“Immediately”–Günter Schabowski

… And with that, The Wall effectively crumbled (although it was a few days until the sledgehammers came out).  That was it for the Berlin Wall, the Iron curtain was rent, and the regimes passed into the dustbin of history with varying levels of violence, and now we are faced with a new, for the most part postcommunist (post Soviet-Communist) world.  No longer were people in Europe peering at each other across a mined, fenced, and patrolled no-man’s land, but now a number of the former eastern bloc countries are part of the EU, NATO, and it’s possible to walk across Europe in either direction without much interference, and the Iron Curtain trail is available for bike tours.

I’ve asked my friends where they were and what were they doing 20 years ago, and for the most part they didn’t really understand at the time, which is understandable because I was in 3rd grade, and they were in kindergarten-elementary school as well. 

Some other friends had different takes on the event, being older (in graduate school, teaching, or working at the time).

A friend, who was in graduate school at the time, claimed to have thought it one of the seminal events of his life.  He had wanted to get to Berlin to see it all happen, but unfortunately couldn’t make it there from Oslo.  A colleague of his was in shock—his doctoral thesis centered on how the communist bloc was going to be around for the foreseeable future; and he now was in the difficult position of defending his research and interpretation of it, considering that the GDR was no more and the USSR was on its last legs.
the Another friend, a West German, was busy playing pool and celebrating a friend’s birthday, and didn’t notice at the time—the next morning the newspaper announced quite a present: “one we had been waiting for all our lives.”

the most interesting note I received was from Prof. Walter LaFeber, who didn’t remember where he was other than that he was in Ithaca, and that the coming down of the Wall wasn’t that big a surprise.  Now, being one of the great foreign policy minds of the 20th century, having written several books on the subject, he is pretty well qualified to have seen the writing on the wall so to speak, before most other people (including the unfortunate Norwegian grad student above).

So, here we are 20 years later, in a world which is more complicated in some ways.  Where it was easy to point to a nation-state as an enemy, now we contend with nonstate actors and quasi-governmental organizations (such as the Taliban).  I think we’re in many ways better off, and the people who suffocated under the Iron Curtain are almost certainly better off (although during the 1990’s, Russia experienced a depression which some claim to have been as severe or worse than the American Great Depression of the 1930’s), we still live in an imperfect world.  Some of the commitments the communist regimes made (albeit halfheartedly) were laudable, and now that the the debate over medical care and egregious compensation are heating up in the US, perhaps it would be prudent to consider alternate political-economic models, which now are really nowhere to be found.

As Prof. LaFeber has said before, history can only be interpreted long after the events in question.  The 20th century paradigm began to dissolve in 1989 –and while it’s melt continues, it is a long way from gone from our consciousness.

 

"History is not without a sense of irony." — Morpheus, The Matrix.

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