MANATEE -- It came to characterize the Cold War.
The Berlin Wall, which was torn down 25 years ago Sunday, symbolized the divide between the Western democracies and the totalitarian Soviet Union.
East Germans were willing to risk their lives attempting to scale the "wall of shame" -- or tunnel under it -- to reach freedom in the West Berlin.
The Communist East German regime erected the wall in 1961 to stop a flood of its citizens from escaping to West Berlin.
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American presidents from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan took the wall as an assault on human decency and fundamental freedoms.
"All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And therefore, as a freeman I take pride in the words, 'Ich bin ein Berliner' (I am a Berliner). When all are free, then we can look forward to that day when this city can be joined as one," JFK said June 26, 1963.
Twenty four years later, Reagan issued a blunt challenge to the then-leader of Soviets: "Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
This week, local residents old enough to remember how ordinary German citizens used pick axes and their hands to dismantle the wall, are recalling the sequence of events that led to dissolu
tion of the Soviet super power.
Aida Matic was just a child living in West Germany when the Berlin Wall was erected. Even as a young girl she remembered thinking of the wall in terms of good versus evil.
"I thought it would come down some day, I was pretty positive about that. I thought that 'good' would eventually win," she recalled.
It wasn't until she was in her early 20s in 1989 and living in Munich that the wall finally came down.
"I saw it on TV and thought it was wonderful. We couldn't believe it. Seeing the wall coming down and seeing the people celebrating on the streets. It wasn't so much nationalism as, 'Wow, the Eastern Bloc is falling,'" said Matic, now a resident of Sarasota.
Dan Miller of Bradenton had not yet started his political career in 1989.
He was elected to congress in 1993, and said the fall of the Berlin Wall made his job easier for a while.
"It was amazing that the Cold War ended peacefully. I grew up in the era of Sputnik, when nuclear war was a real possibility. We basically bankrupted the Soviet Union," Miller said, echoing a popular train of thought.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of the Cold War, President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and a Republican Congress were able to enjoy budget surpluses for several years. Previously, the U.S. government ran budget deficits budget annually from 1970 through 1997.
"We were able to achieve surpluses partially because of the end of the Cold War and the downsizing of the military," Miller said.
Lee Kichen, a retired lieutenant colonel now living in southern Manatee County, was working in the Pentagon, when the wall came down.
"The news certainly rumbled through that building. Our greatest concern was how we would be able to maintain the force. People really believed we had achieved peace in our time. A year later, we were in Desert Shield and Desert Storm," Kichen said.
Norm MacLellan, an Army armor officer, spent 17 of his 30 years in Germany, in preparation for a great tank battle with the Russians that never occurred.
"Everybody was just very happy and pleased. We couldn't believe what was happening," MacLellan said.
When East Germany opened to visits from the West after 44 years of Cold War, it became clear how much the ordinary citizen had suffered under Communist rule.
"It was unbelievable to see what all those years of communism had done to them," MacLellan said. "It was like entering another world. All the Communist monuments were covered in graffiti and there were Russian soldiers selling items at flea markets."
James A. Jones Jr., Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.