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Professor Ari Kohen: Two German Anniversaries

Two previous posts have discussed the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Over at Running Chicken my friend Professor Ari Kohen has an excellent post on the fall of the Wall entitled Der Mauerfall. Kohen writes:

There has been – and there will be yet – a great deal written about the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Though everyone likely feels they have something special to say about this iconic moment, especially if they lived through it, I’m hoping that, having spent a considerable amount of time in Berlin in the past four years, I’ll be able to hold readers’ attention for a couple of minutes.

There are a few angles by which I could approach this anniversary. I could use the lens of my first visit to Berlin – with my friend Marcus Sanborn – in 1997 and discuss all of the physical changes the city underwent in the nearly ten years that elapsed before I visited again. But I don’t have digital versions of the pictures we took of Potsdamer Platz in 1997 (essentially a field of construction cranes) and the new pictures, from 2006, won’t seem all that impressive in the absence of the contrast. (I found a few in a quick online search; here’s Summer 1997 and here it is today.)

Alternatively, I could write about the music from the late 1980s and early 1990s that seemed to capture the sense of change that was in the air. However, my friend Anthony Clark Arend already did a nice job of that, embedding the Jesus Jones video in his blog post and ending on a less triumphalist note (with the looming specter of Srebrenica, Somalia, Rwanda, and – more distant – 9/11). I thought about using another evocative song of the era (and from a German band, no less) and going head-to-head with him, but decided not to clutter up my blog with an embedded video of Scorpions (Note: if you like whistling and historic images of Potsdamer Platz, you should definitely click here).

Finally, I considered writing about the generational gap that seems to be represented by this historic moment, but this didn’t seem to do justice to the occasion. I have plenty of other opportunities to note that people who don’t remember the fall of the Berlin Wall probably don’t like a lot of the music I like and might think differently about a whole host of other things too. In other words, if you don’t remember much about 1989 then you probably won’t care about the U2 concert that has everyone so up in arms – either because you’re not particularly impressed by U2 or because you don’t worry about the impossible irony of MTV erecting a wall around the concert space to keep people without tickets from seeing the show.

Instead, I decided to approach the anniversary from what I take to be something of a different angle: that many Germans feel a bit uncomfortable about celebrating der Mauerfall due to some classic German awkwardness. The reason that not everyone feels like celebrating in the streets is that November 9 is also the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom against Jews from which we can draw a direct line to the Nazi death camps. For this reason, November 9 hasn’t been declared a national holiday at any point in the past twenty years and, until the Wall fell, was clearly a day of reflection and remorse.

While there will be plenty of interesting things for visitors to Berlin to see and do on the anniversary itself – including a whole bunch of styrofoam dominos that are set to be knocked over by none other than Lech Walesa – Berliners themselves will probably have an early night. For people who generally excel at remembering their history, in a city that memorializes its past on almost every block, next October 3 – the twentieth anniversary of German reunification – will mean many, many fewer mixed feelings.

Very well said. And it was clear that Chancellor Merkel was quite aware of the dual anniversaries. In her address to the Joint Session of Congress, she noted:

It was on November 9, 1989 that the Berlin Wall fell and it was also on November 9 in 1938 that an indelible mark was branded into Germany’s memory and Europe’s history. On that day the National Socialists destroyed synagogues, setting them on fire, and murdered countless people. It was the beginning of what led to the break with civilization, the Shoah. I cannot stand before you today without remembering the victims of this day and of the Shoah.

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.