We tend to remember the tragedies more than the celebrations. That’s not a new, earth-shattering revelation, it’s just true. For example, many Americans could probably tell you when World War II started, even down to the day, but when was V-E Day, marking the end of the war in Europe? And when on Earth was V-J Day, the end of the war in the Pacific? And when we do remember our celebrations, it is often only partially. We all know that July 4th, 1776, is the day that the Declaration of Independence was signed, but when did the Revolutionary War end, when that independence was finally secured and legitimated?
There are many examples of this kind of selective memory, and I’m not saying that it’s necessarily a bad thing. When things are going well, we look back and see the bad things sticking out. When things are going poorly, we seem incapable of remembering anything but the good that was there. It’s probably got something to do with our brains and chemicals and psychology–things I don’t fully understand, I’ll admit. I mean, think about the last bad break up you had and how the good times seemed so good in retrospect, all of the bad simply fading away. So if anything, the fact that we focus a bit on the negative is probably an indication that we feel pretty good about ourselves. Maybe that’s a bunch of hooey, but then again I’m not a professional.
But today I wanted to point out one of the good things in the past that we often overlook, a cause for celebration that has faded into obscurity for many of us, and that’s a date when the world as we knew it changed forever. I’m talking about 9/11.
We remember September 11, 2001 and the tragedy that occurred that day. It was horrible and scary, and it’s something that should be remembered so that we may learn from it. But there is another 9/11, one that happened almost twelve years previous, that was a celebration, and that’s a 9/11 that we too often forget about.
On November 9th, 1989 (written in most of Europe as 9.11.1989), a crushing blow was dealt to the authoritarian regimes of Central and Eastern Europe. On that day it was announced that the people of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) were free to visit the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). The wall that had divided East and West Berlin, a symbol of authoritarianism wrapped all around West Berlin and containing that ‘threat’ of decadent democracy, had become a meaningless pile of brick and mortar. Much of the physical wall would remain for some time, but it had been declared impotent by its very makers. Rejoicing Germans climbed it and sat on the top, champagne flowed all over the world (well, I imagine there were some exceptions), and for a day we were all jelly doughnuts, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy.
That happened. 23 years ago today, that happened. From 1961 to 1989, that wall had divided Germany, even as it surrounded only one city. Families caught on either side of the wall did not see each other for years until visitation rights were granted to West Berliners and West Germans in general, allowing for family gatherings in the East but never in the West. And over the course of that nearly 30 years, over 100 people died trying to get from East to West Berlin. They wanted a better life, or at least a life where they felt they had options, and they were willing to risk everything to have it.
This post is not about communism versus capitalism and the Cold War fought between them, however. It’s not even about the historical figures we associate with that time who took steps to ease us out of that Cold War. Instead it’s about those people on the ground, the ones who fought to secure a different world for themselves and ultimately won. Sure, Reagan gave his ‘Tear Down That Wall!’ speech, and that was impressive, but that’s not what made the wall come down. What brought the Berlin Wall down, what sparked this monumental change in the landscape of Germany and Central and Eastern Europe, was the dedication of the individual people who lived there. It was their refusal to go along with the program, to be silent, to roll over, to give up.
They marched, they wrote, they spoke, and all of this in the face of a system that had declared these basic acts to be illegal. That is what brought the Berlin Wall down, and when the powers that be felt that wind of change blowing (yes, that is a semi-intentional Scorpions reference), they had no choice but to either embrace that change or make war on their own people. Thankfully, they opted for the former. But even this was not enough. The people had had it. They were through with the old way, and no half steps toward freedom would placate them any longer. Within a year, dictatorships across Central and Eastern Europe had been torn down along with the wall, and a year after that even the Soviet Union would crumble under the weight of people’s demands for real change.
So today, on this the 23rd anniversary of a very different 9/11, I would like to encourage everyone to think about the events of 1989, a year of struggle and difficulty–for change never comes without them–but ultimately a year of celebration as well. The next time someone tells you that you can’t make a difference, that nothing changes, that things are hopeless, give them a 9/11 slap to the face by reminding them of the power that people have. Just three days ago the most powerful man in the world was ready to step down from his post if people said so [the United States had just reelected Barack Obama], and an incredibly rich guy, with gobs of power of his own and support from the movers and shakers of America, politely and respectfully withdrew from the field of political battle…because people said so.
You may think that your voice won’t be heard, but that’s all the more reason to be loud. No matter what your political views, I imagine you can agree with me that we need a country that listens to its people. So take some time each day to think about how you want your country to look. Take some time to really examine your views, read news from multiple sources, don’t believe everything you hear because Obama said it, and don’t believe everything you hear because Mitt Romney said it. Don’t trust CNN, MSNBC, FOXNEWS, The Huffington Post or anybody else with being the ultimate knowledge keepers. Challenge yourself, and once you’ve done that, challenge your friends to do the same. Before long, your voice will be louder and you’ll be challenging the entire nation. And if you don’t think that’s powerful, then you never will be able to make yourself heard.