I’ve probably spent the better part of my life having something passionate to say about the Berlin Wall. Yet now that I have an incredible excuse to say it, meh. Everyone and their mother has something passionate to say about the Berlin Wall on this occasion. Some profound insight, some vivid memory to share, some sober reflection on the victories and failures of foreign and economic policy over the past 20 years… The fall of the Berlin Wall is one of those events that turns everybody into a poet. But no one actually reads poetry now, do they?
And yet… That’s it, isn’t it? With 20 years of hindsight, many people see clearly now that November 9, 1989 was neither the end of Soviet Union, Communism nor History itself. Many historians assert that November 9, 1989 was the result not simply of a bottom-up grassroots political movement of angry East Germans nor of the right and might of American ideological persuasiveness. And yet it is not the anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic nor the Belovezhskaya Pushcha Pact that we commemorate around the world with rock concerts and special editions of current events programs. Because these events didn’t turn everyone into a poet.
Most likely, the fall of the Berlin Wall is not so remarkable for the actual political changes which both precipitated and followed the event as it is for its allegorical power. Of course it dramatically impacted the lives of East Germans, but this doesn’t explain its enduring symbolism outside of Germany. For me, even as an American, it is comparable only to something like 9-11, or Obama’s election. You know where you where when you found out about it. You can close your eyes and see the images projected inside your lids as though you were watching a movie. Like 9-11, it came so unexpectedly and seemed to practically violate the laws of nature. For someone born in the 70’s, there had been no “before the wall,” so how could there be an “after the wall?” Like the 2008 U.S. Presidential election, the event seemed to confirm everything we want to believe about the implicit goodness and remarkable agency of average people, and reinforced the tenuous beliefs that hold our questionable worldview together: that democracy works, that people can be free when they decide to be and that, like a Hollywood movie, just when things can get no worse, the good guys will band together, defeat the villains, and save the world.
Just because that may not be how it really happened does not make the subjective experience of it any less compelling.
My interest in politics and US-Russia relations date back to elementary school. In the sixth grade I had the same faith in Mikhail Gorbachev that American sixth-graders now have in Barack Obama. I positively adored him. For my whole life the Cold War had raged, and in my childlike, idealistic dreamer’s mind, I knew it was wrong. I thought it was too dangerous and too petty and, above all, perfectly avoidable if people could just act like adults. (Hell, my adolescent peers were being held to a higher standard of behavior than world leaders.) And here was the head of the Soviet freaking Union and sharing my opinion! Not only was he engaging in some “new thinking,” that childlike glimmer in his eyes inspired in me a confidence that, yes, I should hold on tight to my idealism, because if the leader of the scariest country on earth can be a bit of a dreamer, damn it, I can too. That just might be what it takes.
It was never that I wanted the USSR to become like America. In fact, I was pretty disturbed by the reports that jeans and Pepsi were at the top of Russians’ wish lists, while I was bitter about having been born into a country where people don’t care about poetry or ballet. I was raised by a subversive hippie-type and from a long line of system-bucking progressives. As my brilliant sixth grade teacher said, “Don’t be proud to be American, just be thankful to be one.” Back in 1986 we could be thankful, too. The end of the Cold War is not the only thing to have changed in the past few decades… But even then, neither the American “way of life” nor our President inspired much admiration on my part. Precisely because the thought was implied to be taboo, I suspected we could learn as much from Russia as they could learn from us. If only we would put down our arms, sit down and listen. I simply believed the whole world had the capacity to get along if they would just try, and when there are differences, the solution should never be the erecting of walls or the threat of nuclear war.
And I still do.
So as I sat on the hardwood floor in my grandmother’s rarely used formal living room, watching cable TV as Berliners celebrated, waving their flags in the night, teenagers partying along the wall, I felt a vindication and optimism I would not feel again for another 19 years. It was probably the first time in my life I felt cognisant of the fact that I was witnessing history. If I recall correctly, the Challenger disaster may have been my only previous experience of being witness to a spontaneous, shocking event simultaneously with millions of people around the globe. No one had even heard of the Internet back then, at least in the universe of people I knew. Watching events unfold live on TV along with people all over the world was still a novel experience, in the same way encountering an old friend on facebook is today. There was a wow factor inspired not only by the message but the medium as well. I remember explicitly thinking it was a good thing we had gotten grandma cable TV.
The fall of the Berlin Wall instilled in me a curious understanding of historical and political evolution, and one that reflected acutely that I was only 15 years old. The invisible hand of progress, I will call it. Good things happen because good is more persuasive than bad. People want good things. Those who stand in the way of progress are just uninformed; there is nothing that can’t be tackled with a few PSA’s on MTV and a benefit rock concert. We’d put an end to hot wars, and now to cold wars. Sure, there were mysterious scuffles around the world, but those were last gasps of the old way. People stuck in the past. Hold outs. The more evolved cultures (ahem – I was 15) were embracing peace. Apartheid was ending. We’d taken on racism, sexism, and now even gays were being afforded protection under the law. AIDS had made it ok to talk about sex. Diversity, multiculturalism, tolerance, democracy and human rights were the catchwords of the era. The early 90’s were a good time to have an impressionable young mind.
The next 20 years passed. A lot happened. Most of it shattering my belief in the invisible hand of progress. Or the possibility of any progress. Ever. Or the implicit good and agency in people. Or almost anything which might be remotely worth believing in. Life in 1990’s Moscow and 21st century America. The death of my mother from cancer. 9-11. Katrina. Abu Graib. Oh it is all too much. Which is not to say it’s been all bad. It has just not been the world I was led to believe I had been born into. And let’s not fool ourselves, it’s been pretty bad. And even the bad things might have been more tolerable if I could maintain the conviction that we were generally moving forward, toward a better, more peaceful, more equitable society. That we’d learned lessons of the past. That these setbacks were only hurdles along the road of progress.
The fall of the Berlin Wall has been one of those moments I’ve held onto when I am looking for hope against hope. Proof. It is within our capacity to make things better. People are not doomed to live forever in oppression. We can choose peaceful revolution over conflict, cooperation over isolation. Ok, fine, Gorbachev turned out to be rather ineffective at home and his leadership (or was it lack thereof?) resulted in some serious strife, both existentially and physically. Fine, democracy can give you a leader like George W. Bush. Fine, actually a significant percentage of East Germans like the old way better. Not the wall, especially. But let’s face it, there are a lot of people out there wondering what happened to Capitalism’s willingness to make good on that promise to improve our quality of life. Not to mention all of the crap we sold Eastern Europe when we basically forced them to abandon democratic socialism, a “third way” for a liberal free-market if they wanted our aid. America, the original predatory lender! But why complain? You have your damn jeans and Pepsi now. And fine, many people fled East Germany less for the promise of political freedom than for that of material gratification. And fine, so it’s not like the fall of Wall was the culmination of years of some underground East German democratic resistance that finally outmaneuvered the Party bosses. And fine, the Cold War has in recent years managed to rear its nasty undead corpse from the graveyard of history, leaving me to make the same goddamned impassioned speeches today that I was making in 1985. When I was 10. Ten! For crying out loud! Fine! Fine, fine, fine!
Wait. What exactly are we celebrating today?
The tearing down of a wall is the tearing down of a wall, no matter how you slice it. That’s worth something. Walls are never the solution. Because the problem is never migration. Migration is a symptom. Humans are remarkably resilient and adaptable. If droves of your citizens are so miserable that they feel it preferable to leave your country – knowing fully well it may result in imprisonment or death, for themselves or their families – maybe YOU are the problem, not the people who want to leave. And yes, overall, the quality of life on what was the other side of the Iron Curtain has mostly improved since the fall of the Berlin Wall, even if these improvements have been accompanied by some undesirable trade-offs. And perhaps we should just celebrate the celebration. Regardless what came before or what came after, that was one wildly magical night. And who doesn’t love an 80’s themed party?! I know I do! Could it be precisely the parenthetical nature of the event that makes it so precious, so worth celebrating? Perhaps, like a myth, acknowledging that the story may contain some fantasy should not undermine its basic message: freedom, peace, progress. And sometimes metaphors are necessary to motivate us in the face of discouraging facts. They are what keep us from resigning en masse to cynicism and stagnation. They are the stuff that makes us all poets.
Yes! Yes, yes, yes! So get your Ostalgie on, baby. Bust out your 80’s gear (which any fashionista in good standing has handily available this season anyway.) Celebrate the end of the old Cold War. Dance on its grave. Relive your youth; remember who you were before George W. Bush damaged your soul. And this time around, let’s try to learn the right lessons and give credit where it is due and avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
Thanks for reading!
From Odds & Ends: 99 Luftballons Edition, written about the 08-08 war:
“Oh, I know that the first Cold War was more a struggle of world powers than beautiful ideas. But ideas were the currency used. And even though the ideas were armed with nukes, they still had a seat at the table. There was always the possibility that reason could prevail. Religion, blind faith, armed with nukes, however, offers no such peace of mind. Of course, it’s no guarantee that we will all perish in one magnificent mushroom cloud of glory. Leaving a loaded gun the hall closet is no guarantee that your small child will blow his brains out. Who the hell wants to gamble it? People who are sure they are going to heaven, I guess…
I don’t have the answers. I don’t understand what is going on. That’s fine. But I don’t think the people running my country really understand what is going on either. Or they don’t care because there are no consequences. For them, anyway.
I feel like a kid whose parents are on the verge of a divorce. These are the two countries who have shaped who I am today. Why can’t they just fucking get along? Jesus! I just want to run into my room, slam my door shut and blast “99 Red Balloons” on my tape player. Except. I’m not a kid anymore. I don’t even have a functioning cassette tape-player. I am a citizen. What am I supposed to do? What can I do? Any ideas? Let me know if you come up with something. In the meantime, I’ll be in my room listening to 80s Europop and dreaming about the good old days of the first Cold War, when everything was less complicated because I was 10, because everyone thought it would be over soon, because walls were coming down instead of being built up. Because back then I had faith in people and the things we could accomplish when we worked together.”