West pines for Cold War clarity

Posted: Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The global celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall aren't entirely about commemorating the rebirth of freedom or reliving those thrilling moments when a perverse and repressive system collapsed.

Listen closely to the exalted commentary recounting the events of those historic days and you're also likely to hear the subtle intonations of regret and nostalgia.

I'm not speaking of "ostalgie" - nostalgia for the Old East ("ost" in German) - that is still felt by a large number of residents of the former East Germany and other Eastern bloc nations. Sad as it may be, it shouldn't be the least bit surprising that, after the initial euphoria, many in East Germany and the other Iron Curtain countries had a hard time moving from the boring predictability of totalitarian communism to the terrifying insecurity of democratic capitalism. There are plenty of people who feel just like the 60-year-old gravedigger I met in Bucharest a few weeks ago who wanted to be sure I knew "freedom" wasn't all that it was cracked up to be.

What I'm talking about, however, is nostalgia on the part of us Westerners who once deplored the evil absurdity of what the East German propagandists called the "antifascist protection barrier." Because, for all our collective disgust at the erection of a wall that caged people within their own country, that wall also provided the West - particularly Americans - with the sense of moral clarity and superiority that we now long for.

The awful truth is that in many ways the Berlin Wall, where at least 136 people were killed over 28 years, was almost as important in forming our sense of identity during the Cold War as it was to the people who were hemmed in by it.

A menacing symbol of global division, the wall required us to vehemently declare which side we were on, ideologically speaking. It could induce even the hardiest campus leftist - someone who was reflexively appalled by President Ronald Reagan labeling the Soviet Union "the evil empire" - to start belting out "The Star-Spangled Banner." To peer east into no-man's land from an observation post in West Berlin was to look our proverbial evil twin in the face in order to reassure ourselves that we were on the right side.

When President John F. Kennedy arrived in West Berlin on June 26, 1963, he wasn't scheduled to give the rousing speech he ended up delivering at City Hall. Foreign policy wonks at the White House and State Department had prepared a low-key address that reflected the growing official sentiment that the Western powers should learn how to peacefully coexist with the communist East. But according to British historian Frederick Taylor, it might very well have been the emotional effect of Kennedy's visit to the wall earlier that morning - he had been "visibly moved by his first on-the-spot view of the cement blocks, the barbed wire and the watchtowers" - that inspired him to improvise a more aggressively anticommunist speech.

In addition to the "Ich bin ein Berliner" improvisation, Kennedy turned the wall into a symbol of the incompatibility between two systems of economics and governance. To those who didn't understand the difference between the two, he declared: "Let them come to Berlin."

"Freedom," Kennedy said, "has many difficulties, and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us."

Of course, the Berlin Wall was also a huge public relations blunder for East Germany in particular and communism in general. Built to stem the tide of millions of East Germans heading westward, the wall was a singular sign of desperation and denial. In the end, it turned West Berlin into an international beacon of freedom and gave the capitalist world something concrete to rally around.

Today, 20 years after the wall fell and in the wake of a global financial meltdown, it's gotten harder to rally around capitalism. We in the West have our enemies and demons, but they aren't so monolithic, and we can't always see ourselves as blameless in comparison. There's no longer such a perfect evil twin to point at to make us feel better about the imperfections and pitfalls of the system we live in. Without the stark divide between us and them, we miss that absolute certainty as to who we are and what we stand for.

• Gregory Rodriguez, a columnist for the Times' opinion pages, is director of the California Fellows Program at the New America Foundation.



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