WASHINGTON – Two Maryland congressmen flew to Germany in 1989 to take swings at the Berlin Wall and participate in the destruction of one of the world’s most visible signs of the Cold War.
On Wednesday, now-Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Baltimore, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, spoke about their experience.
Standing beside a chunk of the wall on display at the Newseum, Cardin and Hoyer joined other members of the Helsinki Commission and ambassadors from Germany, Romania and the Slovak Republic to commemorate the 20-year anniversary of the wall’s destruction.
The Berlin Wall stood as a barrier to travel between democratic West Berlin and communist East Berlin. Over the years, the wall came to represent communist repression to many western democracies.
“I was there when the wall came down and I knew it was important,” Cardin said. “In time, it became more impressive to me.”
Cardin is the current chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission. The commission is a federal agency that promotes human rights, democracy and cooperation around the world.
Hoyer was chairman in 1989 and in that role he visited many countries behind the Iron Curtain. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill coined the term Iron Curtain to describe the string of communist countries bordering each other in Eastern Europe. Hoyer still remembers what it was like to take hacks at a Cold War symbol.
“I went to the wall and … I don’t know where we got a hammer, but we got a hammer and I got some pieces of the wall,” Hoyer said. “There was no Iron Curtain, per se. There was a tangible, real Berlin Wall and as a result, there was something to actually see physically come down. Taken away. Eliminated. It was an extraordinary symbolic visual for the fall of the Iron Curtain.”
Cardin could not think of another event to compare to the drama surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“We’ve seen countries change their leaders, we’ve seen the fall of the apartheid government in South Africa and we’ve seen in Ukraine and Georgia the peaceful revolutions,” Cardin said. “There are moments that have occurred, but I must tell you, nothing in my lifetime was more dramatic than the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
The two Maryland politicians and other commission members also talked about current events that keep the idea of the wall alive. The comparisons varied from legislative to philosophical and represent potential projects for the Helsinki Commission.
“No wall, I believe, does greater damage to the spirit of the individual, even today, than the oppressive wall against faith,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. “(The) wall that I witnessed in the former Soviet Union … is still rampant among many authoritarian regimes across the world today.”
Both Brownback and Hoyer labeled China’s suppression of Internet freedom as a type of wall.
“Each wall,” Hoyer said, “no matter how tall or how fearsome, is ultimately an act of surrender.”