‘..Tear down this wall…’ urged US President Ronald Reagan on 12 June 1987 in a speech delivered in front of the iconic Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The speech was intended as an open challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to provide a tangible symbol of his ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’ campaigns to promote greater freedom and political liberalisation in Eastern Europe by opening the Berlin Wall.
For people of Generation X (i.e. those born between 1965 and 1981), there could be few more potent symbols of the Cold War era than the Berlin Wall, and a stand-off between US President and the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (true, this generation was also concerned with big hair, terrible fashion tastes, and sang that we wanted to ‘…walk like an Egyptian…’ but I digress).
The USSR built the Berlin Wall in 1961 to encircle West Berlin, the post-war capital of West Germany, as a visible symbol of the Cold War stand-off between East and West. By the 1980s, the Wall was firmly fixed in the Cold War landscape.
The Berlin Wall, and the post-war division of East and West Berlin, symbolised not only the Cold War but also the generational differences in how the Cold War was experienced between the 1960s and the 1980s by successive generations – the Wartime Generation, the Baby Boomer generation and Generation X.
The Wartime Generation had stumbled into the Cold War at the end of the WW2 with a sense of resignation – after the horrors of WW2, the spectre of WW3 and nuclear holocaust was seen as simply one more necessary burden to shoulder. Each escalation of the Cold War was to be met with determination – the attempted starvation of West Berlin by the USSR in 1948 was countered by the Berlin Airlift; the invasion of South Korea in 1950 was countered by military force; and the attempted transport of nuclear missiles to Cuba in 1962 was countered by a nuclear standoff and so on. Each communist provocation was met by a show of western force. For a generation that had withstood the Blitz, the Bataan Death March, and the Burma-Thailand Railway, the USSR was seen as a blustering bully that had to be spanked at every turn in order to avoid a greater catastrophe.
For the Baby Boomer generation, reared on WW2 memories, Cold War rhetoric and ‘I wanna hold your hand…’, the Vietnam War was its coming of age. In many ways, members of this generation were the foot-soldiers of the Cold War. Government Information films drilled young westerners on how to prepare for a nuclear war; young men eligible for ‘national service’ and the ‘draft’ were educated by church and state about the evils of international communism; and booming capitalist economies promised personal standards of living undreamt about by earlier generations.
In contrast, Gen X experienced the Cold War in very different ways from preceding generations. Gen X did not learn about the Cold War from the pulpit, from the draft notice, and certainly not from the whiff of cordite. The world of the 1980s was very different from that of the 1950s and even from the rebellious years of the 1960s. Gen X was the ultimate TV generation – from sport, to music, to (boring) current affairs, the world was experienced from mum and dad’s couch in front of the family television set. As momentous as it was, the ‘..Tear down this wall…’ speech meant little to Gen X at the time; it was simply a sound byte on the nightly news broadcast. Instead, the events of two years later meant far more sense to this generation – the jubilant crowds atop the Berlin Wall in the days that followed the popular breeching of the Wall on 9 November 1989. Gen X understood celebrating endings. It did not understand about the pain and self-sacrifice that characterise beginnings.
| Image – Copyright statement
Title: People atop the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate on 09 November 1989
Photographer: Sue Ream (San Francisco, California)
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Copyright statement: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.