The contrast was stark.
Some 300 people of varying ages assembled recently at Southern for a forum in the Michael J. Adanti Student Center, Grand Ballroom. They were there to hear just how and why the Berlin Wall fell almost 25 years ago to the day.
The forum, “Remembering the Fall of the Berlin Wall: 25 Years Ago,” attracted high school classes from Shelton, Seymour, Cheshire and the Sound School, as well as a group of senior citizens from the Guilford Senior Center, and various faculty, staff, students and members of the general public from every age group in between.
The attendees listened to the perspectives of the speakers, especially that of Nicholas Burns, a career U.S. diplomat who served in the State Department when the wall fell. He later was appointed to the National Security Council specializing in Soviet/Russian affairs, and would go to hold various positions, including the State Department’s third-highest position as undersecretary of state for political affairs. Today, he is a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Opinions varied about the Berlin situation and the Cold War, to be sure, particularly with questions such as who and what were primarily responsible for the fall of the wall. But the windows by which they view the Berlin situation, and indeed the Cold War, were even more different.
Those individuals in their middle-age years and older remember well the wall coming down. Some can vividly recall the scenes on television as throngs of East Germans standing on and pushing through the gate. To most of us who grew up during the Cold War, the photos were surreal.
“I never thought the Cold War would end,” Burns said. “I thought it would go on and on. I didn’t have any particular insights that it was going to end. But there was a confidence that we were in the right and that they (the Soviet Union and their Eastern Bloc satellite governments) weren’t, and that ultimately, people were going to decide their own fate at ‘some point in the future.”’
But even Burns – someone who was an insider’s insider and was well aware of the movements toward greater freedom in Poland and Hungary earlier in 1989 – did not believe that “point in the future” would be in November of that same year.
That point of view was shared by most Americans, who dreamed of the day the Wall would fall, but did not believe it was imminent.
Kevin Buterbaugh, a Southern professor of political science and expert on international relations who was among the forum panelists, added that even Soviet troops stationed in East Germany were taken by surprise on Nov. 9, 1989, and that they anticipated getting an order to close the border after it had opened. But that order never came from then-Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.
“In many ways, the former East Germany was the most communist of countries,” added Troy Paddock, chairman of the Southern History Department and a German history expert who also was on the panel. “In some ways, it thought of itself as more communist than the Soviet Union.”
That made the fall even more dramatic.
Now contrast that feeling that the Wall was going to be with us for many years, with the life view of most college students and all of the high school students attending the event. The students watched intently at the clips of the wall’s construction, the famous speeches at the Wall by Presidents John F. Kennedy (1963) and Ronald Reagan (1987), and the Wall’s demise.
To them, it was history. Not living history. But history a la the way many adults today think of World War II. To them, the concept of a wall preventing free access across one of Europe’s major cities is foreign. They never remember a time in their lives when that was the case. It’s difficult to imagine such a thing.
But that’s the way history goes. One generation’s vivid memories are the next generation’s history. And it won’t be long before a new generation of high school graduates, and college graduates, will not have been alive when we were hit with the 9/11 attacks.
The forum can be viewed online in its entirety at CT-N.