Archive for November, 2009

November 10, 2009

Watching the dominoes fall in Berlin: Reflections on November 9, 2009

Brandenburg Gate

TWENTIETH ANNIVERSARIES ARE OFTEN melancholy affairs, no matter how happy and festive the occasion is. We can’t help but think of how much time has passed and how few of our dreams we have actually realized. Our joy over the past is often overshadowed by our ambivalence about the present. It is easy to ruin such an occasion. And that is what happened last night at the elaborate twentieth anniversary celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The orchestral music and the political speeches by Mayor Wowereit, President Sarkozy, Prime Minister Brown, President Medvedev, Hillary Clinton, and Angela Merkel at the Brandenburg Gate were okay – standard fare in this sort of situation – but then, by golly, somehow whoever was in charge of the event had the brilliant idea of handing the whole thing – and not just the broadcast – over to TV “personality” Thomas Gottschalk, who transformed this historic night into just another boring, wordy, utterly forgettable TV event.

I think this overblown talkshow would have bored anyone sitting at home in the comfort of their heated living room, but for the two million or so of us huddled together in the icy rain, craning our necks to watch the pageantry on one of the several giant TV screens set up around the government district, the twenty years separating us from the dramatic opening of the Wall on November 9, 1989 seemed more like two hundred, as if it had nothing whatsoever to do with our lives…


November 10, 2009

Day of destiny: Germany and November 9

Berlin Wall

FOR AS LONG AS there have been calendars, specific dates have marked significant historical and spiritual events in their respective societies. The Americans celebrate their independence on the fourth of July, the French mark the storming of the Bastille on the fourteenth of July, and the British commemorate the infamous Gunpowder Plot on the fifth of November. Every other country – and just about every religion – also celebrates certain days that changed the world. New dates can appear at any moment. In today’s America, the magic date of 9/11 now trumps all others and determines much of our national identity. Germany is no exception to this phenomenon, although it is unique for having one day in its national calendar so pregnant with meaning that they have a special name for it: der Schicksalstag der Deutschen (the fateful day of the Germans). They mark this day not on 9/11 but on 11/9, i.e. on November 9. The events that have occurred on this day span the entire spectrum of human experience, from defeat to shame, from the profoundest horror to redemption and rebirth. It is the date itself that ties these seemingly random events into a neat package and gives both structure and an astonishing level of meaning to one of the most turbulent histories any nation has ever experienced – and inflicted on the rest of the world. It wasn’t always this way, but November 9, 1848 happened to be the day that German revolutionary Robert Blum was executed by firing squad in Vienna. His death at the hand of reactionary Austrian soldiers marked the symbolic defeat of the Revolution of 1848, which set the cause of German democracy back by generations. Exactly sixty years later, as a new rebellion broke out among the soldiers and sailors of the defeated German Empire … Continued…

November 5, 2009

My escape from East Berlin


EVERY MORNING, ABOUT HALFWAY into my daily jog along Gartenstrasse towards the old West Berlin district of Wedding, my feet pass over a double row of bricks set into the pavement. A metal plaque identifies this seam, which zigzags through the German capital, as the route of the former Berlin Wall. Turning onto Bernauer Strasse, I pass by the weathered gray slabs of the Wall itself and then encounter the cylindrical Reconciliation Chapel, built on the site of the old brick Reconciliation Church, which used to stand smack in the middle of the free fire zone between the two halves of the city and which the East German regime consequently dynamited in 1985. After working up a good sweat, I double back onto Strelitzer Strasse. There I catch a glimpse of a plaque marking this gray East Berlin house as the endpoint of the famous 1964 tunnel which, the sign notes, was shut down after a Stasi agent betrayed the escape route to his minders. A few minutes later I step into the shower and am soon ready to begin a normal working day.

 And yet, I can remember a time when this routine jog would have been even less plausible than a non-stop sprint to Vladivostok. It was the summer of 1987. After spending a few weeks with my new East German girlfriend in Berlin, I headed back to the States to continue my graduate studies. As the weeks passed, our suspicion turned to fact: she was pregnant. And not just pregnant, we learned as autumn turned to winter, but pregnant with twins. …