Monday, November 09, 2009

Twenty Years Ago Today

As everybody who's ever taken a European history class knows, following World War II, Germany was a big mess of divided loyalties, and a focal point of the international dispute between communism and democracy. In 1956, the government of East Germany, in an effort to stem the tide of emigration to democratic West Germany, placed restrictions on East German citizens' ability to travel. In 1961, construction began on a wall that would divide the two sides of the country, splitting Berlin both literally and symbolically.

Nearly 30 years later, in the late '80s, as revolutions sparked up throughout the Eastern Bloc countries, the government of East Germany relented. On November 9, 1989, upon hearing the news that East Germans would be permitted to freely visit West Germany for the first time since 1956, Berliners flooded the gates of the wall. In the days that followed, they literally chipped the wall away.

Then, of course, Germany went through a lengthy reunification process, dealing with the combination of two economies (one of which was shaky at best) and two cultures. Not an easy time. But on November 9th, no one was worried about that.

When all of this happened, I was a freshman in high school. I'd grown up hearing stories of the years my mom and her family lived in Germany, in the '50's, and I'd developed a pretty healthy, fear-laced anti-communist attitude, thanks mostly to the national news media and Red Dawn. To me, hearing about the fall of the Berlin Wall was unbelievably exciting and inspiring. Looking back, I can say with confidence that it was the single biggest reason why I chose the educational path I did. I was, and still am, in awe of the first people who pushed their way through those gates.

And today is the day to celebrate those people, and the event as a whole. In Berlin, there are concerts and events all day. Possibly the coolest part of it is The Domino Action. Over 1,000 artists and young people in Berlin have painted oversized dominoes, like the one seen below, that will be tipped to symbolize the wall falling.

At my house, celebration will be a little quieter...more along the lines of dinner involving sauerkraut. But a celebration nonetheless. I know it hasn't been the easiest 20 years in Berlin, and intellectually I know they've been a blip on the overall screen of history. But that blip includes most of my life. And if the fall of the wall had the kind of effect it had on me, a 13-year old living thousands of miles away and a stable and functional democracy, I can only imagine the kind of impact it had on people living closer and under closer circumstances.
It's a day for celebration everywhere, and I hope the people of Berlin really, really enjoy it.

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