Monday, November 12, 2007

Passive Voice

Joerg Wolf, a German journalist who is interested in engaging Americans in dialogue, has a piece on the anniversary of the end of the Berlin Wall. The peg on the story this year is that it's been 18 years since that dramatic event. A whole generation -- my son is one of them -- has grown to the brink of adulthood in a world without the Berlin Wall -- and all that it symbolized.

Wolf links to a few of the German publications that have written about this in the past week. Most, unfortunately, did not bother to translate these articles into English, perhaps presuming they were too homey to be interesting to an international audience.

What struck me in skimming them in German, though, was how focused they were on the leaders, the men in power at the time, who, these young people believe, created the post-1989 world in which they now live.

And Wolf notes:

Some US observers have criticized Germany’s previous Chancellor Schroeder for an adolescent behaviour. One think tanker wrote that “German foreign policy needs to grow up.”

I think perhaps those two things are connected.

First, I wish all Germans had a clear idea of who brought down the Berlin Wall.

They did. The German people. Not Kohl, not Reagan, not Gorbachev, not Bush I. They did; the insolent Berliners, east and west. The people of faith in Leipzig and Magdeburg. And the German soldiers and guards who had the guns but did not use them.

Erich Honecker's repressive communist government, like Castro's and Kim's, seemed likely to endure even as the Soviet Union faded. It won the May 1989 election with a ludicrous 98.95 percent vote. The state had big plans for its 40th birthday in October. State-run television was broadcasting a Chinese-produced documentary on the Tiananmen Square slaughter, praising "the heroic response of the Chinese army and police to the perfidious inhumanity of the student demonstrators."

Then, that summer, Hungarian authorities opened their border with Austria, intending to let their own citizens travel more easily. Instead, what poured through were East Germans, chugging into Hungary in their rattletrap Trabis and then walking across into Austria. They refused to go home. By September, 130,000 of them were in Hungary, many claiming asylum or bound for the West. Another 3,000 had crammed into the West German embassy in Prague.

The 40th anniversary came, and the Warsaw Pact leaders -- Gorbachev chief among them -- turned out in Berlin, only to see the crowds chosen for the parade abandon their prescribed slogans and start chanting "Gorby, help us! Gorby, stay here!" Gorbachev recalled:

These were specially chosen young people, strong and good-looking ... [Jaruzelski], the Polish leader, came up to us and said, "Do you understand German?" I said, "I do, a little bit." "Can you hear?" I said, "I can." He said, "This is the end." And that was the end. The regime was doomed.

On Nov. 9, the East German government, maneuvering for survival, took a step to ease tensions, relaxing rules for travel to the west. But in its haste, the government's order got misread to the media as saying GDR citizens were free to leave to the West "through any of the border crossings." Like lightning, word went out on the streets that the Wall was open. It was not. It was never meant to be. But the citizens marched to the border. The guards had no instructions about this. Crowds swelled. The guards in one place yielded and opened the gates, and the flood poured through, and back again. German people from both sides tumbled across that once-deadly space and reveled. They danced on the wall. Then they brought out hammers and beat it to rubble.

And that was the end. By the end of the year, the remaining communist regimes in Eastern Europe had fallen.

The German people. Not Kohl, not Reagan, not Gorbachev, not Bush I. They did; the rude Berliners, east and west. The Christians of Leipzig and Magdeburg. And the German soldiers and guards who had the guns but did not use them.

They redeemed so much of Germany's 20th century history in that one day. They paid a debt by dancing and walking and tearing down the symbol of ruthless, mindless, government authority. They all behaved like Bad Germans, and it was the exact right response.

Americans would be celebrating themselves for that till the end of time. Magdeburg Cathedral would be a national monument.

It is a tendency of written German to use passive constructions, but there is still something unjust in Wolf's wording: "1989: The Berlin Wall fell." As though it collapsed like a rotten, vacant building, or got blown over by an act of nature. It is typically German, perhaps, to have a moment of heroism and redemption, and somehow not notice it.

Germans perhaps have a collective tendency to think they are non-players in the world now, red-carded by the fouls of 1940-45. That has perhaps become a convenient situation for many of them, perhaps. Whatever happens now is not their fault, no?

An acknowledged redemption would bring back responsibility.

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