“Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the magic of November 9 has inexorably faded. But eastern Germany has become a gloriously normal place in the meantime.”
I guess you have to be a Deutschlander to understand what Berlin journalist Marc Young meant when he wrote that this week in a Berlin newspaper, The Local. I’m an American, but I’ve been coming to Germany since 1995 and I think I see what he’s driving at.
There are sound cultural reasons for Germans just wanting to be normal.
This is a nation of many laws, written and unwritten, regulating behavior. As a result, it is a nation of cities like Berlin itself where you can feel safe walking down the street at night. It is also the only place I’ve been in the world where a total stranger could come up to you and scold you for not crossing the street at the right time or in the right place.It is a nation that conserves energy and a nation where clothing colors that many Americans might find drab are on the backs of most Germans you pass on the street.
Some of this is changing, but change comes slowly to a country that has been pummeled with too much of it in its history. Much of that change was unwanted and took the guise of invading armies, home-grown tyrants like Adolf Hitler who wrested control of Germany away from everyday Germans, and distant tyrants like Joseph Stalin who did the same thing – at least for the East Germans.
A Volatile History
When you grow up with a volatile history like that, Normal is not a dirty word. Normal is nice. And normal is what Germany – especially East Germany – has become, according to Mr. Young’s article in The Local.
Having said all that, let me balance it with this: A couple new generations of Germans have grown up without knowing war, so their Germany is different from that of their parents and grandparents. While still a part of the long train of Deutsch culture, these younger Germans have made some pretty big breaks with the past. They are opening up more emotionally; they are looking for more excitement and change; they are starting to show their colors more, and I mean that in a literal sense as I wrote a few blog posts back.
The feeling of national pride – especially in the realm of international sports – is back. Actually, it never left. What left was the showing of that pride. The year 2006 when Germany hosted the World Cup and finished third in the world changed all that.
A dear friend of mine here in the State Department – the person responsible for bringing me to start a series of projects over here years ago – told me this on Monday. She said Germans can be as emotional as anyone else, and she doesn’t agree with the perception that the typical German is detached from feelings.
“But you have to get on with life in the face of tragedy,” she said. “You can’t let emotions stop you. Germans are good at surviving and moving on.”
I would echo all that. It sounds trite to say something like this, but I’ll do it anyway because it’s true: Many Germans are some of the best friends I’ve ever had. Distance and time apart don’t damage these friendships, either. You just pick up where you left off when you come back next year.
The Value of Friendship
The fact that Germany and the United States have become such good international allies over the six decades since WWII, has made America safer in the world. It has also meant good things to Germany. Do we disagree on things? You bet. Just like the best of friends often do.
That’s why public diplomacy – the kind the State Department’s Foreign Service practices so well – is vitally important in today’s world. America must listen to other countries’ needs and do what we can to help them out. And we have to practice that over the long term instead of scrambling to make what I call “firehouse friendships” in times of crisis when we need help ourselves.
Whatever your politics, there is an inspiring sight to see right there near the Brandenburg Gate that trumpets the respect this country has for some American leaders. The site is the Kennedy Museum, a privately-funded tribute to the entire Kennedy family and specifically to the love that President John F. Kennedy showed for Germany with his famous, “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963 Berlin.
Now there was a one-on-one relationship that produced positive results.
Just as inspiring is the large poster of President Barack Obama in the display window of the museum and the exhibit inside intermingling notable campaign moments of President Kennedy and President Obama. That special exhibit went up last May and was in place until the day after the 20th anniversary celebration of the fall of the Wall Monday.
“Kennedy really means a lot to Berliners,” Alberts told me Friday. “Memory is triggered again by the pictures you see. We’re trying to bring back that time and make it alive again, especially for the younger generation of Germans.”
Germans See Similarities
The director also noted the similarity that many Germans see between Kennedy and Obama, and that similarity is the hope that both men have inspired, even in President Obama’s short time in office. The museum has featured a special exhibit for several months of President Obama, and his picture in the window can be seen clear across Pariser Platz.
This will be my last blog post on this chapter in German-American history. I return to college teaching soon on my southern California campus of Azusa Pacific University, ever grateful for this newspaper – The Oklahoman – that has devoted so much attention to this world-changing event over the past two weeks. You may be interested to know it is one of the few American dailies to have done so. It may be the only one to have run a daily blog on the subject.
The Legacy of Nov. 9, 1989
The 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is over, but reports of it will last on sites such as Youtube where my Monday report was posted by my university. It is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GIR5o_tdVA0&feature=related
I hope the legacy of this anniversary will remain. Through the individual stories of heroism and through the changes in this country since East-West days, we can all learn a lot about the universal need of all people to always dream of and chase freedom where ever and whenever they can.
All this week in Berlin – a city that has had more than its share of bouts with tyranny over the 20th century – I’ve been reminded of a folk song I learned as a student back at the University of Oklahoma in the late 1960s. It spoke of a pet bird who refused to stay caged or to sing the song it was taught to sing. It’s last stanza went like this:
Now freedom is like that bird,
you can’t put it in a cage
it will fly away,
give it a chance
it’ll fly away.
It will be gone,
take its flight,
fly on the wings of the wind.
On the night of Nov. 9, 1989, some 25,000 caged East Germans flew to freedom through the infamous Berlin Wall. They were given an inch, saw liberty straight ahead, and they took a mile.
Glückwünsche Berlin. Bis wir uns wieder treffen.
Or, in English, Congratulations Berlin. Until we meet again.