One of the most defining moments of my life was the fall of the Berlin Wall. I grew up a child of the Cold War and the Wall running through the center of Berlin was the very physical symbol of that era. One morning, November 9, 1989 my mother was driving me to school. It was a typical morning for a twelve year old child, I was late getting up and properly dressed – we were practically running out the door and I’m sure my mother was driving a little too fast for a residential area. Suddenly, a news report broke through our usual morning radio – the Berlin Wall’s gates were now open and free and open travel across the border would begin immediately. My mother actually pulled over the car and began to frantically switch channels – wanting to confirm the information thinking that it was a joke. One cold, November morning my world – everyone’s world – changed forever. Two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed just as surprisingly and dramatically – ending the Cold War forever.
I now teach a classroom full of teenagers who never new a world in which the Soviet Union existed. When I talk about the Cold War and the world in which I grew up, they look at me blankly and with disbelief. They don’t understand why American ‘still cares’ about Russia or the once powerful looming vestige of the Soviet-era politics. I try to explain to them the power of Ronald Reagan standing at the Brandenburg Gate, declaring “Mr. Gorbachev! Tear down this wall!” The powerful underlying meaning of the Olympics when it was “Us versus the Soviets!” In fact, the first time I saw my father cry was after the Americans defeated the Soviets in the “Miracle on Ice.”
50 years ago today, the Soviet Controlled government of East Germany began to lay the foundations for what would become the Berlin Wall and the era of the Cold War was formalized for all of its participants. To read more about the construction of the wall, read this article by MSNBC. Twenty years after its fall, pieces of the Berlin Wall were distributed around the world and put on display. You can see a list of where to find them in this Wikipedia article. In fact, for seven years, I walked by this section of the wall every summer while working at Loyola Marymount University for Johns Hopkins, a silent and unassuming reminder of the world of my youth.
Jesse Owens represented the United States during the 1936 Summer Olympics – hosted in Berlin and often termed the “Nazi Olympics.” Hitler was the state representative at the festivities (the head of the host country often serves in this position even today). The 1936 Summer Olympics were famous for the prominent displays of Nazi paraphernalia and propaganda. Hitler had intended for the Olympics to be a demonstration of the superior athleticism of the “Aryan Peoples” of Germany. However, after the clear victories of Owens at the games, Albert Speer (Hitler’s architect) reported the Führer as saying:
Each of the German victories, and there were a surprising number of these, made him happy, but he was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvelous colored American runner, Jesse Owens. People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug; their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future games. (courtesy of Wikipedia)
Jesse Owens’ participation in the game was controversial as America still practiced wide-spread segregation throughout the country. Even so, while in Germany, Owens was allowed to use public transportation and stay in desegregated hotels.
Owens’ success in the games was highlighted by his four gold medals – 100m, the Long Jump, 200m, and the 4 x 100m relay. He was a hugely popular participant at the games and was adored by the German spectators. In spite of his success and popularity, on his return Owens was snubbed by the President (Franklin D. Roosevelt) – receiving no acknowledgment from the President recognizing his immense success.