In 1961, Ingo Kruger was a 21- year-old champion diver who lived in East Berlin. On the night of August 13 he realized that his life was about to change forever. The German Democratic Republic’s decision to establish a wall dividing East and West Berlin, imposing a finality to the question of post-war German unity, weighed heavily on him. It would mean that he would no longer have regular access to his work place, nor, most importantly, to his fiancée who lived on the Western side of the barrier. Although in the months ahead his fiancée was able to obtain permission to occasionally visit him, the situation was becoming increasingly intolerable. So he decided to take matters into his own hands.
On the night of December 10, 1961 he donned a wetsuit and breathing apparatus with a plan to swim under the River Spree to freedom in the West. Several people were let in on the scheme, including his fiancée who was to wait for him on the other side. His desire was to swim under the water for 500 yards, before emerging at a spot on the Western bank which the East German border guards did not regularly patrol.
The daring idea ended in tragedy.
Later that night, an East German customs launch fished a body of a young man from the Spree. Ingo Kruger’s fiancée, only 200 yards away, watched in horror as his inert form was pulled onto the vessel. The champion diver had simply miscalculated the frigidity of the water and his likely resistance to the cold.
Episodes like this, in which separated families, lovers and work colleagues sought their freedom and reunification, occurred again and again over the next few years. Many ended in success. But many equally ended in failure with either the death of escapee and his or her capture and subsequent imprisonment by the East Berlin border guards or the vopos.
As the barrier between the Eastern and Western sides of the former German capital became increasingly impenetrable, the thirst for freedom on the Eastern side only grew. The East Berliners learned to devise ingenious methods to secure their freedom, including the construction of tunnels, home made hot air balloons, forged documents or cars, retro-fitted with obscure compartments for hiding escapees.
Yet over time, as the Wall became a fixture in the regular life of Berlin, the world soon forgot the oppression under which East Berliners lived. It forgot the grim food shortages in the East, the lines for basic commodities, the intense censorship of opinion or the domestic surveillance practices of the notorious Stasi secret police, where brothers were encouraged to betray brothers and children to spy on their parents.
Even the West German government itself had become so accustomed to the wall and the existence of an ‘alternative’ Germany, that it eventually surrendered its own claim to be the sole and legitimate representative of the German people.
But the East Berliners themselves had not forgotten. Their desire for freedom was repeatedly proven by the increasing flood of refugees who would abandon everything they owned, including cars with keys still in the ignition, to clamber over embassy walls or risk their lives in foolhardy attempts at flight.
It took an American president to remind the world that freedom and liberty are immutable rights of humanity and that such indignity as the German Democratic Republic had imposed on their own people could not be tolerated.
Standing at the Brandenburg Gate in June 1987, Ronald Reagan, rejecting the counsel of his own advisers, threw down the gauntlet to the aging East German leadership and their Soviet sponsors, demanding that the Wall dividing the city be torn down. By that time the wall had not just come to be seen as the barrier cleaving a city in two, but the essential divide between East and West– and between two political systems which had grudgingly learned to accommodate one another.
After 26 years of division, oppression and the tepid protests of world leaders, that voice roared over the city and then throughout the world as a demand for change. Here was a Western leader prepared to make a stand for human liberty at a time when the world largely met such earnestness with a shrug. It was Reagan’s gesture, at a time when the Soviet Union was exposing its own weaknesses and failures, that brought the future of the West again into focus and is one of the main reasons he is remembered with such admiration today.
Reagan’s demand was of course tied directly to the work and actions of Administrations before him, including those of Truman and Kennedy, who had taken similarly defiant stands against the cruel imposition of demagogic rule. Both presidents had recognized that Berlin represented the battleground, not for the extension of American or NATO hegemony over Europe, but for the future of western civilization itself. Their pronouncements and actions were statements of a resolve to maintain the onward thrust of human history toward liberty and freedom and beyond the fetid swamp of subjugation and cruelty into which humanity has always risked sinking.
What is then one to make of the Barack Obama’s decision not to accept German president Angela Merkel (a former East German)’s invitation to join other Western leaders in celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall? It would seem appropriate that the half century long struggle to defeat a pernicious and degrading ideology, which had ended in the triumph of truth over coercion and dignity over power, would be an event any American president would willingly lend his presence.
Would there be a more fitting occasion for an American president, particularly one gifted with such a widely acknowledged talent for soaring rhetoric, to reinforce his country’s fundamental beliefs in the American ( and now largely Western) notions of the inalienable rights of human beings to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? What better occasion to do that than on the anniversary of the collapse of a symbol of oppression that had come to signify, more than any post-war icon, the devastating impact of totalitarianism on the human character and psyche?
Yet Barack Obama did indeed once go to Berlin. Candidate Obama, in the summer of 2008, had originally planned to deliver a Kennedy-esque address at the Brandenburg Gate, before being denied that honor by Angela Merkel, who, aware of the significance of the location, feared the accusation of influence peddling. Still, with his nomination secured, Obama nevertheless arranged to stand before 200,000 people in front of the city’s Victory Column and pronounce: “ This city, of all cities, knows the dream of freedom. When you, the German people, tore down the Wall, walls came tumbling down around the world. From Kiev to Cape Town, prisoner camps were closed and the doors of democracy were opened.”
Stirring words indeed. It is really too bad he can’t see fit to repeat such sentiments as a president.
For President Barack Obama has chosen not to go to Berlin on the anniversary of that city’s and the West’s greatest triumph. It is this decision, contra Reagan’s, Kennedy’s and Truman’s, which may well come to define his presidency. For in his ten months in office President Obama, unlike Candidate Obama, has failed to evince much faith at all in the virtues of human liberty and the necessity to confront tyranny wherever it is found.
His speech before the United Nations only six weeks ago, when he had the opportunity to connect his own presidency to that of his post-War predecessors, excluded some of the most important notions on which American presidents had once been unanimously resolved. No advocacy for the benefits of democracy; no emphasis on the value of a free enterprise system; no bolstering of nascent democratic governments struggling in the shadow of oppressive national giants; no willingness to identify ideologies or political movements which might threaten Western survival.
Instead Barack Obama has transformed himself into a world citizen, given to platitudes about mutual tolerance, shared interests and world unity , all of which may sound sweet to the ears of those who have decried American unilateralism for years, but may be at odds with American resolve to promote liberty and to lead the world in defending against threats to Western ideals. For the multilateral nostrums he so intently endorses, necessarily suggest constraints on national sovereignty and the concurrent accommodation of regimes, ideologies and political movements that may be decidedly opposed to the pursuit of human freedom.
In all this Obama seems convinced that his personal magnetism and charisma has been enough to excite a sudden embrace of American multilateralism. But by so openly coddling regimes whose hostility to American leadership on issues of freedom and liberty is no secret, Obama has, in only ten months, surrendered the international moral leadership of the American presidency and reduced it to a shadow of its former prominence as the world’s leading proponent for human freedom. That is a tragedy some of his 20th century predecessors would mourn.
Berlin, on the other hand, should be remembered this week as the city where the decisions were made to launch both world wars of the 20th Century; became the focal point of the Cold War and the only place in the history of that conflict where American and Soviet tanks faced off against one another. The city has come to symbolize the passage of modern European history from autocracy to dictatorship, through authoritarianism to freedom. Its maintenance of a free and democratic republic for the past 20 or so years would have been reason enough for the president of the United States to travel to the city and lead the celebrations in its honor.
Perhaps he could have then stood proudly at the Brandenburg Gate and, echoing the sentiments of a previous visiting American president, declared:
“ If anyone still accepts the belief that the human quest for personal liberty and national freedom will fail to become a universal trend – let them come to Berlin!”