Study Guide

Tear Down This Wall Themes

By Ronald Reagan

  • Freedom and Tyranny

    Which provocative little noun steals the spotlight in this speech? That's right: "freedom." Freedom, freedom, freedom. Unless we have absolutely zero understanding of the English language, it's made pretty clear to us right from the get-go that Ronald Reagan is talkin' 'bout freedom in his "Speech at the Berlin Wall." He even refers to West Berlin as a free city, part of a "strong, free world in the West" (32).

    Okay, we get it, the West is free.

    But those totalitarian tyrants on the East side ain't free, Reagan tells us. They block foreign media broadcasts. Businesses are controlled by the government. They built a freedom-killing wall around West Berlin. Those backwards silly-heads even consider "symbols of love and of worship an affront" (120).

    Bottom line: if it's freedom you want, the West has it and the East doesn't.

    Questions About Freedom and Tyranny

    1. Why was "freedom" such an appealing concept for the people of Berlin?
    2. What might the East say about basically being called freedom-haters?
    3. How can Reagan refer to West Berlin as "free" when it has a wall built around it?
    4. According to Reagan, what role does freedom play in economic security?

    Chew on This

    Reagan did an awesome job describing why Western freedom is so great, and why the East should ditch that whole tyrannical communism thing and get on board.

    Reagan's definition of freedom is based on Western ideals and is therefore inherently flawed; the East has a much better idea of what freedom really is.

  • Contrasting Regions: The East and the West

    Considering that the official name of this speech is "Remarks on East-West Relations at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin," it's not really too big of a stretch to conclude that it deals with…East-West relations.

    Now that we've dropped that bomb, prepare for another one:

    When Reagan talks about improving the relationship between the East and West, he never once says that the West should become more like the East. Nope, not even a little bit. Instead, the best way for the East and West to get their kumbaya on is for the East to become more like the West.

    Basically, Reagan is saying, "It's not me, it's you."

    Questions About Contrasting Regions: The East and the West

    1. Obviously not every Western country was identical and not every Eastern country was identical. What's the benefit of sticking to the more general East and West descriptors?
    2. Which of your favorite love songs best captures Ronnie's feelings about the East? Why?
    3. How does Reagan use peer pressure to back up his words?

    Chew on This

    The U.S. is being kind of bratty, thinking that the East has to change to meet some mainstream idea of what a good country looks like; it's not like the West is perfect anyway.

    It's about time someone told the East what's up instead of being all political and beating around the bush: they need to bring their backwards selves into the future, and the West is the future.

  • Identity

    After all that had gone on over the last forty years, a lot of Germans found themselves asking, "Who am I?" Reagan uses this speech to try to help answer that question—at least for the Western part of the country—but first, let's make it clear what Germany was not.

    Germany was not the winning team. They'd pretty much had their butts handed to them in both world wars and were now being supervised by the kids they'd tried to bully.

    Germany was not a superpower. The post-WWII international bigwigs made sure of that after the whole Nazis-and-death-camps fiasco. No way was Germany getting all powerful again.

    Also, for the last forty years or so, Germany was not one country. It was two countries, divided by walls both physical and ideological.

    So how does Reagan attempt to give these poor confused people a sense of identity in his "Speech at the Berlin Wall"? By aligning them with the West, of course.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How might Germans' sense of identity be different if they'd won World War II?
    2. Why did the Soviet Union and the Allies seize control of Germany in the first place? Why couldn't they just be all, "Don't do that again," and let it go?
    3. Should the U.S. have taken a more aggressive approach toward destroying the Berlin Wall and reunifying the German people?

    Chew on This

    It's Germany's own fault they're all split up; they should've kept Hitler from going bonkers and trying to take over the world.

    It's the West's moral responsibility to help Germany come to terms with its post-war situation and help them find footing in this new international atmosphere.

  • Warfare

    Arms races are like potentially deadly games of One-Up. One side gets something cool, and the other side is all, "Oh yeah? Well check out what we can do." And then the first country is like, "Well, we can do that too—but better." And thus it continues, until someone somewhere realizes that maybe this is all getting a little too scary and calls a time-out.

    Because One-Up is fine and dandy when we're comparing stories of strange things we've done or cool places we've gone, but it's a little less cool when we're talking about who can annihilate the earth's population faster.

    During the Cold War, the SALT, NATO, and Geneva talks Reagan references in "Speech at the Berlin Wall" were the arms race time-outs. (We've got to hand it to the world's leaders for realizing that the arms race game needed some time-outs.)

    Questions About Warfare

    1. According to Reagan, how do weapons help keep the peace?
    2. How do you think Reagan's Western audience responded to Reagan's pledge that the United States would "maintain the capacity to deter Soviet aggression at any level at which it might occur" (78)? Do you think his Eastern audience had the same reaction?
    3. How have the weapons arsenals of the U.S. and the former U.S.S.R. changed since 1987?
    4. The U.S.'s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was commonly referred to as "Star Wars." Why?

    Chew on This

    War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.

    War is a necessary evil, and having the right weapons is key.

  • Perseverance

    When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.

    When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

    You gotta keep on keepin' on.

    There are a million clichés about hanging in there, sticking it out, gritting your teeth, etc., etc., etc. What are they all talking about? Perseverance. In his "Speech at the Berlin Wall," Reagan says that Berliners, Germans, and their Western buddies around the globe are all persevering: they're in a terrible situation but they're getting through it, making the most of it, and thriving in spite of everything going on around them.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. What's the difference between perseverance and stubbornness?
    2. Could the Soviet Union have made a similar speech lauding the perseverance of the East? Do you think it would have been a more or less effective appeal than Reagan's?
    3. Do you think the existence of the Berlin Wall made it easier or harder for each side to hold tight to its own beliefs and ideologies?

    Chew on This

    Sticking to their guns, literally and figuratively, is why West Germany and West Berlin didn't get taken over by the communists.

    Berlin and Germany would be much better off—and probably a lot less stressed out—if they'd just backed down and allowed the Soviets to take over.