Ambassador Richard Burt reflects on the impact of Ronald Reagan’s 1987 Speech in Berlin.
Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is tempting to view the Cold War confrontation over Berlin as pretty cut-and-dried: surrounded by a hostile East Germany and more than 300,000 Red Army soldiers, a democratic West Berlin was kept alive by politico-military commitments provided by West Germany’s three principal allies: Britain, France and the United States.
By the mid-1980s, however, the reality was more complex. In both West Berlin and the Federal Republic, Germans were beginning to suffer from a certain degree of Cold War “battle fatigue.” In West Germany, politicians in Bonn complained about the burden of hosting hundreds of thousands of allied troops and wondered how long Germany’s division would drag on.
Leaders of the new Green Party (as well as some in other parties) suggested that there was an American-Soviet “conspiracy” to keep Germany divided. More moderate German leaders didn’t accept this line, but increasingly argued that the early Cold War goal of German reunification – achieved through military strength and political unity with the West – was unrealistic.
Rather than reunification, it had become fashionable in West German political circles to talk about accepting the division of Germany, but then working to “overcome” it by seeking stronger political and economic ties with the East. Needless to say, this line of thinking was welcome in the economically uncompetitive German Democratic Republic (GDR), which was continually on the lookout for ways to extort hard currency and modern technology from the West.
These political currents were also felt in West Berlin, where the British, French and U.S. “occupation” presence were not only viewed by some as an anachronism, but also an impediment to closer ties to the GDR authorities.
Thus, it was against this political backdrop that, in 1987, Berlin prepared to celebrate its 750th anniversary. To the democratically elected Berlin Senate, the anniversary was an opportunity to raise the city’s international profile. But for me and my British and French ambassadorial colleagues, the anniversary served an additional purpose: to underscore the allies’ continuing commitment to freedom in West Berlin and the continuing relevance of the mission of reunification – of Berlin and Germany as a whole. As a result, we worked together with our home governments to gain approval for visits from Queen Elizabeth, Francois Mitterrand, and Ronald Reagan during the course of the year.
We all had high hopes for the Reagan visit. His earlier visit, in 1985, to the Federal Republic had been marred by the much-publicized Bitburg controversy, in which the White House learned, at the last minute, that the President would participate in a ceremony at a cemetery where Waffen SS troops were buried. But Berlin provided the perfect backdrop for Reagan and his political philosophy. Working closely with the excellent White House advance team, the U.S. Embassy in Bonn and the U.S. Mission in Berlin (led by the talented John Kornblum) produced a scenario that focused on a major presidential speech that would rival John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” address in 1961.
The setting could not have been better. Standing before a crowd of several hundred thousand Berliners, and with the Berlin Wall and the Brandenburg Gate at his back, Reagan gave the speech of his career.
It was a beautiful June day and the crowd was in a good mood. He talked abut the human values that a free Berlin and a democratic Federal Republic symbolized, and then clearly connected with his audience when he described his hopes for making headway in East-West relations in his negotiations with the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. He then threw down the gauntlet, saying that if the Soviet leadership was really interested in ending the Cold War, it needed to demonstrate this through concrete action: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
The speech was a big hit with his audience (and back home in the United States). The reaction of the German political elite was more complicated. On the day of the speech, the Mayor of West Berlin, Eberhard Diepgen, wanted President Reagan’s challenge to Gorbachev removed from the speech, on the grounds that it could “complicate” relations with East Berlin. Several West German politicians, meanwhile, saw Reagan’s statement as merely political rhetoric.
In the longer term, however, the speech had a significant, strategic impact. As he had done so many times in the United States, Reagan went over the heads of the German political elite, and refurbished America’s link with the people of Berlin and Germany as a whole, both East and West. As always, his message was clear and simple: the Wall was a human atrocity and the Russians bore ultimate responsibility for it.
West German views of Reagan and the “speech” began to change as they watched him achieve arms control and other agreements with Moscow, and as Gorbachev’s reform process went forward. While many in Bonn had seen Reagan’s “freedom agenda” as warmed-over Cold War rhetoric, they gradually began to understand that it resonated throughout Eastern Europe. It was this growing desire for self-determination that led Gorbachev, in 1989, to effectively renounce the Brezhnev Doctrine that, in turn, paved the way for the fall of the Wall and the GDR.
In the end, then, Gorbachev did help “tear” down the Berlin Wall and both he and Ronald Reagan deserve much of the credit.
Ambassador Richard Burt served as U.S. Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany from 1985 to 1989. He is an Atlantic Council Board member. This piece is selected from Freedom’s Challenge, an Atlantic Council publication commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.