It was 20 years ago today

IT WAS 20 YEARS AGO TODAY…. As anniversaries of major events go, the fall of the Berlin Wall — 20 years ago today — is right up there. Signaling the collapse of communism in Europe was a landmark moment of the 20th century.

This morning, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, labeling today a “day of celebration,” thanked former USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev: “You made this possible — you courageously let things happen, and that was much more than we could expect.” The two appeared at a big event in Berlin.

Flanked by leaders from the former Eastern Bloc in Communism’s last days, and mobbed by a cheering crowd, Chancellor Angela Merkel launched a day of commemoration Monday of the fall of the Berlin Wall, retracing the steps of the first East Germans, herself included, surging to West Berlin 20 years ago.

Mrs. Merkel’s symbolic walk across the Bornholmer Strasse bridge, accompanied by Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, and Lech Walesa, the former shipyard worker who led a fight against Moscow-backed Communism in Poland, came as Berlin prepared for an evening of celebration to mark the moments on Nov. 9, 1989, when the wall began to crumble.

In a light drizzle hundreds of people gathered to observe the moment, some recalling the crowds who swelled the former East German checkpoint at the Bornholmer Street crossing point after an East German official announced that, with immediate effect, travel restrictions would be eased.

Mrs. Merkel has told reporters recently that she was one of those to walk into the west that night across the gray iron bridge at Bornholmer Strasse. Many of the hundreds crowding onto the bridge with her on Monday were former East German civil rights activists.

But even now, two decades later, the sentiments within Germany are not unanimous. In the new issue of the Washington Monthly, Paul Hockenos reviews the publication of Gunter Grass’ diaries, written during Germany’s transformation, and intended to criticize unification and its architects, with dire predictions. Hockenos writes:

Grass’s gloomy prophecies about a sinister German nationalism proved off the mark. There was never a popular appetite in 1989 or 1990 to snatch back swathes of Poland or centralize the state in the Prussian style. Postwar democracy and the processes of introspection set into motion by critically minded intellectuals like Grass (his 1959-published Tin Drum was a defining moment) had civilized German nationalism and undermined its expansionist logic. In fact, one could even argue that Germany is the model nation in coming to terms with an unsavory past. Neither Italy, Spain, nor Japan, to say nothing of the likes of Romania and Slovakia, has begun to confront its fascist collaboration the way Germany has, even if the process transpired in fits and starts, nudged along by intellectuals like Grass. Germans do wave flags now — and no one cares. NATO allies demand they send more troops to Afghanistan’s war zones, and it is the Germans who object.

Improbably, at the ripe age of eighty-two, this autumn Gunter Grass undertook another tour of eastern Germany. In the hardest hit of backwater ex-socialist towns, where crumbling housing blocks and empty storefronts still line the streets, he reads from his 1990 diaries and even does a little stumping for the Social Democrats. Still the hardheaded contrarian, he feels largely vindicated in his dark prophecies from twenty years ago. Germany may be united on paper, he argues, but resentment and income disparity still divide the nation. He sees the glass as half full, at best. Clearly, after more than five decades, Citizen Grass refuses to give Germany’s powerful a free ride.