Monday, November 9, 2009

It was 20 years ago today

[NYT front page]The Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago today, but you wouldn’t know it from US news coverage (or the priorities of the Administration). In my local paper, the lead story is about a 40 year Palo Alto guitar shop. (Sure, this is a story not otherwise commoditized by Google news, but half the front page?) Perhaps taking her cue from the administration, even the gray lady herself didn’t think it worth mentioning on its front page.

To its credit, listed it among the hot topics, along with the Lakers and the latest movie grosses, including a touching story about a mom born in 1961 (when the Wall as raised) and her son born in 1989. And the LAT website replated its lead (is it possible to replate a website?) to highlight the Berlin bash marking the festive occasion.
This seems like madness: 200 or 500 years from now, the fall of the Berlin Wall will be listed as one of the 4 or 5 most important events of the 20th century, along with D-day and perhaps Armistice Day, the death of Kaiser Wilhelm or the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Just to remind the American people (and politicians) of the milestone, Angela Merkel only the second German leader to address a joint session of Congress. She used her speech in part to recall her own doubt that she would ever escape the wall:

In 1957 I was just a small child of three years. I lived with my parents in Brandenburg, a region that belonged to the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the part of Germany that was not free. My father was a Protestant pastor. My mother, who had studied English and Latin to become a teacher, was not allowed to work in her chosen profession in the GDR.

Not even in my wildest dreams could I have imagined, twenty years ago before the Wall fell, that this would happen. It was beyond imagination then to even think about traveling to the United States of America let alone standing here today.

The land of unlimited opportunity – for a long time it was impossible for me to reach. The Wall, barbed wire and the order to shoot those who tried to leave limited my access to the free world. So I had to create my own picture of the United States from films and books, some of which were smuggled in from the West by relatives.

What did I see and what did I read? What was I passionate about?

I was passionate about the American dream – the opportunity for everyone to be successful, to make it in life through their own personal effort.

I was passionate about all of these things and much more, even though until 1989 America was simply out of reach for me. And then, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. The border that for decades had divided a nation into two worlds was now open.
She thanked America for its role in bringing freedom to Central Europe:
I thank the American and Allied pilots who heard and heeded the desperate call of Berlin’s mayor Ernst Reuter as he said “People of the world, … look upon this city.”

For months, these pilots delivered food by airlift and saved Berlin from starvation. Many of these soldiers risked their lives doing this. Dozens lost their lives. We will remember and honor them forever.

I thank the 16 million Americans who have been stationed in Germany over the past decades. Without their support as soldiers, diplomats and generally as facilitators it never would have been possible to overcome the division of Europe. We are happy to have American soldiers in Germany, today and in the future. They are ambassadors of their country in our country, just as many Americans with German roots today act as ambassadors of my country here.

I think of John F. Kennedy, who won the hearts of despairing Berliners during his 1963 visit after the construction of the Berlin Wall when he called out to them: “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

Ronald Reagan far earlier than others saw and recognized the sign of the times when, standing before the Brandenburg Gate in 1987, he demanded: “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate … Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” This appeal is something that will never be forgotten.
But after winning the Cold War, America has moved on. The people of Central Europe remember America’s leadership, but America (or at least the current ruling party) want to forget. The president flew to Copenhagen to lobby for one city’s Olympic bid but snubbed the Germans, declining to fly to Berlin to meet with America’s most important Allies (or hear the U2 concert).

Meanwhile, many problems lay unresolved, not the least of which are those of the former soviet republics (notably Ukraine and Georgia) which are not quite free, not quite vassals of their powerful neighbor. The FT (and other British papers like the Guardian) have run many stories over the past week that engaged these ideas, the ongoing challenges, the residual instability of the smaller (or less independent) countries of central Europe, and what might be done in the future.

The problems of Europe are not all solved, and they will come back again in a way that impacts Americans. In the meantime, Slavic studies are considered a marginal and unimportant field, the way that Arabic studies were a decade ago or Chinese studies 20 years ago.

Note on title: I realize the lyrics to Sgt. Pepper aren't exactly appropriate, but there's something appealing about the idea of the normally dour Merkel belting out the Beatles. Besides, the FT had already used “When the wall came tumbling down”.

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