Remembering the Berlin Wall

Remembering the Berlin Wall

The right celebrates Reagan as the cold war “victor.” American memorials tell a different story.


This article is adapted from How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America, published in October. Copyright ©2012 by the Regents of the University of California.

For Republicans today, Ronald Reagan provides the gold standard of political virtue. In their view, perhaps his greatest achievement was “winning” the cold war—the icon for which is the Berlin Wall. Pieces of the Wall are on display in a surprising number of American locations, from the low-down (a Las Vegas casino men’s room) to the more upscale (the Microsoft Art Collection in Redmond, Washington). More than forty places in the United States display sections of the Wall, according to Wikipedia . Taken together, these commemorations tell us something about how Reagan, and the cold war, are being remembered—and forgotten.

Of course the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, displays a segment of the Wall—a real one, donated by the founder of the fast food chain Carl’s Jr., plus a Hollywood-style mock-up, on which video is projected of the famous Reagan speech in which he said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Until recently, the library had a life-size re-creation of Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie, where you could have your picture taken next to a mannequin of an East German border guard. But if you thought the other US exhibits would celebrate Reagan as the man who brought down the Wall, you would be wrong.

The displays across America present a stunningly wide range of attitudes toward the Wall. The “most fun” exhibit in the country, according to the guidebook Roadside America (which bills itself as “a caramel-coated-nutbag-full of odd and hilarious travel destinations”), is found at Main Street Station casino in Las Vegas. That’s the one in the men’s room, behind a row of four urinals. The guidebook title for that attraction: “Pee at the Berlin Wall.” This site was named “Las Vegas’ number two historic bathroom” by the Travel Channel in its “Las Vegas Top 10 Bathrooms” documentary. To get there, you leave the glitter and crowds on the strip and head downtown— and down-scale—to what is politely termed the “budget” area of the city’s tourist attractions.

The piece of the Wall in the men’s room is about four feet high and six feet long. You’re not really supposed to urinate on the Wall, but in the standard urinals attached to it. Above the Wall and the row of urinals is a plaque reading “Gentlemen: The Berlin Wall…over 100 people were killed trying to escape to freedom.” The plaque does not mention Reagan. The hotel says that women who want to see the Wall can ask a security guard to make sure the coast is clear. The Wall there is featured at the website, “the best place to piss away your time on the internet.”

At the other end of the spectrum of cultural capital, Microsoft displays a segment of the Wall in the conference center at its Redmond campus, outside Seattle. It’s part of the Microsoft Art Collection, which celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary this year. The anniversary book features its Wall section—but not for its cold war geopolitical significance. And the book does not mention Reagan in its guide to the Wall exhibition.

Microsoft’s segment of the Wall, like all the others, is covered with graffiti. The exhibition guide opens with the question “Is this Art?”and points out that many people “customarily think of graffiti as little more than urban vandalism.” But Microsoft wants viewers to know that “the Wall attracted artists—unknown and well-known…whose efforts ranged from scribbled words to complex compositions.” This particular chunk contains “a richly colored, energetic and tightly composed abstraction—a collage of urban graphic gestures.” So it belongs in an art collection.

Microsoft’s twelve-foot-high, four-foot-wide, three-and-ahalf-ton section of the Wall was a gift to Bill Gates from Mercedes, presented when he visited the Daimler-Benz AG corporate headquarters in Berlin. The German company “wanted to establish a long-term strategic partnership involving software technology…for future in-car computers.” Of course, the Wall did not have to fall for Mercedes to do business with Microsoft, but the gift does symbolize the victory of capitalism in a big way.

The Kennedy Library in Boston also has a segment of the Berlin Wall. John F. Kennedy is famous, of course, for his visit to the Wall just after it was built, when he said, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” When the Wall went up, Kennedy and the other Western leaders said they were outraged, but, as the late historian Tony Judt explained, “Behind the scenes many Western leaders were secretly relieved.” Berlin had been the focus of official anxiety and unsuccessful diplomacy for three years. The United States was committed to defending West Berlin from Soviet attack—but “whatever was said in public, few Western politicians could seriously imagine asking their soldiers to ‘die for Berlin.’” Kennedy himself said in private, “A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.” That fact is missing from virtually every exhibit about the Berlin Wall.

There’s a segment of the Wall at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, but according to the Reaganites, Nixon doesn’t merit any credit for its fall, because he pursued détente with the Soviet Union rather than victory.

* * *

The George H.W. Bush Library in College Station, Texas, has outdone all the other presidential libraries. The Wall came down during Bush’s presidency, and the entrance to his library displays a monumental bronze statue—thirty feet long and weighing seven tons—of five horses jumping over the rubble of the Wall. The sculptor, Veryl Goodnight, has explained that “the horses simply represent humanity and the sculpture represents a victory of the human spirit.” He says the sculpture received the CIA’s Agency Seal Medallion for “Best Artistic Expression of the end of the Cold War.” The text at the Bush library says nothing about Ronald Reagan; instead, it claims that “George Bush was very instrumental in…the coming down of the Berlin Wall.” But in fact, the Bush administration was completely surprised by the events in Berlin.

Other pieces of the Wall can be found all over the place. In midtown Manhattan, there are five segments in a little plaza on Fifty-third Street between Fifth and Madison avenues. It was sold by the East German government in its last days to Jerry Speyer of Tishman Speyer Properties, the real estate giant that owns the plaza. Tishman Speyer says its art collection, including the Wall segment, “speaks to us of the complexities and ambiguities of life and does so with a passion that is unparalleled.” The complexities and ambiguities do not include Ronald Reagan, and the plaque at the site says merely: “These five original sections of the Berlin Wall marked the border between East Berlin and West Berlin from 1961–1989”—a border apparently like any other.

There’s a Wall segment at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, where Churchill gave his “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946. There’s one at Universal CityWalk in Orlando, Florida, outside the Hard Rock Cafe. There’s one inside an elevated train station in Chicago. And there’s a really big one at the Newseum in Washington, DC.

The Reagan Library in Simi Valley is the nation’s central place for commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall. A segment of it, three and a half feet wide, ten feet high and weighing 6,000 pounds, is displayed outdoors on a terrace. The marker doesn’t tell you much about the Wall or Reagan, but it does say the display here was “made possible through the generosity of Carl and Margaret Karcher.” Karcher was not only the founder of a major American fast food chain; he was a member of the John Birch Society and a financial supporter of California’s Briggs Initiative, the 1978 proposition that would have required the firing of all gays and lesbians from employment as public school teachers. Even Reagan opposed it, and it didn’t pass. The most popular Wall exhibit at the Reagan Library used to be the Checkpoint Charlie replica, which included not only a mannequin of an East German guard but one of a “resolute” US Army MP standing in front of a huge American flag and a sign that said “Achtung! You are leaving the American sector.” On the other side of the gate was a gigantic Soviet flag and the East German border guard, who stood “menacingly,” according to the pocket guide. It was a popular background for family photos— many are posted online at personal websites. When I asked a couple of teenagers whether the East German mannequin looked menacing to them, they told me “not really.” Apparently , they are used to much more demonic villains.

The Wall text here declared, “From 1961 to 1989, the Soviet goal was clear: to ‘bury’ the decent and free democracies of the West in the name of Communism.” Actually, no legitimate historian today thinks that was the Soviet goal. Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 statement “We will bury you” referred to economic competition, not military conquest, and the Soviet military strategy regarding the United States was increasingly cautious and defensive after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and especially after détente began in 1971.

Next we were told that “the crimes of Communist regimes against civilians resulted in the deaths of 100 million people.” That figure, asserted in 1997 by the French editor of The Black Book of Communism, has been discredited. Even the authors of the book’s two key chapters, on Russia and China, disagreed so strongly with the editor’s numbers that they publicly disputed them. Finally, “The Cold War ended when the Soviet Union finally heeded Ronald Reagan’s demand to ‘tear down this wall.’” That was the message of the Reagan Library exhibit, in a nutshell: Reagan told them to do it, and they did. But this Checkpoint Charlie exhibit is gone—replaced this past spring by a new display about how you can join the Secret Service. When I asked a curator why, I was told simply, “It was time for a change.”

* * *

It’s worth noting that it’s not just the right that found the Berlin Wall a potent symbol of an abhorrent system. John le Carré, the bestselling spy novelist—and a leftist who wrote a scathing critique of US and British policy on the eve of the Iraq War—reminisced in 1989 about standing at the Wall “as soon as it started going up” and staring at “the weasel faces of the brainwashed little thugs who guarded the Kremlin’s latest battlement.” He said he “felt nothing but disgust and terror, which was exactly what I was supposed to feel: the Wall was perfect theatre as well as a perfect symbol of the monstrosity of ideology gone mad.” And Chalmers Johnson, the late historian, critic of American empire and Nation contributor, described the fall of the Berlin Wall as “one of the grandest developments in modern history.”

In 2009, on the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall, a commemorative “art event” was held in Los Angeles, not far from the Reagan Library. The event, described as “the most ambitious commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany,” was staged across the street from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art by the Wende Museum, a wonderful repository of artifacts from East German daily life. The event came in two parts. One was “The Wall Along Wilshire,” segments of the real Wall billed as “the longest stretch of the Berlin Wall in the world outside of Berlin.” These are still on indefinite display. The other part of the Wende commemoration was “The Wall Across Wilshire,” an event in which sixty feet of “specially-constructed material” representing the Wall was erected that blocked the street, stopping traffic for three hours. At midnight on November 8, 2009, selected segments of it were destroyed by invited guests and a wild crowd. A street party followed. The 1,200-word press release didn’t mention Ronald Reagan.

The art part of the Wende Museum project consisted of commissions to artists to paint the two walls with images expressing “their creative response to the Walls in our lives.” Among the artists selected were Shepard Fairey, who did the iconic Obama “Hope” poster, and the French muralist Thierry Noir. In interviews with the Los Angeles Times, Fairey said his painting was an “antiwar, anti-containment piece” that drew a parallel to the separation wall in Palestine. Noir said his painting drew an analogy between the Berlin Wall and the border wall between the United States and Mexico—the point being, he said, that “every wall is not built forever.”

So, at the biggest American celebration of the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, artists said the wall that separated communism and freedom in Berlin is like the wall separating Israel and Palestine and the one separating the United States and Mexico. The Berlin Wall prevented victims of communism from reaching freedom in the West, the way the Israeli wall prevents victims of Zionism from returning to their homes in Palestine; the way the US border wall prevents Mexicans from entering their historic territory. That’s the meaning of the fall of the Berlin Wall “in our lives” today, at least according to “the most ambitious” twentieth-anniversary commemoration of the fall of the Wall outside Germany. Back at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, one can only imagine the reaction to the diversity of these public commemorations—virtually none of which celebrate Reagan as the man who brought down the Wall and won the cold war.

Also in this week’s issue, Eric Alterman punctures persistent myths about the Cuban missile crisis.

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