The Fall of the BErlin Wall

The Tale of the West

By: Tara Lynch

World War II left Europe as a divided continent. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill referred to the European bisection as an iron curtain, which fell directly through Germany. The Allied Forces took command of the country in order to rebuild the economic landscape as well as repair the physical destruction that occurred in World War I and II. Geographically, Germany was surrounded by Soviet States to the East, such as Czechoslovakia and Poland, and NATO states like France to the West. Originally, the country was divided between the United States, Soviet Union, France and Britain as reparations, but the capitalist countries combined their stake holdings into trizonia, creating East and West Germany. In 1948, the Soviet Union began blockading the entrance to East Germany, cutting off necessary supplies and materials. “Soviets cut transportation, communication, food, and living supplies to the city, expecting the Western powers to give up and leave.” After the Berlin Blockade, Allied forces began bringing goods to East Berlin via an airlift. The Soviets conceded their blockade in 1949, but the border would not stay permeable forever. After thousands of East German citizens fled to West German, the Soviet Union took action in 1961. “Such an exodus worried East Berlin’s leader, Walter Ulbricht, who believed a wall between East and West Berlin would both prevent his citizens from leaving for the West and send a strong message to his capitalist neighbor… The border that had once been set by World War II’s Allied leaders for the welfare of Berlin, now stood as concrete and barbed wire, separating a community.” In under 20 years, Germany was physically divided leading to decades of political, social and economic unrest. 

 

In the late 1980s, USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev enacted progressive policies that allow for more permeability in the Soviet states: “glasnost, which released emigration controls and supported human rights, and perestroika, which increased the citizens’ role in government, helped the Soviet bloc countries that were flailing in crumbled economies.” In 1989, the German Democratic Republic announced the borders with the German Federal Republic would be opened. This new policy became the foundation for German reunification. “The euphoria captured by the world's media on 9-10 November 1989 had at the time nothing to do with German unification in the minds of the participants. Only later were events concertinaed, with stories constructed in such a way as to create a seamless narrative of inevitability in which unification and the 'fall of the Wall' became so closely linked as to be virtually synonymous, with popular anticommunist revolutionary action rather than US-dominated global geopolitics presented as its chief cause.” The fall of the Berlin wall was arguably one of the biggest media stories in 1989 and is remembered as one of the first signs of communist defeat. It can be inferred that there were severe growing pains for East German citizens who were expected to assimilate to West German culture, political structure and economic landscape, but some media portrayed this event as a victory against an enemy, which downplayed the severity of the situation.

 

The fall of the wall presented many economic and political challenges for Germany, as the East was not as modernized as the West and capitalist ideologies were being implemented in a traditionally communist area. “In the West, the nefarious individual and collective consequences of Westernisation for millions of men, women and children in the former Eastern Bloc were usually downplayed or ignored. Yet for millions in these regions, the 1990s brought insecurity, economic hardship, in many cases real poverty with social, health and education services in free fall, and even, as in Chechnya, war of unrestrained barbarity.” The American and West German media propagandized the fall of the Berlin Wall in order to sell nationalistic ideologies to the Western public while downplaying the severity of the assimilation process.

 

Defeating the Enemy: Anti-Communism in U.S. Media

 

The U.S. government was preaching anti-communism for decades during the Cold War, which influenced the media’s representation of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The Reagan Administration took a hard stance against the Soviet Union and their allies. “In ‘the speech,’ [State of the Union address 1985] as it became known, Reagan asserted that ‘we are at war with the most dangerous enemy ever known to man.’” The language used here in Reagan’s 1985 State of the Union fueled the American media’s reporting during the fall of the wall four years later as the industry was more focused on the fall of communism than the effects of reunification on the German people. During the late 1980s, many other communist regimes still existed in the world including China, Laos, and Cuba. The Soviet Union did not fully dissolve until the early 1990s, thus the media spread a false sense of “defeating the enemy”. “What is remembered by most as the 'fall' of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 is now habitually confused in popular memory with what is misleadingly known as German reunification, and its images are simplistically retained in many minds as marking the moment when the 'Cold War' ended.” The “mass media” in the United States created a “happily ever after” scenario that was highly unlikely due to the extreme economic, political and social differences in the countries. There seemed to be little mention of the continued communist strongholds throughout the world. It was the Berlin Wall; however, that served as the symbol of the fall of communism. 

 

CNN’s coverage included live on the ground reporting with the several thousand West Germans who were celebrating reunification. The imagery in itself does not paint a full picture of what the country believed nor the hardships that East Germans were about to face as they assimilated into a capitalist, West German economy. “Publics - especially those personally affected - became aware of severe economic difficulties and major socio-political conflicts associated with 'transition' and 'adaptation' to 'Western structures' in the former East. These, however, could be portrayed - especially to those not personally affected - as 'teething problems'.” American reporters in West Germany were only focused on the defeat of communism and joy of the German people during 1989. As seen in the reporting, East Germany was struggling to assimilate and these issues were not seen as systemic problems that would affect the area for years. “They [the problems] were blamed on vestiges of old 'Communist' mentality, on perceived historic eastern European and Russian antidemocratic predilections, or on 'new nationalisms'. Such catastrophes were seldom blamed on the ruthless way in which Western elites pressed home their victory, or on their unscrupulous exploitation of the new power relations for profit and advantage.” CNN’s correspondents emphasized the amount of people celebrating the reunification and the fall of the Iron Curtain, impressing the Western victory on their viewers. They sold this idea that the city came together with “bursts of emotion”, but that was a myth, as there were many hardships to overcome. 

 

NBC News correspondent Tom Brokaw was also reporting live on the scene when German officials announced the free travel policy. He reported that East Germany could no longer contain its people and that the freedom to travel was a primary right to everyone in the world. This appealed to Americanism that was flowing through the media during this time. It was understood that the Americans played a big role in this destruction of communism, when in fact Mikhail Gorbachov was a more liberal leader who emphasized a more democratic agenda. By using terms like “freedom” and “primary right”, the American audience was led to believe the fall of the wall was beneficial for the East Germans and what they wanted. In reality, the East Germans were not totally in favor of a new western agenda. “The majority of them voted in 1990 for Western solutions in the Western-style elections which they had so wanted, but it emerges, when one looks more precisely at the circumstances, and at the manipulation that characterised their choice, that they were misled and deceived. There were moments of genuine popular euphoria surrounding the demise of the old regime in the GDR, but the subsequent collapse into the seemingly friendly arms of the West was rapidly revealed as a delusion, which had seduced them into abandonment of all control over their destiny...” Here, it can be seen the initial American media coverage did not portray these ideals and that German reunification was not seen as an entirely positive movement. 

 

The American media focused on the announcement and idea of free travel rather than what was actually happening on the ground. As people began trying to cross over the border, many East German agents were proceeding as normal and stopping people from crossing. “Over the next several hours, thousands of East Berliners gathered at the checkpoints along the wall. Since the country’s leaders hadn’t intended to completely open the border, the supervisors at the crossing points had received no new orders.” There was a clear disconnect between what was reported and what was actually happening. People were able to cross between sides, but many returned to East Germany because they had established their lives there. There was not a mass exodus of people from East Germany to live in the West. While this aspect was reported, the American media made it seem as though the transition would be fairly easy. “And for many Germans, particularly from the East, unification proved more challenging than expected, with high levels of unemployment and accompanying resentment in the 1990s and beyond.” The wall was not fully demolished until 1990, even though the announcement was in November of 1989. American media celebrated this date as the symbol of German reunification and the end of communism in Europe, despite other nations like Czechoslovakia and Hungary remaining communist. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the Soviet Union officially fell leaving former Soviet states as free nations. 

 

Convincing Germans About Reunification

 

The German media took a similar approach to the American media, portraying the reunification process as positive and patriotic. In the The Last Days of Unity, a documentary which was part of the Protocol of a German Revolution that aired on Spiegel TV, the documentarians combine the past with the present. The series served as a means of propaganda to encourage nationalism in a newly unified country. Throughout the first sections of the documentary, there are many references to the German flag, the eagle as the national symbol and the unification of the military and police. It also shows the Brandenburg gate and describes that the dust from East Germany has been swept away and the gate is shining again. The documentary created a united mentality to distract Germans from the problem that would ensue after unifying. “While these three 90 minute tapes purport to serve the documentary function of providing an accessible, more detailed account of the dramatic events of the period than other parts of the media, they are, in fact, primarily propaganda, deeply soaked in pro-unification newstoriography, symbolism of German nationalism, and the discourse of inevitability, even destiny.” It can be inferred that the documentary, which emphasizes the strength and power of the German people, serves the same function as Nazi propaganda from decades ago. The party tried to convince people they were the superior force in World War II by showing their military strength and political power. Here, Spiegel TV is doing the same thing, demonstrating political unity, nationalism and social equality between the East and the West. “It is a hurriedly compiled and extremely tendentious example, in terms of structure, content and text, of the transformation of biased news and reportage material into a distorted history, and can only be seen as an exercise in selective memory making, wearing a thin disguise of objectivity.” The media has served as a means to spread propagandistic messaging to the public for centuries and the Nazi party is just one example of this. Nationalism is expressed in journalism to sell the product whether that be television commercials, newspapers, etc. By exploiting the public’s emotional response to the fall of the wall, the media was able to repair Germany’s image and show their people and the world that the country had changed.

 

Other West German media outlets continued to propagandize the reunification process. “The politicizing of the message as a result led to a significant deformation of the image of social reality as presented (by the media), including the creation of a series of information gaps concerning essential problems, as seen from a multi-level viewpoint with respect to the future reunification.” The German media tried to repair the image of the country by explaining the positive aspects of reunification, even though they were sometimes over exaggerated. Die Zeit is a newspaper in Hamburg, Germany and in an article written in 1989 they described the joy in the immediate aftermath of the announcement of reunification. “From the other side there were floodlights, there was singing, people were sitting on the wall. Many East Berliners had also moved to the other side of the Brandenburg Gate that evening. One of them told me the next day that the mood was boisterous, relaxed, cheerful. Until later some of them hacked into the Wall. Water cannons were used on the eastern side. The Dresden woman shouted: ‘Don't ruin the democracy we've already created here so far!’” They briefly addressed the possible downsides to reunification, but the story was spun to share positive, nationalistic ideologies during the time. “Not everyone is so optimistic. Professor Peter Krüger of the Hochschule für Ökonomie in East Berlin fears the collapse of the GDR mark due to the opening of the Wall, the complete sell-out of the GDR; he calls for a price and currency reform. Some people are worried that what they have painstakingly saved over the years will be lost through a devaluation of money.” The persuasion of the mass media was extremely effective in selling the idea of reunification to both East and West Germany. The East Germans were enamored with the possibility the West provided. The West Germans were ecstatic to end the oppression in their country. The idea of reunification manifested as an ideal possibility in the media, thus suggesting many of the past problems the country faced would disappear. This was not the reality, thus the anti-communist, nationalistic mentality of the German media was the same as other media outlets in the United States. 

 

Victor's Story Leads to International Acceptance

 

German and American media attempted to influence the public to believe German reunification and the fall of the Berlin wall symbolized a return to normal for the country, which had been beaten and battered throughout the twentieth century. After the division of the country by the Soviet Union, United States, France and Britain, the Western, capitalist society was rebuilt based on western structures; however the East remained living in the shadows of the past, as their landscape was not rebuilt as quickly nor were there adequate supplies for the citizens. The fall of the wall was portrayed as an emotional reunion for the nation. It should be acknowledged that such a reunion is emotional and exciting for citizens, but the media failed to represent the hardships for the East Germans. They continued to perpetuate anti-communist ideologies and created in and out groups. West Germany and its Allies were welcoming in those that were stuck in communist states, almost like a big brother little brother relationship. The Berlin Wall collapse was a photo opportunity to show that the common enemy was defeated. “Germany, particularly Berlin with its Wall, the most powerful and photogenic symbol of 'Cold War' insanity, and its wealth of stories of divided families and daring escapes or escape attempts, was the place on which world media interest, and debate (such as it was) was most firmly focused.” The media appealed to the emotions of the Westerners, saying they did a good thing by influencing the Soviet Union and East Germany to relax their orders and allow for free migration, leading to reunification. This messaging fell in line with other media coverage in American history that suggested the United States was the world’s policeman and it was their job to protect all people fighting for democracy. “The alternative to the disingenuous hegemonic 'people power' narrative is one which sees some degree of public manipulation - largely via the media - playing a role in the eventual rush to unification, and in its international acceptance.” The public was convinced the fight was over when the Berlin Wall fell, but in fact it was just beginning. Western media suggested the war against communism was over and thus concern about Germany was over. New concerns were developing and reunification may not have been in the best interest for the entire country. 

 

The American and German media shared the same ideologies in different ways. The United States continued to infiltrate the airwaves and papers with anti-communist messaging, ultimately invoking communist fear and sympathy for the East Germans in the public. West German media propagated nationalistic ideology to convince the capitalist society reunification would recover Germany’s image and put them back on the world’s stage. The media, especially after the advent of the 24-hour news cycle in the late 1970s, blasted their messaging to the world, making the West the victors once again.

 

 

Work Cited: 

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  2. Brokaw, Tom “Nov. 9, 1989: Tom Brokaw Reports from the Berlin Wall.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 3 Oct. 2014, www.nbcnews.com/video/brokaw-reports-from-the-berlin-wall-337455683615.

  3. Brokaw, Tom. “Op-Classic, 1989: Freedom Danced Before My Eyes.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Nov. 2009, archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/ref/opinion/08opclassic-brokaw.html?_r=0&ref=global-home.

  4. “Die Letzten Tage Bis Zur Einheit .” Spiegel TV, 1990. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xztowAwqexI 

  5.  Harrison, Hope M. “Five Myths about the Berlin Wall.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 30 Oct. 2014, www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/five-myths-about-the-berlin-wall/2014/10/30/f6cf1bc4-5df7-11e4-9f3a-7e28799e0549_story.html.

  6. Marlies Menge, Von. “ZEIT ONLINE.” ZEIT ONLINE | Lesen Sie Zeit.de Mit Werbung Oder ImPUR-Abo. Sie Haben Die Wahl., 17 Nov. 1989, www.zeit.de/1989/47/wo-gehts-hier-in-den-westen/seite-3.

  7. Rosenberg, Matt. “List of All the Communist Countries in the World.” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 11 Apr. 2020, www.thoughtco.com/communist-countries-overview-1435178.

  8.  Theobald, John. The Media and the Making of History, Taylor & Francis Group, 2004. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ithaca-ebooks/detail.action?docID=4817061.

  9. Pach, Chester. “The Reagan Doctrine: Principle, Pragmatism, and Policy.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 1, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Mar. 2006, pp. 75–88, doi:10.1111/j.1741-5705.2006.00288.x.

  10. Szymanska, Agnieszka. “Do the Media Really Support the German Reunification? The Content of the German Mainstream Influential Press During the Period of the East German Breakthrough and 20 Years Later .” Jagiellonian University in Krakow, 2010. 

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