The Fall of the Wall: The Rise of Freedom

The first U.S. ambassador to a newly unified Germany recounts his memories of the fall of the wall, and looks ahead to a Europe that's just as whole.

On November 9, 1989, I was in my office at the State Department, glued to television images of East and West Germans atop and flowing through the Berlin Wall. These dramatic images were very personal, as I am one of the millions of Americans with German heritage or military service in Germany. But I also have a special tie to Berlin. My father, a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, and my mother, an American Red Cross girl, were married in Berlin in March 1947. I was born exactly nine months later in the United States—so, like John Kennedy, I can say, “ Ich bin ein Berliner,” and, in my case, “Made in Germany.”

When my father was reassigned to Germany in 1960, I visited Berlin in November of that year and recall traveling freely through the Brandenburg Gate into East Berlin. I also recall exactly where I was 10 months later when the wall ripped the city in two, and I held my breath soon thereafter as my father joined an American Army battle group as it crossed the checkpoint at Helmstedt en route to Berlin to demonstrate the continuing U.S. commitment to that city and its brave citizens.

View Our Gallery of 20 Crucial Moments Before the Fall

Almost exactly 30 years later, in August 1991, I became the first American Ambassador in over 50 years appointed to represent our country to a united Germany. On my first visit to Berlin as ambassador, we drove through the Brandenburg Gate en route to a meeting with German President Richard von Weizsäcker. As we passed through the gate, I could almost feel a city, a country, and a continent coming together after the darkness that emanated from that exact location earlier in the 20th century.

More Daily Beast takes on the Berlin Wall anniversaryA continent was coming together because, although many in Western Europe think of Berlin as being located far to the east, Berlin is near the exact center of the new Europe. Although it is now harder to distinguish east from west, the city of Berlin, the country of Germany, and the continent of Europe are still striving to reach the ultimate goal of a Europe whole and free. Walls still exist, but today they are walls of the mind rather than walls of concrete, and Germany is playing the same crucial role in removing these psychological walls as it did the physical wall 20 years ago.

Led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was raised in East Germany, the German government is at the center of all relationships and organizations that matter for the future of Europe. Germany now looks eastward as well as westward, not in any assertive or challenging way as in the past, but rather espousing those democratic, free-market principles that took deep root in West Germany during the Cold War. As Chancellor Merkel said after her powerful speech to the Congress on November 3, the Brandenburg Gate is no longer a symbol of division but rather of unity—in Berlin, in Germany, and in Europe.

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan memorably called for Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this Wall.” President Reagan and presidents from Harry Truman to George H.W. Bush played pivotal roles during the dark days of the Cold War, as did courageous and far-sighted European leaders like German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In the end, though, the fall of the wall was spurred significantly by the dramatic actions of brave young women and men on the streets in Warsaw, Budapest, and Leipzig in 1989 and before.

The historic changes set in motion that wonderful night of November 9, 1989, have led to a significantly better life, and a more secure life, for hundreds of millions of Europeans—and thus for Americans, too. Further progress, however, is not foreordained and requires concerted effort by Germany, the United States, and our partners in the trans-Atlantic alliance to ensure the continuing rise of freedom sparked by the fall of the wall.

Robert M. Kimmitt served as undersecretary of State for political affairs from 1989-1991 and American ambassador to Germany from 1991-1993.