One day last week, while we were preoccupied with news of the day now forgotten, a milestone passed that is worth reflection. As reported in today’s New York Times, as much time has passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall as the time in which it stood.
I was seven when its construction began in August of 1961, and I still recall the blur of worried news as years passed with airlifts of food and reports of deaths from East Germans seeking escape to the West.
The Wall was the site of one of JFK’s memorable speeches, in which he declared in poor German grammar, “Ich bin eine Berliner.” Years later, Ronald Reagan used the same scene to call out – this time in English, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!” In its time, that Wall stood for the evil that was the other side, to those on each side.
Perhaps because of its status as the ground zero of the Cold War, the Wall seems to have stood forever in the public mind. In fact, it neither rose nor fell on a single day and stood in one form or another for only a few months more than 28 years. In terms of wars – hot, cold or lukewarm – that is long. The twenty-eight years that have passed since then, however, seem to have passed in a moment. Indeed, I have law students who were not yet born when the Wall fell and to whom the Soviet Union and all the Wall stood for are ancient history.
I have, in a drawer somewhere, a pebble from the Wall, sold in true Capitalist form, as a souvenir by Germans from one side or the other. There is little else tangible left to mark the battleground between East and West that lasted a generation.
In the generation that followed, the two Germanys assimilated reasonably well, and mostly subtle differences remain between the sides. Certainly, economic prosperity spread from the West, but most Germans, from either side, see themselves simply as Germans.
Contrast that rapid change with the century that has passed since our country was reunited, following the Civil War. We lived through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Segregation. Our Civil Rights era lasted twice as long as the time that has passed since the fall of the Wall.
I have no glib answers to this sad difference, but it is food for both thought and discussion. It remains for us a topic on which not enough has yet been said.