Archive for category History
The last western Roman Emperor was deposed in 476. The Italian peninsula was in ruin – barbarian tribes were attacking what was left of the old imperial glory, and soon the knowledge and order of Rome gave way to the dark ages, as politics throughout Europe became exceedingly local, with custom and tradition defining social life. With the church embracing Augustine’s other-worldly theology (this world has no value, it can only tempt you – eschew the things of the world and focus on preparing for the afterlife), progress stopped.
Venice was different. As Rome fell, a group seeking safety decided that the sand dunes around what is now Venice could make it a defensible city, and keep out the barbarians. They took wood and piled it up in the lagoon, literally creating islands! Wood does not decay as quickly under water, and wood from that era was much stronger than today. Without so much carbon in the atmosphere the rings of trees are tighter – that wooden foundation still holds Venice up today.
Early on they fished and focused simply on creating a sustainable life style. They recognized the authority of the Byzantine Empire to the East. Rome had split into East and West, as Emperor Constantine created the city of Constantinople to rule the East. For a time it kept the Roman heritage alive, and could provide Venice protection. For the ensuing centuries Venice couldn’t really be called Italian – they focused on the East and stayed out of Italian political life.
Politically, the Venetians created one of the most successful Republics in history. In 697 they elected their first Doge, who would be the symbolic leader. The Venetian Republic would last 1100 years, and be dynamic for most of that time. It’s decline would start in the 1400s but even in decline Venice would remain stable and prosperous.
Their political system was complex. Up until 1297 nobility was something that came with wealth – if you were a successful merchant, you could be in the Venetian ruling class. The system had what we would call checks and balances to guard against any group getting too much power. The Doge was “first among equals” and had very limited power.
The rise of Venice as a true power started with the first crusade of 1095. Although we tend to see the crusades in primarily religious terms, and certainly religion was the rationale provided, it was also political. Europeans had been fighting the Vikings and other groups for centuries. By the eleventh century things had stabilized and they needed something for their warrior class to do – expansion to the east was natural. Venice would transport troops and material for the crusade, and bring back goods to sell. Quickly they became exceedingly wealthy and their influence grew.
The Serrata of 1297 altered the Republic by preventing anyone new from joining the Venetian Great Council. Nobility was now by birth, ending the centuries of having a ruling class that was chosen by a kind of entrepreneurial meritocracy. However, the nobility knew that they could not lose the loyalty of the rest of the merchant class, so they created the cittadini originari which gave those who might begrudge the new nobility certain rights and powers. Various workers had their own status, as well as political roles. It worked.
What Venice managed to do was to create a system with virtually no political dissent. They did this by institutionalizing decision making in a manner that kept everyone with the same goal: protect and enhance Venetian prosperity. Differences of opinion were worked out peacefully, almost invisibly.
This gave them the capacity to defeat Genoa in 1381, becoming for awhile the dominant force in European international trade. Venice was at the height of its power, but faced a new problem. The Byzantine empire, which was a buffer from the power of the Islamic world, was in rapid decline. The Ottoman Empire emerged as a real threat. At that point Venice truly became Italian, and in the 1400s built the Terrafirma empire which stretched almost to Milan.
Alas, this led to rivalry with other Italian powers, and in 1509 Venice was defeated at Agnadello. If not for the Pope, who wanted Venice to remain a buffer preventing the expansion of the Ottoman Empire to Italy, the city might have been taken and the Republic would have ended. As it was, it would last almost 300 more years.
Venetian power was in decline, however. Their defeat at Agnadello combined with the expansion of the Ottomans to eat away at Venice’s trade dominance. When Portugal managed to get around the cape of Africa, states on the Atlantic coast rose in trade power. It’s a credit to the Venetian Republican system that it could endure all that without creating bitter rivalries. Other cities like Genoa and Florence were weakened by internal power structures, Venice was not.
In some ways, Venetian history is more impressive than that of the Roman Empire. They remained a republic (albeit an oligarchic one), and except for the relatively small terrafirma, focused on making profit rather than expanding territory. Imperial Rome was constantly riveted by civil war and power struggles – Venice had a kind of unity of purpose that is rare.
As a political scientist I ponder what they got right, and if there are lessons we can learn. More on that soon; those who may join us on the May term trip to Italy, think of the rich, wonderful history we’ll encounter. Venice is so much more than beautiful canals and narrow alleys.
Hadrian was Rome’s Emperor from 117-138. This was a fateful time for the Roman Empire. His predecessor Trajan ruled from 98-117, and was declared by the Roman Senate Optimus Princeps, the greatest leader of Roman history – even surpassing Augustus. Trajan had reformed the empire and brought it to near its apex of power, territory and prosperity. Hadrian would die despised by many, lacking his predecessor’s foresight and diplomacy.
What is fascinating about Hadrian’s rule is that the path Rome took early in that second Century helped program the future decline of what would become the western Empire, and set up the rise of Christianity. It is fair to say that civilization had a level of comfort and prosperity in second Century Rome that was not equaled until the 20th Century.
Hadrian’s foreign policy was a sign of the change. He built fortifications along the frontiers to protect the empire. This was a momentous pivot from ongoing offensive wars to expand the empire in favor of a clearly defensive approach. The empire was comfortable and content – why get involved in costly foreign wars?
Hadrian’s era also began an intensely spiritual part of Rome’s history. Christianity was spreading, especially among women who rebelled against some of Rome’s harsh sexism. Women would convert their husbands and family, and the once Jewish sect became a major force in the Roman world. Most Romans, however, would have probably found themselves more comfortable with the Stoic teacher Epictetus.
Epictetus was born a slave but was later freed. Like Jesus and Socrates before him, he (55-135) never wrote down his words, but simply taught. An example: “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” That’s the stoic philosophy. You control your mind and your actions – everything else is beyond your control. You can’t control the twists of fate, the choices of others or even the consequences of your actions. So to be happy you must accept whatever happens to you.
To the stoic, one becomes enslaved if they get enmeshed in trying for wealth or success, pining for a lost love, or even feeling sorrow at the death of a friend or family member. God controls those things, we control only our mind. Later Marcus Aurelius, a late Second Century Roman Emperor (ruling from 161 to 180) and stoic philosopher would say “Someone will irritate me today. I must not let it bother me.” To the stoic a human has the power not to let their happiness depend on anything anyone else does – or anything that happens. That is the will of God.
The stoic philosophy had a natural fit with Christian beliefs, especially with the Greek twist Augustine gave Christian theology in the Fourth Century. That helped assure that Rome would adopt Christianity as its official religion, which has shaped our world to this day.
This also was the start of a shift to a society that would lose itself to the pursuit of pleasure and comfort, no longer embodying the virtues of early Rome. Marcus Aurelius would be a virtuous leader and stoic philosopher who would spend much of this rule trying to defeat the Germans. However his son and successor Commodus would live purely for his own pleasure. Instead of tolerating the gladiatorial games, he embraced them and in fact participated, becoming a reasonably proficient gladiator himself. Most put the start of Rome’s decline with Commodus. And the war with the Germans? Commodus couldn’t be bothered, he signed a peace treaty which emboldened the Germans who saw that as weakness.
Ironically Rome’s success helped program its fall. Though there would be efforts to expand the empire after Hadrian, Rome was at its apex. The people were growing soft due to comfort, and resource use helped deplete Rome’s forests and force them to go to greater lengths to keep up their lifestyles. The Imperial form of government would leave Rome subject to poor rule by power hungry Emperors and increasing political intrigue – with poisonings and other types of assassination common.
Next May I co-lead a travel course to Italy. One focus will be “Rome of the Second Century,” with visits to some of Hadrian’s sites, and discussion of the Emperors of that era – from Trajan to Commodus. We’ll try to get a feel for what life in Rome was like – and how in some ways it wasn’t so unlike our own. In fact, we’d probably feel more comfortable in Second Century Rome than 17th Century Europe. Exploring Rome is always enjoyable. To learn about and experience it through the eyes of the past makes it even more powerful.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has spoken out about the challenges facing today’s world order. It’s worth reading. He notes that globalization and technology change are driving a break up of the old world order. Kissinger contends that that the global environment is fundamentally different than it was in his heyday, and that efforts to get back the old order are doomed to fail. New political structures and ideas are required. I’ll blog more about his ideas soon, today I want to write about Kissinger’s general world view.
Kissinger earned his Ph.D. studying Austrian Foreign Minister Klemens von Metternich, who was in that role from 1809-48, also serving as Chancellor from 1821-48. Kissinger’s academic work was rooted in studying the world between 1814 – 1914, when there seemed to be order and stability in Europe – and he took those principles to ones that should work anywhere, taking into account local idiosyncratic conditions.
In any system there will be competition for power. That’s because resources are scarce, humans seem driven to compete, and humans are greedy. In the international system, with no real rule of law or enforcement, is an anarchy. In anarchy, brute force is the main principle, it’s survival of the fittest, domination by the strongest.
Luckily states can create stability despite anarchy through diplomacy, maintaining a balance of power, having leaders that recognize war ultimately is not in the best interest of any state, and stopping any “revolutionary” power hoping to alter the status quo. If states can agree to respect each other’s right to exist, agree that war should be a last option, and share some common goals, diplomacy should be able to solve any problem.
It won’t – Kissinger and realists argue that it takes “statesmanship” or the ability of leaders to understand that maintaining the status quo is ultimately in the best interests of everyone, and who can negotiate effectively, and then be willing to strike early and strong against those who would upend the system (like a Hitler). Realists admire how this seemed to work for 100 years, with only a few minor skirmishes intervening.
But there are flaws in Kissinger’s world view. Perhaps the reason there was no major European war for so long is because the Europeans were conquering the planet, imposing their standards across the globe, destroying indigenous cultures and taking whatever resources they could get their grubby hands on. Once the world was almost completely colonized the Europeans quickly turned on each other.
Moreover, such a system relied on common shared cultural values. The diplomats and leaders all spoke French had more in common with each other than the average citizens in their home states. In an era of globalization, that’s not likely to be replicated.
Finally the focus on power and order inherently means ignoring those without power. Kissinger’s most brilliant and successful policy was detente (a French word meaning a relaxation in tension), a policy that probably made a peaceful end of the Cold War possible. But in that policy we can see the strengths and weaknesses of his approach.
Kissinger, a brilliant academic was snatched up by Nixon when he became President in 1969. He started out as Nixon’s National Security Advisor and quickly became more powerful than the Secretary of State, William Rogers. He gained Nixon’s trust and crafted policy – and when Rogers left in 1973, Kissinger took on the role of Secretary of State.
He was relatively young, very charming, spoke with a distinct German accent, Jewish, and something of a playboy. He was known to cavort with a number of attractive women – I still remember a Mad Magazine set of song parodies that included “I wonder whose Kissinger now?”
He had a problem: The US was bogged down in a pointless war in Vietnam. The Soviets had achieved nuclear parity and communism was at its peak – the disease and decay that were already slowly destroying its sustainability were hid behind the iron curtain and streams of propaganda.
Kissinger decided the US had to change the Soviet Union to a status quo power the US could deal with. This include high level summits allowing Kissinger, Nixon and Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev to meet and “practice statesmanship.” It included triangulation – opening to China. China and the USSR hated each other, so the US getting friendly with one pressured the other. It worked. It led Moscow to pressure Hanoi to end the Vietnam war so the US could extricate itself (“Peace with Honor” was Nixon’s slogan). And suddenly the Cold War didn’t seem quite as scary.
In exchange for recognizing the reality of Communist rule in East Europe, the Soviets allowed more trade, visits, and connections to the West. The agreed that systemic order was more important than the US-Soviet rivalry, and thus could be dealt with. Kissinger left office in January 1977.
But while detente was based on the notion the Soviets could be a status quo power, Kissinger knew there would be rivalries and conflicts. So he also worked out a mostly unwritten agreement that proxy wars in the Third World were allowable, and that neither side would allow a third world conflict to lead to nuclear war. Kissinger would say that yes, those wars could be bad, and sending arms and weapons to African or Asian proxies did mean there would be death and destruction. But given the nature of world affairs, it’s the lesser of two evils. It helps make sure the US and Soviets don’t blow each other up.
Detente’s success – the exchanges brought western ideas more quickly into the East bloc, the Soviets felt smug in their status as a recognized legitimate world power, and as the inevitable economic collapse began, there were enough links with the West to give Gorbachev time to make radical changes that could not be undone. Some people credit Reagan and Gorbachev with the peaceful end of the Cold War, but Nixon and Kissinger set the stage.
The failure? Proxy wars and disregard for the third world. Looking only at power politics rather than the broad array of global problems allowed many former colonies to decay into corrupt, brutal regimes. African states were very young in the sixties – a supportive US might have allowed a transition to viable political and economic systems. Instead the super powers simply used those states as powerless puppets in a geopolitical struggle.
In maintaining proxies, the US supported brutal dictators in world hot spots like the Mideast. This helped assure that dictators would be able to hold power, not allowing real opportunity to their people, and setting up the anger and frustration young Arabs experience today.
The problems today ranging from Ebola to ISIS to terrorism have their roots in that neglect of the third world. Kissinger’s policies were brilliant in dealing with short term geopolitical crises, but failed by creating conditions which would lead to problems that threaten the very nature of world order.
The war was just two weeks old. The Germans were convinced their Blitzkrieg tactic would work – they’d dispatch the French within six weeks, then turn to the Eastern Front and defeat Russia. They would acquire Lebensraum, literally “room to live.” It was General Erich Ludendorff’s belief that without colonial possessions, Germany could only acquire it’s “place in the sun” by conquering and settling the vast plains of Eastern Europe and Ukraine.
The French were enthusiastic about the war when it started, but by mid-August they realized that the German machine was organized and efficient. Their plan relied on the ‘French spirit’ overcoming the cold mechanistic Teutonic mentality. That didn’t work. French Commander Joseph Joffre had to re-organize the French plan – which was essentially to go on offense – to organize a defense. It would be nearly mid-September when it became clear the Germans had failed, and the Blitzkrieg turned to trench warfare, with the lines hardly moving in nearly four years.
In the US the European war was not seen as our problem. The largest ethnic group in America was (and still is – though by a much smaller margin) German. The idea that the US should take sides wasn’t popular. American President Woodrow Wilson, in fact, viewed it as a sign of American superiority that our Democratic system would remain at peace while power politics led the autocratic powers to a pointless war in Europe.
On this day, Americans were more pre-occupied with their own hemisphere – namely the opening of the Panama Canal, which would allow ship travel between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans without having to make the daunting journey around the tip of South America. The expanse of trade and ease of shipping promised a new economic era – not to mention that naval ships could now be moved far more quickly between the two oceans. But the US was content to let the Europeans fight their war.
World War I would shatter the Europe of old, harken the collapse of the British and French colonial Empires, replace the Russian Czar with Communism, redraw the maps and bring in a world to be built with the use of reason rather than custom. Royalty and nobility were replaced with ideology and raw power. Connection to the land, one’s role in the community, and church was replaced by consumerism, industrial assembly line work and materialism as a way of life.
This was true in the US as well as Europe. In the US in 1900 over 40% of the population was in farming, by 1990 that level dropped to 1.9%. The US census stopped counting farmers after that, the number ceased to be relevant.
But while it may be true that rational thought finally eclipsed irrational and often tyrannical tradition, the 20th Century did not usher in an era of liberation and prosperity. In the first half, humans using reason created ideologies – secular religions based on core assumptions and beliefs – and found it possible to rationalize all sorts of heinous acts, including war, often with the good intent of creating a truly democratic and just society. Mass consumption and economic change led to the Great Depression, environmental crises, and humans to be used as tools, whether in sweat shops, sex trade or as consumers to be used for their disposable income.
100 years ago the modern world finally pushed aside tradition and custom, and an era of radical change, new technology, and more deadly wars began. World War I would be the last war in which military deaths out numbered civilian ones.
A century ago today, people viewed the future with hope. Yet for over thirty years it would be defined by war and depression, and the US would not be immune. Now as we look forward to the next 100 years, a few lessons seem clear.
1) Ideological thinking is dangerous and obsolete. It led to the Second World War, defined the wasted resources and existential danger of the Cold War, and divides people along unnatural and often absurd lines. People who might otherwise be able to practically deal with problems see the world abstractly – including other people, nature, and community.
2) War, environmental degradation, a soulless consumerism and massive global corruption the planet at this point in time. Materially the West is very well off, but we’re a society riddled with alienation, depression, anxiety, obesity, lack of connection to nature (especially children) and a loss of meaning and community. In the third world corruption, abuse, war, sex trade, and poverty dominate, with communities/tradition ripped apart by global capitalism.
While the “West” has been in constant transition ever since knowledge trickled into Europe from the Islamic world and in the 13th Century the Church shifted from Augustinian other-worldliness to Thomist logic, one can see World War I as the destruction of the old order, and the creation of a new, modern, rational, ideological and very materialist era. It’s clear at this point that our way of conceptualizing and ordering reality isn’t working. This new era is under threat from economic collapse, environmental degradation and climate change, terrorism, energy shortages, and a host of problems. Humans are caught struggling to find meaning, and often doing so by following an ideology or doing anything to, as Erich Fromm put it, escape from freedom.
That has to change if we are to successfully navigate a future in a world that is changing at an even faster pace than it was a century ago. There are signs of hope – the EU has started a transition to a post-sovereign interdependent political structure. Social media is opening up new avenues of change, though that can be used for good, evil, or trivial. But we can’t go on like we did in the past.
100 years ago the European leaders were caught up in the “cult of the offensive,” believing the next war would be quick, decisive, and won by the country bold enough to start the conflict. They thought they could harness 20th Century technology to expand 19th Century political structures. Instead, the war destroyed the world they knew, and things would never be the same. Unless we expand our thinking, we could be headed for a similar fate.
A travel course on German political history inevitably confronts the holocaust. Of the 11 million humans killed, six million were Jews and the rest were Slavic, gay, gypsi (Roma and Sinti), pacifist, socialist or otherwise “ungerman.” Yet its very easy to fall for caricatures. To believe that the Germans were somehow seduced into a kind of unique evil, undertaking an unbelievably heinous crime while delivering Europe into the most destructive war in human history. Or that Hitler was an inhuman pathological monster with super human seductive skills, and Germans were driven by racial bigotry and anger at the Versailles treaty!
Alas, history is not so simple. Germany wasn’t that much different than other states in Europe, and anti-semitism has a long history full of pogroms and extermination efforts. Hitler wasn’t that much different than other people; indeed, it’s dangerous to think such people must have been obvious monsters, that would prevent us from recognizing them in our midst today! The technology of the past wasn’t sufficient to create the kind of holocaust experienced in the 20th Century (not to mention Stalin’s purges and various other mass killings/genocides of the last century), but in a real way WWII and the holocaust was a culmination of hundreds of years of European history.
That’s why we visited the museum and memorial at Judenplatz in the old Jewish section of Vienna, ordered destroyed in the so called Vienna Geserah of 1420-21. Up until the first crusade in 1096 Jews had lived relatively normal lives in Europe despite real anti-semitism. They performed services that Christians could not, and thus were protected by nobility. As the Catholic church gained power and reach after the embrace of Aristotle in the 13th Century, Jews soon became a convenient scapegoat.
Hapsburg Duke Albrecht V, accusing Jews of colluding with the enemy in a war, ordered the elimination of the Jewish population in Vienna. While many Jews escaped down the Danube, others were tortured, killed and their property confiscated. Albrecht decreed that no Jews should ever live in Vienna again. They did come back, but that event was for all intents and purposes a holocaust. The technology and reach was not as far, but the goal and brutality was much like that of the Nazi SS 520 years later.
The history of Jews in Europe is complex. Which country seems more anti-Semitic: France during the Dreyfuss affair from 1894 to 1906, when Alfred Dreyfuss was falsely accused of treason, in part because of he was Jewish, or Germany in 1898 when the Kaiser paid a state visit to Jews living in Palestine? Indeed, one reason that Hitler could arouse passion is that Germany let Jews achieve higher positions than in many other parts of Europe – though contrary to claims by Nazi propaganda on average they did no better than the rest of the German population.
Even after the Nazis came to power they got support from people like American flying ace Charles Lindbergh, who praised the unity of purpose of the German people, and dismissed the virulent anti-semitism as a mere annoyance. The British sent ships filled with Jewish refugees back to Germany when they attempted to go to Palestine. The US rejected Jewish refugees as well – antisemitism is part of the western cultural tradition.
Walking around Dachau near Munich it’s easy to forget that the first victims of Nazism weren’t Jews, but rather political opponents of Hitler’s who were round up and sent to concentration camps which were created because of the mass increase in people incarcerated. Hitler’s first opponents were the socialists, democrats, internationalists and pacifists. Later, outside of Germany actual extermination camps were created to do on a broader scale what Albrecht V did in Vienna in 1420-21.
One wants to believe that this centuries long on again off again persecution of Jews is over, that the holocaust was a wake up call to the world. Indeed, right wing radicals in Europe tend to rail against Africans, Arabs and more prevalent minorities, though anti-semitism remains a part of their perverse nationalism.
If history teaches us anything, it’s that cultural baggage persists. Despite the racist ideologies popular throughout Europe and the US in the early 20th Century, something like National Socialism would only be embraced when people were really desperate. In 1928 the Nazis got only 3% of the vote and Hitler was a joke. Then came the great depression, massive poverty, unemployment at near 40%, and a country riddled with internal conflicts and a dysfunctional government.
On the day before our Dachau visit, the European Union had EU Parliamentary elections. These elections are viewed as rather meaningless by Europeans who often use EP elections to register protest votes. Marine Le Pen’s racist National Front got nearly 25% of the vote, the first time it came in first in a French election. Right wing radicals made gains in Denmark and Austria – but got only 1% of the vote in Germany.
Now, throughout the West, we have to stay alert to racism and bigotry, be it against Latinos, gays, blacks, Jews, or any group signaled out because of their identity. It may seem to be a harmless fringe, but given the right circumstance a harmless fringe can become a virulent cancer, destroying a society from within. Unfortunately racism, anti-semitism, and bigotry remain part of the culture heritage of the West. We should not tolerate it.
I recall the interview in the summer of 1995. I was in Dresden, and had an interview with an elderly member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to discuss the difficulties of German unification.
In Berlin there was a controversy brewing about the above shown “Ampelmaennchen.” The icons of East German traffic lights showed a little man with a hate, green and walking to indicate “walk,” and read with hands spread apart to indicate “don’t walk.” In Berlin the goal of unification meant standardizing traffic lights, which meant doing away with the Ampelmaennchen in favor of the more modern West Berlin figures.
In 1995 this emerged as a full blown controversy, with groups protesting in favor of the Ampelmaennchen and pressuring the Berlin government to back down. At first it refused, and the Ampelmaennchen became a symbol of a growing East German resentment for what they felt was a take over by the West. Not that they wanted communism back – only a few aging stalwarts wanted that – but they wanted a new Germany that could be shaped by them alongside the “Wessis,” rather than simply having the West shove a new system down their throat.
As I chatted with the man whose name I forget (I’ve got it written down somewhere if I dug through my records), I told him about how it seems like the “wall in the head” was dividing Germans with as much power as the original wall had divided them physical. It was Ossi vs. Wessi. You could tell an “Ossi” (easterner) by their clothes and dental work; it was clear almost all the time which Germany one was from.
Moreover, the former Communist party (SED, now renamed PDS – Party of Democratic Socialism) was rebounding quickly in the East. Most thought it would vanish as Communism was discredited; instead, as East Germans felt alienated in the new system, it quickly became the most powerful political force in many parts of the East. Was unification failing?
The gentleman had been part of the Ost-CDU, one of the “block parties” which offered symbolic opposition yet had to promise to support the SED (Socialist Unity Party – the Communists) in East German politics. Many Ost-CDU politicians were distrusted because they had collaborated; others saw it as a way to raise different voices. Angela Merkel, the most famous Christian Democrat from the East, was not a member of the Ost-CDU, she joined Democratic Awakening (DA) after the wall fell. The DA later merged with the CDU.
“It’s just a matter of generational change,” he told me. ” This generation will never accept it completely, their world has changed too much. As much as they hate communism, they don’t know anything else, and resent demands from the West. They aren’t used to having to work hard because in communism there wasn’t enough work – ten people did the job one person could do. That was to avoid unemployment. Come back in 25 years, you’ll see.”
It is now 25 years since the wall came down. Perhaps most obvious of the change is the Berlin public transportation system. The idiosyncrasies and annoying detours caused by the wall are gone. When we went to Potsdam I tried to go the old route via Wannsee. We got there, but then I found out that the S-Bahn cuts through the city now, the system is efficient and unified.
I thought of that conversation in Dresden as I walked through Berlin two weeks ago, noting that it was now virtually impossible to distinguish Wessi from Ossi, or to see where the wall had been. A top the television tower in old East Berlin it was clearer – the ugly architecture of “real existing socialism” distinguished itself from the more vibrant West. The S-Bahn stations also showed the difference; in 25 years the infrastructure rebuilding remains an on going project. Berlin is still a “city of cranes,” as construction vehicles dot the city, rebuilding train stations, neighborhoods and homes.
With “Ossi” Angela Merkel now in her ninth year as Chancellor, her reputation and success has led to a point that she no longer is distinguished by the fact she’s the first woman and first ex-East German Chancellor. Rather she is Angie, perhaps the most powerful woman on the planet. She’s compared with Helmut Kohl and Konrad Adenauer. When Kohl plucked her from the young DA party to become Family Minister on his cabinet, most thought it was purely symbolic – he just needed an Eastern woman. She’s shown herself to be much more.
The notion of generational change is powerful. The differences have blurred. The West clearly dominated the change, but not completely. The old PDS ultimately linked up with disenchanted Social Democrats in the West, who thought their party had drifted too much to the center. That allowed the creation of the leftist “Linke” party, altering the German political landscape.
Perhaps most symbolic is the survival of the Ampelmaennchen. Not only did the Berlin city government give up on its effort to standardize all traffic lights to the modern sleek figures of West Berlin, but they decided that as they replace or add new signals in the West, the old Ampelmaennchen figure will be preferred. Thus the Ampelmaennchen are no longer East Berlin phenomena, they are all over in the West, helping blur the distinctions between east and west.
Generational change yields new politics; one sees that in the US as well. A generation ago gay marriage and a black President named Barack Hussein Obama would have been unthinkable. In Berlin, however, it is profound and communism is very quickly becoming an historical oddity, a short lived failure.
Aging has its downfalls. On this travel course, while I still out do some of the students (I love to walk), my back is in pain after a few days on uneven pavement, and I keep a slower pace when climbing, such as the walk to the castle in Salzburg.
But there is a real joy and beauty to having a perspective that spans decades. I was first in Munich in 1982. As I looked at the train station and imagined it then and now, it struck me that the changes reflect cultural shifts. More consumption, more fast food, everything more colorful and electronic. There is now an electronic billboard where the old train arrival/departure board stood. It flipped numbers and letters to change, now a big screen simply lists the trains.
I was in Berlin for the first time in 1989 – late July and early August. In retrospect, I was there literally in the last days of Cold War “normalcy.” I was fascinated by the ride through East Germany, observing villages with TV antennas atop the homes, cars covered so deep with soot from the huge factories near Bitterfeld and Wittenberg that one would need to brush it away like snow in the winter.
Going to East Berlin I was shocked by the economic conditions – the central store on Alexanderplatz had nothing worth buying, and that was their showpiece department store! I ate lunch, walked and observed. I can’t describe the emotion I felt when I walked down Unter den Linden to the east side of the wall. I could see observers on a platform in the west looking over. The division of the city was absurd. Little did I know, it was also going to last only three more months. In early August, no one knew what was about to happen.
Going back to Berlin, I find myself at times with a few tears in my eyes. It’s strange, but the power of the transformation moves me. The communist system in the east was so oppressive, dysfunctional and immoral that I still feel a sense of real joy when I’m on Alexanderplatz, or viewing the city from the dome of the Reichstag building. I was contemplating all of this with a few students and said, “we notice all the disasters of history, but the last 25 years it’s gone right for Berlin.”
To think, the Cold War, the Wall, Communism…those are abstractions for anyone under 30 in Berlin. It’s history, stories from their parents. Their reality is smart phones, social media, the Euro (it’s been 12 years since they used the Deutschmark) and globalization. I see that in my students too. Most had never heard for the 1972 terror attack at the Munich Olympics (we discussed that while visiting the Olympic grounds and tower), their questions about the division of Germany and the Cold War show most don’t really understand what it was all about. Their reality is much different than the reality of my generation.
Though part of me envies the fact they are young, have their lives in front of them, and are in a world where globalization offers profound possibilities and unpredictable change, I embrace the fact that I can experience these cities now with the perspective of time. I can see what’s changed and what has not. I understand how dramatically the world has changed since the early eighties, when most Germans only got three television stations and credit cards were an American phenomenon. In the 80s they were still catching up to the US, in many ways they have now passed us.
In Salzburg we saw an exhibition on World War I – “Trauma, Art and War,” showing how people enthusiastically welcomed a war they would all come to hate, and which would only make things worse in Europe. In Dachau we visited the concentration camp. The power of that place was such that I had to leave the students for awhile to be on my own, again, the emotion welled up in me and I was brushing away tears. It wasn’t just about the victims, but thinking of Germany itself, how they give in to the horror of a radical fascist right wing dictatorship.
I told the students that one lesson of history is that ideology is dangerous. The far right and far left were seductive in their simplistic explanation of what would make the world better. They also each tried to paint the other as not really being their ideology – the right says that fascism was leftist, the left calls communism ‘red painted fascism.’ Now Germans embrace pragmatism over ideology, and that has put them in very good condition.
I am writing this on the train between Munich and Vienna. Trains rarely have compartments any more, now it’s wide open seating. The windows can’t be opened as the trains are air conditioned. Yet there is a consistency to train travel that brings the years together for me. Gliding on the rails (even if it’s a tad quieter), the announcements, one of the conductors blowing a whistle when the doors are about to close and the train goes on, that holds the experience together across time.
Looking at the Austrian countryside, the villages look the same, though the solar panels on a surprisingly large number of roofs also show the 21st Century. On to Wien! (Posted from Wien – some trains have wifi, but the one I was traveling upon did not!)