Ich bin ein Berliner! And the fall of the wall.

Outside Fortress Europe Excerpts
This essay is based upon unabridged excerpts from Chapter One, Ten Years That Shook the (Capitalist) World: 1988-1998, in Outside Fortress Europe: Strategies for the Global Market, published in 2018 by Strategic Management Think Tank.


Outside Fortress Europe Excerpt

We all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s future, and we are all mortal.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th President of the United States.

This simple German phrase (I am a Berliner), used twice in a nine-minute ‘city hall’ oration in West Berlin on June 26th, 1963, was J.F. Kennedy’s most-watched/listened-to speech in ‘real-time’, of all time. Its target audience was tens of millions of TV viewers in America, hundreds of millions more worldwide, 450,000 people mustered in the square outside Rathaus Schöneberg where it was given, and one Russian in particular, Nikita Khrushchev, the man who had blinked first in the harrowing late-October days of the Cuban Missile Crisis almost exactly eight months previously. It was also Kennedy’s last deliverance on a global platform before his assassination only five months later. This hugely intense geopolitical period between October 1962 (the Cuban Crisis) and November 22nd, 1963 (Kennedy’s assassination) marked the vertex of the Cold War, displayed the strength and confidence of America and represented the pinnacle of Soviet power. The Berlin speech was JFK at his oratorial best, offering a resounding message of support for West Germany alongside a valorous tirade against communism: not from the sanctuary of the White House Oval Office but on the doorstep of America’s arch-enemy. The speech echoed with twin themes of freedom and peace and Kennedy concluding:

Freedom is indivisible and when one man is enslaved who are free? When all are free, then we can look forward to that day when this city will be joined as one and this country and this great continent of Europe in a peaceful and hopeful globe. When that day finally comes, as it will, the people of West Berlin can take sober satisfaction in the fact that they were in the front lines for almost two decades. All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’

To put this in perspective, here’s a hypothetical: in 1945 an aspiring PhD student proposes to undertake a comparative analysis of two economic systems – command versus free-market – involving approximatively 600m (human) subjects split evenly between two geographically proximate political systems – communism versus liberal democracy – in a European context raw with fresh wounds gouged by eugenics and pogroms. Throw in a few hypotheses, observe for 45 years and note what occurs.

It’s an absurd proposition but that’s exactly what happened between 1945 and 1991 on the continent of Europe. From a research design perspective, the ‘geographical proximity’ component of the proposal presents its fundamental problematic: how to keep the subjects apart for such a long time, especially if the outcomes for one group are looking significantly more favourable than for those of the other? Winston Churchill, the man who said he knew what would be in the history books because he planned to pen them, had seen the (metaphorical) writing on the wall. In his Sinews of Peace speech given at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri on March 5th, 1946, invited by US President Truman but attending in a private capacity (Churchill had won the war but lost his party’s mandate), he was the bearer of stark news to his captivated audience:

It is my duty to place before you certain facts about the present position in Europe. From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in some cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow. The Communist parties, which were very small in all these Eastern States of Europe, have been raised to pre-eminence and power far beyond their numbers and are seeking everywhere to obtain totalitarian control. Police governments are prevailing in nearly every case and … there is no true democracy.

The Berlin Wall (abstract impression)

Reverting to Kennedy, the very real ‘writing on the wall’ was most visibly centred in and coiled around Berlin and, from the vantage point of his podium when making his speech, he could see its ugly legacy, adding: “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us”. Twenty-four years later on June 12th, 1987, the uber-anti-communist President Ronald Reagan, speaking in front of the Brandenburg Gate and standing alongside the Berlin Wall, observed (Tear down this wall! speech, retrieved from Encyclopaedia Britannica):

As I looked out a moment ago from the Reichstag, that embodiment of German unity, I noticed words crudely spray-painted upon the wall, perhaps by a young Berliner: “This wall will fall. Beliefs become reality.” Yes, across Europe, this wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.

Reagan was approaching the end of his two-term presidency and was undertaking an ‘end-of-term’ geopolitical tour (or so it seemed) at the time of his second West Berlin speech. He had first come to office on an anti-USSR platform, raising the spectre of the Russian Bear’s apparent expansionist agenda and feeding a deep-rooted fear amongst Americans of communism in general. His first presidential election victory (in November 1980) coincided with the ill-fated Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, widely seen as an aggressive move towards increasing the USSR’s influence in Asia and contributing to a Cold War proxy war, a dangerous development for world peace in which the CIA also played a significant role. Having recently met with the new Soviet leader in Reykjavik, Iceland, Reagan felt emboldened to lay down the following challenge to his new geopolitical sparring partner:

There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall!

Within two years of President Ronald Reagan delivering this impassioned speech the Iron Curtain was breached: not in Berlin, but in Hungary; and not through iron or concrete, but via an open wooden door.


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All content © Colin Edward Egan, 2020