On Nov. 9, Germans will celebrate the 25th anniversary of one of the most beautiful moments in their troubled history: the day that ordinary people, with ordinary aspirations, brought down the Berlin Wall. Not a shot was fired, not a drop of blood was shed, and in less than a year, divided Germany was reunited, paving the way for the reunification of a continent cut in two by the Cold War.
The paradox of the Berlin Wall is that it fell for exactly the same reason that it was built. In 1961, communist East Germany erected the “anti-fascist protection wall” to stem the flow of its citizens leaving for a better life in the West. Twenty-eight years later, as the communist bloc started cracking and East Germans fled to West Germany via Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the regime in East Berlin felt it could only relieve building domestic pressure by opening the border.
After a series of oversights by a few officials – and the persistence of a few more citizens sick of their de facto imprisonment – a repressive system buttressed by “scientific communism” and the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal crumbled overnight. Germans are right to be proud of their peaceful revolution, and foreigners can easily share in its inspiration. Yet during this year’s celebrations, a measure of restraint would be in order, because for the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the promise of 1989 – a free, united Europe – has come under attack.
Divided Berlin, once the starkest symbol of the Cold War, is blissfully oblivious to the past. Most European cities have more of their medieval fortifications left than Berlin has pieces of the hated wall. Once physically detached from Western Europe, the city is now its political and creative hub. Marginalized neighborhoods that used to abut the Berlin Wall have found themselves in the city center: the border crossing Checkpoint Charlie has turned into a kitschy tourist trap, and luxury condos are springing up in the former “death strip” where East German troops used to shoot to kill. West Berlin’s edgy counter-culture has shaped today’s mainstream.
The new normal is beguiling and comfortable. The old certainties of the Cold War seem quaint to a postmodern, skeptical generation of Europeans with no first-hand experience of living on a divided continent. The United States is no longer seen as the guarantor of Western democracy. On the contrary, after the unprovoked war in Iraq and revelations about the National Security Agency’s global reach, especially younger Germans see the United States more as a menace than a benefactor. It’s not a coincidence that Berlin has become a haven for latter-day American dissidents such as filmmaker Laura Poitras and WikiLeaks activist Jacob Appelbaum.
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