Friday, May 14, 2010

What I've Been Doing

I've returned from traveling to Berlin, for various reasons, including pure tourism. Though I'm a Germanophile, and traveled there often in recent years, and to Berlin itself several times, I hadn't been back to Berlin since 1987--i.e., since the Wall fell. But I've read several histories of the city, the 1948-49 airlift and the Wall itself. The snapshot of East German soldier Conrad Schumann leaping the barbed wire as the Wall was constructed always haunted:

source: Wikipedia

And I'll never forget the front of the closed-off Brandenburg Gate where President Reagan spoke in June 1987:
There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace.

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate.

Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate.

Mr. Gorbachev -- Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
After that, I vowed someday to walk through the Brandenburg gate. BTW, the backstory of Reagan's remarks are ably documented by Presidential speechwriter Peter Robinson, who tells how Reagan himself kept re-inserting the dramatic text after White House and State Department flunkies repeatedly deleted it as overly provocative. Well, freedom is provocative.

I recall being glued to the television in the Fall of 1989 when freedom came to Berlin. P.J. O'Rourke captures it best in his essay The Death of Communism from his book Give War a Chance:
We won, and let's not anybody forget it. We, the people, the free and equal citizens of democracies, we living exemplars of the rights of man tore a new asshole in international communism. Their wall is breached. Their gut-string is busted. The rot of their body-politic fills the nostrils of the Earth with a glorious stink. . . . The privileges of liberty and the sanctity of of the individual went out and whipped butt.
For reasons I'm not able fully to explain, the subsequent German re-unification touched me deeply--I was lucky enough to imbibe pure bliss at the Unification Day (October 3, 1990) party at the German embassy in Washington.

Yet, as often as I've been in Germany -- work or holiday -- it's been decades since I went to Berlin. Mostly because I didn't like it: East Berlin was dreary, and home of the Communist-created Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism"--irony apparently outlawed. West Berliners were heavily subsidized and exempted from compulsory military service--so the city became a magnet for committed leftists. As Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum said:
The result was a city of artists and activists, one that became -- bizarrely, given the circumstances -- deeply anti-American. That American troops protected their freedom to protest against the United States seemed not to bother West Berliners at all. That Johnson and Kennedy had once been cheered as national heroes seemed to be forgotten as well.
Berlin's culture continued to be top-notch (the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) might be the world's best)--but I felt unwelcome on either side of the Wall.

Twenty years later, I'm pleased to report that the art remains excellent; that the Unter den Linden looks lively, not gray; that the un-lamented Deutsche Demokratische Republik now is vibrant and exciting. The BPO was as good as I remembered. And the former West no longer seems like a superannuated commune. Instead, as Reagan predicted, "all the inhabitants of all Berlin [are enjoying] the benefits that come with life in one of the great cities of the world." In short, Berlin's now part of what's best about Europe.

On May 8, 2010 -- the 65th anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany -- I walked through the Brandenburg gate. It felt like victory and freedom.


suek said...

What about the muslim presence? Were you conscious of it?

We lived in Germany for a total of 7 years while in the military. Three of my sons were born there. I remember taking a trip to Berlin through East Germany - a somewhat nerve wracking 3 hours or so.

At this point, however, I have no inclination to return. The Germany I knew seems not to be the Germany that is now.

On a time/culture basis - what is your impression of the changes?

OBloodyHell said...

A nice piece, Carl.

I, too, liked Give War A Chance (I place it #3 behind Parliament of Whores and Eat The Rich), though, lacking your personal perspective, found the two best pieces to be the ones on the elections in Nicaragua (another of Reagan's legacies to the world) and the coup in Paraguay.

Anonymous said...

Carl, excellent! I give you good joy of your VE Day.

Carl said...


It didn't start well: my German isn't that bad, yet the only common language I shared with the cab driver in from Tegel airport was Turkish--and I don't speak a word of that! But thereafter, I saw no reason for concern; plenty of "Gastarbeiter" and their German-citizen descendants, but all spoke excellent German and seemed fully integrated. Saw only one Burqa the whole time.

This trip was limited to Berlin and, as I said, I was hugely impressed with the cultural changes--out with the anti-American hippies, in with actual adults. One problems is that Berlin has only two industries: tourism and government. And there's a lot of the later, with an excess of huge official buildings and short-sighted government bureaucrats. Berlin has no industry to speak of--even less than Washington, DC--so it has something of a "bubble" mentality. (Real estate prices there are shockingly low.) However, all the people I had arranged to meet on the trip impressed me as savvy, ambitious, and surprisingly un-stiff.

Where in Germany were you based--Heidelberg? Wiesbaden? I spent some time in Bavaria as a child, and loved it--but Southern Germans are somehow different. And, I'm pleased to say, Bavaria is equally enjoyable today.


I rate GWAC as P.J.'s finest (Parliament of Whores is second). And I actually think the "Death of Communism" essay on the fall of the Wall is O'Rourke's single greatest article. Though I'm embarrassed to admit it, when I first read it (in a fast-food restaurant in a Virginia strip-mall), I sobbed all the way through. But, as you said, Germany's always been a bit of an obsession for me.


Thanks! Y.O.S., NOfP.