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By aphrael (Mon Nov 09, 2009 at 07:58:25 AM EST) (all tags)
I don't generally go in for unfettered nostalgia, the clinging to the memory of the past as though it were better today; my life today is great, thank you, even with its troubles, and I would not want to relive yesterday.

And yet some anniversaries are worth remembering, and today's certainly is. It was quite possibly the happiest day in the western world during my lifetime; and it stands as a striking reminder that, given enough time, a determined people can make things change.

Twenty years ago today the people of East Germany swarmed into the west as tourists, and the cold war was over.



The crisis had been building for months. It had started, more or less, when Hungary dismantled its electrified border fence with Austria (an electrified fence backed up by land mines and guards) on the grounds that it could no longer afford to operate it. East Germans, long denied the pleasure of fleeing to the west (where they were granted automatic citizenship), took to vacationing in Hungary - a pleasure they were allowed - and then surreptitiously slipping across the border.

The East German government could not tolerate that, so it responded by prohibiting travel to Hungary.

Dissident East Germans retaliated; they went to the Czech Republic, made their way into the West German embassy, and applied for asylum. Hundreds of them were camped out there for weeks, surrounded by the police; the Czech government could not force them to leave without violating West German extraterritoriality, and the West German government could not transport their new citizens home without the support of the Czechs. Eventually a deal was brokered; it involved shipping the guys by train through East Germany (for symbolic purposes) and then into the west. It also meant that East Germans could no longer be allowed to travel anywhere for fear that dissidents would pull the same stunt again.

Us westerners had no idea what was going on inside of East Germany at this point; it looked as though the walls were closing in on East Germany; there was nowhere the government could allow a discontented population to travel, and a state which had appeared for twenty-five years to be a prison was increasingly resembling a maximum-security lockdown.

And then, on November 9 ... something happened. It was hard to tell what (and it turned out later to have been a mistake). The word had apparently gone out that people were free to travel ... and so they did. They came through the wall, on foot and their disgusting little trabants, by the thousands. And the border guards did nothing to stop them.

The people of West Berlin welcomed their friends, families, and neighbors, and responded by rushing to the wall - a hated artifact that ran through the city like a gaping wound - and began to tear it down, It was mostly gone by the end of the weekend. (I have a piece, passed down to me via a friend in Hamburg who got it from a friend who was there that weekend).  It was a party of pure joy, an orgy of destruction and of reunion.

The government of East Germany, paralyzed with confused indecision, did nothing. The Soviet Union, having decided it could no longer afford its empire, did nothing. Within weeks, the East German government had fallen; within months, East Germany was no more. By the end of the year the people of Czechoslovakia (peacefully), Bulgaria (peacefully), and Romania (violently) ousted their governments.

In that moment, everything changed; the people of East Germany were freed from their prison. The cold war ended. The expansion of NATO and the EU became possible; east-central Europe was reunited with its historic partners.

I remember the astonishing pictures in the newspaper that day, of people dancing on top of the wall, where a day before they would have been shot.

I remember the tears of joy in my German teacher's eyes - herself a refugee, thirty years before, from East Germany.

I remember the astonishing sense that the world could change in an instant; that the struggle of decades could achieve fruition in a snap just when the chances for success looked darkest.

That was today, twenty years ago.

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Memories. | 26 comments (26 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback
I remember by sasquatchan (4.00 / 1) #1 Mon Nov 09, 2009 at 08:05:55 AM EST
as Emperor Norton stood at Checkpoint Charlie and said "Mr. Gerlach, bring down this wall!"

I was there. by ammoniacal (2.00 / 0) #2 Mon Nov 09, 2009 at 08:09:37 AM EST
It most certainly was not the end of the Cold War.
The Soviet Union was still a HUGE question mark at that point.

"To this day that was the most bullshit caesar salad I have every experienced..." - triggerfinger

Yes and no. by aphrael (4.00 / 1) #3 Mon Nov 09, 2009 at 09:11:20 AM EST
Did the military think the cold war was over? No.

But the cold war wasn't all about them; the cold war was something which permeated civilian culture as well - a deep-seated fear that the Soviet Union was an implacable enemy who would destroy us, if it could.

Once the wall came down, that fear vanished. If the Soviet Union was willing to let its slaves be free, then it wasn't an existential threat any more.
If television is a babysitter, the internet is a drunk librarian who won't shut up.

[ Parent ]
I'm glad that as a civilian by ammoniacal (2.00 / 0) #10 Mon Nov 09, 2009 at 12:28:27 PM EST
you had the luxury of not being surrounded by 39 pissed-off and confused Soviet mech infantry divisions. Good for you.

"To this day that was the most bullshit caesar salad I have every experienced..." - triggerfinger

[ Parent ]
what really? by R343L (2.00 / 0) #13 Mon Nov 09, 2009 at 02:07:02 PM EST
Luxury? I believe (a) aphrael wasn't even old enough to be serving in the military in 1989, (b) he's gay and they wouldn't want him anyway and (c) what the fuck?

Yes, it's not comfortable being a soldier, stationed somewhere and not knowing what is going to happen, but for the overwhelming non-military population of Eastern Europe, that day (and period) was the very late-coming fruition of a liberation promised in 1940.

That's all aphrael was is commenting on. You needn't get your knickers in a twist thinking he doesn't realize it was simple and all over in a day.


"There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet." -- Eliot

[ Parent ]
Are you saying there are no gay servicemembers? by ammoniacal (2.00 / 0) #16 Mon Nov 09, 2009 at 07:40:53 PM EST
Because I hope that's not what you're saying.

"To this day that was the most bullshit caesar salad I have every experienced..." - triggerfinger

[ Parent ]
I know there are and were by R343L (2.00 / 0) #18 Mon Nov 09, 2009 at 07:48:42 PM EST
But even now, if you want to live openly and not live a lie, the military doesn't want you. Back then, the prohibition was even stronger.

So I was basically saying that even if aphrael was of the right age, he is the kind of man who wouldn't want to serve if he couldn't serve openly.

"There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet." -- Eliot

[ Parent ]
dude. by aphrael (2.00 / 0) #15 Mon Nov 09, 2009 at 03:15:57 PM EST
chill out.

your experience of those years was different from my experience of those years. it had to have been; I was fifteen, in southern california, far away from the world.

but like everyone else in America, I was conscious of the fear of Russia which permeated our society. And the fall of the Berlin wall meant the end of that fear ... not just for me, but for most civilians stateside at the time.

Now, if you want to argue that the military didn't share that sense of relief, then I'll defer to your judgment. And if you want to argue that the civilians were wrong to have been relieved ... well, I think history shows that not to be true. That said, I think you could argue that the civilian reaction was an emotional overreaction with no basis in knowledge, and that it was just dumb luck that we were right. I'd buy that argument.

But that doesn't change the effect the events of twenty years ago had on the public consciousness of American civilians, or the effect it had on me and mine, or the effect it had on the people of East Germany and West Berlin.

All of which I expect you to understand. So I'm wondering: were you completely out of touch with what people not in the military thought, do you have some personal problem with me, or are you just trolling?
If television is a babysitter, the internet is a drunk librarian who won't shut up.

[ Parent ]
You were younger than I thought. by ammoniacal (2.00 / 0) #17 Mon Nov 09, 2009 at 07:46:47 PM EST
That explains a lot. People who experienced the worst of the Cold War probably viewed the situation much differently than you did. That's not a black mark on you - you just weren't around in time to have better perspective.

"To this day that was the most bullshit caesar salad I have every experienced..." - triggerfinger

[ Parent ]
ana might have an opinion on this by aphrael (2.00 / 0) #19 Mon Nov 09, 2009 at 09:42:00 PM EST
but i think that for anyone who was under 25 and old enough to care, and who was a civilian in the US, the response was pretty similar to mine.

"our long national nightmare has ended."
If television is a babysitter, the internet is a drunk librarian who won't shut up.

[ Parent ]
or johnny. by ammoniacal (2.00 / 0) #20 Mon Nov 09, 2009 at 10:59:32 PM EST

"To this day that was the most bullshit caesar salad I have every experienced..." - triggerfinger

[ Parent ]
it's funny.. by infinitera (2.00 / 0) #21 Tue Nov 10, 2009 at 06:25:41 AM EST
There was a thing on NPR yesterday about declassified documents from both the US and the USSR for that time period, and the US officials are very afraid of the new unknown, don't know what the USSR is plotting, think it should all be slowed down and carefully executed.

And the USSR officials (Politburo/Gorbachov) seem to be acting as if a great weight has been lifted off their shoulders, and they don't have to bother with Germany's problems, etc. They're looking to how they can continue working with the Eastern bloc and the rest of the Europe to address their growing problems (one of which, unsustainable bloc support, has been conveniently removed).

[…] a professional layabout. Which I aspire to be, but am not yet. — CheeseburgerBrown

[ Parent ]
Do they have a podcast? by ammoniacal (2.00 / 0) #22 Tue Nov 10, 2009 at 06:44:51 AM EST
That would be interesting to me.

"To this day that was the most bullshit caesar salad I have every experienced..." - triggerfinger

[ Parent ]
found it: by infinitera (4.00 / 1) #23 Tue Nov 10, 2009 at 07:02:40 AM EST
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120251027

[…] a professional layabout. Which I aspire to be, but am not yet. — CheeseburgerBrown

[ Parent ]
better article: by infinitera (4.00 / 1) #24 Tue Nov 10, 2009 at 07:04:53 AM EST
http://www.wbur.org/npr/120188545

[…] a professional layabout. Which I aspire to be, but am not yet. — CheeseburgerBrown

[ Parent ]
Thanks. by ammoniacal (4.00 / 1) #26 Tue Nov 10, 2009 at 09:01:14 AM EST

"To this day that was the most bullshit caesar salad I have every experienced..." - triggerfinger

[ Parent ]
It was over by ucblockhead (4.00 / 1) #4 Mon Nov 09, 2009 at 09:44:29 AM EST
We just didn't know it yet.

Though I guess you could say the final nail really wasn't until the hard line kidnapped Gorbie and Yeltsin stood his ground.
---
[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman

[ Parent ]
I find this alarming by ucblockhead (4.00 / 4) #5 Mon Nov 09, 2009 at 09:49:07 AM EST
Things that I remember as an adult shouldn't have twenty year anniversaries.

I an having a hard time reconciling the idea that things I actually remember are now "history".  I guess everyone who reaches middle-age goes through this.
---
[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman

it was just on the cusp of becoming 'history' by infinitera (2.00 / 0) #6 Mon Nov 09, 2009 at 09:56:41 AM EST
When I was in high school. It takes a while for textbooks and teachers to update. ;)

[…] a professional layabout. Which I aspire to be, but am not yet. — CheeseburgerBrown

[ Parent ]
IAWTP by Vulch (2.00 / 0) #7 Mon Nov 09, 2009 at 10:18:11 AM EST
Listening to radio news this morning, "Berliners are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall which divided their city for nearly 30 years". I'm not old enough to remember it going up, but it was scary to realise it won't be long before it's been down longer than it was up.


[ Parent ]
as toxicfur noted this morning by iGrrrl (4.00 / 1) #8 Mon Nov 09, 2009 at 10:49:54 AM EST
This generation has very different experiences.

"Beautiful wine, talking of scattered everythings"
(and thanks to Scrymarch)

[ Parent ]
No. 38 is quite relevant here. by ammoniacal (2.00 / 0) #25 Tue Nov 10, 2009 at 07:07:55 AM EST
Thanks for the link.

"To this day that was the most bullshit caesar salad I have every experienced..." - triggerfinger

[ Parent ]
I remember watching the TV with friends. by wiredog (2.00 / 0) #9 Mon Nov 09, 2009 at 11:14:04 AM EST
I was about a year and a half out of the Army, had spent most of my time in the Army training to fight the USSR. Knew where the Fulda Gap was, and why it was important. Was still hearing the alert sirens being tested at 1130 on the first Wednesday of the month.

By the time I graduated college 4 years later East Germany was gone, the USSR was gone, the alert sirens were gone, and US forces were moving from Europe to Arabia.

Remember the Peace Dividend?

Earth First!
(We can strip mine the rest later.)

Fulda Gap by ucblockhead (2.00 / 0) #11 Mon Nov 09, 2009 at 01:41:35 PM EST
My stepfather was stationed there back before he was my stepfather.
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[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
[ Parent ]
I had an uncle stationed there by wiredog (2.00 / 0) #12 Mon Nov 09, 2009 at 02:01:30 PM EST
in the early 50's.

Earth First!
(We can strip mine the rest later.)

[ Parent ]
thanks for posting this by BlueOregon (2.00 / 0) #14 Mon Nov 09, 2009 at 02:27:28 PM EST

I'll probably be posting about it later this evening, but more in the context of my class and such.

As for me -- I was 14, hadn't started learning German yet (was just in my 2nd or so year of Spanish), but as was often the case with my family, I was at home eating a relatively early dinner when we turned on the evening news and got the report. I remember where I was sitting. Like Challenger, it's one of those defining moments of my early years.

Memories. | 26 comments (26 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback