The news reports are full of stories and remembrances of the toppling of the Berlin Wall. Some are poignant – people who were able to see parents or children when they thought they were separated forever. Others put the celebration of the end of the wall in the perspective of the later difficulties of re-joining two Germanies whose culture and perspectives had diverged so sharply in the years of Communist East Germany.
I’m very much aware that most of my students have little understanding of the event. Most of them were born after the Berlin Wall fell. East Germany, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia as a nation (and communist), the entire idea of a Soviety bloc, and the threat of the Cold War: all of that is history, not lived experience, for students in college now.
In the 21st century, we have the building of national walls – at least in the US and in Israel – that are designed to keep out people that we either fear or consider undesirable. From that vantage point, students have a hard time understanding a wall that was built to keep people in – a wall on which people lost their lives as they tried to find a way over and into a society with greater freedom.
A poll last week asked Russian citizens who built the Berlin Wall, with surprising results. A few – 10% – thought that people in Berlin built it themselves; 6% thought Western nations built it and 4% thought it was a “bilateral initiative” of the Soviet Union and the West. More than half – 58% – just had no idea who built the wall; only a fourth knew that it was built by the Soviet Union and its then-communist ally, East Germany.
It is amazing to me that the Cold War has passed out of memory. It so terrorized the world during the time I was growing up – “duck and cover” drills in the grade school classrooms, the University of Chicago’s underground library stacks a designated shelter against atomic warfare – that it is hard to believe people don’t remember it. It has left its mark on the societies that experienced the rule of communism and their economies, and continues to echo in diplomatic troubles. But, overall, the Cold War simply came to an end in a very short period of time, and its traces are blowing away like chaff.
It gives me pause about our current over-arching threat, terrorism. Will there be a time when it, too, simply crumbles as a failed method for bringing about change?