When I was growing up, one of my dad’s only steadfast rules was that no one could throw away Time Magazine. It was a point of contention between my parents — limited attic space — but my father eventually acquiesced when we moved six years ago.
Before we recycled them all, however, I searched through every box for the issue corresponding to my birthday on Nov. 16, 1989. I still remember the cover — young Germans dressed in leather jackets and distressed jeans, grinning as they perched on top of the Berlin Wall, helping their friends up as well. Huge bold letters yelling “FREEDOM” stretched out under the nameplate in bright yellow letters. Not a bad birthday cover. Definitely better than the one from the previous week with Arsenio Hall on the cover.
Now that I am turning 20 and thinking philosophically about life and death and when my sophomore slump is going to end, the celebrations of the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall have only intensified those feelings. The world of the iron curtain, red scare and fear of the atom bomb seems like it belongs in the history books, and yet at the same time I often feel like I was literally born yesterday. I even tried to get a flu shot from Pediatrics at DUH a couple of weeks ago. (Turns out Pediatrics cares for children aged 0-4).
Much has happened in last past 20 years besides my existence. The destruction of the Berlin Wall signaled to the West the beginning of the end of the USSR and communism, leaving the United States fully placed in the role as “the greatest country in the world” — as I had always been taught in elementary school. But that could never be true; even as Communism crumbled, Eastern Europe soon realized that though the grass may be greener on the capitalist side, it was not as green as it looked from the other side of that famous wall.
Indeed, US military engagements since the Cold War have only been more messy and entangling. The foundations of American beliefs have been shaken as the country continued to lose international respect in the postwar era.
Last summer President Barack Obama addressed the largest crowd of his campaign, about 200, 000 people, in Berlin near where the wall once stood. He called for a renewed alliance between Europe and the United States in order to “defeat terror and dry up the well of extremism that supports it.” He continued, “If we could win a battle of ideas against the Communists, we can stand with the vast majority of Muslims who reject the extremism that leads to hate instead of hope.” Exactly how this might happen is still unclear. However, the religious extremists Obama is referring to are not a traditional kind of enemy the way the Reds or the Russkies or the Commies were. Maybe because the teaching of history has a habit of doing so, or simply because I am one of three people at this university not taking “Cold War,” there is nevertheless a point to be made about the inherent black (red) and white quality of the Cold War era. There was us and them, Capitalism and Communism, CIA and KGB, West and East. The fall of the Berlin Wall itself could not have been a more literal symbol for the breaking of barriers to freedom and the demise of the Soviet Bloc.
On the other hand, the go-to enemy of the U.S. of the last decade has been a much more slippery one, sneaking onto our planes and hiding in remote caves. The line between helping spread democracy and imposing our own ideals on unreceptive peoples grows ever more blurry. We can only hope that Obama’s rousing words in Germany last summer were something more than just political strategizing.
When I look back at footage of the night of Nov. 9 , 1989 showing Germans ripping the wall down and celebrating their newfound freedom, I can’t help but think of the video footage of riots in Tehran that took place this summer. Both situations are cases of a passionate group of young people yearning for change and to break free from the constraints of another generation’s revolution. But, as the violence that then erupted in Iran illustrates, there are still not-so-literal walls everywhere waiting to be broken. And the memory of the cathartic destruction of the Berlin Wall is more than just an iconic cover image. It is a symbol of how much things change and how much things stay the same.