Twenty-five years ago today, in 1989, on an East German news conference Politburo Günter Schabowski of the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) announced that East Germans would be allowed to cross over into West Germany that evening. The Berlin Wall had divided the city since 1961, and crossing from one side to the other was strictly enforced. Schabowski had, in fact, made a mistake; he was not supposed to announce to the public that they could cross the border immediately. The border guards were supposed to have been informed first so they could prepare. Instead, an enormous crowd gathered at the Berlin Wall. The guards, not knowing what to do, first prevented them from crossing, but eventually gave in opened the gates.
Toward the end of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall became a popular symbol for the war itself: it divided an otherwise united people, an otherwise united city, along arbitrary lines. It represented the division of people because of politics, though in reality it divided families, friends, and colleagues. Its fall only illustrates the futility of the Cold War, the unneeded division of society between the communists and capitalists with nothing between. Some see its fall as miraculous; others attribute it to the political efforts of western leaders such as President Reagan and Soviet reforms from Mikhail Gorbachev. For many Germans, it was a sign of positive change.
On this same day, in 1938, the Nazi SA Paramilitary force and numerous German citizens instigated a massive pogrom against Jews in Germany and Austria. Known today as Kristallnacht, Reichskristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, it was a collective assault against Jewish communities. Citizens and paramilitary members burned and destroyed synagogues and businesses owned by Jews, and attacked, arrested, and in some cases killed Jews. German police and military authorities did nothing to prevent, mitigate, or bring justice to the event. As World War Two broke out the following year, Nazi atrocities only grew and became worse.
Commemoration is an important part of history, but it can also be one of the trickiest parts. Public history plays an important role in commemorating twentieth century German history not only for German historians but for world historians as well. For many Americans, remembering the fall of the Berlin Wall is both easy and popular. Americans can look to President Reagan’s famous challenge to Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” and can look to President Kennedy’s declaration of unity with the German people when he said “Ich bin ein Berliner.” The US had direct political connections to the Berlin Wall, namely an interest in seeing it collapse. Americans do not have a similar connection to Kristallnacht. The US did not have an invested interest in protecting the Jews of Europe or in preventing the Nazis from committing ruthless persecution and extermination of minorities in Europe. That itself is the problem. The US government did not make a concerted effort to stop the Holocaust until Allied forces stumbled upon concentration camps in 1945, so for many Americans, remembering the Holocaust also forces them to remember that the US government, at one point in its history, was firmly silent.
While today, many Americans will feel good about the collapse of the Berlin Wall and think fondly of Reagan and Kennedy, very few Americans will think of the Holocaust at all. It is important to remember the advances toward justice in human history, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall represents the literal and figurative destruction of barriers separating nations and peoples. However, it is also critical to remember the moments in history when humanity failed, moments when people created divisions rather than dismantle them. November 9 marks both kinds of events, and they deserve equal commemoration in public spheres and private meditations.