Watching the Wall Fall, Twenty Years Later

As a part of the generation removed, Darryl Campbell comes to understand the emotional resonance of the Berlin Wall’s collapse.

I was four years old and in Montessori school when the Berlin Wall fell. About the same time that Günter Schabowski was telling the world that East Germany’s borders were now open sofort, unverzüglich (“immediately, right away”), I was probably separating the carrots and peas on my lunch tray — either that, or fumbling my way through another lesson in shoe-tying, which I wouldn’t quite master until the following year.

The next day, my teacher, Mrs. Lee, was unusually quiet. In the afternoon, she wheeled a television cart into the room and explained that something important was happening in Germany and Eastern Europe, but also that those of us who didn’t want to watch the news with her could spend the rest of the day playing. I chose the latter (blocks were more my thing), and didn’t pay much attention to the TV. I’d been to Europe the year before with my parents, but I didn’t remember much: walking underneath the Eiffel Tower, learning basic French and German phrases (ça va? bien, merci; Entschuldigung Sie, bitte!), and my dad complaining that Big Macs were the equivalent of $8. All the images on screen, whether of scowling apparatchiks or jubilant East and West Germans, meant little to me. I cared about spelling words correctly, avoiding cottage cheese, and watching Jeopardy with my mom and dad; I couldn’t have understood what was happening even if I’d wanted to.

Twenty years later, have I changed all that much? I’ve learned and read and even written a lot about the revolutions of 1989. I know what happened and why, and I know how November 9th has shaped not only Europe but the whole world also. I can understand the outpouring of memory and commentary on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. If you placed the 24-year-old me in front of a television feed from 1989, I could probably narrate the story of the revolutions from memory.

But it would be a relentlessly intellectual exercise. I know the events, I understand the chronology, I can even take a stab at describing the historical significance of all of it; what I can’t do is grasp exactly why any of this made a Montessori school teacher in St. Louis, Missouri, someone with no deep connection to Germany in particular or even Europe in general, cry in front of her students.

After all, almost no one in the under-30 set — certainly no one under twenty — can remember what it was like to grow up under the shadow of the Soviet Union. We Millennials grew up fearing nuclear power plants more than ballistic missiles; we’ve drawn our political battle lines around legalized abortion and gay marriage, not Marxism and its derivatives. And however we understand our nation’s role in the world, whatever present or future threats we might see in China, Russia, or the Islamic world, we know that we are far removed from the East-versus-West world of the Cold War. Soviet-style Communism has gone, in the words of Leon Trotsky, into the dustbin of history.

In a 1989 essay, Francis Fukuyama argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union showed that there were no viable alternatives to Western-style liberal democracy. We’d arrived, in other words, at the “end of history.” I don’t know if his thesis is true or even provable — Fukuyama himself later backed away from it in his 2002 book Our Posthuman Future — but it seems to me that he’s at least got something right about our relationship to the past.

Those of us who grew up after the Wall fell may never completely understand what it was like before November 9th, 1989. We probably don’t recognize any need to, either. After all, we have artists, journalists, historians, commentators, filmmakers, and all manner of people who make it their business to remember and understand and record it so that the rest of us don’t have to. We know how to react to museums and memorials; we can turn to a book or a talking head to find out what has (and hasn’t) changed — politically, economically, and socially — twenty years later.

But digging for an event’s historical significance is not the same thing as figuring out why people spent their lives either fearing or fighting these ideological battles, or why they felt such relief when the party leaders of the Eastern Bloc threw in the metaphorical towel. In other words, the fall of Communism I can deal with, because it’s an intellectual exercise. I’m no closer to understanding Mrs. Lee’s reaction to that television broadcast than I was as a four-year-old, however, because I’ve never been taught to respond to the past with emotion. Sentiment is for veterans and old people, I thought. And anyway, I’d been over the details of November 1989 so much that if I hadn’t gotten misty-eyed over it now, I wasn’t going to at all.

Then I found these two clips on YouTube. They were put up by something called No Comment TV, which is just what it sounds like. They depict the sorts of scenes that I’ve read about in dozens of books and articles, but haven’t actually seen until now: people cheering, laughing, hammering away at the wall; border guards looking slightly sheepish as they hand out chunks of the wall they’d spent the last 27 years guarding to the crowd, and to each other. At one point a beaten-up Trabi makes its way across a checkpoint, and hundreds of people thump on the hood and roof of the car to give it a proper sendoff. At another, a man holds up two chips of concrete and says to the camera, so geht’s überall, und nichts anderes — this and only this is happening everywhere.

But the vast majority of it is pure, joyful incoherence.

Best of all, none of it is adulterated by cloying, isn’t-this-historic voice overs or heavy-handed reminders that not everything changed after November 9th. I’d been told all my life of the significance of these few hours, but it wasn’t until I’d seen a few minutes of them that I internalized it all, that I really understood What It All Meant. For the first time, I felt that I could not just sympathize but share in this collective release of emotion. And for the first time, I understood why my teacher had cried twenty years ago.

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.