As a 34-year old college professor, there are days when I still feel close in age to my twenty-something students. Then there are other times when I realize that I am simply…older. Yesterday was one of those moments.
It is now 25 years and one day since the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989. It is a date symbolic not just for what happened in West and East Germany, but for the changes that it augured and helped initiate. Not too many years after that fateful November day Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union would be no more. The Cold War would be over. The world would be changed.
I was only nine years old when the Wall fell. I have what may amount to be only vague or inaccurate recollections of that time. I had not–like my parents–grown up with the Cold War at my back. I had little understanding of world politics. And yet: something great was happening around me. As the son of a man born not long after his parents emigrated from Germany as refugees in the 1950s, my connections to Germany are strong. My grandparents, Christian ministers, had returned to their ancestral land in the 1980s and were pastoring in West Germany in 1989. Within a few years of reunification they relocated to the East to continue ministry there.
The impact of all that was taking place in Germany and the world in those days affected the two generations above me in ways I had no way of knowing at the time. But I still lived through it. I remember a bit of that time. I had lived in an era when Germany was two. When the Soviet Union was one. I had lived in a different world…and then I got to live through the days of hope that followed when that world began to shatter.
Few of my college students remember these days. They can’t. Most weren’t born yet. To them the Berlin Wall and Communism in Eastern Europe is as far off as the Nixon impeachment or Kennedy assassination is for me. They can read about it and hear parents talk about it. But they weren’t around in the days before and after. And what days they were. The fall of Communism in Europe happened with such rapidity and in such an unexpected way that there was a dreamlike sense of shock. It would be as if Isis, Al Qaeda and others simply ceased to exist by the next presidential election, and the sometimes hostile Arab world suddenly became our allies. The change was that dramatic.
The end of Communism in Europe and the burgeoning 1990s filled the world with a sense of hope it had not felt in a very long time. I realize in retrospect that this hope was in many ways a false one and that born on its back was a host of problems…but still: they were optimistic days. These were formative years for me. They saw me through junior high, high school, and even into college. In that decade we felt that despite the problems, our post-Cold War world had changed for the better. This is the legacy of my generation’s youth.
When I consider my students, however, I am reminded that in addition to having no memory of the Berlin Wall’s fall , they also didn’t experience the immediate years that followed. The 1990s for them are vague if remembered at all. Like me, their political and global consciousness wasn’t awakened until the latter part of their childhood. Much more rudely than mine, however, and with a much darker era to follow.
For while I was privileged to live through times of optimism and hope, my college seniors had a rather different youth. In the fall of 2001 many of them would have turned eight or nine. On a certain September morning their televisions were filled with images that have defined their lives ever since. A terrible day followed by years of war and fear. This is the persistent legacy they’ve been living down through junior high, high school, and now into college.
What a difference indeed. I mourn that this has been their world, and I pray that the we see 9 Novembers again with increasing frequency even as the 11 Septembers fade from view.
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done: on Earth as it is in Heaven.