The Fall of the Berlin Wall

The demolition of the Berlin Wall started 25 years ago today, November 9, 1989. Nine days later, I turned 21, so every minute of my first 21 years except for a week was lived in the bipolar world of the Cold War.

Us versus them. It was served with our breakfast cereal, our school lunches, and the nightly news watched during dinner. The Cold War was a fact, a background noise, a tinnitus-like hum heard 24/7, sometimes from far away and sometimes next door. Its removal seemed to make us aware that it had always been there, how loud it was, and that it had been driving us all insane.

Since 1989, there have been many movies set in post-apocalyptic nightmare futures but by the mid 1980s our movies were starting to entertain the notion of depicting the apocalypse itself; in 1964, “Dr. Strangelove” ends with a sequence of images of mushroom clouds, which is shocking and direct—and very far away. On November 20, 1983, ABC television aired a made-for-TV movie called “The Day After” which graphically depicted the moment of apocalypse. In Kansas. (According to its Wikipedia entry, it remains the highest-rated made-for-TV movie in American television history.

A military build-up in East Germany leads to a standoff and diplomatic breakdown and both sides launch missiles. The movie does not dwell in the plausibility of the geopolitical story, though, since that really would not matter to innocent citizens on the ground; it shows the missiles exploding and the instantaneous and not so instantaneous deaths everyday people would experience. Conscientious history teachers sent their pupils home with requests that the students be allowed to watch in order to participate in discussions the next day; ABC announced at what minute the most horrifying scenes would begin (I seem to remember the broadcast was commercial-free).

My parents did not sign; I remain one of the few who did not see “The Day After.”

vilniusbBy 1989, it appeared that the end was beginning. In January of that year, I traveled to the USSR with a school group. We saw what it looks like when a country maintains borders not to keep people out but to keep its own citizens inside. In Vilnius, Lithuania, a truly beautiful city, an elderly woman approached us (our professor was Lithuanian, so he translated) and declared, “God bless Reagan!” In Kiev, Ukraine, something similar happened but the elderly woman did not need to be translated; she said it in English. In Leningrad, the same thing.

(I happen to be a liberal, a Democrat usually, and this love for Ronald freaking Reagan was not winning any points with me. But even I understood what was happening. I just wanted some love for Michael Dukakis, who had recently lost to Reagan’s vice-president, George Bush, in November.) Even I understood what was happening. Asked why the people we were meeting, both those speaking freely and the minders who could not speak freely, were not praising Gorbachev and perestroika, our professor spoke metaphorically: “When a jailer removes a prisoner’s head from a bucket of water, the prisoner is not going to thank the jailer for his kindness.” Maybe it wasn’t all that metaphoric.

I do not know if we were more or less closely watched than other groups usually were during our two-week visit, but no attempt was made to conceal watching us. The professor and I were given a personal last-moment tour of the inner workings of an interrogation room on our way out of the country.

From November 9, 1989, until Christmas 1991, when the USSR declared itself closed for business, the Cold War came to a sputtering conclusion. One side won or at least declared victory. It began with an exclamation point, the crowds atop the Berlin Wall, and many revolutions in many countries unfolded over those two years before the final chapter was written. For generations before, from the late 1940s on, the Cold War was the defining fact of life for citizens in dozens of countries on the two declared sides.

For people 40 years old and older, we grew up in an era in which the end of the world was a legitimate conversation topic. The images of the happiest people on earth breaking through that terrible wall 25 years ago today are a reminder of “The Day Before,” a period when “The Day After” of our cultural imagining was unspeakable horror.

Ever since, both sides have been working hard to replicate that bipolar worldview, that us versus them mentality. It makes for an easier foreign policy, which sometimes makes for an easier domestic policy. Looking at the 25-year-old images is like getting a message from a stranger letting us know that it is still all over, but we do not know who the caller is or what is still all over.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 9 asks, “Someone’s left you a voice mail message, but all you can make out are the last words: ‘I’m sorry. I should’ve told you months ago. Bye.’ Who is it from, and what is this about?”

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