Hager: Lessons From The Wall

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(HOST) Commentator Robert Hager has been thinking about the fall of the Berlin Wall – and what we may still learn from it.        

(HAGER) Twenty years after the historic time when the Berlin Wall first began to fall, I believe there’s a lesson that goes well beyond that once-divided city.

During the height of the cold war, in the early 1970s, my wife and I lived several years in Berlin. It was about a decade after we had left our native Vermont and I had been sent there as a news correspondent for NBC.

When friends from the U.S. came to visit us we took them first, to the wall. It was ugly, impenetrable and surely – at the time – it seemed permanent.

I remember one time asking then-West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, whom I greatly admired, why he insisted on pursuing a policy of engagement with the communist East. Didn’t it seem hopeless, after all? Brandt replied, "One must only try."

The wall was actually two walls, built about 300 feet apart, slicing side by side through the city. Each side was topped with razor-sharp broken glass embedded in concrete and also with barbed wire. In between, was a no man’s land where heavily-armed East German border guards and their growling dogs patrolled, alongside huge I-beams of steel meant as a barrier against a tank attack.

On the West Berlin side of the structure, the government built wooden observation platforms which the public could mount to overlook this grim fortification and see beyond, into the gray streets of cheerless East Berlin.

On weekends or holidays we often saw Berlin families split by the wall, engaging in prearranged rendezvous: often a set of young parents and their little children on a platform on the western side, waving over the barrier to grandparents trapped in the East with no hope of passing through the wall for a first-hand visit. It was pathetic.

Then suddenly, twenty years ago, all that changed. When the wall opened, I was long-since gone from the city but NBC sent me back for a few days and the sights will stay with me forever. What I remember most is the long line of East Berliners, hour after hour, pouring through the previously forbidden barrier – not to stay for good – but simply to look around for several hours. West Berliners came out to greet them by the hundreds, standing along the sidewalks and quietly, respectfully, applauding as the East Germans walked by. Many from both East and West had tears streaming down their faces.

Even then, I never imagined that the reunification of Germany would follow so soon. Nor do I believe that most Germans thought it possible. Still, within a scant few years the country was one.

Not long ago when my wife and I returned, this time as tourists, there was virtually nothing left of the old divisions of the city.

Today, when I think back on how grim and how permanent that barrier once seemed – I believe there’s a powerful lesson in what happened… that sometimes problems that beset our world – divisions that seem hopeless – can be overcome… with time… with perseverance… with education and tolerance… And, in the case of the iron curtain countries I believe, with a crumbling from within of corrupt and morally bankrupt systems.

In any event, Willy Brandt was right, "One must only try."

Now and then, things really do change.

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