The New York Times - February 4, 2008
By Roger Cohen
It’s now 18 years, a generation, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, so I thought I’d ask some post-wall German high school kids about communism. The subject seemed about as riveting and relevant to them as, say, the Holy Roman Empire.
“Communism? What’s that?” said Ricardo Westendorf, 17, a student at the Carl-von-Linné school in what was East Berlin. “I think we talked about it in a history lesson, but I was ill.”
Three other students, born in 1989 and 1990, emitted withering sighs, the kind reserved by kids for parents who can’t get computers to work. Their teacher, Heike Krupa, 45, who lived communism and its East German police enforcer, the Stasi, was taken aback: “I’m a bit surprised they seem to know nothing about it.”
I’m not. Time has accelerated since 1989 as the barrier breaking in Berlin has been succeeded by Internet-propelled wall jumping on a global scale. Just six letters distinguish the words “communism” and “computers,” but the supplanting of one by the other has transformed the world.
Felix Blanke, 17, another student, said he spent up to 20 hours each weekend on his laptop, holding group conversations via TeamSpeak or using MySpace. These kids’ friends are scattered from the Philippines to Seattle.
“For our parents, it’s all East or West, but for us it’s Germany and the world,” said Pia Von Cossart, 17. “They don’t realize their stories about the old times are boring.”
Yes, the cold war is boring. It’s old stuff. But, for the record, here’s how these students came to live free lives.
For several hours on the night of November 9, 1989, Harald Jaeger, a lieutenant colonel in the East German border guards, hesitated. Having long guarded the Berlin Wall, he was attached to it.
So he was astonished, that evening, to see a Politburo member declare on television that his compatriots were “immediately” free to travel “without meeting special provisions.”
“That wall was my life,” Jaeger told me when I talked to him in 1999 on the 10th anniversary of the end of Europe’s division. “I’d defended it for 28 years. It was not like kicking over a bucket.”
But shortly after 11 p.m., in the absence of clear instructions from superiors and in the face of a gathering crowd, Jaeger gave the order to open the gates at Berlin’s Bornholmer Strasse. “I did not free Europe or release my people, or any of that nonsense,” Jaeger told me. “It was that crowd in front of me and the hopeless confusion of my leadership that opened those gates.”
I couldn’t help thinking of Jaeger as I talked to the students, the way he’d made an impromptu decision because he knew the one means to hold his people back – force – was gone. Crowds poured out and the 96-mile barrier dotted with 302 sentry towers that had divided the world was gone.
That’s ancient history to these kids who don’t like George Bush but do like Americans who “are very friendly,” in the view of Linda Weber, 18, and favor Barack Obama as “the youngest candidate” in the U.S. election, and seem uninspired by the European Union that has produced their peaceful continent.
Krupa, their teacher, said life was better since 1989, but still she was disappointed, because “what we were fighting for was not a united Germany, but to make socialism better, and so this is not what I wanted, although I have grown used to it.”
A similar sentiment was memorably expressed by Joachim Gauck, a former protest leader in East Germany, when he declared: “We dreamed of paradise and woke up in North-Rhine Westphalia.”
That’s the way it goes with adrenaline-stirring transformation; after it there’s still the mortgage and the taxman. Still, I couldn’t help feeling in that classroom how all the opening and possibility brought by technology and spreading freedom since 1989 had failed to find a politician, whether American or European or Asian, to articulate that optimism and convergence.
I know, the Balkan wars, the Rwandan genocide, 9/11, new walls in Israel and on the U.S.-Mexican border, the Iraq war and much else hardly generate optimism. But they should not overshadow the leaps forward that have made totalitarianism so remote to these teenagers.
Westendorf promised me he’d “look up communism in Wikipedia.”
He’ll find something else there: how John F. Kennedy, in a world as dangerous as this one and more divided, came to Berlin in 1963 and used four words to identify America with freedom’s struggle: “Ich bin ein Berliner.”
Now, 45 years on, after an empty passage, it’s time again for a new U.S. leader to find words that embody the world’s hopes and channel the youthful energy released here in 1989.