Friday, Sept. 17, 2010

Knocking Down the Wall

By David Luhrssen
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On the morning of Aug. 13, 1961, the people of Berlin awakened to find that a wall had risen overnight across the heart of their city. East Germany’s Communist bosses organized the project with great secrecy in an effort to shut in the citizens of their own capital. One can understand their reasoning while deploring their actions: From 1945-61, 2.5 million East Germans escaped the “workers’ paradise” by simply crossing the border to West Berlin. If the migration continued, East Germany would become a barren land, inhabited only by cops and party functionaries.

The excellent PBS documentary “The Wall: A World Divided” (out on DVD) eschews flashy computer graphics and jump cuts for well-chosen archival footage and an intelligent narration. It tracks the beginning of the end of the Berlin Wall to the prayer groups, peace movements and environmental activism that grew out of Lutheran churches—institutions the Communist regime had written off as irrelevant. But Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who steered the Soviet Bloc toward reform, administered the blow that toppled the Wall, perhaps inadvertently. By withdrawing the threat of violence, the Soviet system collapsed. When protestors surged into the streets in the fall of 1989 and pushed across the Wall, the East German authorities gave way to the unexpected tide of history.

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