Monday, November 9, 2009

Ten Twenty Years After

From my proto-blog "Will's World," on November 9, 1999 (who says I'm not in favor of recycling?):

Ten years ago, this very day, the world changed. Of all the "where were you" moments of my generation, this one deserves the most to be remembered with honor and wonder. This was the day when tens of millions of chains were broken, this was the day when the last heirs of Hitler and Stalin were finally shoved onto history's most famous dustbin. This was the day the Wall fell, November 9, 1989.

"This was the year that communism in Eastern Europe died. 1949-1989, R.I.P. And the epitaph might be: Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it."
--Timothy Garton Ash, We The People (published in the United States as The Magic Lantern).

In early March, 1991, I was alone and exhausted on a train in northern Germany. The previous several days had been a swirl of Oxford exams finished, end-of-term parties attended, a girlfriend said good-bye to, overdue visits with family friends, and trains (barely) caught in the dark of early morning. I probably hadn't slept for more than four hours at a stretch in nearly a week, and after a very long and late celebratory dinner with one of those family friends, my blood alcohol level was still about 80-proof (a German helicopter pilot who'd been befriended by my parents a decade earlier was determined to pay off his accumulated bar tab through me in one night).

The point I'm trying to make here is, I was beat. Even considering that I was a twenty-three year old, in probably the best shape of my life after three months of tooling around Oxford on a three-speed bike, I'd hit my limits, and all I wanted out of a long train ride from Wilhelmshaven to Berlin was sleep, and lots of it. When the sunrise woke me up, I reached for the window shade--then bolted fully alert.

The train had just crossed the old border between West and East Germany, and the change in the scenery was riveting--and horrible. It was like stepping out of a perfectly manicured garden and into a decrepit slum. The very landscape changed, from lush, green hills to haphazardly-tilled fields, unending rows carved into the grayish soil with no regard for the land's contours, spotted here and there with stunted crops. The train passed the ruins of a station, a mess of blasted, crumbling concrete, scarred with ancient black soot. I found out later that the station had been bombed out during World War II, but nobody had bothered to clear the debris over the intervening forty-five years.

A decade earlier, humorist P.J. O'Rourke wrote about the Soviet Union, "In the end, every little detail starts to get to you--the overwhelming oppressiveness of the place, the plain godawfulness of it." Erich Honecker, may he flambeed in Hell forever, did his level best to turn a quarter of Germany into a fawning facsimile of Stalin's U.S.S.R., and even a year and a half after liberation, East Germany was the godawfulest place I'd ever seen. It was like watching a never-ending car wreck, passing before my eyes mile after mile. I couldn't take my eyes off the revolting sights.

"The counter revolution
People smiling through their tears
Who can give them back their lives
And all those wasted years?
All those precious, wasted years--Who will pay?"
--Neil Peart, "Heresy"

The houses were the worst. Imagine the most run-down, decrepit wrong-side-of-the-tracks shacks you've ever seen. Every home in the East German countryside looked like those shacks, only older. And it dawned on me that the whole country was like this. After a while, I grabbed a small notebook and started scribbling with all the melodrama that a sleepy, shocked college kid could muster: "Communism is dead, but the bloated corpse lies across this continent still, and the poisons of its decay will pollute this blasted earth for years to come."

East Berlin, then just starting to come out of its half-century fog, was nearly as bad as the countryside. The buildings and the people were a uniform gray, all seemingly covered with a light sprinkling of grime and concrete dust. The crest of Hitler's bunker still sat in the old No-Man's Land across from Checkpoint Charlie, which itself was in the process of being turned into a museum.

"Never, until the autumn of 1989, was there a period when, day after day, for many months, newspapers carried headlines that would have been unbelievable six months earlier."
--George Will, Suddenly.

It hasn't really been all that long since 1989, and it's astonishing how little attention is being paid to the revolutions that swept across Europe (and very nearly Asia) that year. When I said that "the world changed," for once, I wasn't exaggerating. In January of 1989, nobody, and I mean nobody would have taken you seriously if you predicted that the Warsaw Pact nations would all rise up and throw off the Soviet yoke by Christmas. Then, in June, ten years of sacrifice and terror paid off in Poland when Solidarity won the first free elections in that country since before World War II--and this was in a parliamentary race which was rigged to ensure a Communist win. Hungary quietly followed suit, declaring the birth of the new Hungarian Republic--the "People's" was finally dropped--in October.

The wave swept across Germany next, as ten weeks of street protests in the East finally jolted Honnecher and his miserable party from power. In Czechoslovakia, the revolution took little more than ten amazing days in Wenceslas Square (read Timothy Garton Ash's short memoir, quoted above and published in the U.S. as The Magic Lantern, for a marvelous behind-the-scenes account). On Christmas Day, Nicolae Ceausescu got off easy (death by anonymous firing squad was far too kind), and Romania was free.

What was it like back then, just those few years ago? It was an astonishing time to be alive. After the horror of Tiananmen Square, just another bloody repeat of Budapest in 1956 or Prague in 1968, the West resigned itself to more and more years of darkness hovering over half of the world. When the Chinese tanks rolled over Chinese children, we doubted whether any of us would ever see a world without Communist dictatorships in every time zone.

And then the Poles said, "There is no liberty without Solidarity!" And the Hungarians cried out, "No more will we be slaves!" And the Germans roared, "Wir sind das Volk!"--"We are the people!" And the Czechs and Slovaks sang, "Now's the time!" And the rest of us watched in wonder as a new world was born.

"One of them even stuck his hand through [a hole in the Berlin Wall] and asked would somebody please give him a piece of the concrete to keep as a souvenir. The hand of that [East German] border guard--that disembodied, palm-up, begging hand... I looked at that and I began to cry. I really didn't understand until just then--we won. The Free World won the Cold War. The fight against the life-hating, soul-denying, slavish communism--which has shaped the world's politics this whole wretched century--was over. The tears of victory ran down my face--and the snot of victory did too, because it was a pretty cold day."
--P.J. O'Rourke, Give War A Chance.

As O'Rourke suggests, it hasn't been all sweetness and light in the intervening decade, but he also reminds us with a laugh just how much fun those magical days really were, when the impossible happened all around us, and half the world woke up and found that it was free. May we see days like those again, sooner rather than later.

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