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Ronald Reagan and Germany

Es gibt nur ein Berlin!


Ronald Reagan (1911-2004)

Eine Ronald-Reagan-Straße in Berlin?
Will there be a Ronald Reagan Street in Berlin? The death of former president Ronald W. Reagan inspired an outpouring of sympathy from many people in the U.S. and around the world, including Germany. We will have to await history's final verdict on the Reagan presidency, but the "Great Communicator" (or the "amiable dunce" to his detractors) is already remembered for many things, both good and bad. Most vivid in people's minds is probably President Reagan's 1987 visit to the Berlin Wall and his famous "tear down this Wall" speech.

Like John F. Kennedy before him, Reagan also used some German phrases in his Berlin speech. Aware that his remarks would also be heard in East Germany and the Soviet Union, Reagan used a well-known line from a popular German song (lyrics by Aldo von Pinelli; music by Ralph Maria Siegel): "Ich hab noch einen Koffer in Berlin." ("I still have a suitcase in Berlin.") A few lines later, Reagan used another German sentence to emphasize the point that he wanted to see an end to a divided Germany. "You see, like so many presidents before me, I come here today because wherever I go, whatever I do: Es gibt nur ein Berlin." ('There is only one Berlin.')

Following Reagan's death, the German politician Laurentz Meyer of the Christian Democratic (CDU) party proposed that a Berlin street or square near the Brandenburg Gate (das Brandenburger Tor) be named for the American president who left office in 1989, just months before the collapse of the Wall that he had asked Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down. Laurentz and other conservative politicians in Germany give Reagan much of the credit for helping bring down the Berlin Wall and encouraging the collapse of communism. Will German towns and cities name streets and buildings for Reagan just as they did decades ago for John F. Kennedy? That remains to be seen.

But the 1987 Berlin visit was not Reagan's only official trip to Germany. Two years before his well-known speech at the Brandenburg Gate, Reagan had paid a much more controversial visit to Germany. The president's May 1985 trip to the German town of Bitburg to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II was the target of criticism from those who thought Reagan should not participate in a wreath-laying ceremony in a military cemetery where former Nazi Waffen-SS soldiers were buried. German chancellor Helmut Kohl was also criticized at the time, but Reagan viewed the ceremony as an opportunity to show reconciliation between the two former enemy nations. On the occasion of Reagan's death, Kohl said: "Diese große Geste der Freundschaft zwischen unseren Ländern werde ich immer in Erinnerung behalten." ("This grand gesture of friendship between our countries will forever remain in my memory.") Kohl, a member of Germany's conservative CDU, and the Republican Reagan were much closer in political orientation in the 1980s than Bush and Schröder are today.

At Reagan's state funeral in Washington, DC on June 11 there were more than 20 current or former heads of state in attendance. Austria sent its foreign minister, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, who recently lost an election to become Austrian president (a largely ceremonial post). Germany's official representative at the funeral was none other than German chancellor Gerhard Schröder (who was already in the U.S. for the G-8 summit talks in Georgia). In 1987, when Reagan made his Berlin Wall speech, Gerhard Schröder was a member of the state legislature (Landtag) of Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen). In 1990 Schröder became the governor (Ministerpräsident) of that German state (Bundesland) and a key figure in the SPD (Social Democratic) party. On October 27, 1998 he became chancellor (Bundeskanzler), Germany's equivalent to the U.S. president or the British prime minister.

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