Czechoslovakia.  While most observers recite words uttered by President Kennedy—“Ich bin ein Berliner [I am a Berliner]—or President Reagan—“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate.  Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!”—forgotten are similar utterances made by Herbert Hoover.

As early as March 5, 1956, Winston Churchill publically uttered his warning about Soviet intentions in the postwar world.  At Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, Churchill declared: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”  His words were not literal but figurative, indicating that the spheres of influence between democracies in the West and the Soviet Union and its satellite countries in the East were being solidified.  In June 1948, the Soviet blockade of access to West Berlin was met with airlifting of supplies by Western powers to West Berlin.  A physical barrier that became the Berlin Wall was not begun until 1961 as a way to prevent mass defections of individuals from East Berlin to West Berlin.  Churchill’s “iron curtain” has become a reality.

In 1954, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer invited former President Herbert Hoover to visit Germany.  Hoover held the high esteem of Germans having fed them after World War I and being an advocate for the fragile democracy-taking root in post-World War II Germany.  At age 80, Hoover gave three major addresses: one at Bonn, one at Tubingen University, and the third at Berlin.  Speaking before the Senate of the City of Berlin, Hoover made clear: “This city of Berlin is on the front line of the cold war.  You are combat soldiers in that war.”  His speech made stark contrasts between Western encouragement of individual freedom and Soviet demands of individual conformity to the state. He ended the speech referencing ancient Athens:

“You face an enemy who lives just across the street.  You have seen your duty and have performed it well.  Thanks to the spirit and courage of men under the leadership of two great Mayors, you can, like the men of ancient Athens, hold you heads high and say: ‘I am a Berliner.’”

Hoover would have understood Athens to be the earliest expression of democracy granting citizens of the city-state certain rights and liberties that only came with citizenship.  People in West Berlin had these rights whereas people in East Berlin did not.  President Kennedy’s use of the phrase is more global.  He references Cicero’s boast of “civis Romanus sum” or “I am a Roman citizen.”   The Roman Empire was one of the largest in world history.  To be a citizen of Rome meant that one had all of the advantages of citizenship wherever they traveled throughout the empire.  Kennedy was demonstrating his solidarity with Berlin as well as that of all the free world.

Hoover lived to see the Berlin Wall divide the city.  He died before the wall fell.  Pieces of the wall were offered to presidential libraries operated by the National Archives and is displayed in the gallery describing Hoover’s post World War II humanitarian efforts on behalf of Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.  It stands as silent testimony that governments which oppress individual freedom do not last.

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