Monday, November 09, 2009

Where were you 20 years ago today? 

Our grandparents remembered where they were when they heard Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor. People half a step older than me remember where they were when they heard the news that President Kennedy had been shot. I, like many of my cohort who came of age never knowing a time without it, remember where I was when the Berlin wall came down twenty years ago today.

I was at a financial printer in Chicago with a newbie lawyer named Ed Adams (now a professor of law at the University of Minnesota) putting the finishing touches on a prospectus so that Sears, Roebuck and Co. could "take down" a couple of hundred million in senior notes.

If you ever spent a night "at the printer" back before pdfs and email, you know there was a lot of down time, just waiting for the last few pages to turn so you could proof them and go home. Ed and I spent those hours watching CNN, and could not believe our eyes. The Cold War, which had divided and confined our world since before we were born, was freaking over. Noon was no longer dark for hundreds of millions of people. Russ Douthat puts it well in this morning's NYT:

Twenty years ago today, [the Communist threat to liberal democracy] disappeared. An East German functionary named Günther Schabowski threw open his country’s border crossings, and by nightfall the youth of Germany were dancing atop the Berlin Wall, taking hammers to its graffiti-scarred facade. It was Nov. 9, 1989. The cold war was finished....

Never has liberation come to so many people all at once — to Eastern Europe’s millions, released from decades of bondage; to the world, freed from the shadow of nuclear Armageddon; and to the democratic West, victorious after a century of ideological struggle.

Never has so great a revolution been accomplished so swiftly and so peacefully, by ordinary men and women rather than utopians with guns.

November 9, 1989 was and remains a momentous day, but people do not seem to want to celebrate it. Barack Obama cannot find the time to go to Berlin to celebrate what is in some respects the greatest victory in the history of our own young country, and you know he would if he thought it would be popular with the voters. VEE (Victory in Eastern Europe) Day is possibly the least-appreciated triumph of freedom over dark, jackbooted oppression in human history, every bit as important as VE Day and far more significant in that regard than November 11, 1918, yet the West's savviest politician has judged that his constituents do not want him to attend the celebration in Berlin. It is a genuine (rather than manufactured) opportunity to celebrate the Atlantic Alliance and our "traditional allies" (an election year priority of the President, you will recall), and Barack Obama is not there. The question is, why?

Douthat argues that politicians of both left and right need an existential threat, and the lack of a real one has caused them to inflate dangers that actually pale in significance to the Soviet Union at the height of its powers:
Twenty years later, we still haven’t come to terms with the scope of our deliverance. Francis Fukuyama famously described the post-Communist era as “the end of history.” By this, he didn’t mean the end of events — wars and famines, financial panics and terrorist bombings. He meant the disappearance of any enduring, existential threat to liberal democracy and free-market capitalism.

This thesis has been much contested, but it holds up remarkably well. Even 9/11 didn’t undo the work of ’89. Osama bin Laden is no Hitler, and Islamism isn’t in the same league as the last century’s totalitarianisms. Marxism and fascism seduced the West’s elite; Islamic radicalism seduces men like the Fort Hood shooter. Our enemies resort to terrorism because they’re weak, and because we’re so astonishingly strong.

Yet nobody seems quite willing to believe it. Instead, we keep returning to the idea that liberal society is just as vulnerable as it was before the Berlin Wall came down.

On the right, pundits and politicians have cultivated a persistent cold-war-style alarmism about our foreign enemies — Vladimir Putin one week, Hugo Chavez the next, Kim Jong-il the week after that.

On the left, there’s an enduring fascination with the pseudo-Marxist vision of global capitalism as an enormous Ponzi scheme, destined to be undone by peak oil, climate change, or the next financial bubble.

Meanwhile, our domestic politics are shot through with antitotalitarian obsessions, even as real totalitarianism recedes in history’s rear-view mirror. Plenty of liberals were convinced that a vote for George W. Bush was a vote for theocracy or fascism. Too many conservatives are persuaded that Barack Obama’s liberalism is a step removed from Leninism.

Douthat loses me when he goes on to argue that our civilization needs a threat -- I blame politicians, activists, and media organizations who would lose their relevance if people actually concluded that there were no really, really scary threats -- but his basic point is absolutely right: Be it the jihad, Iran, carbon dioxide or "globalization," no threat today rivals the danger of intercontinental thermonuclear war. The small wars of the last eight years notwithstanding, we live in frivolous, happy-go-lucky times compared to virtually the entire period between 1914 and 1989.

That is a scary thing only if you want to be "a great president" (we all remember the disappointment of Bill Clinton that he served in such boring times), change the world, or increase the audience of your media product. We do not savor the victory on this anniversary because it is not in the interests of the chattering classes so to do.

MORE: A Facebook comment from a former of au pair of ours:
As to where I was: At home in this small town 30km from the west-german border, excited about my upcoming 6th birthday. As happy as can be when I leaned that I'm gonna be owning my very own Barbie doll just a few days later. Impossible before.

As to where I am now: Still living on the East Side of this country, in Dresden which had been destroyed entirely during the Cold War... Now it is one of the most beautiful cities in Germany.

I hope you get what I'm trying to say here.

That might be the first time I've seen the Barbie doll as an agent of subversion. Well, good.


By Anonymous Dennis, at Mon Nov 09, 10:41:00 AM:


I think you are too generous in your estimate that he's not going because he has judged that we don't care. It is just one more of those childish middle finger gestures to us, our traditions and our history. He has no allegiance to or appreciation of any of that.

Tearing down the wall is a victory for us. It is a loss for him.  

By Anonymous Mr. Ed, at Mon Nov 09, 11:12:00 AM:

It looks here that those in Germany, Western and Eastern Europe, had a front row seat for a momentous event. Europeans of all ages probably felt the emotion of it and most probably knew that it was special, not everyday history being made.

On this side of the Atlantic it was the same for many. But to really feel it I think you had to have come into political awareness in time for the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was in the fifth grade and remember clearly how we were going to escape injury from H-Bombs by diving under our desks. I knew there was a threat of death, sudden and unnatural. I knew that people were plotting for the advantage to do that and get away with it.

I think to remember the Berlin wall on this side of the Atlantic, you really need to be over 50, maybe over 55. I think one reason the President is apparently ambivalent is that, at 48, he is a barely old enough to have lived the Cold War.

There may also be a couple other reasons. The fall of the wall was also the climax in the failure of Marxist Socialism, or at least the European version of it. It wasn't just the end of a long period of military and political tension and danger, it was the end of the Communist experiment, for all practical purposes. It was the failure of the hoped for alternative to capitalism---hoped for by many academically centered young Americans and particularly young, intelligent Americans who lived amongst and empathized with those who were not winning in the world of capitalism. For some it was simply not a happy moment.

Then also, supposing the new freedom for East Europeans (Poles and Czechs come to mind) only looks like freedom? How's that for a doubt! Twenty years is barely time to ponder the facts. Jumping to hasty conclusions hardly seems prudent.

I cheer the fall of the wall, I salute all those who made it possible, I offer my humble respects to all those who died running for freedom.


By Anonymous vicki pasadena ca, at Mon Nov 09, 11:33:00 AM:

I have to say I have no recollection of where I was on that day. It was a great day for the world but, at the time, I didn't see the relevance to me, kids work etc. This affected Europeans far more than it did us. Now, for many this symbolized the end of the cold war, not entirely true.

Don't bag on Obama because he didn't go to the celebration. Such a rightie thing to do. He sent Clinton, after all she is the Secretary of State and this falls within her job description. Nothing makes you righties happy, damned if he does, damned if he doesn't.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Nov 09, 11:40:00 AM:

Barry HO is rightfully damned.

Other countries sent the heads of state - not their secretaries. I guess he's too busy with fundraisers and his Permanent Campaign(tm).

But I understand the real reason why Barry HO didn't go, his side lost.  

By Blogger Escort81, at Mon Nov 09, 11:57:00 AM:

Thirty years ago, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and that misadventure over the next 10 years contributed significantly to the events of 1989. U.S. support of the anti-Soviet forces was critical in helping to cripple the morale of the Red Army. Even the blowback that the U.S. has suffered over the last decade from AQ is not sufficient to convince me that the U.S. should not have supported the mujahadeen in the 1980s. Then again, I admit my bias because of my mother's birthplace being Budapest, so freeing Central and Eastern Europe from Soviet domination is more important to me than forecasting (in 1989) the response of Islamic religious fundamentalists.

Let's have this same discussion in another 10 years and then decide whether or not the U.S. really won the Cold War in a meaningful way. Sure, the Wall came down, which was and is a great thing, but if the U.S. ends up adopting many of the statist features of its former adversary (but hopefully and likely preserving the civil liberties enjoyed for two centuries), it may turn out to be a hollow victory.  

By Anonymous Boludo Tejano, at Mon Nov 09, 12:36:00 PM:

After the reunification of Germany I had a grad student roommate from the former West Berlin. A schoolboy when the Wall fell, he made sure to grab a piece of the Wall as a souvenir, as the Wall had special significance for him. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, his Bulgarian father had been successfully smuggled in a car from East Berlin to West Berlin. My roommate was a product of East and West, as his mother was a West Berlin native.

In the early 1990s, after Germany was reunified, I met in Guatemala two Germans who were traveling on East German (DDR) passports. I rather liked that: traveling on the passport of a country that had gone out of existence!  

By Anonymous alanstorm, at Mon Nov 09, 02:09:00 PM:

"...Barack Obama is not there. The question is, why?"

The answer is, as has been pointed out above and elsewhere, his side lost.  

By Blogger Cassandra, at Mon Nov 09, 03:42:00 PM:

Wow. Leaving aside the historical significance of the anniversary, it's always interesting just to look back and try to figure out what the heck you were doing 20 years ago!

Me: housewife, mother, loads of volunteer work. Could not have been *less* interested in current events as my days were full of soccer practices, walking my boys to and from school (the exercise was good for both of us) and chasing a very high spirited Houdini of a beagle around the ground of the Naval Academy :p  

By Blogger JPMcT, at Mon Nov 09, 04:51:00 PM:

I remember the speech Reagan gave taunting Gorbachev to "tear down the wall" more than I remember the actual physical destruction of the edifice.

One wonders how many school children today would even know what the "Iron Curtain" really was.

It was a victory for free states and it was a victory for men like Ronald Reagan.

How small Mr. Obama looks in comparison...even (ahem) if Reagan never won the Nobel Prize.

I suspect Mr. Obama did not attend because he (and his handlers) understood how really small he would look standing on the same pulpit from which Reagan gave one of the most memorable speeches in history.

Nothing in it for him....for sure!  

By Blogger Andrewdb, at Tue Nov 10, 12:00:00 AM:

I believe the President is still in a snit that he wasn't allowed to speak before the Brandenburg Gate last time he was there.

I don't remember where I was when the wall fell. I do remember it was a very big deal - it had gone up the day before I was born, so it had been there my ENTIRE life. Even after living in Germany, I never expected it to come down.  

By Anonymous Pasquin, at Tue Nov 10, 12:13:00 AM:

I was in the lobby of a motel in San Diego when I heard that the Berlin Wall was coming down. I remember it as clearly as I remember being in a junior high school art class when I learned that JFK had been assassinated. To me, a child of the cold war, these were both world-altering events. I am saddened that most Americans do not -- and saddened even more that our president does not -- have the slightest comprehension of the extraordinary history occuring under their noses.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Tue Nov 10, 01:38:00 AM:

The President's comprehension of extraordinary history seems to be limited to what takes place within a 10 foot radius of his person...  

By Anonymous JC, at Tue Nov 10, 04:42:00 AM:


The assassination of JFK and then the Moon landing.

The 1980 Polish strikes, Lech Walesa, the Pope, Maggie Thatcher and Reagan.. the Wall coming down was a wondrous thing.. but only as a "well, good!" comment because its coming down was simply a culmination of what had gone on in the decade before.

To me as a very early Baby Boomer its all of a piece.. WW2, the Cold War, Truman , Israel, Eisenhower and so on..

Its not the Wall coming down but Western endurance against a murderous ideology/religion over 45 years.. thats what we need to celebrate.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Nov 10, 10:56:00 AM:

Barry HO is a real peice of work!


Obama Skips Anniversary of Fall of Berlin Wall, Sends a Video & Talks About Himself


By Blogger John Galt, at Wed Nov 11, 12:15:00 PM:

I was in a Military Science class. I was disappointed...my whole goal to that point was to die in battle in WWIII. What can I say? I was young and full of stupid ideas.

FWIW...the printer still sucks even in the age of pdf. Listening to two lawyers arguing over apparently meaningless things (at $500/hour) is one reason I'm glad I didn't go to law school. Shortly after they compared notes on how to "game" the system and charge the client (me) for billable hours while they ate a meal I paid for.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Nov 12, 04:19:00 PM:

So John, they wanted to eat your lunch and have you pay them to do it?  

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