Tear down this wall
As students living comfortably in an elite university, we often take our condition for granted. It is easy to forget the historical steps taken to bring about the world we know today. By building and tearing down a cardboard Berlin Wall for the 25th anniversary of the event, the Duke German Club brings alive our shared history and invites us to examine our ways of engaging with the past and present.
The wall reminds us that many parts of the world, including countries today considered part of the global West, were once subject to systems completely alien to our current Western lifestyle. One way to interpret the political changes in Eastern Europe of the late 1980s and early 90s is to highlight an ideological triumph. The countries of the Eastern Bloc stepped up against the evils of collectivism and oppression, systems that, at least empirically, failed to ensure the standards of prosperity and humanity that these nations strove toward. Given this ideological framework, it is easy for Americans to draw parallels between the threats of yesterday and today. For the 9/11 generation, “communism” and “Marxism” have been replaced by “terrorism” and “extremism” as the bywords of animus. Much of our current effort to comprehend the challenges we face consists of equating past evils with current ones and, given America’s positive leadership in the past, this is not altogether a futile approach.
However, different parts of the world may have different interpretations of America’s ideological victories. Rather than drawing the parallel between the Cold War and the War on Terror, many Europeans may instead focus on the fall of the Eastern Bloc as an opportunity for national introspection. After all, the end of the Warsaw Pact was an internal decision, made by Eastern Europeans themselves, which was possible as a result of the lack of interference from either of the two superpowers. Instead of insisting on an external American victory, we should acknowledge the view that, by tearing down the Berlin Wall, many Europeans also internally chose the path that best accommodated their own vision for prosperity and integration. There is room for multiple narratives, even if the broader historical context does suggest a general ideological triumph of freedom and capitalism.
Most importantly, we must not think that past events like the fall of the Berlin Wall are irreversible steps in a march toward perfection. Although the dust of the Cold War has settled, neither Europe nor America has completely fulfilled the ideals of the heroic citizens who tore down the wall. We must forever be vigilant of domestic violations of the freedom and rights we fought against. Similarly, we must admit that institutions, such as the European Union, which have taken on the mantle of post-Cold War optimism, are not always unwavering manifestations of their own ideals.
Questioning our present situation involves thinking critically about the historical context from which it arose. We therefore welcome any initiatives by Duke students to engage with the past, and we applaud the Duke German Club for their thoughtful display.