Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Twenty years ago, or a little more, on 9. November 1989, the Berlin Wall, which for a generation had prevented East Berliners from traveling to the West and vice versa, and which was patrolled by guards who shot and killed hundreds of Germans trying to escape, became at once porous with a miscommunicated order from the Politburo opened die Grenze and permitted Easterners to travel West openly for the first time since 1961.  Pieces from the wall were chipped away that night, and although demolition did not begin until later, the ninth of November is remembered as the day the Wall came down.

I should resist the urge to bring this back to the American perspective, but I'm starting to think there's no universal perspective on this event, perhaps on any event, only a relatively close constellation of different national or regional interpretations. Living abroad, one discovers—and this is perhaps for the first time, or at least it was in my case—just how differently the rest of the world sometimes sees part of our shared history that one used to think was uncomplicated, or universally accepted by all to have happened the ways the American textbooks teach it.  In her speech at the commemoration, Chancellor Merkel explicitly recognized the Soviet leadership, namely Mikhail Gorbachev, for "courageously let[ting] things happen."  Would that, I wonder, not amount to minor-league blasphemy in the United States?  We Americans have the enforced narrative, written into history's early drafts by Reagan hagiographers and parroted by our, ahem, learned political class, that the USSR remained malignant and hostile to the end, that only Reagan's courageous defiance and brinksmanship .  Reality, of course, is far more complicated; Gorbachev had proposed glasnost and perestroika already by 1989, and although the East German government remained obstinately committed to the political ideology that the Soviet system would eventually triumph over the west, the government in Moscow had already made strides that, well I suppose they weren't unmistakeable, since a lot in the west had quite queer opinions of them, but were nonetheless enormous, and in the direction of a laying down of arms in the cold war, of acknowledging defeat rather than declaring surrender. (I should note that these historical judgments all come footnoted with the asterisk that means "as best as I can tell"; it's something of a murky field made no clearer by my utter lack of any particular knowledge.)

Actually, can I digress for a second? My German textbook just had a section on politics, wherein there was a frank, not uncritical, and open discussion of Marxism in the 1970s. Totally uncontroversial, right? After all, Marxism, while certainly not without its legitimate detractors, was one of two or three fundamental political ideologies that shaped the twentieth century and was responsible for a handful of major advancements and a share of significant abuses. Should have been a nothing-call; I was floored. I went to public school for thirteen years, and there was never an acknowledgment of the existence of Marxism other than in the obituary of the occasional hanged anarcho-syndicalist. It simply wasn't mentioned. To anyone who's lived in the United States, neither the entire omission of Marxism from public education is news, nor is the entirely transparent reasons for that exclusion. And to think, all this time I've been sneering at the poor biology students in Kansas, or what contortions must be being pulled during history class in Texas, and... I absolutely had no less of an ideologically filtered education than they had.  Or not one so markedly better that I'm in a position to sneer.  

My German instructor mentioned an event? a thing? a commemorative display? no, that last one is surely wrong---that would be taking place, a few hours after out class ended.  It sounded like a good idea, so I went to the library, did some grocery shopping, and at the appointed time, went to where I thought I would be able to see it.  I saw only crowds like I'd expect to see there any day of the week, and an art installation I'd seen being constructed earlier but not since it had been finished.  Otherwise there was no trace of any grand event, and I pedaled home, trying not to dwell on the fact that I should have gone to Potsdamer Platz instead, where at least I could have lied and said I was close enough to the front of the crowd to see the giant dominoes fall.

I don't mean to suggest that I was disappointed not to have seen first-hand my little slice of world history, only underwhelmed at the reaction I did see in the city where I'd expected to find it. That's the surprise, though, when you're in it; that's another of the things I'm discovering while living elsewhere.  When you're growing up, watching the world turn on the television, it's inconceivable that people out there, living their lives where the teevee cameras were, could possibly have any other concerns or cares than those than have you, the noble and enlightened television viewer.  What else could someone be interested in!  It's on television!  When you grow up and move out into the world and maybe into one of the world's great cities, where these things tend to happen, you learn one day---or perhaps one day realize that you never learned it---that living through major events without noticing exactly them going on is the most ordinary damn thing in the world, that it happens to you a thousand times before you get change for the paper and a coffee at the newstand outside the stairs to the subway. I was in New York on September 11th and watched everything happen---except a neverending plume of smoke from somewhere to the south---on cable t.v. I worked for the Obama campaign by trying to counteract any potential voter-suppression schemes by the other party in a state where no voter-suppression ever happened and which the candidate anyway eventually won by double digits. History happens, and it even happens next to you, but you've got to be joking if you thought you were entitled to advance notice with date and time; unless it's far closer than you'd ever wish, you learn about history the same way as everyone else does, in the headlines the day after.

[Update from the post-date: My currents, to resurrect an old habit. This post being written quite after-the-fact, these come with the same asterisk as my recollection of history, that they're as best as I can tell:

reading: Koestler's Darkness at Noon, at long last. Recommended by a cherished reader of the blog who, and I'm just going to say it, seems more in love with things German than he does about anything about his own country, other than a perplexing, lingering [ed.note: two consecutive participles? sorry] allegiance to our horrifying sellout failure of a president, and who even insists that it's only the Berliners who know a damn thing about techno. It was invented, developed, and perfected, as was pretty much all western music, by urban African Americans, although it took members of my own race to over-commercialize it and drain it of its soul. Namely black deejays in Detroit and Chicago. All I'm sayin'.

listening: deadmau5, "Faxing Berlin." Topical and booty-shaking. And to think, a North American recorded it. You hear me? I'm talking to you, nameless cherished reader!!!

obsessed with: how many got-damn blog posts I have to write now. Wow, I have let this thing go, huh?]


  1. thanks for the shout-out. berliners do techno better.

    meanwhile, another bit of history that everyone but germans fail to grasp is that german "unification" was actually a conquest. anyone in the East before the wall fell could tell you what the feeling was like. they were beaten and conquered, unequivocally. so for all the talk of 'unification,' what you really have is two politically and socioeconomically dissimilar halves that resent one another much of the time. talk of 'unification' obscures that reality, but it's pretty palpable on the ground there.

  2. Re: the president, here's a little slice of bertolt brecht:

    With whom would the just man not conspire
    In the interests of justice?
    What medicine would taste too bad
    To a dying man?
    What vile act would you not commit,
    In order to extirpate vile acts?
    If you could at last change the world,
    Would you step up and do it?
    Who are you?
    Wade in filth.
    Embrace the butcher, but
    Change this world: She cries out for it!
    Continue this tale!
    We will not listen to you much longer
    as the judge, but rather as
    the apprentice.