August 13, 1961: The Berlin Wall’s 50th anniversary

August keeps handing us these dates:  How should the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall be remembered?

AP reports in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that the current mayor of Berlin said we must use the Wall to remember that we must stand up for democracy.  Ceremonies in Berlin marked the anniversary and the creation of a new museum there.  I wrote before:

August 13 . . . [marks the 50th] “anniversary” of the erection of the Berlin Wall, the totem of the Cold War that came down in 1989, pushing the end of the Cold War. Residents of Berlin awoke on this day in 1961 to find the communist government of East Germany erecting what would become a 96-mile wall around the “western quarters” of the city — not so much to lay siege to the westerners (that had been tried in 1948, frustrated by the Berlin Airlift) as to keep easterners from “defecting” to the West. The Brandenburg Gate was closed on August 14, and all crossing points were closed on August 26.

From 1961 through 1991 1989, teachers could use the Berlin wall as a simple and clear symbol for the differences between the communist Eastern Bloc, the Soviet Union and her satellite states, and the free West, which included most of the land mass of Germany, England, France, Italy, the United States and other free-market nations — the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries. I suspect most high school kids today know very little about the Wall, why it was there, and what its destruction meant, politically.

This era of history is generally neglected in high school. Many courses fail to go past World War II; in many courses the Cold War is in the curriculum sequenced after the ACT, SAT and state graduation examinations, so students and teachers have tuned out.

But the Wall certain had a sense of drama to it that should make for good lessons. When I visited the wall, in early 1988, late at night, there were eight fresh wreaths honoring eight people who had died trying to cross the Wall in the previous few weeks (in some places it was really a series of walls with space in between to make it easier for the East German guards to shoot people trying to escape) — it’s an image I never forget. Within a year after that, East Germans could travel through Hungary to visit the West, and many “forgot” to return. Within 18 months the wall itself was breached.

The Wall was a great backdrop for speeches, too — President John F. Kennedy visited Berlin in June 1963, and expressed his solidarity with the walled-in people of both West and East Berlin, with the memorable phrase, “Ich bin ein Berliner, which produced astounding cheers from the tens of thousands who came to hear him. There are a few German-to-English translators who argue that some of the reaction was due to the fact that “Berliner” is also an idiomatic phrase in Berlin for a bakery confection like a jelly doughnut — so Kennedy’s words were a double entendre that could mean either “I am a citizen of Berlin,” or “I am a jelly doughnut.”  [Be sure to see the comments . . .  from Vince Treacy (9/28/2010).]  Ronald Reagan went to the same place Kennedy spoke to the Berlin Wall, too, to the Brandenburg Gate, in his famous June 1987 speech which included a plea to the Soviet Union’s Premier Mikhail Gorbachev: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

What do we do appropriately with such memory?

What does the Berlin Wall, and its demise, mean to us today?  What should it mean?

4 Responses to August 13, 1961: The Berlin Wall’s 50th anniversary

  1. […] “Berlin Wall’s 50th anniversary” […]


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Thanks for the reminder, the history and the good explanation, vince.


  3. Vince Treacy says:

    This weekend I spoke to a German who moved to Berlin from elsewhere in Germany. He remarked that he had to adjust to the local terminology. He found that a “Berliner” is NOT a jelly doughnut in Berlin itself. He could no longer ask for a Berliner when he wanted a jelly doughnut, because they do not use the term, and instead use the word pfannkueche.

    Now, anywhere outside Berlin a pfannkkueche is just what it sounds like — a pancake. But in Berlin, it is a jelly doughnut. No one born and raised in Berlin would have thought that Kennedy had called himself a jelly doughnut in has speech at city hall (not Brandenburg), because they never used the word “Berliner” for that special confection.

    So let’s repeat it just one more time. If a Berliner wants a jelly doughnut, she asks for a pfannkueche. If she wanted to say that she is a jelly doughnut, then she would say “Ich bin ein pfannkueche.”

    If, on the other hand, a Berliner wants to say that I am a proud and free resident and citizen of Berlin, he says:

    “Ich bin ein Berliner!!”


  4. Ellie says:

    Picking nits here, but those translators are incorrect. Kennedy’s speech was written with the assistance of Robert Lochner who was, in fact, born in Berlin and wrote that line. Furthermore, Lochner claims to have helped President Kennedy practice saying it. Yes, a Berliner is a jelly doughnut, but that doesn’t mean anyone thought he was saying he was a jelly doughnut in the context in which it was said. The laughter from the audience comes after he thanks the interpreter for translating his German, not because of any pastry item.

    It was a truly wonderful thing to have that wall come down, and I would hope any European or American history course would include a study on just what it was to have had it there in the first place and how many died trying to cross to freedom.


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