The Berlin Wall: A Lesson in Change

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There's been a lot of discussion, this week, about whether President Obama has fulfilled enough promises or expectations of change since his election a year ago. "I voted for him, and I really thought everything would be different," one disappointed voter from Iowa said in a televised interview.

It would be easy to dismiss the expectations of such voters as unrealistic or naive, but we often expect more from big watershed events, and in more sweeping, immediate fashion, than life dishes out. Consider, for example, another important anniversary coming up on Monday: the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

On November 9, 1989, after weeks of protest and slow chiseling away of the East German Politburo's power, the East German government announced that henceforth, East Berliners could travel freely to the west. Faced with massive crowds at the border checkpoints, the guards opened the gates, and people streamed through. A party erupted on top of the wall, and people started hacking away at it with hammers and picks.

It was a celebration and global party; the end of an era that had brought incalculable pain to millions of Germans separated from family members and death to thousands, over the years, who had tried to cross over to the west anyway. I wrote about some of the sacrifices, and the lingering legacy of the Wall, in an essay on this site last May, after a German artist released an exhibit sparked by the anniversary of the Wall's demise.

wall down.JPGGiven all the damage and fear it caused, the fall of the Wall was truly an historical watershed moment to cheer. But then the celebration and festivities ended, and the real work of reunification began.

In the moment of celebration, it seemed all good. The rift was healed; the country would be united again. Cue the trumpets and national anthem. Roll credits. If the story had been a Hollywood movie, it actually would have ended there, because the morning after is always messier and less satisfying than the triumphant night. Every screenwriter worth their salt knows that.

There were, of course, some things that did change immediately. People could travel back and forth across the border. Restrictions ended. But national, economic, and social integration and change proved far more challenging than perhaps even anyone in 1989 would have predicted.

Many in the West resented the tax they had to pay to upgrade the infrastructure, buildings, and resources in the east. And "Ossies" (Easterners, from the German word "Ost" for East) found themselves in a no-man's land between cultures. They were suddenly without the social security of the Russian/East German state system, but were still often considered second-class citizens by their western counterparts. Their knowledge of Russian and German didn't help them in an economic world where English had become the common language. For all the celebration on November 9th, change brought with it a disruption of the world they'd known ...  and gave rise to fear.

In 2004, 15 years after the Wall came down, I spent some time in the eastern German village of Krausnick, in the Spreewald, or Spree Forest. Krausnik was founded in 1004, so it had seen a lot of changes. It has also seen a lot of battles. In 1945, more than 30,000 German soldiers and 10,000 civilians from the area were caught by the advancing Russian army and slaughtered over the course of a week. Looking at some of the dilapidated houses and crumbling stone walls in the area, I could imagine the Russian soldiers advancing over the land, and the terror that sight must have bred.

One would think, after a massacre so terrible, that the Russians would have been hated forever. But when I visited, there was still a memorial in the center of the village celebrating the Red Army heroes who had died there "in the war against Fascism, 1941-1945." The same soldiers, mind you, who had killed so many of the local people. And as I watched, a couple of older villagers carefully cleaned the memorial and planted new flowers in front of it. The Russians had been gone for 15 years. And still the villagers preserved the memorial with loving care.

When I asked about it, several people told me that, in truth, they actually missed the Russians, because at least then, you had security. You didn't have to worry about losing your job or not being able to pay your rent. All you had to do was keep your head down and your nose clean. It was nice, they acknowledged, to not have to wait 20 years for a bad car. But you had new burdens of figuring out how to pay for that car, now.

Twenty years after the Berlin Wall fell, Germany is still struggling to fulfill the promise of that event. And that's a change that, at least in theory, everyone in Germany wanted. Imagine if the country had been deeply split on the basic premise of reunification?

Consider the events of July 2, 1964. On that date, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Its passage was the result of years of effort and struggle, and the signing of that Act separated American history into "before" and "after." As with the Berlin Wall, some things changed immediately. On July 3, 1964, discriminating against a person on the basis of the color of his or her skin was suddenly illegal. But life did not change with the stroke of a pen. Four years later, not only had glorious change not triumphantly come to pass, but both Martin Luther King--who had been present at the signing ceremony--and Robert Kennedy, one of the Cvil Rights movement's heroes ... were dead at the hands of assassins.

Change--especially nationwide change--is a slow-moving train. Power shifted with the Civil Rights Act, and the wheels of change were set in motion. But a year later, a black person--especially in the South--might not have noticed that much tangible difference in their life. Forty-five years later, we still fight some of those battles, as the events of the past year have certainly illustrated.

Symbolically, many things can change in a day. A law is passed, a wall comes down, a couple gets married, or a person is elected President. The event that initiates the change is called a watershed, because it marks the moment and place where the course of things turn in a new direction. But even in the best of circumstances, it takes a while after that event for any visible shift to become evident. Especially in a deep, complex, and layered environment where all the currents aren't headed in the same direction.

It's a point worth remembering. Too often, we look to those big, symbolic events as magical tonics that will change everything overnight--maybe because we were fed so many "and then they lived happily ever after" endings. More than one person has imagined that when they got married (or became a parent, or got that new job, or that new ... fill in the blank) they'd magically become happy ... only to discover that it takes a lot of work, patience, and time to make the promise of that symbolic change anything close to real.

The truth is, even events as big as the demise of the Berlin Wall don't change a country or the world overnight. They just make a new kind of change possible. Even if the journey turns out to be longer, rockier, and more complex than we wished or imagined ... or a Hollywood screenwriter would have written it. 

Photo Credit: Flickr User antaldaniel, wikimedia commons