The Wall − A World Divided on WXXI-TV

The Wall − A World Divided on WXXI-TV

Mon, 06/28/2010 - 10:00pm

Pictured: Berlin, November 10, 1989

Credit: Ullstein Bild/Granger Collection

The rise and fall of the Berlin Wall.

The Wall − A World Divided, a stirring new documentary about the forces that created — and then tore down — the Berlin Wall, airs Monday, June 28 at 10 p.m. on WXXI-TV (DT 21.1/cable 1011 and 11). Featuring interviews with three world leaders pivotal to the events of the time — George H. W. Bush, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and German chancellor Helmut Kohl — the film also spotlights the ordinary citizens who tore down the last vestige of the Cold War and changed the world.

The most memorable event of the revolution that swept Europe two decades ago is the November 9, 1989, opening of the Berlin Wall, the most potent symbol of Communist oppression. After 28 years of violence and tragedy, the people of East Germany were suddenly free to travel to the West, and, within weeks, the oppressive regime had given way to dramatic reforms. But it wasn’t politicians who brought down the concrete, barbed wire and gun towers that separated the worlds of East and West Berlin. It was ordinary citizens who risked their lives to stand up against a repressive regime and carry out a revolution without a shot being fired.

At the end of World War II, the once-great city of Berlin lay in ruins. The victors divided Germany amongst themselves: the Soviet Union would occupy and control East Germany, while the Americans, British and French would occupy West Germany. Berlin, the former capital of Nazi Germany, was divided between the two sides, making West Berlin a non-Communist island within a Communist nation.

Almost immediately, East Germans began to stream across the border into West Berlin, and, by 1961, millions of East Germans had relocated. The East German leaders, increasingly alarmed by the loss of their labor force and fearful for their economic survival, decided to act.

On Sunday morning, August 13, 1961, Berliners who weren’t away on summer vacation awoke to find their city cut in two by a wall of barbed wire and concrete blocks. East German police armed with machine guns patrolled the border. Now, instead of simply walking across to freedom, East Germans who wanted to flee would have to find a way to escape under, over or through the heavily guarded wall. Many succeeded, but hundreds of others died trying.

The Wall explores the stories of these ordinary citizens who found their lives torn apart by Cold War politics: a young father forced to tunnel beneath the Wall to be reunited with his wife and two sons; a teenager whose love of pop culture got him in deep trouble with the state; a student activist helping to make a peaceful revolution while facing down armed soldiers; and a young man broken by the ruthless interrogation methods of the Stasi, the East German secret police, who by the 1980s had collected information on one-third of the country’s population.

The Wall also reveals that the seeds of freedom in East Germany were sown in an unexpected place: the Protestant Church. The East German regime had relaxed restrictions on organized religion, reasoning that if churches were allowed to meet openly, they would quickly prove themselves obsolete. The opposite happened. Houses of worship became gathering places for environmental activists, peace activists, feminists, punk rockers — all kinds of people who had one thing in common: the yearning for freedom and a life lived without the heavy hand of the state. But events outside East Germany would ultimately provide the spark for revolution.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev was named general secretary of the Soviet Union. Vice president George Bush attended the funeral of Gorbachev’s predecessor and met the new leader. “I was the first American to make contact with Gorbachev,” said Bush. “And I wrote out a cable to send back to Reagan to say, ‘This man is very different.’”

Reform began sweeping through Soviet satellite states. Poland held the first free elections in Communist Europe; Hungary unilaterally opted to open its borders to Austria (inviting East Germans to use the route as an escape hatch). And, little by little, East Germany’s church-based groups grew larger as students, intellectuals and ordinary people became more vocal. By the summer of 1989, thousands of people began to gather in the streets in the university city of Leipzig and other cities. The doors of opposition were opening and, by the fall of 1989, the East German regime was facing massive demonstrations for the first time since the 1950s.

What finally brought down the Wall? A mistake. An East German bureaucrat named Gunter Schabowski misspoke at a press conference on November 9, 1989. He read a long document announcing an incremental ease in travel restrictions. One reporter asked, “When does it take effect?” “Immediately,” he said uncertainly, searching the document. His hesitant statement triggered a flood of people at one of the East Berlin crossing points. Within hours, NBC’s Tom Brokaw was on the scene, reporting that the Berlin Wall was opening. West German TV, which East Germans watched, also reported the news. The border guards had no instructions and were forced to let the crowds through; after 28 years, the Berlin Wall fell as suddenly as it had gone up. In events that no one could have foreseen, East Germany ceased to exist within less than a year.

The Wall goes behind the scenes with political leaders — George Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, Helmut Kohl, James Baker and Condoleezza Rice — to reveal the tense moments surrounding the wildly unexpected series of events that resulted in a new Europe. As the program ends, the Berlin Wall has come down, but the work to reunite Germany has only just begun.