By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

When the Wall fell, and everything after

Last Sunday I posted a short status update on my Facebook page:  "Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall. Its disappearance remains one of the greatest events of the last 50 years."

The Berlin Wall was an important part of a phase in my life. I spent several weeks in East Germany in 1971 and wrote an article in The New Yorker and then a book, "Behind the Berlin Wall," about my bizarre experiences there. At that time, taking advantage of my ability to speak German, I had significant opportunity to talk with ordinary East Germans and to observe the totally dysfunctional nature of East German communism.

After the article and book came out, I never wanted to take a chance on what might happen to me if I went back (an East German English-language propaganda sheet wrote several lengthy articles on my writings, which claimed among other things that everything I had written had been invented and that I had never even visited East Germany). Within a few months of the Wall coming down, I did go back, and re-established connections with some of the people I had met almost 20 years earlier, who were still at the same addresses. For all these reasons, I wanted to commemorate the anniversary with a Facebook status update.
I was surprised at the extensiveness of the reaction from Facebook friends. The post received 53 "likes," I am pretty sure the largest for anything I've ever posted on Facebook. Additionally, there were 28 comments, and the comments reflected a number of themes and reaction to the anniversary.
One theme was that this was something that only an older generation could appreciate — that young people couldn't really understand the effects of the Wall on the culture and mood in the West during the Cold War, or what its demolition (covered live on the news) meant in the West. One comment read:  "Perhaps only our generation will truly appreciate how much the world changed that day."

But on the other hand, 11 of the 53 likes came from current or former students of mine at the Kennedy School. (Interestingly, another three likes came from Chinese and four from Taiwanese Facebook friends, more than from Europeans.)
A number of the comments recounted reactions to the end of the Wall and of European communism. One former student wrote:  "I'm a Canadian who did a Rotary exchange in Germany in 1997 (in western Germany) and had an eastern German piano teacher and mentor — an elderly man who told me stories of what it was like watching his Berlin music community divided. I am also one of your young students...and I think as long as those stories live on we will never forget!"

A Swedish journalist wrote:  "In the mid-'70s I hosted the deputy editor-in-chief of Pravda on his visit to Sweden. He was very open about the problems in the Soviet Union, but as soon as he started to speak his companion, a political commissary of the Communist Party, toasted to the friendship between the Soviet Union and Sweden. It was completely absurd." 

A friend who once worked as a college intern for me in government and now works supporting veterans wrote: "What struck me being back in Berlin after the fall was how fast the empty spaces filled in and how the shadows that were once so prominent had vanished. Steve — you are so right — such a wonderful act of deconstruction and rebirth!" 
And a high school classmate noted:  "There is a piece of the Wall in the lobby of the Forbes Building at 5th Avenue and 12th Street, NYC."
I am glad I entered the post.

Posted on Aug 17, 2011 at 7:27 PM

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