For more explanation of this month’s theme, “millennials in thirty things,” check out this post.[“There are many walls still to break down.”]
During the spring break of my semester of study in England, I traveled with a friend through France and Germany for two weeks. We spent barely a day in Berlin, and without planning to, we spent half of that barely a day touring the Berlin Wall, or what was left of it.
We went to see the reconstructed 656-foot section of the wall that was part of a private museum near Checkpoint Charlie. That section was made to look like the wall had when it was still in use, separating East and West Berlin: it is an imposing expanse of dark cement and wire with multi-lingual signs telling onlookers to keep back and reminding them which side they’re on.
But we also went to see a large section of the original wall that remains today. It is still imposing—it is nearly a mile long—but the dark cement has been painted over in sectioned murals all the way across. It’s called the East Side Gallery. The English Wikipedia calls it an “international memorial to Freedom,” while the German Wikipedia says that it stands for the joy over the peaceful overthrow of the Iron Curtain, and the end to the Cold War.
With all that’s been going on in Russia and Ukraine over the past year, I’ve been thinking about The Cold War and that barely day in Berlin a lot recently.
My elementary and secondary history education on the decades that followed World War II is spotty at best—Each U.S. history class I took in elementary school, middle school, and high school started in August with the pilgrims and the colonists in the 1600s, and finally got around to the World Wars sometime just after Spring Break. We only ever had about a month left of school, and a week left in our attention spans with which to study the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Golf War, and the Cold War, not to mention Watergate, the Great Society, Civil Rights, and the many sound bites of Dan Quayle. Naturally, no matter how enterprising my teachers were, a lot of even the bigger details fell through the cracks. And in talking to many of my peers, I’ve decided that that experience is probably nearly universal among American millennials.
Perhaps because of this failing of the school calendar, I have this deeply internalized understanding that The Cold War happened a long time ago. I know in my head the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and I know that that was fewer than 25 years ago—I know because I was born almost exactly a month after it fell—but it feels to me like it was ages ago, maybe even in some other world.
All the wars of the past century feel like that to me. I sometimes try to imagine what it would be like to hear on the news that someone from Serbia had assassinated an important politician or diplomat in Austria or Hungary and that, because of that, basically all of Europe was now at war. That concept is absolutely ridiculous to me. The world just doesn’t work like that anymore. For one thing, we would call that assassination an act of terrorism by a fringe group, not an act of war by a government. For another thing, we would have seen it coming because the NSA would have been listening to the celebrity’s private cell phone calls, and hackers would have leaked all of the terrorist organizations’ email passwords and posted their nude photos to Reddit.
Millennials never lived as contemporaries to the Berlin Wall. Some of us may have been born while it was standing, but it has been torn down, painted over, and memorialized for the vast majority of our lives. And, as time has gone on, society has torn down other walls that our parents and grandparents have always lived with. On one hand, I am able to live in Pittsburgh, an eight-hour drive away from my family’s home in Chicago, and also able to Skype with my mom every week, and my brother helps me manage my Fantasy Football team. On the other hand, I have had to change credit card numbers three times in the past year due to cyber criminals stealing my information. On one hand, the internet and social media have prompted us to have hard conversations about racism, sexism, corruption, and integrity. On the other hand, a man like Elliot Rodger is able to insulate himself from the world to the point where he feels compelled and justified in taking his own life and the lives of others.
On one hand, I have a picture of myself standing in front of Checkpoint Charlie, its historical significance not even a memory for me. On the other hand, Wikipedia has a picture of a group of Germans standing in front of Checkpoint Charlie with signs that have a picture of Barack Obama next to the phrase “Yes We Scan,” protesting the NSA’s disastrous intelligence-gathering methods.
What does it mean—for us as millennials and for the future world that we will eventually lead—that our experience of international interconnectedness began with the breaking down of a Wall instead of by the building of one?
It may make us naive. The East End Gallery may be an international memorial to freedom and a living representation of a peaceful end to decades-long hostilities, but that doesn’t mean that freedom is an international given or that those hostilities are completely dissolved. It would be dangerous to believe that peaceful conflict resolution and worldwide intelligent and meaningful conversations are themes of the longue durée of world history, or that things will automatically get better now that that pesky wall is out of the way.
It may make us cynical. The more open we attempt to be, the more vulnerable we make ourselves, the more likely we are to be taken advantage of. Germany is still taking polls that show that many Germans wish they could separate east and west again. Hundreds of people laud the idea of living “off the grid,” becoming completely autonomous, answering to no one.
Or perhaps our wall-less-ness has given us a powerful hope that previous generations could not have had. We were born, not in the shadow of a wall that divided nations, worldviews, and cultures, but into the sunlight streaming through its cracks. Perhaps our early subconscious was filled with images of unification, of reforging old kinships, of fashioning new ones. Perhaps we were born to become experts in true and valuable connection by constantly comparing the walls we tear down each day to the demolition of That Wall. Our First Wall.
Mary Margaret is a 2013 English, history, and secondary education grad who went rogue and became a Social Worker in Pennsylvania’s Child Welfare system. Specifically, she works as a caseworker in the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network finding families for children and educating the masses about foster care, adoption, and permanency planning. She made it over the grad-school hurdle with gold stars and warm fuzzies and is on to the next big adventure: the unknown of adulthood. Her major writing dream right now is to finish her science fiction novel that explores the concurrent futures of child welfare and artificial intelligence.