The global celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the
Berlin Wall aren't entirely about commemorating the rebirth of freedom
or reliving those thrilling moments when a perverse and repressive
system collapsed. Listen closely to the exalted commentary recounting
the events of those historic days and you're also likely to hear the
subtle intonations of regret and nostalgia.
I'm not speaking of ostalgie -- nostalgia for the Old East (ost
in German) -- that is still felt by a large number of residents of the
former East Germany and other Eastern bloc nations. Sad as it may be,
it shouldn't be the least bit surprising that, after the initial
euphoria, many in East Germany and the other Iron Curtain countries had
a hard time transitioning from the boring predictability of
totalitarian communism to the terrifying insecurity of democratic
capitalism. There are plenty of people who feel just like the
60-year-old gravedigger I met in Bucharest a few weeks ago who wanted
to be sure I knew "freedom" wasn't all that it was cracked up to be.
I'm talking about, however, is nostalgia on the part of us Westerners
who once deplored the evil absurdity of what the East German
propagandists called the "anti-fascist protection barrier." Because,
for all our collective disgust at the erection of a wall that caged
people within their own country, that wall also provided the West --
particularly Americans -- with the sense of moral clarity and
superiority that we now long for.
The awful truth is that in
many ways the Berlin Wall, where at least 136 people were killed over
28 years, was almost as important in forming our sense of identity
during the Cold War as it was to the people who were hemmed in by it.
A menacing symbol of global division, the wall required us to
vehemently declare which side we were on, ideologically speaking. It
could induce even the hardiest campus leftist -- someone who was
reflexively appalled by President Reagan labeling the Soviet Union "the
evil empire" -- to start belting out "The Star-Spangled Banner." To
peer east into no-man's land from an observation post inWest Berlin was to look our proverbial evil twin in the face in order to reassure ourselves that we were on the right side.
When President Kennedy arrived in West Berlin on June 26, 1963, he
wasn't scheduled to give the rousing speech he ended up delivering at
City Hall. Foreign policy wonks at the White House and State Department
had prepared a low-key address that reflected the growing official
sentiment that the Western powers should learn how to peacefully
coexist with the communist East. But according to British historian
Frederick Taylor, it might very well have been the emotional effect of
Kennedy's visit to the wall earlier that morning -- he had been
"visibly moved by his first on-the-spot view of the cement blocks, the
barbed wire and the watchtowers" -- that inspired him to improvise a
more aggressively anti-communist speech.
In addition to the "Ich bin ein Berliner"
improvisation, Kennedy turned the wall into a symbol of the
incompatibility between two systems of economics and governance. To
those who didn't understand the difference between the two, he
declared: "Let them come to Berlin."
"Freedom," he said, "has
many difficulties, and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had
to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving
Of course, the Berlin Wall was also a huge public
relations blunder for East Germany in particular and communism in
general. Built to stem the tide of millions of East Germans heading
westward, the wall was a singular sign of desperation and denial. In
the end, it turned West Berlin into an international beacon of freedom
and gave the capitalist world something concrete to rally around.
20 years after the wall fell and in the wake of a global financial
meltdown, it's gotten harder to rally around capitalism. We in the West
have our enemies and demons, but they aren't so monolithic, and we
can't always see ourselves as blameless in comparison. There's no
longer such a perfect evil twin to point at to make us feel better
about the imperfections and pitfalls of the system we live in. Without
the stark divide between us and them, we miss that absolute certainty
as to who we are and what we stand for.
And what about the new
Berlin, the once-again capital of a united Germany? In July, Der
Spiegel, Germany's premier weekly newsmagazine, called it "Mallorca by
the Spree" -- the Spree River, that is -- and "little more than a
beer-drenched tourist paradise."
Happy anniversary. Happy freedom.