Study Guide

Tear Down This Wall Historical Context

By Ronald Reagan

Historical Context

In August of 1961, a week after Six Flags over Texas opened, the people of Berlin woke up to find a wall being built literally right in the middle of their city.

…which is far less cool than getting a Six Flags.

This was troubling for sure, but it wasn't the Soviets' first attempt to keep the Alliance-supported West separated from the communist East.

Let's back up for a sec. In 1730, King Frederick William I built what was known as the Berlin Customs Wall. He said it was to make sure imports were getting taxed and that Berlin was protected from its enemies…but he also ordered his soldiers to shoot any would-be deserters who tried to escape. The wall was brought down by 1860. We're just saying: Berlin was no stranger to walls.

Anyway, back to the 20th century.

When Germany was defeated after WWII—which: hecky yes, that was a close one—the entire country was divided between the Allied Forces. The U.S. got a chunk and so did Great Britain, France, and the U.S.S.R. To make things even more complicated, they also divided up the capital, Berlin, into four sections.

But once America, the U.K., and France stopped being so friendly with Uncle Joe (Stalin), this division started making life a wee bit complicated in ol' Deutschland.

Since 1946, it had been getting harder and harder to get back and forth between the Eastern and Western sides of the country. First there were just checkpoints, then people had to get papers and passes and stuff to cross, and then each side started using different currency, which was a huge pain. Then there was a blockade in 1948 that ended with the official splitting-in-two of Germany in 1949.

By 1952, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin was the only way to get back and forth between the German Democratic Republic (a.k.a. East Germany) and the Federal Republic of Germany (a.k.a. West Germany). By the end of 1957, people couldn't leave East Germany at all, unless they had special permission. If they did try to bail, they were thrown in the slammer for up to three years…if they weren't killed trying to escape.

And when that didn't work, and when East Germans were still leaving in droves, those crafty Soviets just built a dang wall.

What Was the Point?

But why? Why even try to keep everyone separated in the first place?

Well, the Soviets claimed they wanted to make sure Western free agents weren't wandering around infiltrating their communist lair with their Nazi ways. But really, East Germans were escaping to the West en masse, to the tune of 1,500 people every day, taking their brains and know-how with them, and East Germany was kind of in trouble because of it.

Imagine if every doctor, academic, engineer, and every other productive member of society suddenly decided to bail from the U.S. and take up residence in Mexico. Bad news for the economy…and for anyone who wanted something healed, learned, or built.

Anyway, despite Soviet words to the contrary, the Berlin Wall (or the Anti-Fascist Protective Rampart, as it was known on the East side) was built to keep East Germans in, not the other way around. No Western capitalists/fascists were risking death to get into East Germany.

And this wall was no joke either.

It started out as a mere barbed wire fence, but barbed wire just didn't have enough oomph. So in 1962, the Soviets added fun decorative elements like concrete walls and armed guards that really made it pop.

Here's some facts and figures for the numbers people:

  • The wall completely encircled West Berlin, severing streets, subway lines, train lines, buildings, friends, and families. (Source
  • The whole thing was approximately 100 miles long. (Source)
  • It was 11-13 feet high and 28 miles of it went through the urban areas of Berlin. (Source
  • The thing wasn't just made of concrete. It also had something ominously called a "death strip" that was up to 160 yards wide…
  • …and included anti-vehicle trenches… 
  • …guard dog runs
  • ...and trip-wire machine guns. (Source
  • There were 302 guard towers, and they each came complete with their very own armed guard or two. (Source)

On the East side, the city hadn't really been rebuilt at all, so it still looked like a war zone. Food and cash were scarce, but repression wasn't. Media was censored, citizens were spied on by a government looking for those pesky Western infiltrators, and every would-be escapee had to ponder whether getting out was worth possibly getting shot by the guards placed there to "protect" them.

On the West side, the city was getting pretty, thanks to Western aid, and its economy was booming. But even though they had free elections and the support of the West, West Berlin wasn't "free." It was an island of wannabe freedom amid a sea of icky, icky communism.

It's Not the Heat, It's the Humidity

Speaking of icky seas, the worldwide scene wasn't exactly smooth sailing either.

The war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. may have been cold, but they were both involved in some pretty steamy goings-on around the globe.

The United States was the It Kid: rich, smart, good-looking, and popular. The U.S.S.R. was the Magneto to the U.S.'s Charles Xavier, attracting its own crowd of followers and causing some nuke-sized concern among the U.S. and its merry men. Around the world, countries aligned themselves with one side or the other. Some did it because they wanted to, and others did it because they were forced.

This "force" took on several forms, and none of them involved lightsabers.

First were the countries the U.S.S.R. consumed like mini-muffins at a breakfast buffet. After WWII, Soviet head honcho Stalin wanted a "buffer" to protect communist countries from the evil money-grubbing fascists of the West, so once-independent border countries like Hungary and Poland suddenly found themselves absorbed into the Eastern bloc and under Soviet control.

Points to the U.S for not lava-sucking any countries into its borders, but the Americans had their own questionable means of forging alliances.

U.S. foreign policy at the time could essentially be broken down into three words: Anything But Communism. The U.S. supported some iffy governments over the years (check out this guy, for example) because hey, they may have been awful dictatorships, but at least they weren't commies.

Of course, the U.S.S.R. couldn't just chill while that was going on, so they had the backs of anyone who said they were communist.

Between 1945 and 1991, the ideological battle between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. played out all over the world. Hot wars were fought in places like Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Cuba, and Grenada…to name just a few.

Each side engaged in nation-building, propping up governments it liked and supporting take-downs of ones it didn't. While our superpowers didn't lay a hot finger on each other directly, they did spend kajillions of dollars designing scary weapons and building up their arsenals, even going so far as to bring the world to the brink of nuclear war one frightening summer.

Pretty hot stuff for a cold war.

An Actor and a Farmer Walk Into a Bar…

Enter Ronald Reagan, President of the United States, and Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party and leader of the Soviet Union.

These two guys were like raspberries and chocolate: totally different but able to make amazing things happen when they came together. They hailed from different backgrounds and supported opposing political ideologies, but at the end of the day, they were largely responsible for three ginormous accomplishments.

One: they each totally transformed the political landscapes of their home countries before they left office.

Two: they finally allowed the rest of the world to take a small breath of relief by having some real talk about weapons reduction.

And three: they presided over the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.

And what's even cooler? They became buddies.

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