EVANSTON, Ill. — Anniversaries are the times to remember where we were when something significant happened. For Germans, Nov. 9 recalls 1989 when the Berlin Wall suddenly opened a crack and swiftly crumbled.
That ended the division so painfully imposed on their nation at the end of World War II. It also signaled the imminent collapse — like a huge house of cards — of the mighty Soviet satellite empire that spread across the eastern half of Europe under the Red Army in 1945.
Thus ended the Cold War.
But in Germany that day also had sinister connections. On Nov. 9, 1923, Adolf Hitler launched his Nazi putsch (which failed) in Munich. On Nov. 9, 1925, he formed the first 280-man unit of the black-shirted SS. After Hitler gained power in 1933, Nov. 9 was celebrated by his National Socialist German Workers Party (the abbreviation was "Nazi") as the holiest of days throughout Germany. And on Nov. 9, 1938, his Nazi Storm Troopers attacked and burned 191 synagogues and hundreds of Jewish-owned stores across the country. That campaign foreshadowed the Holocaust.
East German workers, protected by 10,000 lightly armed border guards, began in August 1961 what the Communist leaders called the "Anti-Fascist Protective Barrier" — first with barbed wire, later with cement blocks — that would come to be called the Berlin Wall. I was there then and again 28 years later when the wall opened, to witness the fact that both events came as huge surprises.
Speaking on that 1989 evening at a televised press conference, Guenter Schabowski, a member of the ruling Communist Party Politburo, was asked when travel between East Berlin and West Berlin might be eased.
He inadvertently blurted: "Immediately, right now!" Thousands of East Berliners heard him on TV and rushed to crossings like Checkpoint Charlie, overwhelming nonplussed border guards.
It was a made-for-television moment. Soon people from East and West Berlin were dancing on the wall, painting graffiti, pounding chunks out of it for souvenirs. The images flashed to Prague, Sofia, Bucharest, Warsaw and beyond, where they had an instant galvanizing effect.
For the Germans, Willy Brandt pithily summarized the night's significance: "Now grows together what belongs together." As West Germany's Chancellor from 1969 to 1974, Brandt's policy of respecting the Communist East as neighbors had paved the way to the end of the wall.
However, because of the earlier Nazi connections, neither East nor West Germans celebrate Nov. 9 as a holiday. (The old "unity day" of West Germany had been June 17, the day in 1953 that workers on East Berlin's Stalinallee rose up against the Communist regime. For the long-term holiday, Oct. 3, the day the two parts of Germany were legally unified by an act of parliament in 1990, was chosen.)
The 80 million Germans had had identity problems for a long time.
They began — and lost — two world wars in the space of 31 years. Some were guilt-ridden. Many were uncertain what was German and what was not — not even certain what was indisputably German territory. Disputes simmered over vast once-German territories lost to the Poles, Russians, Czechs and the French with Nazi Germany's defeat.
Back during the Cold War, Herbert Wehner, a far-sighted politician, wrote this about what he hoped one day would be a united country: "Germany, a reunited Germany has a critical size. It is too large to play no role in the balance of power and too small to hold the powers around it in balance."
(Oh, that Kaiser Wilhelm and Adolf Hitler could have recognized that!)
Wehner, a Social Democrat, gave that sentence to Kurt Georg Kiesinger, the Christian Democrat chancellor, to use in a speech on the "Day of German Unity" in 1967. (It is worth noting that Wehner had been a Communist during the Hitler era and Kiesinger a Nazi Party member.)
Today unified Germany seems to be acutely mindful of its "critical size." It has close political and economic ties with all of its neighbors, most remarkably with historic enemies — France and Russia — but also with its former vassal Poland. During the last two decades it has been ruled by Christian Democrat chancellors for 13 of those years and a Social Democrat for 7 years.
There remains a duality lingering from the division. It is caught in the post-Wall expressions "Ossies," which the West Germans call the East Germans, and "Wessies," which the East Germans call the West Germans. They are generally used in a derisive tone.
But if one had told West Germans 20 years ago that they would be governed one day by a woman from the former German Democratic Republic — as the Communist-ruled east was called — they would have laughed in disbelief. The canny Chancellor Angela Merkel just won a
triumphant second term in elections in September and addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Tuesday.
As a high school student I learned a verse of Heinrich Heine, the poet whose work was heavily censored in his native Germany after he went into exile in Paris. One verse from "Night Thoughts," which he composed in 1843, went:
When I consider Germany at night
Then sleep for me takes flight.
I don't lose sleep about Germany any more.
David Binder worked for the London Daily Mail, Louisville Times and Minneapolis Tribune; and for The New York Times from 1961 until 2004. He was correspondent in Germany from
1961-1962, 1967-1973 and 1989-1990. He worked in central and eastern Europe for much of his career and now writes for European and American publications.