Monday, November 09, 2009

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

The man who opened the Berlin Wall

On November 9th 1989, Harald Jäger wanted his night shift at the East Berlin border crossing at Bornholmer Strasse to go quietly. Instead, Jäger opened the first crack in the Berlin Wall and helped make history.

“But then things happened, that I would have never imagined even in my worst dreams,” remembered the former state security officer in a conversation with the DPA new service. His border crossing was the first to open - without an order from above. The hours leading up to the opening were the most dramatic in his life.

“I’m happy that only thing that flowed was fear-induced sweat and not blood,” Jäger said.

In the canteen around 7 pm that evening, he had followed the press conference with the East German official Günter Schabowski, which outlined new travel rules for the country's citizens. Almost offhandedly, Schabowski announced the immediate opening of the border. The impact of the announcement was almost immediately visible, said Jäger.

“At first there were just a handful of East German citizens there, but by the minute there were more. It went from hundreds to thousands, who chanted, ‘Open the gate!,’” explained Jäger, who was in charge of 30 guards and three border posts that night.

“We stood just an arms-length away from the masses, who were separated from us by just a closed crossing gate,” he said, explaining how he was scared of a mass panic. “We no longer had the situation under control,” said Jäger, now 66 years old. He kept trying to phone his superiors for orders. “But higher up, chaos reigned just as it did for us.”

Around 9:40 pm, the order came to allow especially “provocative citizens” through the border, but not to let them back in. But this “ventilation” tactic didn’t help.

“At 11:20 pm, I then ordered the crossing gate to be opened and to allow everyone to leave without inspecting their papers,” said Jäger. About 25,000 people used their new freedom on that evening to cross into West Berlin.

“In the first moment, something was really empty inside me. I didn’t understand the world anymore,” said Jäger. Today, he’s “a bit proud” that he prevented the situation from escalating. He believes that because of his cool-headed handling of the situation, he made some amends for his 28 years of service with the East German border troops.

It was good that “the East Germans didn’t exclude us, instead they embraced us,” said Jäger. The reaction from his then-superiors was also mild. “My knees were shaking when I called up my colonel to report on what was happening. He said only, ‘it’s good, my boy.’”

After Germany reunited, Jäger had to “start from zero.” He was unemployed for two years and then trained to become a taxi driver. He also sold ice cream and newspapers and worked as a security guard. Coming to terms with his past took many years, Jäger said. A series of interviews with Gerhard Hasse-Hindenberg, who wrote a biography of Jäger that was published in 2007, helped considerably.

Today, Jäger lives in the town of Weneuchen in Brandenburg and spends a lot of time in his garden tending cacti. After 20 years, he wants to go back to his former border crossing on the 9th of November and mix with the others there.

But he can’t fully savour the freedom to travel that came with the fall of the Wall: he doesn’t have enough money for the dream trip to Mexico that he’d like to take.

Via The Local

Meanwhile, as Berliners and dignitaries celebrate the Fall of the Wall and remember those who died during their attempt to flee the communist paradise, BarryO won't be there.
In his first year in office, Barack Obama has visited more foreign countries than any other president. He's touched ground in 16 countries, easily outpacing Bill Clinton (three) and George W. Bush (eleven). It's an itinerary befitting a "citizen of the world."

But there's one stop Obama won't make. He has begged off going to Berlin next week to attend ceremonies commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall. His schedule is reportedly too crowded. John F. Kennedy famously told Berliners, "Ich bin ein Berliner." On the 20th anniversary of the last century's most stirring triumph of freedom, Obama is telling them, "Ich bin beschäftigt" - i.e., I'm busy.

It doesn't have quite the same ring, does it? Obama's failure to go to Berlin is the most telling nonevent of his presidency. It's hard to imagine any other American president eschewing the occasion. Only Obama - with his dismissive view of the Cold War as a relic distorting our thinking and his attenuated commitment to America's exceptional role in the world - would spurn German president Angela Merkel's invitation to attend.

Obama famously made a speech in Berlin during last year's campaign, but at an event devoted to celebrating himself as the apotheosis of world hopefulness. He said of 1989, "a wall came down, a continent came together, and history proved that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one."

The line was typical Obama verbal soufflé, soaring but vulnerable to collapse upon the slightest jostling from logic or historical fact. The wall came down only after the free world resolutely stood against the Communist bloc. Rather than a warm-and-fuzzy exercise in global understanding, the Cold War was another iteration of the 20th century's long war between totalitarianism and Western liberalism. The West prevailed on the back of American strength.

But Obama doesn't think in such antiquated, triumphalist terms. Given to apologizing for his nation abroad, he resolutely downplays American leadership. "President Obama is applying the same tools to international diplomacy that he used as a community organizer on Chicago's South Side," the Washington Post notes, approaching "the world as a community of nations, more alike than different in outlook and interest." To the extent that the Cold War doesn't fit this unbelievably naïve worldview, it's an intellectual inconvenience.

Wouldn't Obama at least want to take the occasion to celebrate freedom and human rights - those most cherished liberal values? Not necessarily. He has mostly jettisoned them as foreign-policy goals in favor of a misbegotten realism that soft-pedals the crimes of nasty regimes around the world. During the Cold War, we undermined our enemies by shining a bright light on their repression. In Berlin, JFK called out the Communists on their "offense against humanity." Obama would utter such a phrase only with the greatest trepidation, lest it undermine a future opportunity for dialogue.

Pres. Ronald Reagan realized we could meet with the Soviets without conceding the legitimacy of their system. He always spoke up for the dissidents - even when it irked his negotiating partner, Mikhail Gorbachev. Whatever the hardheaded imperatives of geopolitics, we'd remain a beacon of liberty in the world.

Obama has relegated this aspirational aspect of American power to the back seat. For him, we are less an exceptional power than one among many, seeking deals with our peers in Beijing and Moscow. Why would Obama want to celebrate the refuseniks of the Eastern Bloc, when he won't even meet with the Dalai Lama in advance of his trip to China?

So Obama huddles with Merkel during her visit to Washington and leaves it at that. An American president will skip events marking the end of a struggle to which we, as a nation - under presidents of both parties - devoted blood and treasure for 50 years. For Barack Obama, 1989 is just another far-away year - and the Democratic party of such men as Harry S. Truman and JFK has never seemed more distant.

Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review.


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