Watching the dominoes fall in Berlin: Reflections on 11/9/09
1,000 giant dominoes are lined up from the Reichstag
to Potsdamer Platz to recreate the fall of the Berlin Wall
TWENTIETH ANNIVERSARIES ARE OFTEN melancholy affairs, no matter how happy and festive the occasion is. We can't help but think of how much time has passed and how few of our dreams we have actually realized. Our joy over the past is often overshadowed by our ambivalence about the present. It is easy to ruin such an occasion. But that is precisely what happened last night at the elaborate twentieth anniversary celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The orchestral music and the political speeches by Mayor Wowereit, President Sarkozy, Prime Minister Brown, President Medvedev, Hillary Clinton, and Angela Merkel at the Brandenburg Gate were okay - standard fare in this sort of situation - but then, by golly, somehow whoever was in charge of the event had the brilliant idea of handing the whole thing - and not just the broadcast, but the whole thing - over to TV "personality" Thomas Gottschalk, who transformed this potentially inspirational event into just another boring, trivial, and utterly forgettable TV snoozefest.
Who died and left him in charge...?
TV comedian and quiz show host Thomas Gottschalk.
I think this overblown celebrity talkshow would have bored anyone sitting at home in the comfort of their heated living room, but for the two million or so of us huddled together in the icy rain, craning our necks to catch a glimpse of the wagging sets of jaws on one of several giant TV screens set up around the government district, the twenty years separating us from the dramatic opening of the Wall on November 9, 1989 seemed more like two hundred, as if it had nothing whatsoever to do with our lives. Part of the problem was that about half the people I was aware of appeared to be foreigners who had travelled vast distances to be in Berlin that night and then understood nothing of what was said - and said and said. What a wasted opportunity! No wonder they kept dribbling away long before the event was over.
Shivering there waiting for Gottschalk, TV historian Guido Knopp, and assorted other entertainers to put a sock in it, it occurred to me that one of the miracles of November 1989 lay in the fact that the German people did just fine for themselves without a lot of talk and certainly without Gottschalk and Co. on hand to tell them where to stand and what to think. Heck, they didn't even have Facebook, let alone Twitter and OS! That night, people from both sides of the Iron Curtain came together - they hugged each other and cried together - rather than obediently stand together staring at TV screens and waiting for a TV host to make things happen for them. Back then, actions spoke louder than words, because people had already heard enough words from both the East and the West to last them for a hundred lifetimes. The actions of ordinary people in extraordinary times continue to speak today, ultimately drowning out the piffle that the ZDF network felt it had to serve up to the public last night. They kept on speaking to me on the long walk home in the fog, and I'll remember them long after the memory of last night fades to black (as it probably will in the next five minutes or so if I'm lucky).
But the idea of setting up one thousand giant, hand-decorated dominoes and then toppling them to recreate the fall of the Berlin Wall was brilliant, and when Gottschalk finally got around to knocking them over (although, inexplicably, he did it in three stages with an extra hour of chit-chat in between), the sight was breathtaking and well worth the drizzle and the jabbering.
I thought the image of the dominoes was perfectly chosen, since that was how Europe's communist regimes fell in 1989, and I couldn't help recalling the other, entirely bogus "domino theory" so hotly discussed in my own childhood by people who imagined they understood such things. In fact, while human beings may manufacture bigger and heavier dominoes and line them up, once they are set into motion - in one direction or another - the laws of physics take over from human volition and there is nothing any human being can do to stop them.
Despite all the words written and spoken about November 9, it suddenly dawned on me that the very essence of this date (which I wrote about in my post last night) is unpredictability and contingency. On November 9, 1918 Chancellor Max von Baden announced the Kaiser's abdication before the latter had even made up his own mind, and Social Democratic leader Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed the "German Republic" before the provisional government authorized him to do so. In Munich on November 8/9, 1923 Hitler decided to launch a march on Berlin, only to watch sixteen of his followers get shot dead by police at the Feldherrnhalle. While he later transformed the event into a national holiday, there is no doubt that his "National Revolution" represented the most ignominious of debacles.
Goebbels's Kristallnacht of November 9, 1938 was also a slapdash affair that took Göring, Himmler, and other Nazi leaders entirely by surprise and nearly led to a crisis in the Nazi leadership. By the same token, November 9, 1989 - when Politburo member Günter Schabowski absurdly read a secret internal directive out loud at a live press conference, essentially leaving individual border officers to sort this giant mess out for themselves - was not a well-laid plan but a genuine comedy of errors, whose miraculousness is outdone solely by its crackpot incompetence.
Once again, it's all about us:
Hillary Clinton channels Ronald Reagan and "makes
history" at the Brandenburg Gate
So as I watched Hillary Clinton deliver her histrionic address at the Brandenburg Gate, complete with her trademark grating voice and aggressive hand gestures, where she was joined by a canned version of Barack Obama speaking from the White House in his role as Master of the Universe, I had to think of how fleeting and contingent political power is. As the two of them pretend to stage manage conflicts in Israel, Iraq, and Afghanistan, events occur anyway, no matter what those who believe themselves to be in charge at any given moment believe themselves to be doing.
Where is Ronald Reagan when you need him?
Twenty years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the
Israeli Wall continues to grow - at US taxpayer expense.
As Karl Marx once wrote, "People make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves." Or to paraphrase John Lennon, "History is what happens while politicians are busy making other plans." Sometimes you're lucky, like on November 9, 1989, and sometimes you're not. That's why humility and an awareness of unintended consequences are always appropriate, and that is one thing our own leaders have in very short supply.
Along with a pair of very cold feet, that is what I took home last night from the Brandenburg Gate.
The toppling of the dominoes on November 9, 2009