The Federal Republic of Germany turns eighteen today — at least in its reunified form. On October 3, 1990 the official Reunification of a country divided for 45 years by what seemed an insurmountable geopolitical estrangement took place in Berlin, the besieged city at the very heart of the Cold War. The scene played out on the steps of the famous Reichstag building upon which the words in the title of this post are inscribed just below the pediment: DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE — “To the German people”.

Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire: your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers (Isaiah 1:7).

In the early 1990s there was a display in the bombed out ruins of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedächtnis Kirche — a cathedral located on the popular Ku’Damm street in the heart of West Berlin that was destroyed in cataclysmic bombings of the city in 1943 — that conveyed a powerful and sobering message. The verse from Isaiah quoted above was placed in the caption under a panoramic picture of a completely bombed out Berlin. (For comparative translations of this verse, see here.) The picture above looks out from what was left of Dresden’s Frauenkirche over the ruins of Dresden after allied bombing raids at the close of World War II. Many other German cities had experienced similar devastation and destruction.

Berlin, however, had not only been the target of brutal bombing raids. It was also the scene of brutal street to street fighting during Russia’s 1945 Assault on Berlin as the Red Army pounded at the last defenses of Hitler’s crumbled dictatorship. After the boys and old men defending the city surrendered, the Red Army raped tens of thousands of German women trapped in Berlin as the Russians sought to establish their domination through unleashing the brutality of conscripts drafted from Russia’s vast expanse of client nations. The ultimate result of Hitler’s Napoleonic delusions in Europe was the entire destruction of the German economy and many of Germany’s major cities, as well as the death of millions across Europe and particularly in Germany. The stage was also set for 45 years of continued oppression of Germans who had ended up in what became East Germany as families were divided when half the country fell behind the “Iron Curtain”.

In 1948, as the writing on the wall had become clear based on the Soviet blockade of Berlin and the draconian measures adopted in the Russian zone of Berlin, West Berlin’s mayor Ernst Reuter stood at the destroyed Reichstag building and famously declared in biblical overtones, “Ihr Völker der Welt, schaut auf diese Stadt!” (“People of the world, behold this city!”). The world looked, as it had been looking, and saw Soviet intentions unveiled. The Cold War was inevitable as allied forces shored up the line dividing East and West against Stalin’s aggression.

Berlin was still on center stage of the Cold War in 1963 when U.S. President John F. Kennedy, just five months before he was assassinated in Dallas, stood in Berlin and gave a speech in which he made the following rousing statement which he had devised right before delivering the speech:

Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was civis Romanus sum [I am a Roman citizen]. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’. . . . 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!’

As a single city “divided” by an atrocious wall built by the Soviet client-state of East Germany (cynically called the “anti-fascist protective wall” by the East German government that erected it), Berlin was the very symbol of the Cold War. John F. Kennedy had presciently captured the spirit of the age with his impromptu statement. All free peoples had an interest in the well-being of West Berlin. West Berlin was the very symbol of the Cold War because the city itself was located as an island right in the middle of the country of East Germany — West Berliners were essentially in a stockade vigorously defended by American weapons of war against the threat of being subsumed by the hostile state surrounding it. In truth, the Berlin Wall was not an “anti-fascist protective wall” but an act of oppression perpetrated by a government on its own people: the Berlin Wall actually encircled West Berlin to keep East Germans from escaping the totalitarian regime in East Germany through West Berlin.

By the end of the 1980s, the Berlin Wall was as indelibly etched in the mind of millions of people around the West as the massive caption DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE was above the pock-marked facade of West Berlin’s imposing Reichstag building. A few hundred meters away from the Reichstag stands the Brandenburg Gate — one of the most recognizable Cold War symbols of all. In 1987, just two years before the unanticipated “fall” of the Berlin Wall, U.S. President Ronald Reagan stood in front of the Brandenburg gate and made the following controversial but now famous statement:

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!

Even though the leader of East Germany Erich Honecker stated in January of 1989 that the Wall would stand for another 100 years, events that took place that year (as the culmination of 45 years of repression in East Germany) lead to an occurence that virtually no one had thought was possible — the opening of the border between East and West Berlin, more dramatically known as the fall of the Berlin Wall. Video images of Germans standing on top of the wall and streaming over it and through breaches in it will remain with anyone who has seen them as an outpouring of humanity’s desire for freedom and unity.

* * *

In 1945 a new republic was born on the ruins of Hitler’s Germany. But it would not be until October 3, 1990 (apart from the brief interlude of the Weimar Republic preceding Hitler’s rise to power) that the words inscribed on the Reichstag building in 1916 would finally be realized in a lasting republic: DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE. Though my endorsement means nothing, I salute Germany today on this Day of Reunification.


  1. Mark Brown says:

    Thank you, John. 18 years already, wow.

    Last week when I read Ronan’s piece about Coventry, I also thought of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedächtnis Kirche. It was always sobering to see it against the backdrop of a prosperous city and KaDeWe. Is there still that pizza and ice cream place around the corner where all the missionaries like to go on P-day?

  2. I am a Dainish!

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks, John, I appreciate this.

  4. John, this is a poignant and well done piece. It is deeply moving.

  5. Really great. I was in Berlin recently, and the city resonates with meaning for me. Those events of the late 1980s were amazing. Jesus Jones was right in ways that many of have forgotten as we’ve gotten caught up in more recent events. God bless the German people, and all those who benefited from the end of that particular form of tyranny.

  6. Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit!

    (Meanwhile, what the hell are the Austrians up to?)

  7. OK Ronan I’ll bite,

    What ARE the Austrians up to? My stream of Austrian news trickles very thin over here in the States. Is their right-wing government up to new things? I haven’t heard anything lately.

  8. Google “Austria Far Right.” Always a joy.

  9. Wow, Heinz-Christian Strache is a piece of work, isn’t he? I had no idea.

  10. As one with solid and deeply German roots, this makes me proud. I have dear friends in Germany, and without fail, all of them cite the day of reunification as the happiest of their lives.

  11. Steve Evans says:

    Thanks for this John. And thanks (?) to Norbert for bringing up that haunt from my BYU freshman year.

  12. Thanks for the post, John. I don’t think anyone can understand the 20th century without understanding the history of Berlin.

  13. Peter LLC says:

    what the hell are the Austrians up to?

    Austria’s national day is October 26.

    South Korea’s national is today as well, which causes a diplomatic scheduling conflict here in Europe–whose party does one attend? Sure, one feels obligated to attend the German one as this is its stomping ground, but the Koreans have better food. (Actually, the Koreans solve it by moving the celebration a week before or after so that the elite can have their cake and eat it too.)

    Heinz-Christian Strache is a piece of work, isn’t he?

    HC foams at the mouth more than his colleagues to the left, but both the social and christian democrats have attempted the occasional end run around the right these past years. During this last campaign the left stemmed their losses to the right by playing up populism, including a letter to the publisher of an influential yellow journal stating that the SPÖ would hold a referendum on any changes to the EU treaties. Although Austria’s government has already ratified the Treaty of Lisbon, HC has long railed against this violation of the people’s will and never tires of extolling the virtues of direct democracy. Too bad the only reason he has a voice is due to the vagaries of proportional representation. We shall see what happens now that he has support from the left on this and several other issues and the middle-right ÖVP wants to go into opposition, effectively ruling out “the smallest grand coalition (of losers) ever.”

  14. Hohe Berge, weite Täler, klare Flüsse, blaue Seen, dazu ein paar Naturschutzgebiete, alles wunderschön.

    Thanks for this article. Makes me want to head up north and visit Berlin.

  15. So, wenn wir alle dabei sind, anzugeben und auf Deutsch jetzt zu schreiben… Zählen Sie mich darin auf! Ich komme, um es so selten an diesen Tagen zu verwenden!

  16. Tracy — ich hatte keine Ahnung, dass du Deutsch kannst. Das freut mich herauszufinden.

  17. Peter LLC says:

    Tracy, na fein. Herein! Willkommen im Verein!

  18. Ich brauche Praxis – mit der Grammatik-Hilfe von meinem Wörterbuch, ich schreibe besser. Ich verstehe viel mehr, als ich sprechen kann.

  19. Ohne die Uebbung kann mann nichts, meine Brudern und Schwestern.
    especially with certain German dialects, e.g., Bayrish oder Schwitzer-Deitzt….

    Mit Liebe

    Sam K.

  20. … oder Schwabeishen-Akzent!

  21. Nice post, John! That picture from Dresden is sobering. When I was in Dresden over a decade ago, the alte Frauenkirche still lay in ruins. It was a sobering reminder both of the devastating effects of war and of the crumbling infrastructure of the old DDR.

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