Berlin Wall at 50: Five Iconic Moments

Just another brick in the wall
Just another brick in the wall

Fifty years ago today, East German construction crews were in the last stages of preparation for building the Berlin Wall. On August 13, they began, instantly giving an incredible propaganda tool to the free world.

The Wall has been down for 22 years and will soon be a faint memory only for geezers. But it provided plenty of iconic moments in its history, from concerts to speeches to movies.

Here are five:

5. The Spy Who Came In From The ColdThe bitter end(ing)

John le Carré's

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

is a masterpiece of the Cold War, a dark and cynical look at the reality of espionage that was the polar opposite of the James Bond world. The movie is a solid adaptation, with Richard Burton giving one of his best performances. The ending, which involves the Wall, is classic.

4. The Wall In ConcertEven it couldn't bring a Pink Floyd reunion

When the Wall came down in 1989, there was only one thing to do:

The Wall

. The massive concert (over a quarter-million attendees) wasn't quite as star-studded as initially planned, but was still a cathartic event for the rockers of Germany. It will likely be the only time the Scorpions and Joni Mitchell share a bill, but never say never. One of the highlights was Van Morrison's "Comfortably Numb," with The Band's Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson singing back-up.

3. JFK's speech"I am a doughnut"

One of the most-remembered moments in John Kennedy's presidency came when he spoke in front of the newly built Wall before a crowd of delirious West Berliners. Kennedy had many talents, but they did not include ease with foreign languages, so he phonetically wrote out and memorized the famous phrase associated with the speech.

Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free. When all are free, then we look -- can look forward to that day when this city will be joined as one and this country and this great Continent of Europe in a peaceful and hopeful globe. When that day finally comes, as it will, the people of West Berlin can take sober satisfaction in the fact that they were in the front lines for almost two decades.

All -- All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin.

And, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words "Ich bin ein Berliner."

Debate still rages on whether the translation he used inadvertently meant he was calling himself a "Berliner," nickname for a jelly donut, much as if he had said, "I am a Frankfurter." If you want to wade deep into arguments and claims about German vocabulary and idiom, there's plenty on the net, but wir passieren.  

2. The balloon escape

For many, what the families of East Germany's Peter Strelzyk and Guenter Wetzel did will forever be associated with the idea of an ingenious yearning for freedom triumphing over the stifling Communistic symbol that was the Berlin Wall, but the truth is the Wall wasn't involved.

The two families spent months building a homemade hot-air balloon, with the wives stitching extremely light material (which the government later restricted the sale of). They took off at night and silently floated over the heavily guarded border crossing in 1979, with just enough fuel to land on the other side and run.

They were more than 100 miles from Berlin, but in most people's memories they see the rickety but plucky craft landing in Potsdamer Platz.

1. Reagan's speechThe Gipper single-handedly ends the Cold War

The Wall still stood as a depressing reminder (and marvelous photo op!) of the Soviet system when Ronald Reagan spoke there in 1987.

Reagan spoke about Mikhail Gorbachev's recent attempts to increase freedoms, and said:

We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace.

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

This has since become absolute porn for conservatives who have beatified Reagan (although the Tea Party would consider him a RINO these days). In this one speech, apparently, Reagan ended the Cold War and freed East Germans single-handedly.

In Reagan's unintentionally hilarious diary (it reads as if this SNL skit was real-life), he pretty much glossed over the speech, not noting the historic phrase but, like a good actor, keeping a careful eye on his applause.

He describes the airport greeting that day, a visit to the Reichstag, and writes, "Then it was on to the Brandenberg Gate where I addressed tens & tens of thousands of people -- stretching as far as I could see. I got a tremendous reception -- interrupted 28 times by cheers."

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