Events so often seem inevitable in retrospect. It is now fashionable, for instance, to regard the Berlin Wall, along with the Communist regime that erected it, as having been doomed to collapse from the start.
But we mustn’t forget how stunning—and exhilarating—it was to watch the people of Berlin take hammers to the wall that had for three decades kept East Germans from freedom. Twenty-five years ago this week, the world stood transfixed as television footage showed ecstatic crowds swarming over a barrier that just hours earlier had been lined with armed soldiers, floodlights, dog runs, and barbed wire. There was nothing predictable in these extraordinary scenes.
For the rest of this week, the Intercollegiate Review will be remembering the historic developments of November 9, 1989. Former Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson will kick things off by sharing the dramatic behind-the-scenes story of how and why President Reagan’s famous June 1987 Berlin address was written—and how the celebrated line “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” very nearly didn’t make it into the speech.
Robinson has captured just how stunning the events of November 1989 were by quoting Otto Bammel, a retired German diplomat living in East Berlin at the time the wall came down. Bammel told Robinson, “It was just overwhelming. Nobody expected it. Nobody had the idea that it could happen. The joy about this event was just overwhelming all other thoughts. This was so joyful and so unbelievable.”
“Nobody expected it.” Twenty-five years after the fact, it can be hard to recall that this was so. But we study history to remind ourselves of such truths, of the contingencies of history, and of the importance of men and women with the courage and foresight to take action in defense of principle.