1989: Kind of a Big Deal

February 28, 2009

I don’t really like when people who keep blogs apologize for not posting faithfully.  But I have been working on this on and off for a week, so please excuse my lack of exciting news during that time.

I just got over the fortieth anniversary of 1968 and am now bombarded with the twentieth anniversary of 1989.  I had never considered the international explosion of events that graced that year until coming here and being reminded of it again and again.  Most importantly for Berlin, it is the year the wall fell.  So, in recognition of such a historic event, there are all sorts of exhibits, symposia, talks, festivals, and other happenings throughout the city (check it out here).  I’ve been following the website, and am trying attend as many of these events as possible – especially if they are free.

First, I went to part of a three-day symposium on “the German Question.”  I wish I could enlighten you about all of the amazing heady discussion, but it was all in German.  I understood about 20% of what was being said, which, when talking about history and politics, is not enough.  So I did a bit of research later and from what I can tell, the ‘German Question’ is credited to Goethe and Schiller in 1797: “What and where is Germany?”  The question has been a subject of discussion since it was posed, especially in the 20th century.   It involves not only geography but also culture and foreign relations.  That’s about all I can give you without reading some books, but most historians consider reunification in 1990 to have finally answered the question and ended the debate.

After my unsuccessful but still interesting experience at that conference, I headed to the Haus der Kulturen der Weld (House of World Cultures).  It has been snowing here, a lot, so ‘heading’ there involved a train ride and then some serious trudging through the snow.  But it was worth it: I saw the Reichstag for the first time, which is beautiful at night.  I thought of how crazy it must have been to have the whole damn building shrouded in cloth.  The Haus der Kulturen der Weld is a neat building too; someone later described it as “the Oyster” which I found appropriate.  From photographs, I’ve seen that it has two square ponds in front of it, but of course, they were iced and snowed over, to the point where some daring person walked across.

The conference focused on the significant events of 1989 that occurred outside of Germany.  Turns out, there were a lot. (I’m not going to give helpful links to more information on all of these events, as much as I would like to.  I’ll leave that up to you and Wikipedia.  I am, however, going to write the dates European style and include the German names of countries, where they differ from English as added bonus fun facts):

10 January, Angola: Cuban troops begin their withdrawal from the country.

14 February, Iran: Khomeini calls for a Fatwa against Salman Rushdie, calling on all Muslims to kill the author of Satanic Verses and anyone involved in the publishing (this leads Iran to cut off diplomatic relations with the UK and to the deaths and injuries of several people involved in publishing or translating the book)

15 February, Afghanistan: The Soviet Union withdraws all troops from Afghanistan

27 February – beginning of March, Venezuela: “Caracazo” – Rebellion, protests and looting throughout Venezuela against neoliberal economic reform and violent repression.

11 – 14 May, Kaschmir (Kashmir): Armed rebellion for Kashmiri independence.

6 April, Polen (Poland): The underground labor union Solidarność (Solidarity) is recognized by the Communist regime.

19 April, Österreich/Ungarn (Austria/Hungary): “Paneuropean Picnic” leads to a symbolic boarder opening

3-4 June, China: Massacre at Tiananmen Square

4 June, Iran: Ayatolla Khomeini dies; during the funeral, his corpse falls out of the casket into the mob of mourners.

4 June, Polen (Poland): Solidarity’s victory in Polish elections is the first of many anti-communist revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989.

9 July, Argentinien (Argentina): Carlos Menem takes over the Presidency during the hyperinflation crisis.

4 September, DDR: First “Montagsdemonstartion” (Monday demonstration) in Leipzig (2 hours SW of Berlin)

20 September, Südafrika (South Africa): The newly elected President Willem De Kierk breaks down the system of Apartheid.

4 November, DDR: Huge demonstrations for democratic reform in Alexanderplatz (central plaza in East Berlin)

9 November, Berlin: Fall of the Berlin wall

7 – 11 November, Namibia: First free ballot at the end of South African administration of the country (shout out to Parker!).

17 November, Tschechoslowakei (Czechoslovakia): “Velvet Revolution” leads to systemic change.

14 December, Chile: First free presidential elections after 16 years of dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet.

17 December, Brazil: First free elections in 29 years

21 December, Rumänien (Romania): Revolution ousts dictator Ceauşescu.

11 February, 1990, South Africa: Nelson Mandela released from prison


The keynote speakers were Wole Soyinka, a Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian writer, and Timothy Garten Ash, a British historian and European studies professor at Oxford.  Soyinka gave a beautifully-worded excerpt from his lecture at the Hay Festival in May 2007 (I tried to find a transcript online, but the closest I can come is an mp3 that you need an account to access – aka I think you have to pay for it).  Garten Ash gave a more theoretical talk, so I – yearning to return to my history student days – took copious notes.  So if you also yearn to return to your history student days, perhaps you will find the following account interesting.

He suggested that the fall of the Berlin Wall was the event that ended the ‘short twentieth century’ that had started in 1914.  It was the end of three ideologies: communism, fascism, and some version of liberal democracy (he believes that the twenty-first century began on September 11, 2001).  The events of November 1989 in Germany are called the ‘Peaceful Revolution,’ which is significant because no previous revolutions had been successful without violence (he labeled it with his relatively cheesy made up word “Refolution” – a combination of reform and revolution).  He pointed out that 1989 and the end of the Soviet Union opened the world up to one economic system: economic expansion, technological development, and globalization.

What I found most interesting (and validating in that sort of ‘I knew there was a reason I liked this history’ kind of a way) was that Berlin was the epicenter or world history for forty years, the “divided center of a divided world.”  And when the wall fell, he said, perhaps that was the last moment that Berlin made world history.  In fact, he took it further and wondered if the fall of the Berlin Wall was the last moment in which Europe was at the center of world history.  I’m not sure how I feel about this hypothesis, but considering the nature of world politics and economy today, it does seem more likely that any future world events are more likely to occur in either the US or China as opposed to in Europe.  Though, to be honest, I can’t really imagine what kind of event I will see in my lifetime that could have the kind of significance as the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The events listed above display the seismic shift that occurred when the wall came down, felt in every corner of the globe.  For my grandparents’ generation, it was the end of a competition between socio-economic systems that had lasted nearly their whole lives.  And for my parents’ generation, it was the end of a struggle that they had been born into and the beginning of a new and different world system.  I’m not sure my generation will see an event that was almost a century in the making.  Though I’m certainly open to it…

The fall of the wall was significant for my generation, however.  I was six in 1989, so I can’t say I recognized the dawn of some sort of new world order, but I have grown up as this unbridled capitalism has celebrated its hard-won ability to run rampant across the globe; I began my last year of high school a few days before Garten Ash’s twenty-first century began; and now, along with all of my good friends and thousands upon thousands of my peers, I am trying to find my way at the precise moment that this particular stage of capitalism, unlocked from battle when the wall came down and the Soviet Union dissolved, is suffering its first major crisis.  When considered from that light, it’s a pretty exciting time to be alive.


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