Watching the World Wake Up From History

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November 9, 2009 by D Stack

BerlinWall-BrandenburgGate-1989-Nov-09

Berlin Wall, November 9, 2010 (used under Creative Commons License)

I was alive and I waited waited

I was alive and I waited for this

Right here, right now, there is no other place I want to be

Right here, right now, watching the world wake up from history

I saw the decade in, when it seemed

the world could change at the blink of an eye

 

– Jesus Jones, “Right Here, Right Now”

 

There are countless places you can read the facts of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And there’s some great opinion pieces out there. I think my favorite is in today’s Washington Post by Ann Applebaum. She points out how significant it was — and how good things have been since then. Not perfect, but there were worries about Neo-Nazis, purges, etc. Things were far from perfect (Yugoslavia comes to mind) but the world before the wall fell down was worse than the one we live in. In the New York Times, Russ Douthat argues how even 9/11 did not undo the events of 1989 – the Cold War between the US and USSR was a threat to all of human civilization, while Al Qaeda hides in caves.

As for me, I find myself thinking of life before the wall came down. I was born in 1971 and was a freshman at the University of Connecticut. No internet as we know it. Despite being a Computer Science and Engineering Major I didn’t even have my own computer – it was well over a thousand dollars for the 286 I bought a year or two later, with under 1 MB of RAM and a 40 MB hard disk. Cable TV hadn’t even arrived at UConn yet.

All my life the US and USSR had been facing each other off, with the threat of nuclear Armageddon. We were past the duck and cover stage of survival planning – if the nukes came flying, the best to hope for was a quick death. I remember in middle school the release of The Day After. It seems insane that the world endured for two generations under these circumstances. I have memories of making certain my sneakers were always by my bed – “just in case”.

The greatest symbol of this era was the Berlin Wall. A capitalist enclave surrounded by the communist Eastern Bloc. Trying to cross the wall without permission would get you shot. The scene for the finale of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. You could read an 80s science fiction novel and there would still be the wall in a dark, cyberpunk future. What I’m saying is we couldn’t quite imagine the Wall ever coming down.

So turning on the TV that night and seeing mobs of Berliners scaling the Wall was shocking to say the least. The unimaginable had happened. Nuclear war seemed a more likely outcome than this. The unimaginable had happened in a good way. The year had been progressing in that direction. Borders were opening throughout the fall of 1989. But even after that it seemed hard to believe that the Berlin Wall too would come down. Looking back at history we can see how it was a logical culmination of all that occurred earlier that year and the preceding years. But there was no twenty years of reflection back then.

 

I’ve never seen the Berlin Wall in person. But my wife and her family have. My mother-in-law was born in Prussia and her family, in the aftermath of World War II, was frequently on the move, trying to stay out of Soviet control. They left behind all they had to avoid being taken back to Russia when the Red Army was taking the technologically proficient as spoils of war. And they got out of East Berlin to West Germany before the Wall went up. My mother-in-law eventually settled in the USA after graduating college.

In the 80s my wife, then a high school student, frequently visited Germany to visit family. One trip took them to Berlin. She told me about the trip – the heavily armed guards who searched every bit of their bus as they passed from West Germany to East Germany, checked all baggage, passports, etc. Inspected the engine block. Repeated the process before they entered West Berlin. And the experience of crossing from the colorful and vibrant West Berlin to the gray East Berlin, still not fully recovered from World War II, some forty years after the end of the war.

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