There’s a framed poster that hangs over my staircase. I bought it thirty-five years ago in a museum gift shop outside Checkpoint Charlie, one of several crossing points between West and East Berlin. Berlin was a divided city after Germany’s defeat in World War II with the Western powers controlling West Berlin and the Soviet Union controlling East Berlin. In August of 1961, the East Germans erected a barbed wire barricade which was to become the Berlin Wall. The wall was actually a series of barbed wire barriers and concrete walls with trenches and guard towers in-between, forming what has been called a “death strip”.
In 1981, twenty years after the construction of the Berlin Wall, I stood before it, standing in the American section at Checkpoint Charlie. I walked right up to the barbed wire and photographed the wall but when I got too close a Communist soldier in a guard tower pivoted and pointed his rifle at me. He was in his 20s, possibly younger than me at the time. I didn’t think he would shoot an American and precipitate an international incident. Then again, young men often don’t think with a broader, mature perspective. He might well have shot me. I took one last picture and backed away. Yet it is an eerie feeling to have been singled out and targeted by a rifleman.
The wall was built to keep East Germans inside East Germany. Despite emigration restrictions, 3.5 million East Germans had defected, crossing into West Germany before the wall was constructed. The initial barriers literally went up overnight. Families in different parts of the city were separated once Berlin became a divided city. Children were separated from their parents. The poster I purchased in the gift shop after my encounter with the Communist guard was of a photograph taken the day after the wall went up. A child, perhaps five years old, stands behind the barbed wire trying to reunite with his family on the other side. A teenaged East German soldier violates his orders not to let anyone cross the border, parting the barbed wire with his bare hands so the boy can crawl through. But he’s not looking at the boy or the sharp barbs cutting into his hands. He’s looking away to his right to see if anyone spots what he’s doing. The photograph doesn’t need any words because the expression on his face tells everything you need to know. His face is contorted in a paroxysm of fear. The stark terror in his eyes is palpable. He knew what he was doing. He knew the risk he was taking.
A museum guide told me the boy made it across to rejoin his family, and that the young soldier was caught and executed. This was what Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was all about. This was why America was the philosophical enemy of the Soviet Union. Freedom was one of America’s most important foundational values. Separating families, preventing citizens from leaving, barbed wire, armed guards, building a border wall, and executing a teenager for letting a little boy rejoin his family – these were antithetical to American values. I bought the poster, framed it, and hung it on my wall above my staircase where I see it several times every day going up and down the stairs. It is a constant reminder that freedom isn’t free, and that many brave individuals risked -- and like that unknown East German soldier -- sacrificed their lives for the freedom of others. It is a reminder not to take for granted the freedom we have enjoyed in this country, which is not universally shared.
Six years after I visited the Berlin Wall a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, called on the leader of the Soviet Union to “tear down this wall”. Two years after that, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.
I pass that poster every time I go downstairs to watch TV. I turn on the news and listen to the current Republican presidential nominee talk about building a wall around our border. It will undoubtedly separate families. Will the wall have barbed wire? Will there be guard towers? I wonder who will guard the wall. Will these guards shoot young children trying to cross the wall to be reunited with their families? Or will they in turn be shot if they aid the children like the brave young East German soldier in the poster? What has happened to our American values that the Republican Party’s battle cry would go from “tear down that wall” to “we’re going to build a wall”? Guard towers and barbed wire are the tools of dictators, Nazis, Communists, and totalitarians. They are not the symbols of freedom and certainly not the symbols of America. In two weeks, Americans will, both individually and collectively, be presented with the opportunity to define or redefine American values. On November 8, the world will be watching.