Like December 7, 1941, November 22, 1963, and September 11, 2001, November 9, 1989, is one of those dates remembered in freeze frame. But it’s the rare exception that most of us are also likely to remember in Wordsworth mode. Bliss was it in that night to be alive, and to be in Berlin was very heaven.
In late December, Leonard Bernstein twice performed the Ninth Symphony with an orchestra recruited from both Germanies and much of the world. He also substituted “Freiheit” for “Freude” in Schiller’s text.
Classical restraint was never Bernstein’s specialty. But only steps from where the Wall had stood a few weeks earlier, let Lenny be Lenny seemed entirely in the spirit of the occasion. The broadcasts reached an estimated audience of 10 million in 20 countries.
It was notable enough that East Germans, a society of poor relations, had pulled off the first peaceful democratic revolution in German history all on their own. It was notable again that both East and West Germans were reluctant to point with pride.
Challenged to understand it from the other side of the Atlantic, a young East German failed to see any revolution at all. A few years earlier, he’d made his way westward by marrying an American. But his education to date had taught him that revolution meant body count, and no one had got killed. Before long, the experience had become die Wende, a seemingly impersonal transition like a change of season.
What was arguably most noteworthy was total surprise on both sides of the Wall. For nearly 40 years, Humpty Dumpty’s crash had been anticipated like California’s Big One. Now it was here, and Bonn’s filing cabinets seemed as bare as Mother Hubbard’s cupboard, despite decades of institutional scrutiny, millions of family visits, zero language barrier, and what was assumed to be a cadre of world-class spooks.
Yet undeterred by speed bumps Bismarck never dreamed of, it moved. The Basic Law accommodated new states. The economy accommodated a common currency and deconstruction of socialist dinosaurs. The legal system accommodated new ownership. The social system accommodated mass unemployment. The parties accommodated new members, even new parties. The Federal Republic learned to accommodate an Eastern pastor’s daughter as chancellor, and an Eastern pastor as president.
The language accommodated new words, among them Ossi, Wessi, Treuhand, and abwickeln. Wessis and Ossis accommodated each other. Trabi owners accommodated real cars, elementary English, and the PC, the survival skills of modern life. Europe accommodated a Germany it thought it had seen the last of. NATO accommodated what was effectively a new member. Russia, at least to a point, accommodated a new NATO.
It was the end of an era that reached back at least to the Congress of Vienna. It was the beginning of an era that showed promise of replacing the Peloponnesian War of two with the Thirty Years War of all against all as its metaphor of choice. It was at least imaginable that the next generation would regard it as the birth of the New Normal.
David Schoenbaum is most recently author of “The Violin: A Social History of the World’s Most Versatile Instrument” and co-author of “The German Question and Other German Questions” with Elizabeth Pond.