Today marks the twentieth anniversary of one of Ronald Reagan’s great speeches where he stood before the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg gate and implored the then-leader of the then-Soviet Union to “Open this gate and] tear down this wall.” As other blogs and bloggers* have written on the significance of this speech — and its meaning today, I thought I’d offer for my own recollections of that day twenty years ago.
For, you see, I was in Berlin that day. Though I did not make it then to the Brandenburg gate. (I would see that gate a few days later from the other side where, in a drunken state (even under Communism, Germans got beer right), I challenged an East German border guard on the wall. Not to worry I did make it safely back to West Berlin without the intervention of the U.S. Embassy.)
Anyway, as the Gipper arrived in Berlin, I hiked up to the Kurfürstendamm, then the major boulevard in the free portions of the city. And I watched a rally that absolutely frightened me.
I saw hordes, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of young Germans marching to protest Reagan’s visit. They accused the Gipper of being a fascist and warmonger and deplored his decision to deploy U.S missiles in Europe. Many carried signs attacking the US while others chanted hateful anti-American slogans or shouted out against the then-incumbent U.S. leader. Replace “Reagan” with “Bush” and the rally would seem similar to many witnessed in recent years in European cities. (This crowd, however, was larger than some recent European rallies.)
What struck me then was the virulence of the anti-American attitudes expressed by the marchers. As I watched, I had flashes of films I had seen of Nazis marching (perhaps on the same street) a half-century previously. Many of the protesters wore nearly identical black outfits (some did sport more colorful attire) and marched in lockstep. It almost seemed that this generation of Germans has replaced “Jews” with “Americans.” Their anger was palpable.
I was grateful for the cordon of German police officers standing shoulder to shoulder on the sidewalk, dividing the marchers from the onlookers and pedestrians. I fear that had the marchers learned my nationality, they made have made an example of me. That day, I noted the irony of a Jew appreciating the presence of uniformed German officers.