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After the fall: Looking back on Berlin 30 years later
By Serge Schmemann*

A couple of weeks after the breach of the Berlin Wall, I wrote an article about rabbits.

The wall through Berlin was actually two parallel cement barriers with a no man’s land between, and in the in-between haven of this strip rabbits had multiplied like, well, rabbits, often fed by tourists from the observation platforms built along the wall on the West Berlin side.

After the border crossings fell open, thousands of people began chipping away at the wall itself — a tough, noisy and, in my case, painful exercise (I smashed my thumb with a hammer). Before long, gaps appeared in the wall, and out hopped the bunnies, into what they probably believed was a world paved with lettuce. Alas, it proved to be a world teeming with cats, dogs and cars. It was awful.

Now, 30 years later, the story of the rabbits may seem more prescient than it should. I intended it as no more than an allegory for the unrealistic expectations raised by the dramatic and unexpected fall of a barrier that had come to symbolize the division of Europe, and the world, into zones of freedom and captivity. At that moment, whatever problems lay ahead, the magnitude and sheer joy of what was happening pushed aside any doubt that, in time, liberated people (and rabbits) would adapt and flourish, that the world would become a better place.

The moment was all the more exhilarating because it was so totally unexpected. Yes, the promise of change had been palpable ever since a young new leader in the Kremlin named Mikhail Gorbachev had begun loosening the bonds. East Germans had been marching through the streets of Leipzig, Dresden and even East Berlin, and fleeing in swelling numbers through openings in the Iron Curtain in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Change was very much in the air.

But on that Thursday, November 9, 1989, none of those whose job it was to follow these things — diplomats, spies, politicians and reporters — had any inkling that the moment had come. Cracks were showing, but the mammoth apparatus of Communism seemed secure for a long time with its legions of soldiers, secret police and informers. Only a month earlier, thousands of East Germans had marched with torches through the streets of East Berlin in a grand show of fealty on the 40th anniversary of the East German state.

And suddenly, spontaneously, triggered by a badly phrased announcement from a Communist official, the wall fell open. Within hours, I was fighting through delirious throngs of Germans to drag my young German assistant off the wall, yelling, “Today we work, tomorrow we party!”

What a party it was! It’s hard today to fully convey what the moment meant. For the Germans, it meant reunification after four harsh decades of separation and occupation. For the Central and Eastern Europeans, it was the long-awaited end of a tyranny that had denied them the most elemental rights and imposed controls on everything they did, said and even thought. It was a moment most had never dared dream about.

How could the collapse of Communism, following on the collapse of Fascism — two ideologies that sought to fundamentally alter human behavior — not mark the end of history, as a young political scientist named Francis Fukuyama so memorably proclaimed?

A generation has passed since that fateful day — more years than the 28 years in which the wall loomed. The exhilaration that seized us all back then seems almost quaintly utopian now. The promise of coming together in a free and democratic world has given way, in many places, to new divisions and new hostilities; nationalistic and tribal instincts are on the loose, and the lifting of draconian censorship has been replaced by the deeply troubling information jungle of the Internet and the ubiquity of surveillance technology that the Stasi could scarcely imagine.

It has become popular to say that the wall is back, metaphorically and physically, with Donald Trump’s promised “beautiful wall” along the Mexican border as Exhibit A alongside the Great Firewall of China, Viktor Orban’s barrier against immigrants, and the profound East-West divide that persists across Germany and Central Europe, with populist politicians and nationalist parties feeding off a sense among many that their peaceful revolutions three decades earlier left them the losers, economically and socially. Mr. Trump, in his inimitable way, makes no bones about why he wants a wall. In one of his paeans to walls, he argued that they served to save “good people” from making a dangerous journey “because they think they have a glimmer of hope of coming through.”

“With a wall,” he said, “they don’t have that hope.”

Had he been in Berlin on that wondrous moment 30 years ago, he would have known what Robert Frost meant when he wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” When I think back on that long, extraordinary night, I refuse to accept that nothing changed, that the world stayed just as bad, only in different ways, that the hopes raised were false.

The people who flooded through the wall that night, and all the other people who rose up against tyranny across the crumbling Soviet empire, and then in “color” revolutions of that empire’s corrupt successors, and then in the Arab world, and now in Chile, demonstrate that tyranny is not the choice of the tyrannized, that hope never dies behind a wall, and people will finally crash through and dance their hearts out in the name of freedom.

 

* This article, by editorial board member Serge Schmemann, was first published in The New York Times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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