Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Walls

It was Sunday, August 13, 1961, a typical summer Sunday spent picnicking at the Bronx's Orchard Beach with my multitude of aunts, uncles, and  cousins. I was 13 and about to start high school in a month. The news came over the portable transistor radio (required for listening to the obligatory baseball games). The East Germans had closed the border between East and West Berlin. The full impact - and horror - of this would become clearer in the coming days as a permanent wall was erected to demarcate the boundary, becoming for the next 28 years one of the most recognizable symbols of the Cold War.
Coverage of national and international news was much more sober in those days. Still, the wall was treated as a provocation and the beginning of yet another crisis. In fact, as we all know now, it actually defused the crisis. By imprisoning the East German population behind it, the wall solved the East German Communists' problem - and by extension that of their masters in Moscow. It also solved the West's problem of constantly being worried about the defense of West Berlin. It took time for that to sink in. Thus, a year later at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy and his advisers worried whether this might be a distraction from a serious Soviet move on Berlin. But in fact the wall's permanence became the symbolic guarantor of the permanence of the division of Europe and the consequent Cold War. That Cold War would warm up occasionally with this or that crisis, but the underlying arrangement seemed to have become permanent. And its permanence seemed to guarantee that the Cold War  would stay cold (even as it continued forever). So adjustments of various sorts became the order of the day - Ostpolitik, "D√©tente," etc.
Apocalyptic expectations persisted in certain quarters. Teaching in the 1970s, I recall a colleague seriously suggesting a scenario for a Soviet move westward to take over most of Europe. Anti-nuclear advocates tried to scare audiences with visions of total destruction, "nuclear winter," etc. Some theorists argued against the morality of nuclear deterrence - thus seeking to undermine the very thing that had kept the Cold War cold all along and had made Berlin a divided city instead of a battlefield. When Andrei Amalrik wrote Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? his thesis was widely rejected as not credible. He was wrong of course - but just by a few years.
In the end the Wall came down as quickly as it went up, and the monstrous apparatus of the Soviet Evil Empire soon followed suit. One can still see some deliberately preserved pieces of the Wall in Berlin (photo taken August 13, 2005). There are other mementos here and there of the old border, but Berlin and the world have long since moved on.
No one should minimize the malevolence of Communist rule in eastern Europe or the misery it inflicted on its captive population. That said, however, the Cold War proved to be a rather peaceful and prosperous period in the west - especially in western Europe, which made a phenomenally swift recovery from its post-war state. While the Wall was surely a symbol of how bad things were on the eastern side, it was just as surely a symbol of how really good things were on the western side. Sadly, it was also assumed to be a symbol of the permanence of it all.
None of us knew it at the time, but underneath the surface stability and permanence serious social and cultural change was underway. Paradoxically it was in the 1960s aftermath of the Wall that the centuries' old culture of the west began to unravel. Perhaps it was the very stability the Wall symbolized that accelerated that process. The West's cultural transformation was already well advanced by the time the Wall fell and the East rushed headlong to embrace that transformation for itself.
And so here we are - better off in some ways, worse off in so many others. And that mean and ugly Wall we all professed to hate so much seems to have helped the process along, becoming in retrospect as sign of the wall of incomprehension between the familiar past and the novel present.

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