Yesterday, GMU Law School celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall—quite possibly, the only law school to commemorate the joyous occasion. The event was sponsored by the GMU Law & Economics Center and the Federalist Society. I was asked to deliver a few personal remarks. They appear below.
I’ve been asked to say a few words about the fall of the Berlin Wall because I’m the honorary Kraut on this faculty. I agreed because I’m honored to be the honorary anything around here.
Truth be told, I don’t remember anything specific about the day, and night, that the wall came down. I had moved to the United States eight years earlier, in August 1981, and in 1989 I was busy with a job change and young kids. So I watched the events on TV, like everyone else.
I remember much more vividly when the wall went up, when I was five years old. Those black-and-white pictures of barbed wire and soldiers have stuck with me, as have the pictures of the tanks in Prague in 1968. That stuff felt real and truly menacing where I grew up in Hamburg, some 50 miles from a wall that surrounded not only West Berlin but also separated East from West Germany. And some memories linger. During Advent time, we sent care packages to a family in Thuringia. (This was modeled on U.S. care packages after the War.) Under a liberalization agreement in the 1960s, the East Germans had agreed to actually deliver the packages. We’d send really exotic things, like coffee and oranges and nylon stockings. In return, they’d send us hand-made Christmas ornaments. I think my mother has kept a few.
But as we grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, German re-unification or the wall wasn’t something that engaged us. My friends and I did have dreams and aspirations but they had nothing to do with a larger, re-unified Germany. The dream was the United States; and if not that, Canada or Australia. And putting aside us rootless cosmopolitans, you have to understand how much of this was a Berlin thing rather than a Germany thing. You get a sense of this even now. Berlin was awash in German flags—in July, when Basti Schweinsteiger and Mario Goetze and the rest of the Mannschaft returned from Brazil. Yesterday, 300,000 people showed up with the usual Berlin regalia—nose rings, purple hair, the works. But no flags. Back in my days Berlin was like a different country—a place where you went when you wanted to evade the draft. It’s still a place that’s different from the rest of the country. Kind of like D.C., except chronically bankrupt.
Also, the fall of the wall wasn’t like the Twin Towers—a bolt out of the blue. Of course, the precise event was unpredictable. The evening news that night showed some confused East German apparatchik saying that an open borders policy would be effective immediately. What he meant to say was, we’ll process visa applications without delay. It took a few hours until folks thought, hey—we can cross into West Berlin now. Anne Applebaum (now a Post columnist) was then working for the Economist and stationed in Berlin. They sent her to Warsaw the day before, where the government was having really important discussions. What can possibly happen in Berlin, her editors said? Oops. So it was dramatic and sudden. And it happened in a very un-German, disorderly fashion, which I think is a large part of what makes it so great and memorable. But it had to happen at some point, in some way. Of course, November 9 has huge symbolic value. But it wasn’t a complete shock.
When did it become foreseeable? I can tell you when I knew the game was up for those hacks in the East. It wasn’t President Reagan’s speech, great though that was. It was July 1988—when the guy whose music brought me here gave a concert in East Berlin. “Es ist gut zu sein in Ost Berlin,” Mr. Springsteen said, or read, in German. “Ich bin nicht hier fuer irgend eine Regierung. Ich bin gekommen um rock &’roll zu spielen fuer euch, in der Hoffnung, dass eines Tages alle Mauern zerstoert werden.” “I’m not here for any government. I’m here to play rock & roll in the hope that one day all the barriers will be destroyed.” And then he performed Chimes of Freedom. The concert took place at a track outside East Berlin, to avoid any ruckus inside the city. 350,000 people managed to get there; everyone else saw it on East German TV. I was in Germany at the time on vacation and watched it with friends. And we looked at each other and said: wow. They’re finished. There’s no going back unless they start shooting people in the streets.
At this law school empirics matter; and I have some pretty good evidence that we got that right. When the Stasi archives were opened, they turned up some 80 pages on the concert. It came about because the party had agreed to give the FDJ (the Communist Youth organization) a bit more running room, to defuse brewing discontent. The FDJ invited the Boss, and the party asked whether they were nuts. And some other drones wrote back: it’s ok because it’s a benefit concert for the Sandinistas! No, wait: we invited him because he’s one of us—he’s singing about the oppression of the American working class! Right. But his audience received a different message.
Courtesy of our hosts, we’ll play an outtake from that 1988 concert (the encore). If you think my English sounds funny, wait till you hear Mr. Springsteen’s German: straight from East Rutherford to East Berlin. This is not one of Bruce’s own songs. It’s an Elvis Presley song, and you’ve all heard it a million times. To us it’s what the band plays at the end of high school football games. To people behind the wall back then, it was the sound of freedom. And of resistance. And of friendship that transcends borders and walls.
That’s what this means, and what November 9 means. We should celebrate it; and thanks to the LEC and the Federalist Society, we can. They’ve even brought the candles. So light up, and listen.