Reporting from Berlin in today’s Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash looks back on several momentous events in Germany that happened on 9 November.
For an older generation of central Europeans, November 9 meant the Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass” in 1938, when Nazi thugs left the streets of this city strewn with the smashed glass of Jewish shopkeepers’ windows. For those still older, it recalled Hitler’s attempted putsch on November 8-9 1923. Each November 9 supplants the last….
Earlier this week, I spent an afternoon with a long-time East German friend showing my younger son, who was three years old in 1989, the places where the wall used to be. There’s not much left: a few stretches of old concrete and raked sand (once the “death strip” where would-be escapers from the former East Germany were shot), grainy museum photos, a stark and rusty memorial. The ruins of Persepolis are more vivid. For those of us who were there, the experience – both the taste of our friends’ long imprisonment and the magical moment of liberation – is unforgettable, life-transforming; but to explain it to someone who was not there requires a novelist’s effort of evocation….
This remoteness is not merely a function of age or physical distance. Over dinner, I asked my old friend’s eldest son, who as a 21-year-old escaped through the perforated iron curtain from Hungary to Austria in the summer of 1989, and is now a priest in west Berlin, what his parishioners would make of it if this Sunday he preached a sermon based on his experience. Not much, he said. The west Berlin congregation would probably think: there he goes again, bothering us with his eastern reminiscences. Like the bored family when dad starts retelling for the umpteenth time his veteran’s tales of Vietnam or the second world war….
So why has this epochal event, considered by many historians to mark the end of the “short 20th century” (1914-1991), faded so rapidly from lived experience? Perhaps because, unlike, say, the 4th of July, it did not start a big new thing that is still with us (for instance, the United States). It was more a great ending than a great beginning.
The Guardian comment thread seems to have attracted a fair number of irreconcilables still angry at the how things turned out.