March 5th, 2018
Recently the NY Times published an extended piece on what has happened in the years since November 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. The Wall has now been gone for longer than it stood. It has been gone long enough for decidedly revisionist theoreticians to bemoan its loss, xenophobes to blame its loss for precipitating an influx of “foreigners”, for Europe to have gone through celebratory post-nationalism and reactionary tribalism. It was a metaphor for a world with clear binary choices made more complicated without it.
On a personal level, its fall marked a life-changing experience for me, one that shaped a good deal of my professional involvements and interests since. As some of you know, I was in Berlin that day. For a short while after that, I would, in an attempt at humor, take credit, but after it became clear that re-unification was more complex and nuanced than originally imagined, that made little sense and wasn’t very funny. [I had been a guest of the West German government for several weeks prior to that famous day and stayed on briefly afterwards. My presence was pure coincidence.]
The Fall of the Wall is remembered as a peaceful symbol of the end of the Cold War. Only days before, if one stood at the Reichstag and looked into the space between the walls, one saw a killing field. Few recall that tensions were very high in the days leading up to 9 November. All of the armies occupying Berlin were on full alert, we were warned to stay away from Checkpoint Charlie, and there was on overriding sense that something could happen any second. The history that must be told is the miracle that no solider on either side, in a moment of panic, lost his [yes, his] cool and started shooting. It could easily have happened.
The result, ultimately, would have been the same but it would have been remembered very differently. The Cold War didn’t end with a whimper exactly, but it certainly was not the Bang it might have been. Thankfully.
As I said, it changed me. It wasn’t that I had been parochial exactly, but I had never been very focused on international issues, the dynamics of the many diasporas of many peoples, and the implications of an implicit post-nationalism that characterized that era.
After that experience I invested heavily in recrafting my own career, developing programs with several governments, speaking in many other countries, and cultivating some modest expertise as a frequent observer of a rapidly changing world. [Initially, most of this focused on Europe but subsequently I have had the privilege of speaking and meeting on 5 Continents – Australia being the only remaining outlier.]
There are many things I learned during those years – most notably a very profound respect for how history shapes one’s worldview. Watching the Republikaner march in Munich, or observing how Jews in the evolving Europe would lie low even 2 full generations after the Holocaust – then celebrate that they are more than survivors only to witness a resurgence of vitriolic anti-Semitism, or how Germany’s view of a post-nationalist Europe resonated with so few outside of Germany, or how the Czech and Slovak republics could become Czechoslovakia for only one year, only to divide again, or Brexit, or how long submerged ethnic identities exploded – in both wonderful and terrible ways, or how difficult it has been, even to this day, for some countries to come to grips with their own uncomfortable pasts, and more, has been extraordinary… and instructive by providing perspectives on today.
Given the frightening challenges to democratic ideals in the USA, and also in many other countries, it is clear that too many forget or deny that history is filled with destructive mis-steps. The USA is not the first nation or people that celebrated its exceptionalism, only to become an also-ran in subsequent centuries. Unconscionable divides between the haves and the have-nots have led to outright revolutions and decades of instability. Pluralistic societies cannot take for granted that tolerance and integration will be foregone conclusions in the future. Isolationism, in the form of national “superiority”, becomes a cancer on the body politic.
The Berlin Wall, with all of its metaphor and symbol, represented a binary understanding of the world. When that facile and simplistic overlay was removed, we learned that the world had not anticipated how complicated it would be nor was it adequately equipped to deal with the tribulations and challenges that have followed. My hope is that history will look back at our currently tumultuous time and see it as the last gasps of failed visions of totalitarian and xenophobic aspirations. If there are any abiding lessons to be learned, it is that we cannot rely on “history” to make sure that we survive these times intact, and we certainly cannot count on the self-discipline of trigger happy leaders.