Twenty years ago, on Nov. 10, 1989, the day after the Berlin Wall fell, I saw unbridled joy in the smile of a young East Berliner. The event was incredible to him, and to me as a West Berliner, too. The two of us babbled over beers, searching for words big enough for our feelings. We found none, so we beamed instead. What made us, and everyone around us, so giddy was that the future didn’t simply contain the possibility of being different and better, but the certainty of being so. How it would be different was unclear and entirely secondary. It was our moment in history.
The previous night, Nov. 9, I had been driving my rusted VW Rabbit through a flurry of fat snowflakes when the news of the Wall’s demise came over the radio. Momentous events have a way of imprinting themselves by minutiae and for this, it was the squeak of my windshield wipers as I listened in disbelief to the fever-pitched words of the announcer.
It seemed phenomenally crazy that the Wall would fall without a drop of blood or a full-fledged nuclear war. Neither the shift in the Eastern bloc that began with Gorbachev—not with Reagan’s 1987 photo-op speech at the Brandenburg Gate or the October demonstrations in East German cities—nor the exodus of thousands by train through Hungary into Austria, nor the refugees inside the West German embassy compound in Prague nor other unequivocal signs that socialist East Germany had died—none of it had been able to topple the brutally unnatural border in our minds.
History is made in an instant, but ideology is not that adaptable. This I learned in conversations with East Berliners during the weeks to come. After 40 years of division and 28 years of the Wall, we sought each other’s company, brimming with curiosity and patience.
Amazing to me, the East Germans voiced doubts about the new, “free” order of things, such as: What exactly was competition? What was so great about ambition? My optimism reached its limit in the ensuing debate. I smiled a lot in my sales pitch of democracy and found the unimpressed faces unnerving. Belief systems, mine as much as theirs, would have to be taken down one miserable brick at a time and not overnight like the cement barrier and the state with it. And then the view changes.
The first time I walked right past the deserted gray booths at the former border crossing into the countryside of Brandenburg, a landscape I had been able to see but not touch from car or train windows traveling on transit routes to West Germany, I could barely control my impulse to run. For so long, I had wanted to move freely inside this foreign state but couldn’t. Despite all the personal freedom the encircled, amputated island of West Berlin provided, I would’ve inevitably run into a wall or a border.
In November 1989, I walked across barren, formerly state-owned fields, and that moment of openness and discovery was precious. Twenty years later, those same fields are now fenced, owned by corporations. While much of the East German population scrambled to learn the new rules of democracy and a free market, corporations and franchises seamlessly moved in. I questioned my enthusiasm: What percent of my eternal optimism was indoctrination of the Western kind?
East Germans had lived from the cradle to the grave shackled to a state that ruled by the sheer intimation that it could, and yet many I talked to grieved the loss of the socialist ideal, mourned the fact that no one in this free society told them what to do and that no one took care of them.
It sounded absurd to me at the time, but it does less so now. These same questions, now being raised in earnest in the Land of the Free, are less an indication that the dreaded socialism is coming (anyone who thinks it is doesn’t know what socialism is or was), but that the status quo of capitalism isn’t really working anymore. What good is “freedom” if you have to work several jobs just to stay alive, and no matter how much you work, you never win?
As we commemorate the fall of one wall, we’d do well to consider the ones we have built and are reinforcing. Dividing lines claim more than mere property, for all too quickly they become symbols of self-righteous belief.
Birgit Nielsen is a freelance writer and translator who lives in Guerneville.