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Berlin Wall and the Cold War

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Stanford Scholars Reflect on the 20th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

November 9, 2009 marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. For most, the historic event has come to symbolize the end of the Cold War, but for the Germans living there then and now, 1989 represents a turning point in an era that continues to shape their culture. Modern European historian and Stanford history professor James Sheehan and Amir Eshel, a Stanford professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature, reflect on the consequences of this important anniversary through their distinct research perspectives.

Professor Eshel is Director of the Forum on Contemporary Europe at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. His research focuses include German culture, comparative literature, and German-Jewish history and culture from the Enlightenment to the present. Professor Sheehan has written widely on the history of Germany, including the relationship between aesthetic ideas, cultural institutions, and museum architecture in nineteenth century Germany.

His most recent book, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?: The Transformation of Modern Europe, considers problems in European international history.

Which facets of Cold War history do you find most compelling?

JS: A great deal of work has been done on the origins of the Cold War, but I am more interested in two other questions: Why did it last so long? and Why did it end when (and how) it did? The Cold War could have ended (along with a great deal else) if there had been a military conflict between the superpowers. And while there were some close calls, this did not happen. Instead, there were a number of proxy wars that created a great deal of damage in their immediate environments, but did not lead to a U.S.-Soviet war. Why not? In large measure, I think, because both sides created and sustained a stable order in Europe, the one part of the world where their land armies faced one another. The Cold War ended, and ended peacefully, when Gorbachev decided to allow this European order to collapse. He based this decision on an extraordinary miscalculation: that the Soviet regime could survive in a new Europe, taking advantage of Western Europe's economic resources and dynamism without abandoning the Communist Party's leading role in the state. By the time it was clear that would not happen, it was too late to go back. The Cold War ended the way most wars end, with the defeat of one side, a largely peaceful defeat to be sure, but a defeat nonetheless.

AE: I am fascinated by those cases in which people living under totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe stood up against their oppressors, often knowing that their own political actions were bound to fail. The cases of the 1953 uprising in the GDR, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the 1968 Prague Spring will always inspire us and force us to acknowledge that even in situations that seem to exclude human agency, individuals and groups can exercise their ability to act and their wish to live freely.

Why is it valuable to examine how both the rise and fall of the Wall impacted culture in Germany and even throughout Europe?

JS: Obviously the Wall shaped East German culture and, to some extent, continues to do so. I am less convinced that the Wall was of central importance for the West. Many West Germans tended to forget about the East, the possibilities of unification seemed remote, the attractions of Western Europe much more compelling. A major impact of the Wall's fall on both Germanies was to reveal how far they had grown apart.

AE: It’s valuable because the building of the Wall was not only the result of the communist regime’s will to stop the flight of its own people to the West but also the result of the West’s inability to effectively counter what is now universally acknowledged as an unbearable crime. The Wall is a lesson in the history of tyranny but also in the inability to face up to tyrants. The mistakes of those who allowed the Wall to be built may be repeated in the future. Learning what happened before, during and after the building of the Wall in 1961 may help us avoid the emergence of similar repressive artifacts in the future. The fall of the Wall, on the other hand, gives us many lessons regarding the ability of political actors – on both sides of the East-West divide – to overcome, by way of decisive actions, decades-long tyranny.

How do you approach such a far-reaching era of history in a research project? 

JS: It is important to see the end of the Cold War in the light of long-range trends, especially changes in global economic institutions. At the same time, we should try to understand the human impact of these events. In her recent book on 1989, Mary Elise Sarotte describes how East Germans fleeing to the West in the fall of 1989 threw away their Eastern currencies as they reached the border. It seems to me that this episode captures the intersection of deep structural transformations and immediate human experience. Money, including the physical appearance of East German coins, the "welcome money" given to East German arrivals in the West, and of course, the 1-1 exchange of East for West Marks, had an extraordinary symbolic and practical significance for this story.

AE: I study the ways in which literature and the arts reflect on the past. In the case of postwar German literature, the past consists of the two totalitarian regimes that dominated Germany in the twentieth century: Nazism and Communism. It is to a significant extent by way of revisiting the past, I believe, that cultures and socio-political institutions evolve. In telling and retelling what occurred in Europe during the twentieth century, postwar German literature (one of my main subjects of interest) made a substantial contribution to the creation of the modern, progressive Germany we know today.

Could you describe examples of how the Wall, and what it represented, influenced German cultural and aesthetic works created during its existence?

JS: East Germany had a vibrant literary culture and produced a great many novels that reflect the experience of the Wall. I especially admire Christa Wolf's Divided Heaven. Her career illustrates both the accomplishments and the limitations of culture in a society like the GDR. Since 1989, there has been a great deal of work reflecting on the meaning of the Wall. I just read Uwe Tellkamp's novel, Der Turm, which is set in and around Dresden in the late 1980s. It is a remarkable book in many ways, a sprawling family saga as well as a sharp political portrait of the regime's last days.

AE: The Wall played a crucial role in the writing of such significant writers as Christa Wolf (of the former GDR) and Peter Schneider (of the Federal Republic of Germany). In novels such as Divided Heaven (1963), Wolf gave us a lasting image of life in the shadow of the Wall. In The Wall Jumper, Schneider made the absurdity of an edifice such as the Wall painfully tangible. Yet, a novel like Ian McEwan’s The Innocent makes it clear that the Wall and the division of Germany also left a significant mark on European literature as such. In recent years, films like "The Lives of Others" began exploring the meaning of the East-West divide and the lasting impact of European totalitarian regimes on the lives of individuals and societies.

During the course of your work what kind of evidence have you encountered that illustrates how the Wall impacted the legacy of European Jews?

JS: East and West Germany dealt with the legacy of Nazism--and the meaning of the Holocaust--in quite different ways. In the GDR, Nazism was seen as a particularly toxic form of fascism, that is, an expression of capitalism's structural crisis. From this perspective, the racial dimensions of Nazism did not seem central: there was, for instance, very little about the Holocaust in the exhibitions on Nazism in the old East German museum of German History. Like the museum itself, this view of Nazism is now largely gone.

AE: The Jewish community of both the GDR and the Federal Republic was rather small when the Wall was built. While the Federal Republic accepted early on the German responsibility for Nazism, the GDR regarded itself as representing the legacy of the ‘better Germany’ that is of the German left. This has been as many scholars have since claimed, the foundational myth of the GDR. In the decades following the building of the Wall, the issue for German-Jewish relations was less the East-West divide and more finding ways to commemorate the dead of the Holocaust, acknowledging the crimes of the Nazis and developing a German-Jewish dialogue based on mutual respect and different memories. However, one of the most significant contemporary German-Jewish authors is Barbara Honigmann, who in her writing also reflects on what it meant for her and others like her to grow up and come to age as a Jew in the GDR.

From the perspective of your research, what do you feel are the most lasting implications of the Berlin Wall today?

JS: In the euphoric days after the fall of the Wall, many people underestimated the material and spiritual difficulties of unification. It is not surprising that, after 40 years apart, the two Germanies have only slowly grown together. Like parts of the American south after the Civil War, parts of the old GDR have a nostalgic view of the "good old days" before 1989. This has an impact on German culture, especially in Berlin. A more lasting implication is the Left Party, a somewhat improbable alliance of Western German leftwing Social Democrats and the former East German Party of Democratic Socialism.

AE: The Wall will always remain a symbol of tyranny. It will also continue to remind us what fantasies about a ‘perfect’ human society such as those that guided the Soviet Union and the GDR may end up producing: endless human misery and the creation of enclosed, repressive political systems.

Do you believe there’s still more to learn from this transformative period of history?

JS: Historians always believe there is more to learn. In the case of 1989, I think one lesson is how often history surprises us. No one expected the Wall to fall so suddenly and so peacefully, just as no one expected the Soviet Union to collapse with such speed. Nor has the post-Cold War world turned out quite the way many people expected.

AE: Absolutely. The learning about the nature and the challenges of totalitarian thought and totalitarian regimes has just begun. Contemporary totalitarian regimes across the globe such as Iran, Syria, Myanmar or North Korea make the study of the Wall and how we—those living in open societies may react to them—crucial for the freedom of millions who suffer by those regimes. The study of the Wall and of such regimes may also prove crucial for our survival given the fact that these regimes strive to acquire deadly military capacities.