This week marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. While President Ronald Reagan famously told Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall," another more mysterious quote attributed to Gorbachev would dominate the communist narrative of the fall of the Berlin Wall. WNYC reporter Brian Zumhagen tells the story and impact of both.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: With the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall coming up on Monday, chances are you'll be hearing a lot of this.
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s from a speech President Ronald Reagan made at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in 1987, an important refrain in the American version of how the Cold War ended. But, at the time, the famous sound bite was controversial, both inside the Reagan White House and in Germany, where another, somewhat more mysterious quote attributed to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would come to dominate the narrative of the Velvet Revolution. WNYC reporter Brian Zumhagen has the story of two iconic quotes and the legacy of 1989.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER/HAIL TO THE CHIEF]
BRIAN ZUMHAGEN: When Ronald Reagan died in 2004, Republicans cited the key line from the President’s Berlin speech again and again to portray the Gipper as the man who singlehandedly brought down the Soviet empire. At the height of George W. Bush’s War on Terror in 2004, Reagan’s words were held up as an example of what Republicans called “moral clarity.” But things weren't so clear back in 1987. When a young speechwriter named Peter Robinson left for Berlin that spring, the only speech he had in his head was that of a different president in the same city in 1963.
PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: 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.”
[CHEERS AND APPLAUSE]
PETER ROBINSON: That was in the file folder in my mind labeled “Don't try this.”
BRIAN ZUMHAGEN: Not just because Robinson wanted to head off media comparisons between John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, but also because he’d been briefed by State Department officials that now West Germans needed tact and diplomacy.
PETER ROBINSON: Look, they've gotten used to the Wall. Don't have Reagan come across as some sort of anti-Communist cowboy.
BRIAN ZUMHAGEN: But after seeing the Wall for himself, Robinson had dinner with a group of West Berliners and he asked them, can it really be that you've accepted the division of your country?
PETER ROBINSON: And there was silence. And I thought, uh, I've made just the kind of blunder that the diplomats don't want the President to make. And then one man raised his arm and pointed, and said, my sister lives just a few kilometers in that direction but I haven't seen her in more than 20 years. How do you think we feel about that Wall?
BRIAN ZUMHAGEN: Then a woman at the table brought up Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
PETER ROBINSON: She said, if this man Gorbachev is serious with this talk of Perestroika, he can prove it by coming here and getting rid of this Wall.
BRIAN ZUMHAGEN: Robinson liked that so much he decided to build his speech around it. But the National Security Council fought hard to take out the line about the Wall, fearing it would put Gorbachev in a tight spot with hardliners in his own country. But when the draft went to the President, he reportedly said, I like it. Helmut Trotnow is director of Berlin’s Allied Museum, which put together an exhibit for the 20th anniversary of the speech. He says that many in the German press reflexively rejected Reagan’s message, saying either that it was too naive or needlessly provocative. But, he says, there was a power in stating the obvious.
HELMUT TROTNOW: Because every German had to ask, well, isn't he right? Did we need a U.S. president to remind us that there is a division?
BRIAN ZUMHAGEN: Another statement of the obvious was that the German Democratic Republic couldn't survive without 500,000 Soviet soldiers backing it. Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies historian James Mann says Reagan made this point by addressing Gorbachev by name, instead of saying, Herr Honecker, open this gate.
JAMES MANN: Erich Honecker, the East German leader, was not about to tear down the Wall, but he would like at least to have been asked.
BRIAN ZUMHAGEN: As for ordinary East Germans, it’s more difficult to gauge their response since they generally weren't able to talk to Western reporters. But historian Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk says after the speech more and more people shouted or spray-painted slogans like “The Wall Must Go.”
[ILKO-SASCHA KOWALCZUK SPEAKS GERMAN] It’s often the case in such closed societies that when people get that kind of support and solidarity from outside, the individual people then have the courage to articulate these ideas themselves. And that’s precisely what happened after Reagan’s speech.
[GERMAN CROWD CHANTING] The opposition really started to gather strength two years later with demonstrations on the streets of Leipzig, just as the East German state was trying to celebrate its 40th birthday.
[PATRIOTIC MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Mikhail Gorbachev came to Berlin for the occasion, and the media ended up with an intriguingly critical sound bite heard for the first time in this West German TV news report:
[JOURNALIST SPEAKING GERMAN] That translates loosely at, “Life punishes those who come too late.” East Germans, experts at reading between the lines, took it to mean that Gorbachev would not intervene to put the demonstrations down, a huge change. Friedrich Magirius was the pastor at the Nikolai Church in Leipzig, a hotbed of opposition activity in 1989.
[PASTOR MAGIRIUS/GERMAN/UP & UNDER] The concrete result was that the police, the army and the paramilitary forces were all deployed to limit or stop what was then called the counterrevolutionary activity here in the Nikolai Church. But the Russian tanks didn't come again, as they had on June 17th of 1953, and that was our hope.
BRIAN ZUMHAGEN: That hope drew more and more ordinary East Germans into the streets, shouting, “We are the people,” and the resignations of Honecker and the Politburo soon followed.
[CROWD SHOUTING] The Gorbachev
quote became so ubiquitous that some people I talked to for this story thought it was an old folk expression. It’s not. But even people who know that, generally don't know where the quote comes from. Most people think Gorbachev said it at the Neue Wache, the old guardhouse in East Berlin where the Soviet leader approached a group of mostly Western journalists.
[MAN SPEAKING GERMAN AT PRESS CONFERENCE] In the news footage you can hear one reporter ask Gorbachev whether he thinks the situation in East Germany is dangerous.
[QUESTION AND ANSWER/RUSSIAN AND GERMAN] “Dangers await only those who don't react to life.” That isn't exactly the same as, “Life punishes those who come too late. So where did the famous line come from? Journalist Ulla Plog investigated that question for The Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper. She traced the quote back to Gorbachev’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Gennadi Gerasimov. He came out of a closed session of the East German Politburo to find a group of reporter who wanted to know what the Soviet leader was saying.
ULLA PLOG: He wanted to give a sound bite.
BRIAN ZUMHAGEN: Plog says Gerasimov, who had spent time in the U.S. and Europe, knew how to craft a good media message. He told the reporters Gorbachev had said, “Those who are late will be punished by life itself.”
ULLA PLOG: Almost everyone in Germany thought Gorbachev said these words on television, because the media had immediately begun repeating the quote as if it had come out of Gorbachev’s mouth.
BRIAN ZUMHAGEN: As for the Reagan quote:
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!
BRIAN ZUMHAGEN: It got a new lease on life after the Wall fell in November of 1989 because it suddenly seemed so prophetic. But Reagan’s words, almost as quickly, became the subject of a partisan dispute in the U.S. about which superpower’s leader played a bigger role in ending the Cold War.
PETER ROBINSON: If anyone argued that Ronald Reagan gave that speech and, therefore, the Berlin Wall fell, he would simply be doing violence to the historical record.
BRIAN ZUMHAGEN: Speechwriter Peter Robinson says that record is much more complex. Historians point out that deep economic crisis throughout the Eastern Bloc played a big part in the Velvet Revolution, along with Gorbachev’s refusal to intervene on behalf of Soviet satellite regimes. Still, GDR historian Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk says Reagan also played an important role – as an irritant.
[ILKO-SASCHA KOWALCZUK SPEAKING GERMAN/UP AND UNDER] The fact that he was, in a way, so unyielding and spoke in such an outrageously antiquated way about these societies, that absolutely had a positive effect in the East Bloc, because Reagan described their societies in the way that they experienced them every day, as dictatorships.
BRIAN ZUMHAGEN: Speechwriter Peter Robinson says toppling them was a group effort.
PETER ROBINSON: When the moment came, it wasn't Ronald Reagan who tore down the Wall, nor was it Mikhail Gorbachev. It was Germans.
BRIAN ZUMHAGEN: After all, the president’s most famous line, dismissed at the time as the ultimate expression of American naïveté, was actually suggested by a German. For On the Media, I'm Brian Zumhagen.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Michael Bernstein and P.J. Vogt, with more help from James Hawver and Dan Mauzy, and edited by me. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Zach Marsh.
Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts at Onthemedia.org. You can also post comments there, or email us at Onthemedia@wnyc.org. This is On the Media from WNYC. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I'm Brooke Gladstone.