The other day I was driving my son to school, and I noticed in front of me a pristine, baby blue Trabant, which of course was the infamous automotive product of the DDR (German Democratic Republic). The car was in beautiful condition and sported vintage East German license plates and an oval DDR sticker on the back.
I asked my son if he knew what kind of car that was, and he said he didn’t. I asked if he knew what the DDR stood for. He didn’t. To him, the Cold War seemed as distant and irrelevant as the Spanish-American War. I then told him about the day twenty years ago when the Berlin Wall “fell” and thousands of East Germans streamed across the border on foot or in a seemingly endless line of “Trabis.” These people had endured 44 years of a brutal totalitarian regime that had no respect for its citizens human rights, and suddenly they were free. Crowds of people stood on the wall and in “no-man’s land,” where just a day before they would have been shot by the border guards.
The wall came down on my 25th birthday. By the time I reached elementary school, much of the immediate fear of nuclear holocaust had receded into the background, but the uneasy knowledge that a conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union could end life on earth was always there nevertheless. I grew up during the “detente” years of Ford and Carter, and in my teenage years saw the resurgence of nuclear fear with the election of Ronald Reagan.
Reagan was seen by many in the media as a warmongering imbecile (an “amiable dunce” in the words of Clark Clifford) who might recklessly provoke the Soviets and cause nuclear confrontation. In the late 1970s, the Soviets deployed to Europe SS-20 missiles. These were first-strike weapons capable of hitting their targets within nine minutes after launch. Reagan responded by deploying Pershing II missiles in Western Europe. The deployment in turn prompted the “Nuclear Freeze” movement in the US and Europe, which opposed the Pershing deployments and called for a moratorium on further development of nuclear weapons (later, naturally, it was revealed that much of the funding for the nuclear freeze movement had come from the Soviets). There was in many circles a genuine fear that we were headed toward confrontation and catastrophe.
What no one saw coming was that in a few short years the two superpowers would sign treaties reducing nuclear arsenals and that the Soviet Union would cease to exist as a political and military rival to the West. The fall of the Iron Curtain filled a lot of people with tremendous optimism. People spoke of a New World Order based on cooperation and peace, not conflict and hostility. Politicians insisted that military spending could be cut drastically, and the peace dividend could be spent on social and development programs.
Of course, the first Gulf War and the rise of Islamo-fascism brought us back to reality somewhat. And we should also remember that 1989 was the year that the Chinese crushed the Tiananmen Square protests and thus entrenched their brand of Leninist capitalism. And in the formerly Communist countries, optimism at the new opening of society was quickly overshadowed by the reality of building a capitalist society from scratch.
Twenty years later, I’m celebrating my 45th birthday, and the Germans are celebrating reunification, as they should. But something interesting has happened: relics of the old DDR are now seen as collectible, nostalgic kitsch. At Checkpoint Charlie, in years past the main gateway between the Russian and American sectors of Berlin, one can now buy a replica passport complete with an East German entry/exit stamp. Shoe and clothing companies in Germany are now producing styles that were available during the days of Stalinist repression.
It’s interesting that nostalgia for, say, the Nazi regime is unthinkable and suggests a rather diseased mind, but it’s fine to have a soft spot for Erich Honecker and his friends. I wonder why that is. I thought about that as I admitted to my son that I was a little envious of the guy driving the Trabant.
“Why, Dad? It’s a crappy car.”
“Yeah, but it’s pretty cool.”
“It’s still a crappy car.”
Maybe it’s just that I associate that car, that image, with a watershed moment in our history. No, the fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t erase all the problems in our world. But it was a good step in the right direction. Maybe the transition of the East German state from feared dictatorship to ridiculous kitsch is a sign that we are past worrying that it will return. We see harmless fun in the relics of totalitarianism because, in the end, they are harmless.